Fathers of Scouting

Suppose three famous guys, say, Michael Jordan, Troy Aikman and Kevin Costner, got together to form an organization for boys. You would be curious about it, right? Well, something like that happened nearly 100 years ago. Three famous men of the day got together to build the brand-new Boy Scouts of America. Boys couldn't wait to join. Those who did were rewarded with skills, friendships, and knowledge of the outdoors. One of the celebrities was a war hero named Lieutenant General Robert S. S. Baden-Powell. The other two, Ernest Thompson Seton and Daniel Carter Beard, were famous artists and authors. The trio's fame drew boys into Scouting. A young lawyer, James E. West, made sure there were troops for them to join. These four men were the fathers of Scouting. Let's look at each more closely.




Born February 22, 1857, in London, England; died January 8, 1941. Founder of Boy Scout movement in England, British war hero author, artist. BSA adopted his plan for Scouting but made some changes in it.




He was born in London, England, in 1857. As a boy, he loved outdoor play and reading. He was also a good actor and gifted artist. He Could draw well with either hand. Baden Powell was only 19 when he joined the British Army as a sub-lieutenant and sailed for India.


He Admired Zulu Warriors


For the next 34 years Baden-Powell was a soldier. He campaigned in Afghanistan and fought against the Zulu, Ashanti, and Matabele tribes in Africa, where England had colonies. Baden-Powell admired the Zulu warriors. Later, he borrowed their left-hand handshake for his Boy Scouts.  Baden-Powell became an expert spy and wrote Army manuals on the subject. But he wasn't yet famous. He was almost unknown outside his regiment when war broke out in South Africa in 1899. Baden-Powell, then a colonel, was assigned to raise two regiments of English settlers in South Africa to fight the Boers. These were Dutch settlers who were resisting British rule.


The Battle of Mafeking


Baden-Powell and about 1,000 new soldiers were in a sleepy little town called Mafeking when 9,000 Boers attacked. He used tricks to make the Boers think he had a much bigger force. He held Mafeking for 217 days. Another British force arrived to help, and England heard the news of Baden Powell's resistance. 'Me nation went wild with joy. Baden-Powell was an instant hero.


He returned to England in 1903. He was surprised to learn that boys were using training exercises from his "Aids to Scouting, " a manual he wrote for soldiers. Some people thought he should rewrite the book for boys. So Baden-Powell began to study how boys grow and develop and to think about how boys could be trained. In the summer of 1907 he tried out his ideas at a two-week camp for 22 teen-age boys. The camp was held on Brownsea Island off England's southern coast. The campers, who were the first Boy Scouts, learned camping skills, first aid, lifesaving, and nature lore. Much of their instruction was through games and contests.


In 1908, Baden-Powell published the first Scout handbook, called "Scouting for Boys." He illustrated it himself. 'Me 182-page book was crammed with "campfire yarns" and ideas for skills that Scouts have used ever since. The book was a best seller. Troops sprang up all over England. Before long there were troops in Canada and the United States too.


On Feb. 8, 1910, when the BSA was officially born, there were probably 50 or more troops in this country. The man who signed the papers setting up the BSA was William D. Boyce, a Chicago newspaper publisher. Boyce had first heard of Scouting in August 1909 when he was in London, England. He was lost in a fog, and a boy guided him to where he wanted to go. 'Me boy refused a tip because, he said, "Scouts do not accept tips for courtesies or Good Turns." Boyce was impressed. He learned as much as he could about Scouting. After he got home, he incorporated the BSA as an organization, but he had little to do with the program.


A Modest Uncle


Baden-Powell is rightly considered the founder of Scouting, but it was not his idea alone. At a banquet in New York City in 1910, Ernest Thompson Seton introduced Baden Powell as the father of Scouting. Baden-Powell replied: "You are mistaken, Mr. Seton .... I may say that you, or Dan Beard, is the father - - there are many fathers. I am only one of the uncles, I might say." Baden-Powell was being modest, but there was truth in what he said. Several of the training games he described in "Scouting for Boys" were taken from Seton's book, "The Birch-bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians." So was the idea of having boys earn badges by meeting standards, not by competing against other boys. Still, Baden-Powell is rightly considered the founder of Scouting.




Born August 14, 1860, in England; died October 23, 1946. Chief Scout of BSA, artist, author, naturalist. Compiled, first American Boy Scout handbook. Promoted wood craft and Indian lore.



Seton was born in England in 1860, three years after Baden-Powell. Seton lived in Canada through most of his boyhood. He studied nature and wildlife on a Canadian prairie farm. Like Baden-Powell, he had a strong imagination and was an artist and naturalist. Seton became famous in the United States as a wildlife artist and lecturer on nature. He wrote and illustrated many books on animals and American Indian life. In 1898, he was living on an estate in Cos Cob, Connecticut. The boys in the neighborhood decided to test his temper by painting dirty words on his gate. But instead of calling the cops, Seton invited the boys to camp on his property. The boys had a fine time camping and learning about nature from the great outdoorsman. Out of that camp-out came Seton's ideas for a group called the Woodcraft Indians. He formed the first "tribe" in 1902.


