Memorable Manitobans: Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946)
Naturalist, artist, writer.
Born in South Shields, England on 14 August 1860, son of Joseph Thompson and Alice Snowdon, he moved with his family to Canada in 1866, settling on a farm near Lindsay, Ontario. He then studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in London as a scholarship student, all the while pursuing his interest in natural history. Upon his return from England in 1882, in ill health, he joined his brother on a homestead in Manitoba just east of Carberry. He always regarded the next five years as his “golden days,” as he walked around the Carberry countryside taking notes and making sketches.
At Carberry he also began to write. In 1891 he published The Birds of Manitoba, which in 1892 led to his appointment as Provincial Naturalist by the Manitoba government. In the early 1890s he made several trips to Paris to study art, discovering upon his return to Manitoba that settlement had disrupted much of the natural habitat. Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) was the publication that made Seton famous. It was the first successful attempt to present animals realistically in story form.
In 1902 he organized the Woodcraft Indians, a boy’s organization, and wrote a manual, The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians. This organization later merged with the Boy Scouts, as Thompson was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910 and helped to write its first manual. He was expelled from the organization in 1915, after constantly criticising its militarism, officially because he was not an American citizen. However, he continued to publish books about woodcraft throughout his life.
In 1908 he published The Life Histories of Northern Animals: An Account of the Mammals of Manitoba (2 volumes) in the midst of a continued outpouring of animal stories. In his later life he was often accused of anthropomorphism in his animal stories, but no one disputed his naturalist work, such as Lives of Game Animals (4 volumes, 1925-1927). In 1930 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and, in 1931, he became an American citizen. Here he admired the Indians, producing Gospel of the Redman (1936). His autobiography was Trail of an Artist-Naturalist (1940).
On 1 June 1896, he married Grace Gallatin of San Francisco, California.
He died at his home near Sante Fe, New Mexico on 23 October 1946. There are papers at Library and Archives Canada. He is commemorated by a plaque in Seton Provincial Park.
His articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:
Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925.
“Noted author of animal stories dies,” Winnipeg Free Press, 23 October 1946, page 9.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
We thank Charles Bird and David Witt for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 27 February 2020