"Seton Castle...on the last rampart of the Rockies where the Buffalo Wind is blowing."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Seton Gallery Visitors

The Seton Gallery at the Academy for the Love of Learning is officially open twice a month (second and fourth Wednesdays), but really is open any time I am there – a day or so every week and by appointment. Free admission.

Late last month Japanese scholar of American literature Yoshiko Kayano and Seton Villager (and resident Village historian) Jerry Zollars were among the many who came by. In this case, getting their picture taken with me.

The “Bird Portraits” exhibition of Seton drawings and paintings has been popular with visitors, finding especial favor with birders.

Hope to see you there. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


In 1901, Ernest Thompson Seton, having achieved his goal of gaining widespread fame and growing wealth, turned his attention to researching his ancestry. Monsignor Robert Seton had published An Old Family, Or, The Setons of Scotland and America in 1899. ETS maintained that his father should have claimed the title of “Baron of Seton Winton” (a.k.a. Earl of Winton). See Ernest Thompson Seton, the Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist for a fuller account of this story. Monsignor Seton, however, showed that the title was extinct; my research into the peerage record turned up the same result. ETS and others in the Thompson family thought differently.

Shortly before the death of his father, Joseph Logan Thompson, ETS made one last attempt to get the story. Apparently, they were not on speaking terms so he asked his older brother George Seton (1854-1944) to make an inquiry on his behalf. From the Seton archives at the Academy for the Love of Learning, here is the typescript copy of Joseph’s reply to George (and thus to ETS). I have added punctuation in a few places for clarity.

Toronto, 14th May 1901
My dear Son G.S.

            Yours of 10th inst with enclosures from Mr. Seton [ETS] duly reached me and I lose no time in replying there to.

            I have answered seriatim every question in the list to the best of my knowledge and belief, I hope the answers will forward the object he has in View, and shall be very glad to know if they prove so.

            It is rather curious that my dear father’s family history runs almost parallel to that of my dear mother. My great-grandfather was out in the Jacobite wars, & was defeated, for “the stern arbitrament of the sword” was against his party & being defeated, he, like the rest of his fellow rebels, fled for his life, and found a refuge in So. Shields, my native place, and, of course, changed his name, Cameron to that of Thompson. I am not sure whether his baptismal name was “Alan” or “Evan.” I know that my paternal G-father’s name was “Evan” & likely that was his father’s name also, we have both in our boys’ names. I [word missing] fancy his name was “Alan” but I have no authority for it, but this I do know, that our progenitor who fled from Scotland to So. Shields, whether “Evan” or “Alan” was a man of importance in the Cameron Clan, being a blood relation & a foster-brother of the well known Chief of that ilk, the brave and gallant “Lochiel.”*

            My father has frequently told me that he knew well enough that there [were] large estates in the highlands of Scotland that he was undoubtedly heir to, but that when the rebellion was crushed all the estates belonging to the rebels were forfeited, & most of them bestowed among the leading followers of the winning party, so there was very little chance of any portion falling to those who fought for the Stewart-party. Lochiel & perhaps a few others of high rank & great family influence, who eventually submitted, had much of their lands restored to them, but the majority were not so fortunate, and among these was our ancestor, but as to the lands of the officers other than leaders, or those who had not sufficient influence to expect to be successful applicants for forfeited lands, or those who perhaps dared not claim their lost inheritance. Many estates were not sought to be restored, & my g.g.g.-father was one of them, and my father, whether he knew the locality that should have descended to him, or not, he knew right well that the attempt to recover his rightful inheritance would involve expensive and unending lawsuits, and, as a result of actions at law is mostly a question of the longest purse holding the longest out, & he not being speculative besides, declined to waste good money after bad, on the barest chance, gave up the idea of fighting for his own, & moreover, believing with Shakespear [sic] that the best policy was to be “content with the ills he had, and sought not others that he knew not of” he adopted it & I think he did well doing so.

            But now my dear Son I will draw this long yarn to a close, & with best love & all good wishes to you & all your dear ones am ever, your affectionate father.

            J.L. Thompson

P.S. I return the memdum of questions propounded by Mr. Seton having taken a copy of them.

Answers to questions re Seton claim.

            No. 1. I have no legal evidence, at hand, of my descent from Ann Seton, but the Parish Registers of S’Hilda’s Church, So. Shields will prove my birth, also, that of my mother, Mary Ann Thompson nee Logan, was the daughter of Ann Logan nee Seton.

            No. 2. I am sure that my Grandmother was the Ann Logan, nee Seton in question.

            No. 3. I have no books, letters, writings, rings, or inscriptions in books bearing on this matter. My family and myself left my native [country] in 1866. My father and my mother were both living at the time. My father died Dec. 27, 1874 and my mother died 5 days afterwards. I never received any rings, or heirlooms being absent in America at the time of their death, and doubtless, those members of our family present at their demise would keep all the trifles that might have belonged to my parents under the impression that they were not worth the sending to America.

            No. 4. I do not think it at all likely that there are any witnesses, now living, that could prove this.

