Thursday, February 8, 2018
February 8, 2018: Famous Boy Scouts: William Boyce
[On February 8th, 1910, Chicago publisher William D. Boyce incorporated the Boys Scouts of America, a US version of the international Scouting organization. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boyce and a handful of other figures connected to the Boy Scouts, leading up to a weekend post on the Scouts in the 21st century.]
On the Boy Scouts of America’s quasi-mythic origin story, and some very real, complex subsequent histories.
According to a legend that has endured from 1909 down to the present, William Boyce, in the midst of one of his many globe-trotting expeditions to Africa during this period of his life, was lost in the London fog when an unfamiliar young man appeared as a guide. When they reached Boyce’s destination and Boyce thanked and attempted to tip the young man, the boy replied that he was simply doing his duty as a Boy Scout. Boyce had never heard of the organization, and the legend goes that the boy then guided him to the Boy Scout Association’s London headquarters, where Boyce met the group’s original founder Robert Baden-Powell. Inspired by all that he learned during this encounter, Boyce founded the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) four months later, on February 8th, 1910. As often seems to be the case with such historical legends, there are seemingly some core truths to this one (according to Boyce he did meet and was impressed and educated by a young Boy Scout in London in 1909), some elements that have been conflated or simplified (Boyce did not meet Baden-Powell until a different occasion), and some that are perhaps entirely mythologized (Boyce does not for example mention fog in his own version of the encounter with the young Boy Scout, but it does add a certain je ne sais quoi).
I understand the appeal of such a mythic origin point, but as is generally true, the actual histories of how the Boy Scouts of America began to develop after Boyce’s 1910 founding are even more compelling (and far more representative of historical and social trends and contexts). For one thing, the Scouts struggled to stay afloat and solvent for their first few years, and it took a number of distinct but interconnected factors to keep the organization going and make it ultimately as successful as it has become. Boyce himself donated $1000 a month from his sizeable fortune for the first few years, but there were numerous other important influences as well: the hiring of the YMCA International’s Boys’ Work Secretary, Edgar Robinson, as the BSA’s first Managing Director; the merger of a couple of already existing boys’ organizations, Daniel Carter Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone (later the Boy Pioneers of America) and Ernest Thompson’s Woodcraft Indians, with the BSA; and the eventual hiring of lawyer and children’s rights advocate James E. West as the BSA’s first Chief Scout Executive. Each of these moments and events reflects different sides of the Progressive Era, of images of childhood/boyhood and the environment and outdoor activity, and of how social and communal activism truly develop and endure in any historical period and context.
Boyce himself would end his active role with the Boy Scouts of America five years after his founding of the organization, in January 1915, and that moment reflects another set of complex and compelling (and largely forgotten) histories. Boyce had apparently clashed with James West on a number of issues, especially whether and how the BSA should start a program for boys who lived too far from towns and could not join regular troops (Boyce was in favor of the idea, having grown up on a Pennsylvania farm himself). As a result Boyce decided to start another organization, the Lone Scouts of America (LSA), which had a more distinctly rural flavor and featured numerous (fraught but nonetheless interesting) nods to Native American culture, including groups known as “tribes” and a treasurer titled the “wampum-bearer.” The LSA also allowed Boyce to embrace his professional life as a publisher more fully, as he started a magazine called Lone Scout that then branched out into a number of regional Tribe Papers. By 1924 the Lone Scouts were failing, and Boyce agreed to merge the remaining members with West’s BSA (although there remains to this day a program within the BSA known as Lone Scouts that serves more rural or isolated members). Yet those nine years reflect and embody a number of compelling historical and cultural issues, and help us understand the life and legacy of William Boyce—and of the BSA—far better than foggy myths ever could.
Last Scouts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Scouting histories or stories you’d share?