Ernest Thompson Seton

“Good men are now at work with better thoughts, and reverence for the masterpieces, the giants of creation’s world.”

– Ernest Thompson Seton, 1900

“Every scrap of evidence that you can gather is fine gold—a new fragment of the priceless mosaic that is a dream of every wise one, more beautiful and amazing than any of our dreams, for it will be the truth.”

– Ernest Thompson Seton, 1925

I would like to start with two important things you should know about Seton. One is that he was a life-long learner, seeing education as a process rather than as a destination, starting in earliest childhood and continuing until the end. Another is that he became a prime example of being the change you want to see in the world. Contributing to the foundations of outdoor youth education and wildlife conservation meant coming to terms with his deepest attitudes and altering them based on discovering new information about the world and about himself.

See the Curator’s Notes area of this site for insights into Seton’s personal development and beliefs—and Seton Essays for his own words on many topics. Throughout the site you will find more details about his life. Just below follow a few of the highlights.

Basic Biography

Ernest Evan Thompson (AKA Ernest Thompson Seton, 1860-1946), born in South Shields, England, immigrated with his parents to a small farming community in Ontario, Canada before his sixth birthday. The ninth of eleven siblings, his middle name came from an ancestor, Evan Cameron, a 17th century Scottish wolf hunter and important clan leader. (Also spelled “Ewen.”)

He fell in love with wild nature from the time of his earliest memory and discovered a remarkable talent for art in his middle teen years. Combining the two, Seton briefly attended the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but achieved mastery of depicting animal forms from endless hours of life study. He became one of the most successful and highly regarded wildlife illustrators of his generation creating drawings, prints and paintings for his own books as well as for many other authors of his time. Roger Tory Peterson credited Seton’s bird illustrations for providing inspiration for his field guides: “It was on this idea that my Field Guide to the Birds, was based.

“No animal will give up its whole life seeking revenge; that kind of mind is found in man alone.”

– Ernest Thompson Seton, 1925

As a young man, Seton moved to the western frontier province of Manitoba where he honed wilderness skills. He came to a deep understanding of nature from his contact with First Nations peoples who taught principles of ecology from an indigenous perspective. From them he also learned principles of living and morality that would guide his life and teachings. Of particular importance, Seton’s “Woodcraft” movement, a compendium of skills, ethics, and general life lessons was largely based on Seton’s interpretation of indigenous cultures and what everyone could learn from them.

Ambitious and frenetic, Seton pursued a work ethic that often stretched into sixteen-hour days. He came to prominence when he was 34, with an autobiographical story, “The King of Currumpaw,” about his wolf-hunting trip in New Mexico. He cast himself as the villain and a wolf (“Lobo”) as the morally superior hero, a first for a hunting story. Published in Scribner’s Magazine in November 1894, the “Lobo” story represented a strong start for an aspiring writer.

Following a move from Toronto to New York, he included Lobo’s story in a collection with other short works to create the bestselling 1898 book (an actual example of an overnight success) Wild Animals I Have Known, bringing Seton to international prominence, positioning him to make his most important contributions as a social innovator. His stories about animals and outdoor life in books and mass circulation magazines, as well as his contribution to scientific journals, made him one of the most prolific and popular writers in the world.

Over the next three decades he lived in the Connecticut suburbs while also maintaining a studio in New York City. He authored several additional best sellers, co-founded the Boy Scouts of America, toured constantly promoting wildlife conservation in a popular lecture series, continuing also to write non-fiction books and articles on a variety of subjects. His lifetime production numbered over 40 book length works {internal link to Seton Annotated Publications} in addition to scores of magazine and scientific journal articles.

In 1930, Seton made a dramatic move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived out his remaining years. Although he experienced a diminishment of his fame during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, a cadre of enthusiastic followers continued to read his work and find inspiration in his lessons about nature and society.

As to where he stands today? Keeping reading in this site to find out!

Site Editor & Author

Art historian, writer, and naturalist DAVID L. WITT became curator of the Seton Legacy Project at the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe in 2005. He oversees research, collections, exhibitions, films and other educational programming related to the art, writings, and philosophy of Ernest Thompson Seton. He began his research on Seton in 1972. In this century he has curated a major Seton exhibition for the New Mexico History Museum, led an expedition to the Arctic (following Seton’s 1907 paddle strokes) resulting in a 30-minute documentary, and produced a graphic novel of the Lobo story. He is the author of the award-winning book, Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist.

Witt is the founder of the Southwest Art History Conference and former curator of the University of New Mexico Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, where he created over two hundred exhibitions on the art and art history of New Mexico. Witt’s award-winning books also include Modernists in Taos from Dasburg to Martin; The Art and Life of Patrociño Barela; and Taos Moderns: Art of the New. He lives in Taos, New Mexico where he writes a blog on radical natural history.

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