Seton based many of the symbols and activities of the Woodcraft Indians on the cultures of Native Americans. Woodcraft Indian "braves" could be from 8 to 15 years old. Three to 10 braves made up a band, and two or more bands were a tribe. 'Me only adult leader was called a Medicine Man. Woodcraft Indians could earn badges by learning various skills. The badges, called wampum, were bits of shell. Seton himself sent the wampum to boys who wrote that they had done the tests. An old Woodcraft Indian once recalled: "I completed the first four tests and he mailed me four pieces of wampum .... I was very proud of the fact that these four pieces of wampum entitled me to wear four eagle feathers-turkey feathers, of course-in my Indian headdress."




Born June 21, 1850, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died June 11, 1941. National Commissioner of BSA, illustrator, author. Brought his Sons of Daniel Boone boys' organization into BSA. Promoted wood craft, camping, and hiking.



'Me third boys' hero who fathered the BSA was Daniel Carter Beard, the oldest of the three men. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1850, the son of an artist. Dan Beard had a fun-filled boyhood in the woods along the Ohio River. His ideal men were the frontiersmen who blazed the trails for settlers-men such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Simon Kenton and Johnny Appleseed.


Writer and Editor


As a young man Dan Beard became a surveyor and map maker. At age 28 he left that job to illustrate and write for books and magazines. Beard published his most popular book, 'The American Boys' Handy Book," in 1882. 'Me book was full of ideas for things to do-swimming, camping skills, boat building, fishing, making a snow fort. In 1905, while he was editor of Recreation magazine, Dan Beard started the Sons of Daniel Boone. The purpose was to show boys how to have fun outdoors, to teach good citizenship, and to promote conservation. Beard explained the program in the pages of Recreation magazine. There were no badges to be earned and no adult leaders. Beard suggested that the boys make their own uniforms in frontiersman style.


The Sons of Daniel Boone (and Beard's later organization, the Boy Pioneers) had "stockades" of eight boys each. Four stockades made up a "fort."


Neither Beard's Sons of Daniel Boone nor Seton's Woodcraft Indians ever had a large membership. Both men took on top volunteer positions soon after the founding of the BSA. Seton became Chief Scout, and Beard became the National Commissioner.




Born May 16, 1876, in Washington, D.C.; died May 15, 1948. First Chief Scout Executive of BSA, Boys'Life editor, lawyer. Guided BSA's early years; over saw growth and public acceptance of Scouting movement.



The fourth of the fathers of Scouting could not have been more different from Baden-Powell, Seton, and Beard. He was James E. West, who appealed to boys like two hours of homework. But West was the right man at the right time. He was a genius at organization, just what the BSA needed when it started. James West was much younger than the other "fathers." He was 34 when the BSA began; Beard was 60, Baden-Powell, 53, and Seton, 50.


A Orphan With Tuberculosis


Both of James West's parents died before he was 7 years old, so he was sent to live in an orphanage in Washington, D.C. Soon after, tuberculosis germs attacked one of his hips and knees. He spent two years in the hospital and was left with a permanent limp.  It was a hard life at the orphanage, but it made James West tough. At times he served as handyman, laundry operator, librarian, night watchman, and chicken raiser. 


Lawyer and Helper of Children


He earned a law degree as a young man. In his spare time West took on volunteer jobs for kids. He helped to set up Washington's first juvenile court so that children would not have to be tried in adult courts. He had a big part in building the city's playgrounds. He helped form the Child Rescue League, which placed 2,000 children in foster homes. In 1910, when the leaders of the new BSA asked West to be their chief executive, he did not want to take the job. Finally he agreed to, serve for six months. The six months stretched into 32 years.


West was a hard-driving executive and a demanding boss. One minute he would be chewing out an employee, the next, patting him on the back. From 1922 until his retirement in 1943, James West was editor of Boys' Life as well as Chief Scout Executive.


Conflict Among the Fathers


James West's desire to run the BSA in a businesslike manner did not always sit well with Ernest Seton and Dan Beard. After clashing with James West several times, Seton left the BSA in 1915. He blasted West as a "man of great executive ability, but without knowledge of the activities of boys; who has no point of contact with boys, and who, I might say, has never seen the blue sky in his life." Dan Beard stayed in Scouting. Until his death in 1941 at the age of 91, he was the revered "Uncle Dan" to thousands of Scouts.


Shaping America's Youth


Each of the four men described here shaped the Boy Scouts of America. In turn, the BSA has shaped the lives of millions of young people. It continues to do so today. That is the legacy of the fathers of Scouting.


---Robert W. Peterson


Courtesy of Roger Knapp