Ernest Thompson Seton forever changed the way Americans look at nature.
On the wintry plains of northern New Mexico in 1893, a man hired to destroy wolves looked into the eyes of the animal he had lured toward death. In that moment, Ernest Thompson Seton changed – from a wolf killer to a champion of conservation.
Seton went on to earn international acclaim for his artwork and writing, and became one of the founders of today’s Boy Scouts. Though often regarded in the same the breath with Audubon and Burroughs, he remains largely unknown today.
The New Mexico History Museum aims to change that with Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton, a new exhibit featuring more than 30 original paintings and drawings by Seton, books, personal memorabilia, photographs and rare audiotapes. Many of the items have never been publicly displayed.
“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,” said David L. Witt, guest curator of the exhibit and director of the Seton Legacy Project at the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe. “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.”
Born in England in 1860, Seton moved to Canada with his family when he was six, and eventually settled in the United States as an adult. As a young man, he immersed himself in the study of the natural world.
In 1893, he was sent to Clayton, N.M., to rid the L Cross F Ranch of marauding wolves. After a brutal encounter with a wolf named “Lobo,” Seton wrote “The King of Currumpaw, A Wolf Story,” published to worldwide acclaim in Scribner’s Magazine the following year. Through that story, Seton invented the genre of the realistic animal story, portraying animals as they actually live in the wild and changing forever the way Americans looked at nature.
In 1902, Seton founded an outdoor youth-education program known as “Woodcraft;” in 1910, he co-founded the Boy Scouts of America.
A technically accomplished wildlife illustrator, Seton developed concepts for bird identification that influenced the field guides of Roger Tory Peterson and others. He wrote some 40 books and more than 1,000 magazine articles and short stories, and drew or painted some 6,000 works of art. His book Wild Animals I Have Known has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1898. (Rudyard Kipling once wrote to Seton that the book inspired him to write The Jungle Books.)
Much of Seton’s understanding of nature came not from Western science, but from his extensive studies with First Nations peoples in Canada. Seton was a vocal supporter of Native people’s political rights and a passionate advocate for the study of their culture, ethics and history.
In 1930, Seton moved to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Santa Fe, founding the Seton Village neighborhood, where he lived until his death in 1946. He designed and lived in Seton Castle – a preposterous structure on what Seton called “the last rampart of the Rockies.” The castle was destroyed by fire in 2005, but the echoes of Seton’s legacy can still be heard around campfires … and in a distant wolf’s howl.
The New Mexico History Museum features more than 500 years of stories that made the American West. While there, visit the exhibit Santa Fe Found: Fragments of Time, where archaeological artifacts and historic documents trace the founding and first 100 years of the City Different, now celebrating its 400th anniversary.
Summer activities include the Palace Gem and Mineral Show, Mountain Man Rendezvous and nature journaling workshops. Go to www.nmhistorymuseum.org or visit the Museum on the Santa Fe Plaza. 505-476-5200.
– Story and images courtesy NM History Museum, Santa Fe, NM
This article appeared on page 21 of HighCountry Magazine 2010.