            No. 5. I remember George Seton paying a visit to his cousin my dear mother when I was quite a little boy. I do not remember much about him, but I distinctly remember being told of his having proved, by the Scottish judges, to be the lawful heir to the title Baron Seton of Winton, but the Seton estates, having been forfeited, were sold and afterwards I suppose, were resold in lots, as they would probably be, and the Estate broken up.
            No. 6 Geo Seton was my mothers full cousin, as I have heard her often say there can be no question about that.

            No. 7. I must have had some conversation with him, as he spent the greater part of the day in my father’s house.

            No. 8. I cannot recall aught of the conversation I am certain to have had with him.

            No. 9. I was told by my mother that her cousin, George Seton had died unmarried, and that she was the next heir to the Barony of Seton Winton but that the estate having been lost to the family, the title was not worth the expense of her proving her right to it. Had the estate been restored, I suppose my mother’s claim to it would have been in due form long ago, and my father being in good circumstances, would certainly have proved my mother’s rights, but there being only the bare title he did not think it worth his while to waste money over it.
            There must, I think be a mistake about George Seton’s death having occurred in 1853. My impression is that he would not be more than 30 or 35 at most when he died, as when I met him in 1832 about, he was, I believe about 22 or 23 years of age, and as his death took place a very few years after that; he must have died many years prior to 1853!
            I have no knowledge whatever of George Walker, neither had my grandmother Ann Logan (nee Seton) for, on the death of her nephew, George Seton, she asserted that I was now, in my mother’s, the heir to the Barony (title Baron of Seton Winton) and on her deathbed, addressing her daughter (my mother), she said “now Mary, mind, Joseph’s the heir,” (that is, myself). These are the last words she uttered.
            The foregoing statements are, to the best of my knowledge and belief, correct.

            J. L. Thompson
            14 May 1901

*The Cameron’s of Lochiel, Scotland, were chiefs of Clan Cameron for several generations. Joseph was referring to one of them, Donald Cameron.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Six Views of Seton Castle and the Academy

The following photographs were taken on August 14 (Ernest Thompson Seton's 154th birthday) in and around the campus of the Academy for the Love of Learning. (Copyright 2014 David L. Witt)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Woodcraft Helps Reduce Youth Crimes

An article from a British Columbia newspaper, the Gulf Islands Driftwood, September 18, 1991, subtitled, “Sociologist’s report credits nature-based movement,” validates Seton’s original purpose in creating his movement. The first Woodcraft camp took place in March 1902 on Seton’s Cos Cob, Connecticut property when he invited local boys – who had been vandalizing his property – to join him for a weekend of outdoor activities. In addition to stopping the destruction of his fences, the boys found among themselves a deeper level of connection than they had known before.

According to the Driftwood, a “sociologist’s report on the effects of an Ojibway circle operating in Deer Lake, Ontario, observed an almost immediate change from a “gang mentality" to a supportive one. The work was based on the concept of the “talking circle.” In this, “Members always have an activity to do, a topic to think about and discuss and ‘something to enjoy in the woods.’” This offers “hope for people educated in the adversarial way to try the consensus way.”

“Individuals, communities and the earth will benefit as more people traverse those bridges because, after all, sane people do not destroy what they love.”

Seton’s “talking circle” took place around a campfire where boys (and girls) learned about nature and traditional Native American ethics through activities and discussion. Importantly, in this 1990s incarnation of Seton’s work, Woodcraft practices by then had been “culture and gender neutralized.”

Although developed independently and at a later time, a contemporary version of this learning model can be found at the Academy for the Love of Learning. On the home page, click on “learning field inquiry.”

Seton Birthday at the Academy: August 14th. Opening reception for our new exhibition, Bird Portraits, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. with annual "Toast to the Chief" at Seton Castle, 7:30 pm.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014


This years display of Glandularia bipinnatifida - Dakota vervain - added wonderful color to the Castle. It is one of several plant species attracting insects and birds to the Academy for the Love of Learning campus this summer. Birds and bird lovers are invited to attend the opening of BIRD PORTRAITS, an exhibition including some of Seton's finest avian illustrations. It coincides with his 154th birthday on August 14th. The Seton gallery will be open during the day from 10 - 4, and in the evening for a special reception from 6:30 - 8:30. This is a free event. 

Weather allowing, we will hold our annual "Toast to the Chief" at the Castle around 7:40 to view the sunset. This has been a popular event in the past and promises to be so again this year. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our deepest feelings about nature

Periodically I make presentations on various aspects of Seton’s life and work at the Academy for the Love Of learning. The next one, with co-facilitator Molly Sturges, “Learning from Crisis: How Do We Meet This Ecological Emergency Together?” takes place on Wednesday May 14. Then, on September 23, I will offer an evening campfire reading at Seton Castle, “Why the Chickadee Goes Crazy Once a Year and other stories.” To keep up with Academy programs, visit our web site.

