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Naturalist, Author and Boy Scout

For the Week of Monday August 14, 2006

On August 14, 1860, Ernest Thompson Seton was born in South Shields, England. He was the eighth of ten brothers that lived to adulthood. When he was only six years old, his family emigrated and started a farm near Lindsay, Ontario. Soon enough, E.T. Seton embarked on a journey through the worlds of art and literature closely identified with the Canadian landscape.

Ernest Thompson Seton
© LAC / PA-164333
After moving to Toronto to study, Seton graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1879 and won a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art in England – which he did not complete in its entirety. Seton returned to Canada in 1882 and joined his brother on a homestead in Carberry, Manitoba.

In the next five years, he explored his prairie surroundings taking notes, making sketches and writing books. In 1891 he published The Birds of Manitoba, and was appointed as the Official Naturalist for the Province of Manitoba. During his stay in Manitoba, Seton occasionally visited Paris to study art. One of his paintings, The Sleeping Wolf, gained international recognition. On his return trips to Manitoba he discovered that settlement had disrupted vast tracts of what had once been wilderness. Based on these observations, Seton was inspired to write and would became famous for his 1898 publication, Wild Animals I Have Known, in which he presented animals realistically in story form.

Although another prominent Canadian author, Charles G.D. Roberts, wrote stories from the perspective of the animal; Seton was equally important in developing this unique genre. Several years after the publication of Wild Animals I Have Known, Seton published Two Little Savages; Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned. Based on his childhood experiences in Ontario, this collection was followed by several books on scouting and woodcrafts. In 1910, Seton helped author the manual for the Boy Scouts of America. His aim was to create an avenue for young people to appreciate and interact with the environment. 

A page from Bannertail: The Story of a Graysquirrel by Ernest Thompson Seton
A page from Bannertail: The Story of a Graysquirrel by Ernest Thompson Seton
© Glenbow Archives

Seton continued to write and after a trip to the North he penned The Arctic Prairies: A Canoe Journey of 2000 Miles in Search of the Caribou (1911). After he retired from intensive writing in 1930, he set up Seton Village, a naturalist ranch in New Mexico, with his second wife. He remained dedicated to the centre until his death on October 23, 1946.

Ernest Thompson Seton was designated a National Historic Person in 1995 and is remembered for his part in the creation of a distinctive Canadian literary genre – the realistic animal story. Seton Village remains as a study centre for naturalists.

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