ScoutingOctober 2001

The Man Who Got Lost in the Fog

Robert Peterson
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Known today mainly as the co-star of the "Unknown Scout" story, William D. Boyce was a world-traveling publisher who incorporated the BSA in 1910 and later founded Lone Scouting.

Stop me if you've heard this— and if you haven't, you must have joined Scouting very recently. It's the story of the Unknown Scout who guided Chicago publisher William D. Boyce through a pea-soup fog in 1909 in London—and that led him to the office of Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting. There Boyce picked up a trunkload of literature about the young movement for British boys, leading him to incorporate the Boy Scouts of America on Feb. 8, 1910, soon after returning to the United States.

Scouting's enduring legend

Without doubt it is the most enduring legend in Scouting, and it has the virtue of being true, at least in essence, since it is mentioned in the first annual report of the BSA.

It is a fact that William D. Boyce visited London in late 1909 and picked up Scouting literature, and it is also true that he incorporated the BSA Feb 8, 1910. During the infant organization's first year, Boyce kept it afloat by donating a crucial $4,000. In 1915, he organized the Lone Scouts of America, bringing Scouting to boys in rural areas who had no chance to join one of the hundreds of troops that were springing up in cities and small towns.

Despite these significant contributions, W. D. Boyce is a shadowy figure among Scouting's pioneers. This is due largely to the fact that he did not take a hands-on approach to Scouting as did the founder, Baden-Powell, in England and, in the United States, Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton, National Scout Commissioner Daniel Carter Beard, and Chief Scout Executive James E. West. Boyce did his thing and left the details to others. So, who was William D. Boyce?

Getting off the farm

He was born to a farm family in Plum, Pa., just east of Pittsburgh, on June 16, 1858. He decided early on that farming was not for him, although he worked hard and willingly at farm chores. While still in his teens, he was also a weight checker in a coal mine and taught school for a time. Boyce's own education ended after three years at Wooster (Ohio) Academy, a preparatory school. At the age of 20, he was 6 feet tall, big-framed and sturdy, with blue eyes and wavy brown hair. Boyce was full of energy and had a decisive mind.

In 188l, he went to Chicago and took a job selling advertising space for a monthly magazine. Not surprisingly, he was a very good salesman. Apparently he was a quick study in the publishing business, too, because a few months later he was co-publisher of a weekly called The Commercial in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. A year later he worked briefly as a newspaper reporter in Fargo (then the major city in the Dakota Territory, now North Dakota) and started a weekly called the Dakota Clipper in the village of Lisbon.

Boyce's ambition went beyond small-town journalism, so in January 1885 he sold the Clipper and headed back to Chicago. There he established a syndicated service that provided stories for newspapers. A year later he sold that service, and in 1887, at the age of 29, Boyce began publishing a weekly paper called the Saturday Blade which soon achieved a national circulation.

By the standards of the day, the Blade was rather sensational, with accounts of crime, maidens wronged, and stories about expeditions to Africa, Alaska, Mexico, and elsewhere, often led by William D. Boyce. In 1891, he bought the Chicago Ledger. Eventually the weekly circulation of the two papers was more than two million copies.

How William D. Boyce financed the beginning of this publishing enterprise is unknown, but it is a tribute to his business acumen. (Boyce was an avid poker player, but there is no evidence that he depended on poker winnings to bolster his empire.) He conceived the idea of using boys to sell his papers across the country, and 30,000 youngsters were his sales agents at the height of his success.

By the time Boyce first heard about Boy Scouting in London, he was living like the multimillionaire he was in a mansion on the Illinois River in Ottawa, Ill., southwest of Chicago. At his workplace in the 12-story Boyce Building in Chicago, he had a penthouse apartment staffed by a chef. His annual income in those days before income taxes was said to be $350,000.

After incorporating the BSA in February 1910, Boyce hired a former clergyman to promote Scouting and organize troops, but the effort was unsuccessful. So he welcomed a visit in May 1910 by Edgar M. Robinson and two other YMCA men who offered to take over the organizing chores. The YMCA already had several Scout troops. Boyce promised to help finance the organizing effort and then dropped out of the BSA's sight while he traveled in South America and elsewhere.

Birth of the Lone Scouts

He re-emerged in 1915 after reading about Lone Scouting in Britain. It had been started in 1913 based on John Hargrave's book, Lonecraft—The Hand-book for Lone Scouts.

Boyce incorporated the Lone Scouts of America on Jan. 9, 1915, intending to appeal to his young sales agents and other rural boys. Lone Scouting was very successful and attracted city kids as well as farm boys. Some were Boy Scouts and Lone Scouts simultaneously.

Lone Scouting had a distinct Native American flavor. Its symbol was a lone Indian with arms upraised in silent salute. The Indian appeared on Page l of many issues of Lone Scout, the weekly (later monthly) magazine that told readers how to earn advancement "degrees" and chronicled the adventures of "Chief Totem" William Boyce. Lone Scout was also a vehicle for young writers, poets, and artists. As was true for Boy Scouting, Boyce had almost no contact with individual Lone Scouts. He was the ultimate "big picture" man.

William D. Boyce died of complications from pneumonia on June 11, 1929. His grave site in the Ottawa Avenue Cemetery is dominated by a statue of a Boy Scout.

At his death, his newspapers and his fortune were in decline because the automobile and radio were bringing rural dwellers into mainstream America. But he left an important legacy to youth with his advocacy of Boy Scouting and, especially, Lone Scouting.

Contributing editor Robert Peterson is the author of The Boy Scouts: An American Adventure.

Top of Page

Current Issue | Archives
October 2001 Table of Contents

Copyright © 2001 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.

The Boy Scouts of America BSA