Here I will go back to April 12th.  New Mexico members of Defenders of Wildlife came by the Seton Gallery to hear a talk about him as environmentalist, including his popularization of wildlife conservation, his role in early environmental legislation, and his work to change (and grow) our consciousness about the feeling world of animals. While I did bring up those subjects, we spent most of our time in deeper contemplation about wild nature and its meaning for us. What we find upon reflection of our feelings is that nature is both the source of much joy and much grief, for its bringing us solace and joy at its beauty, and despair at its destruction.

For an account of that morning, please go to the wonderful blog by one of the participants, Ellen Heath. The essay titles are: “Blanca and Lobo” (April 18) and “For the Love of Lobo” (April 16).

Monday, April 14, 2014

James West Has Never Seen The Blue Sky In His Life

After going to much effort to support Edgar M. Robinson (an executive with the YMCA) in the formation of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) during the summer of 1910, Ernest Thompson Seton soon found himself in conflict with BSA management. I have given an account of the conflict in my book on Seton.*

In this essay, I want to skip to the end, when Seton gave his resignation at a news conference held at his New York studio. His anger at BSA was triggered in part by a private nastygram from Dan Beard, but Seton aimed his public ire at James. E. West, the executive director of BSA. By then, the two had a built up a significant history of antagonism. Among other comments from Seton:

            It should be clearly stated…that I esteem the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts to be a splendid lot of men, giving freely of their time and money to the work. My only criticism is that they have allowed all direction and power to centre in the hands of James E. West, a lawyer who is 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 also say, has never seen the blue sky in his life.

            “Blue sky” was the slightly mysterious term used by Seton’s Woodcraft League. It’s inclusion by Seton in lambasting West was no accident. But what is its meaning? Last fall I was copied an email discussion of this by two close observers of Scouting history, Nelson Block and Todd Plotner who took an interest in Seton’s 1915 exit from BSA. According to Mr. Plotner:

“The subtlety of the "blue sky" quote is interesting.  Although I'm far from certain, because the "Watch Words" for Woodcraft were "Blue Sky", it is possible to read that line in two different ways:  (1) West has never even gone outside and has no idea how an outdoor program works or (2) West has never seen the spiritual side of Woodcraft.  Clause (2) is somewhat more generous.”

As to the first possible meaning suggested by Mr. Plotner, slamming West for not being a blue sky outdoorsman was a cheap shot (or a spiteful one) by Seton. West, who had spent much of his boyhood in an orphanage, had a significant physical disability making walking difficult. He could never be a wilderness explorer like Seton or an active camping leader like Beard. Accusing him of not having contact with boys was factually incorrect. He had raised himself up from the most unpromising life circumstances (more difficult than what Seton overcame) to make a stellar career of youth activism on several fronts including advocacy for a juvenile justice system before joining BSA. 

The second criticism, a philosophical critique of West not understanding the spiritual context of nature and the outdoors is, I believe, much more damning, at least from Seton’s perspective: West is interested in paper shuffling and rule making and legal issues more than getting kids outside. West does not understand the communitarian values of service (based on American Indian tradition) nor the essential spiritual renewal that comes from connection with nature. “Blue sky” encompasses the mystical element inherent to contact with wild nature. Maybe. But while Seton and Beard were outdoors happily camping, someone really was needed to mind matters back at the office.
West came to represent for Seton a destruction of his dream of leading the outdoors education movement. More specifically, Seton wanted to be recognized as the spiritual father of Scouting, although he was happy enough to let others do the hard work of institution building (e.g. West). He meant to hurt West, and given several vengeful actions West subsequently took, Seton must have managed to wound him deeply. (Mr. Block commented: My study of the lives of West and Seton has made me an admirer of them both, though I must say I’m glad neither was my dad. Based on my work on Urner Goodman’s career, I have the impression that one of the jobs of the senior men at the old BSA national office during Dr. West’s tenure was to clean up relationships.  West ‘got things done’ but Goodman, Schuck and others ‘kept things going’”)

My thought is that Mr. Plotner’s interpretation of the two meanings of “Blue Sky” are both correct, although whether in the moment Seton meant to emphasize one or the other (or something else) will remain unknown. Although the use of “Blue Sky” was intentional, Seton may not have worked out the subtle implications in advance. Our later interpretations of statements made by literary figures may be more accurate that the author’s own conscious intent at the time. In the end, Seton and West were both highly successful in delivering devastating blows to the other. Lost in this fight were the interests of the children they were trying to serve, although both of them would have argued against my statement, saying they were solely motivated by what was best for children. And while Seton and West made America (and the world) better for their contributions, in their war of personality, they were rather more selfish than altruistic.

Wishing Blue Skies to all!

*For more insight into the quarrelsome and fascinating events of 1910-1915 see The Scouting Party by Dave Scott and Brendan Murphy; Ernest Thompson Seton: Man in Nature and the Progressive Era, by John Wadland; Ernest Thompson Seton, Founder of the Woodcraft Movement by Brian Morris; and Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist by David L. Witt - all available in the Seton Library at the Academy for the Love of Learning, Seton Village, Santa Fe.