The early days of Scouting were shaped by a group of pioneers: Baden Powell, of course, with British Scouting; William D Boyce, as the man who brought Scouting to America; Ernest Thompson Seaton, who merged his Woodcraft Indians with BSA; James E West, whose fortitude and persistence merged many youth groups into a unified BSA and Daniel Carter Beard, who brought his Sons of Daniel Boone into the BSA and who became our first Commissioner.
Beard was born in Ohio in 1850, but his family moved to Kentucky as the Civil War broke out. His father enlisted in the Union Army, leaving young Dan home at age eleven to be the “man of the house.” According to Chuck Wills, who authored Boy Scouts of America: A Centennial History, “When he wasn’t helping his mother or caring for his younger sisters, he roamed the nearby woods with a gang of friends pretending to be pioneers in the spirit of Daniel Boone, the frontiersman who spearheaded Kentucky’s settlement a century earlier.”1
In addition to this early love of outdoor play, Beard seemed to inherit his father’s artistic talent, as his father painted portraits. For some reason, though, he initially set talent aside to train as an engineer and surveyor, but while “visiting his brother in New York City in 1878 …a magazine publisher happen[ed] to see a sketch of a fish that Beard had made on one of his surveying trips. The publisher offered Beard $25 for the sketch. Beard accepted, gave his his notice at the map company and enrolled at the city’s Art Students League to get some formal training, For the rest of his life he made his living as an illustrator, editor, and writer.”
“For a time Beard made a good living indeed. He had a wonderful eye for nature and a lively visual style.”2 He was commissioned by several leading children’s magazines of the time. Mark Twain even hired him to illustrate A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Then in 1882, he wrote The American Boy’s Handy Book; a do-it-yourself guide to outdoor fun and woodcraft skills that was organized into seasonal activities for its readers. It showed how to do everything from camping out in a tent to performing basic taxidermy. However, he eventually turned his efforts to making a national boys’ movement he first called the Sons of Daniel Boone. This was later renamed the Boy Pioneers; both programs had a clear focus on the American frontier as its program, but unlike today, there was not a central national organization. His “Sons” learned the program by reading Beard’s ideas in various children’s magazines.
In his words, the movement’s mission was “the elevation of sport, the support of all that tends to be healthy, wholesome manliness, the study of woodcraft, outdoor recreation and fun and, serious to work for the making of laws preventing the sale of game, and in the preservation of our native wild plants, birds, and beasts.”
I would rather be a Boy Scout than a dictator, king or even President of the U.S.A. Dan Beard
His programs took their theme from the pioneers, whom he called “knights in buckskin.” Boys were organized into groups called forts. Each fort included four “stockades” of eight boys each. Leaders were named after the likes of Kit Carson and Davy Crockett and the fort leader was Daniel Boone. By the time Beard chose to merge his program with the BSA, he brought as many as 20,000 of his “Sons” into Scouting.
Beard loved camp gadgets and pioneering projects like Scouts make today. He delighted in thinking up new gadgets. This started when he began writing how-to articles for boys in children’s magazines. He explained how to camp, how to fish, and the correct approach to many other outdoor activities. These were codified in his American Boys’ Handy Book (1882) which proved a great success, sold for years and is still on the market, but the magazines pushed his ideas to a broader public.
His approaches were complicated and not always practical. One observer writes, “Beard had a weakness for the sort of design that required two trees spaced just right and forty straight poles; but he gushed enthusiasm, and boys daydreamed over his plans.”3
I wrote about such daydreams in my young life, last year in this post: “Scout Pioneering – Good, Ol’Fashioned, Outdoor, Scouting Fun for the 21st Century!”, but Beard’s legacy carries well beyond the Pioneering Merit Badge. Among his writings after joining the Scout movement you’ll find these books, many that had a significant impact on American Scouting:
- Boat, Building, and Boating, 1912
- Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties, 1914 ,
- The American Boy’s Book of Bugs, Butterflies and Beetles, 1916
- The American Boy’s Book of Signs, Signals and Symbols, 1918
- The American Boy’s Book of Camp-Lore and Woodcraft, 1920
- The American Boy’s Book of Wild Animals, 1921
- The Black Wolf-Pack , 1922,
- American Boy’s Book or Birds and Brownies of the Woods, 1923
- Do It Yourself, 1925
- Wisdom of the Woods, 1926
- Buckskin Book For Buckskin Men and Boys, 1929
- Hardly A Man is Now Alive, 1939
“Besides patriotism, Beard preached nativism and masculinity. He saw boys growing as the ideal pioneer and that frontier life at the very ‘soul’ was ‘essentially American.’ He explained, ‘We play American games and learn to emulate our great American forebears in lofty aims and iron characters…’ Beard also maintained that outdoor pursuits would toughen boys. ‘We want no Molly Coddles,’ he explained.4
In my view, his was a solid contribution to a program that was filled with fun, adventure and the romance of outdoor life, but he showed us how to use these to build boys into men. Men of character, who were strong and fit and who loved their country.
Scouts; just jot them in the comment section below.
1 Chuck Wills, Boy Scouts of America: A Centennial History (Published by DK Publishing, 2009) p. 19
2 Ibid. p 19
3 David I. Macleod, Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), pp. 132-133
4 Ibid.pp. 132-133