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“The Child Is Born a Naturalist”: Nature Study, Woodcraft Indians, and the Theory of Recapitulation1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Kevin C. Armitage
Miami University of Ohio


Beginning in the 1890s, the nature study movement advocated direct contact with the natural world to develop in children an appreciation for natural history, the beginnings of scientific inquiry, aesthetic and spiritual interests as well as the motivation to conserve nature. Defense of nature study pedagogy came from the theory of recapitulation. Recapitulation held that as humans developed they repeated the evolutionary history of the human race. Children were thus thought to be like Indians: primitive people with an innate closeness to nature. The most popular proponent of these ideas was Ernest Thompson Seton, widely read author, illustrator, and founder of the nature study boys club, the Woodcraft Indians. Nature study advocates hoped that the theory of recapitulation would allow them to bridge the modern and romantic, antimodern tendencies in their movement. Despite an intense focus on premodern virtues, nature study and the Woodcraft Indians mostly served to ease the tensions and incongruities of modern life.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2007

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4 Ibid. 481.

5 Ibid. 481. Emphasis in original.

6 Ibid. 480.

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9 The idea that children needed to leave the classroom and experience nature first hand to develop sympathy with it was a controversial one. See, for example, the criticism of nature study leveled by renowned psychologist Thorndike, Edward, “Sentimentality in Science Teaching,” Educational Review (January 1899)Google Scholar.

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50 John Burroughs, among others, criticized Seton's fanciful stories for their lack of veracity. Seton thus became entangled in the “nature faker” debate. See Lutts, Ralph H., The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science and Sentiment (Golden, CO, 1990)Google Scholar.

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68 My discussion is indebted to , Bederman, Manliness and Civilisation,Google Scholar which provides further investigation of the relationship between gender and dominant understandings of civilization.

69 Seton, Ernest Thompson, Two Uttle Savages: Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned (New York, 1903)Google Scholar. David Macleod notes that Two Uttle Savages was one of “the most widely read and widely remembered boys' books of its generation,” , Macleod, Building Character, 132Google Scholar. For one memory of the book, see Atkinson, Brooks, “A Puritan Boyhood,” Massachusetts Review 15 (summer 1974): 353Google Scholar; some boys even copied the book by hand.

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71 Ibid., 375-76.

72 Ibid., 56.

73 The 200,000 number comes from Seton's biographer, H. Allen Anderson, who cites Seton's own estimates. Journalist McCready Sykes estimated the number as between 150,000 and 200,000. See , Anderson, The Chief, 148Google Scholar, and Sykes, McCready, “Let's Play Indian: Making A New American Boy Through Woodcraft,”Google ScholarEverybody's Magazine, October, 1910, 481Google Scholar.

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