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About Ernest Thompson Seton

At the end of the 19th century, before the advent of modern biology, a small group of naturalists began to bring the wonders of nature to a wide audience through their writings and illustrations. Foremost among them was Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946).

Born in England and raised in Canada, Seton resided in both Toronto and New York City during the 1880s, moving to Connecticut in the 1890s, and eventually became a citizen of the United States. He first visited New Mexico in 1893 and moved to the outskirts of Santa Fe in 1930. 

Seton is a godfather to today’s environmental movement, as important to the early development of wildlife conservation as John Muir is to wilderness preservation. Seton was one of the first to work in the sciences of ecology and animal behavior, and was the finest wildlife illustrator of the late 1800s and early 1900s. His depictions of waterfowl gave birders a way to identify birds in flight for the first time. Ornithologists including Roger Tory Peterson would later incorporate Seton’s methods into nature field guides. Seton was a charter member of the Camp Fire Club of America and the Bison Society, two of the earliest wildlife conservation organizations.

Through hundreds of published articles and more than 40 illustrated books, including scholarly works and books aimed at children, Seton became the best-selling nature writer of his time. Awarded numerous academic, literary, and artistic honors during his lifetime, Seton was posthumously inducted into the Conservation Hall of Fame of the National Wildlife Federation.

In 1902, Seton founded the “Woodcraft” youth-education movement that provided a model for summer camps and outdoors adventure organizations. Seton profoundly influenced the development of the worldwide Scouting movement, and co-founded the Boy Scouts of America. His contributions to the environmental movement, and to science, literature, art, and youth education have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of boys, girls and their families for more than a century. 

Vocabulary Note: What is a “naturalist?”

Seton thought of himself as a “naturalist” rather than as a biologist. Scientific “Biology,” as we use the term, specifically refers to the science of life and living organisms. This word began spreading into general use by the end of the 19th century. But when Seton started his career in field observation-based descriptive zoology and ornithology, the terms “naturalist” and “natural history” were more common; he continued using the older terms to describe himself and his work. Seton’s scientific work included studies in ecology and ethology (animal behavior), two more terms not much used until late in his life. 

It is the role of the naturalist to describe and explain the interrelation of the habits and habitats of nature’s denizens. The naturalist searches for how this information gives meaning to our lives, including an appreciation of beauty and, sometimes, models for how we might live in the world. This is the philosophical side to natural history.

-by David L. Witt, curator of the Seton Legacy Project at the Academy for the Love of Learning and author of Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist (Gibbs Smith, 2010)

Photo: Ernest Thompson Seton, ca. 1910. Library of Congress.

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