Faces of the Founders
By Mark Ray
Their names are splashed across Scout councils, camps, museums, and awards, but who were the men who created the Scouting program?
Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857-1941)
In October 1899, several thousand Boer fighters laid siege to the South African town of Mafeking, where Col. Robert Baden-Powell led a force of some 800 British soldiers. Through sheer resourcefulness, he held off the Boers for 217 days, sneaking reports through the lines that ended up on the front pages of British newspapers. When Mafeking was relieved in May 1900, he became a national hero.
Three years later, Baden-Powell (by then a general) returned to England and was astonished to find British boys using an army manual he’d written called Aids to Scouting as a guide to outdoor fun. For the next four years, he studied boys’ programs—including Ernest Thompson Seton’s Woodcraft Indians in America—and decided to start his own program.
In 1906, Baden-Powell drafted a paper called “Boy Scouts—A Suggestion,” proposing a way to “help in making the rising generation, of whatever class or creed, into good citizens at home or for the colonies.” A year later, he organized a camp on Brownsea Island to test his ideas. The camp, which involved 12 upper-class boys and nine working-class boys, was a rousing success.
In 1908, Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys and formally launched the Boy Scout movement. Over the next few years, he watched as Scouting spread throughout the British colonies and beyond. In 1913, he proposed a gathering of Scouts from around the world, planting the seeds for what would become the first World Scout Jamboree in 1920 in London, England. When he rose to speak at the jamboree, a Scout in the audience shouted, “Long live the Chief Scout of the World!” Thousands of other Scouts took up the call, and Baden-Powell was officially crowned the first—and only—Chief Scout of the World.
Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941)
Daniel Carter Beard grew up hearing stories of pioneer days and exploring the woods near his Covington, Ky., home. After attending art school in New York City, he began a long career as a writer and illustrator.
One winter day in New York, Beard came across newsboys sleeping on the damp pavement of Printing House Square. It was this sight that “started me on my lifelong crusade for American boyhood,” he later wrote.
In 1905, in the pages of Recreation magazine, Beard created a loosely organized boys’ program he called the Sons of Daniel Boone. Somewhere between 2,000 and 20,000 boys joined the group in the next few years, organizing themselves in “forts” and “stockades” and taking on the names of heroes such as Daniel Boone (president), Kit Carson (treasurer), and Davy Crockett (secretary). When Beard joined Pictorial Review magazine, he renamed the group the Boy Pioneers of America and published its first handbook.
With the advent of the BSA, Beard shut down his nascent organization and joined the BSA as one of the first national commissioners.
“Uncle Dan,” as he was known, remained involved in Scouting until his death in 1941—even showing up at the 1937 National Scout Jamboree to light the opening campfire with flint and steel. He was honored with one of the first Silver Buffalo Awards in 1926.
Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946)
Born in England and raised in Canada, Ernest Thompson Seton was a naturalist, artist, and writer and lover of Native American culture. The success of his 1898 book Wild Animals I Have Known allowed him to build a small estate in Cos Cob, Conn.
When neighborhood boys tore down part of his fence in 1902, Seton surprised them by inviting them to camp on his property over spring break. He declared the boys a tribe and taught skills such as identifying birds, swimming, and canoeing. That camp evolved into the Woodcraft Indians, an organization Seton launched that July. Over the next eight years, between 100,000 and 200,000 boys joined the group.
In 1906, Seton sent Baden-Powell a copy of the group’s handbook, The Birch-Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, to review. Later that year, the two men met in London. Soon after the BSA’s founding, Seton signed on as the first Chief Scout. He cobbled together a provisional handbook from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys and the Birch-Bark Roll and in the preface took credit for starting Scouting.
By 1915, Seton himself was on the outside looking in. He and Chief Scout Executive James E. West had never seen eye to eye, and on Dec. 5, Seton called a press conference to announce his resignation from the BSA. His verdict on Scouting was simple: “Seton started it; Baden-Powell boomed it; West killed it.”
William Dickson Boyce (1858-1929)
Much like Baden-Powell, Seton, and Beard, William D. Boyce, a wealthy Chicago newspaper publisher, came to boys’ work by accident. In August 1909, he was in London, preparing for an African safari, when he got lost in a pea-soup fog—or perhaps simply turned around (accounts differ). In any event, a “little lad of 12” appeared and guided him safely across the street. When Boyce offered a tip, the boy declined, explaining that he was just doing his Good Turn as a Scout.
Boyce, who employed as many as 20,000 newsboys back home, was so impressed by the Scout that he decided to investigate further. He picked up a trunk full of publications at Scout headquarters and studied them during his safari. Six months later, on Feb. 8, 1910, he incorporated the Boy Scouts of America.
Despite his interest in youth and in Scouting, Boyce had neither the time nor the inclination to run the BSA. He quickly turned its leadership over to Edgar M. Robinson, the senior boys’ work secretary of the YMCA’s International Committee in New York. Boyce did agree to give the BSA $1,000 per month for operating expenses—provided that boys of all races and creeds be included—but that was the extent of his involvement.
In 1915, he founded a new Scouting organization, the Lone Scouts of America, to serve boys that BSA troops couldn’t reach. The LSA competed with the BSA’s Pioneer Division (created in 1916) for nearly a decade, until Boyce agreed in 1924 to merge it with the BSA.
Boyce received the third Silver Buffalo Award in 1926. (The first two had gone to Robert Baden-Powell and the Unknown Scout.) At his funeral three years later, 32 Scouts served as honorary pallbearers, while Chief Scout Executive James E. West provided the eulogy.
