WESTERN ANIMAL HEROES
An Anthology of Stories by Ernest Thompson Seton
Introduction: Ernest Thompson Seton
Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton was a leader of the wildlife conservation movement that developed in the United States in the early decades of the 20th Century. As a result of extensive study of wild animal behavior he became concerned about the loss of wildlife and its habitat and endeavored to enlighten the American public regarding its plight. Through lectures and magazine articles he stressed the importance of enacting conservation laws and establishing wildlife sanctuaries. He exerted an even greater influence as a champion of endangered wildlife by writing realistic animal stories that were popular in both the United States and Canada.
Born in 1860 in England, Seton moved with his family to Ontario, Canada six years later. During his early years there he developed a profound interest in the outdoors and its inhabitants. While his brothers spent hours at play, Seton tramped the woods surrounding his home and made notes about and drew pictures of the animals he observed.
After his family moved to Toronto in 1876, Seton chose to study art. He first entered an art apprenticeship in Toronto, which was followed by instruction at the Ontario School of Art. Animals were his primary subject. After completing training in Canada, he sailed to England for a year of study in London.
He returned to Canada in 1882 when he and his brother homesteaded land on the plains of western Manitoba. Whenever he had opportunity over the next few years he studied birds and their behavior in the field and made drawings of them. He compiled the results of his work in a scientific monograph titled, Birds of Manitoba, which was published in 1891. While in Manitoba, Seton received several commissions for wildlife illustrations, the most important of which was an assignment for a thousand drawings to illustrate "The Century Dictionary."
By 1890 Seton decided that he was not destined to be a farmer and resolved to devote his full energy to the study and portrayal of wildlife through art. As a result he left the Canadian plains and made arrangements to study art in Paris, sailing there that year.
In between art studies in France during the next decade Seton traveled to the United States where he ventured West to observe animals. The first trip was the most important in terms of his subsequent career. In the fall of 1893 he went to the ranch country of northeastern New Mexico to trap wolves which resulted in the capture of the notorious wolf, Lobo. He later recounted the capture in story form and placed it as the lead story in his first book of illustrated animal stories, Wild Animals I Have Known. The overwhelming response to the book in the United States and Canada ultimately brought him national prominence as a writer, artist, and naturalist.
On later trips Seton found material in other wilderness areas of the West that he used to write more animal stories. The stories first appeared in popular magazines such as Scribners’, Colliers, and Ladies Home Journal and were later compiled in books such as Lives of the Hunted, Animal Heroes, and Wild Animal Ways.
Seton was in Paris in July of 1894 when he met a fellow American named Grace Gallatin. They married in May of 1896 in New York where they took up residence. Gallatin was also a writer and subsequently wrote two books, A Woman Tenderfoot (1900) and Nimrod’s Wife (1907), that recounted adventures she experienced with her husband on their western trips.
Their first trip together was to Yellowstone Park in the summer of 1897. Afterward, they visited the Crow Indian Agency in Montana and then went to the dude ranch of Howard Eaton in the Dakota Badlands. A year later they returned to the Dakotas to visit Eaton and traveled from there to the Tetons of Wyoming and the Bitterroots of Idaho.
In the summer of 1899 Seton conducted a lecture tour in connection with the publication of Wild Animals I Have Known. With Grace by his side he traveled through western Canada lecturing as he went. Afterward they headed south to California and made a long stop in San Francisco which was followed by an excursion tour of the Sierra Nevadas. They returned to the East by way of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Along the way he successfully gathered source material that he later used in a number of animal stories.
In conjunction with the study of natural history Seton became interested in Native American culture and ultimately became knowledgeable about many tribes. From his study, he believed that Indians lived symbiotically with the natural world and served as a model that modern Americans might emulate. He wrote extensively along that line, especially in his The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore which appeared in 1912.
In pursuing his interest in Native Americans, he developed a youth program in 1902 called the Woodcraft Indians that focused on the study of American Indian culture. The program was immediately popular with young people, and its success led Seton to become involved with the founding of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. He wrote that organization’s first handbook and served as its first Chief Scout.
Throughout this time Seton continued to write both animal stories and scholarly articles and books. In 1909 he published his most ambitious scientific work, Life Histories of Northern Animals, that recorded his discovery and study of fifty-nine species in Manitoba.
Although Seton’s studies and drawings of animals had made him well known in the scientific community, he did not come to the notice of the American public at large until the 1898 publication of Wild Animals I Have Known which established the realistic animal story as a new literary form. The stories in the book were biographies of eight animals based on behavior that Seton either observed in the field or learned from people who had. At the same time he added fictional elements to some in order to dramatize the life story and heighten the tragedy of the animals’ deaths.
Overall, his primary interest in his stories was to view each animal from its perspective, rather than from a human one. His “man against nature” concept had not been employed by any other American and Canadian nature writer of the time.
Seton stated the theme of the book in his introductory note:
“These stories are true. Although I have left the strict line of historical truth in many places, the animals in this book were all real characters. They lived the lives I have depicted, and showed the stamp of heroism and personality more strongly by far than it has been in the power of my pen to tell.”
In keeping with Seton’s view, the animals in his stories are heroic while the human characters, whether hunters, cowboys or trappers, are portrayed as undesirable types, if not outright villains. For example, the cowboys that appear as characters in “The Pacing Mustang” and “Tito” have a weakness for whiskey and for squandering their pay for good times with their fellows in town. They are pictured in much an opposite manner than the “noble knights of the range” prevalent in other western stories and books of the period.
Importantly, however, even though Seton was a “dude” from the East, he spent enough time in the West that he came to appreciate the best qualities of the cowboys and the manner in which they worked on the range. It is evident in his stories that he admired their skill in handling horses and cattle and ultimately their true character.
Because most of Seton’s stories are about hunted animals, they invariably have tragic endings. In the “Note to the Reader,” of Wild Animals I Have Known, he explained that “the fact that these stories are true is the reason why all are tragic. The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end.” In the later volume, Lives of the Hunted, he added that “there is only one way to make an animal’s history un-tragic, and that is to stop before the last chapter.”
The stories herein are representative of the animal stories that Seton wrote from experiences on his western trips and are presented in chronological order relative to when Seton either observed or learned the story.
Cimarron, New Mexico