Ernest Thompson Seton
Ernest Thompson Seton

Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) was one of the great social innovators his time. Having established himself in the late 19thcentury as the finest North American wildlife illustrator, he became a best selling author of popular stories and scientific works from the turn of the 20thcentury.

Describing himself as an “Artist-Naturalist,” he made significant contributions to our understanding of mammals and birds, including pioneering insights into ecology and ethology (animal behavior).

Most famously, he devoted himself to youth education, focusing on experience out-of-doors. From this came the model of American summer camps, and the conceptual basis for the worldwide Scouting movement.

Less well known is that along with John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, he worked mightily to create in us an understanding about the vital role that wild nature plays in our lives. In Seton’s case, this meant writing and lectures promoting wildlife conservation, reaching a mass audience with this message for the first time.

The meaning of his work came from his attempt to bring about a change in consciousness. Influenced by study with native peoples (as well as a familiarity with Darwin), Seton concluded that animals are different from us only by degree, and as a result have moral and legal rights that must be respected. Indeed, only through a healthy connection with nature will we ourselves survive. He argued this beginning in 1894 with the “Lobo” story and ever more forcefully over time through books and public appearances.

If Seton is no longer remembered as much as he should be, it is, ironically, because his ideas have been so thoroughly incorporated into contemporary environmental ethics.

David L. Witt Curator, Seton Legacy Project