James Edward West (1876-1948)
Orphaned at age six and afflicted with tuberculosis, James E. West never had much of a childhood.
Nonetheless, he finished high school in two years, graduating with honors in 1895. By 1901, he’d worked his way through law school and was practicing law in Washington, D.C.
Given those circumstances, it was not surprising, then, that West gravitated toward children’s issues. When a young boy stole his car, he declined to press charges, offering instead to represent the boy in court (he got him off on a technicality). That incident led West to lobby successfully for the creation of a juvenile court. He also worked for the Washington Playground Association and the YMCA and prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to convene a White House Conference on Dependent Children in 1909.
Given his background, West became a natural choice to serve as the first Chief Scout Executive. He agreed to take the job for up to six months and stayed on for 32 years.
Unlike Baden-Powell, Beard, and Seton, West had neither a winning personality nor a love for the outdoors. Unlike Boyce, he didn’t have deep pockets. What he did have, though, was a commitment to children and a drive to turn the fledgling BSA into a strong, cohesive national organization.
In his three decades as Chief Scout Executive, West oversaw the creation of Sea Scouting and Cub Scouting, the development of local councils, and the involvement of Scouts on the home front in two world wars. As President Harry Truman wrote in a telegram to West’s widow, “Boy Scouts of all ages and all Americans who believe in the future of the American boy bow in reverence to his memory.”
West’s name lives on in the James E. West Fellowship Award. This award goes to individuals who donate $1,000 or more to a local council’s endowment fund.
E. Urner Goodman (1891-1980), Carroll A. Edson (1891-1986)
The founders of the Order of the Arrow—Scouting’s brotherhood of cheerful service—weren’t brothers. Maybe they could have been. In many ways, E. Urner Goodman and Carroll A. Edson led parallel lives. Both were born in 1891, both worked as Scouting volunteers and professionals, both were active church leaders, both served in World War I, and both lost sons in World War II.
Most significantly, both were tapped to lead Treasure Island Scout Reservation near Philadelphia in 1915. Goodman, the director, had read about a camp honor society that helped maintain camp traditions from season to season. Edson, the assistant director, had heard BSA founder Ernest Thompson Seton talk about the Native American traditions underlying his Woodcraft Indians. The young leaders combined those ideas with the lore of the area’s Lenni Lenape tribe to create a society they called Wimachtendienk Wingolauchsik Witahemui—Lenni Lenape for brotherhood, cheerfulness, and service.
Goodman and Edson were as responsible for the OA’s spread as they were for its founding. Edson started OA lodges in Chicago and Jersey City, N.J., when he served as a Scout executive in those cities. Goodman became the first national director of program in 1931, a job where he oversaw the growth of Cub Scouting, Exploring, and the OA.
Both men retained their ties to Scouting until their deaths. As Goodman said late in life, “That’s the happy thing about finding the right life mission. It doesn’t end with professional retirement. It goes on and on until one day the call comes to enter the life beyond where, I am sure, new and greater missions await.”
Edgar M. Robinson (1867-1951)
Edgar M. Robinson led the BSA for just eight months, but they were
In early 1910, Robinson was serving as senior secretary of the YMCA’s Committee on Boys’ Work. He’d heard of Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts and knew that many local Y’s were adopting it. When he learned that Boyce had incorporated the BSA, he offered his assistance.
Boyce handed the reins to Robinson after the May 1910 national meeting in Chicago. The next month, Robinson opened the BSA’s first national office, a single room next to his office at YMCA headquarters, and formed an organizing committee that included his friend Ernest Thompson Seton and several YMCA colleagues.
Robinson convinced Seton, Beard, and leaders of other organizations to merge with the BSA and recruited an impressive group of men to the National Council, including Admiral George Dewey and former President Theodore Roosevelt. He also oversaw planning for the first BSA handbook and the first BSA camp program.
But Robinson’s true love was the YMCA, so he turned down the invitation to serve as the BSA’s first Chief Scout Executive. Instead, he helped recruit West, who began work on Jan. 2, 1911. Robinson then returned to the Y, where he remained until his retirement in 1927. He received one of the BSA’s first Silver Beaver Awards in 1926 and was inducted into the YMCA Hall of Fame in 2000.
William Hillcourt (1900-1992)
Known to generations of Scouts as “Green Bar Bill,” William Hillcourt wrote three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, three patrol leader handbooks, the first American Scoutmaster’s handbook, the first Scout Fieldbook, numerous other books, and a Boys’ Life column that ran from 1932 to 1965.
Born in Denmark as Vilhelm Hans Bjerregaard Jensen, Hillcourt earned Danish Scouting’s highest rank, Knight-Scout, in 1918 and attended World Scout Jamborees in 1920 and 1924. At the 1924 event, he met American Scouter William Wessel, who helped him get a job with the BSA in the United States in 1926.
A chance encounter with Chief Scout Executive James E. West later that year launched Hillcourt’s career. After West asked the young Dane what he thought of American Scouting, Hillcourt sent him an 18-page report and, within a week, West assigned Hillcourt to write the first Handbook for Patrol Leaders, which appeared in 1927. Hillcourt established himself as the BSA’s leading proponent of the patrol method; his nickname stemmed from the two green bars on the patrol leader patch.
In 1934, Hillcourt moved to the Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey, where he founded a troop to test his ideas. He continued to serve as Troop 1’s Scoutmaster for 15 years.
Hillcourt retired from the BSA in 1965, but he returned in 1978 to write the ninth edition of the Boy Scout Handbook. He received the Silver Buffalo Award in 1980.