History of the Boy Scouts of America

A historical context

In the early 1900s, America’s industrialization was in high gear. High capacity factories were sprouting up and populations were realigning into more urban spaces to be closer to work. Although the economy was growing, many people felt that the youth of the day were missing a crucial part of the American experience — the rugged self-reliance of individualism. Taming the wild is a big part of American life; manifest destiny, the transcontinental railroad, national parks — all significant examples of Americans engaging the wilderness and succeeding through self-reliance. So as families started moving into more dense population centers, there was a feeling that the youth were lacking a critical part of their education.

Scouting: an American phenomenon?

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement

What many people might not realize is that the Scouting movement, which seems so American in it’s individualism and ruggedness, does not originate in the United States. In fact, the Scouting movement comes from the United Kingdom. Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Lieutenant of the British Army, is accredited by many as the father of the Scouting movement. Baden-Powell had always been an active outdoorsmen, but during his time in Africa while in the army, Baden-Powell truly mastered his military reconnaissance and scouting skills. He trained with and learned from the Zulu in the Natal Provence. While in Africa, he wrote several books on military scouting, which he envisioned as a training materials for soldiers and recruits — emphasizing free thinking, using initiative and surviving the wilderness. When he returned home, he found that his books had been very successful amongst boys and youth organizations. He saw a tremendous opportunity to share his knowledge and encourage young people to be active, knowledgable, and self-reliant. He wrote his Scouting for Boys, a manuel directed specifically at the youth. This book would go on to sell over 150 million copies and be ranked forth on the list of best selling books of the 20th century.

Through this text, Baden-Powell founded the modern scouting movement. The movement grew and spread, combining with other, similar organizations and would eventually inspired a man from Chicago to bring the tenets of boy scouting to the United States. As the legend goes, W. D. Boyce was visiting London and had gotten lost in some foggy, winding street. Fearing he would spend hours wandering the same streets that Jack the Ripper haunted just a few decades prior, Boyce was approached by an unnamed scout who guiding him to safety. The boy refused Boyce’s tip, stating that he was simply a Boy Scout doing his daily good turn. Boyce was so impressed by his interaction the he looked up the headquarters of the Boy Scouts, met with Baden-Powell, and brought the organization back across the Atlantic to the US. On February 8, 1910, Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America. That young man who helped Boyce, thereby enabling the foundation of the BSA, has been immortalized as the Unknown Scout and honored with a Silver Buffalo award and a statue in Gilwell Park, one of Baden-Powell’s first scouting camp sites.


 

A typical Boy Scout in 1969

A typical Boy Scout in 1969

The Boy Scouts of America grew rapidly. Many people shared the understanding that the skills taught in scouting were important and beginning to be marginalized. Scouting took hold in America so firmly because it’s tenets closely align with the qualities of the idealized American — rugged individualism and self-reliance. Upon their founding, their stated purpose was “to teach patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred values”. The Boy Scouts of America has long been a positive force in the lives of many young men in America. Their sister organization, the Girl Scouts, similarly impacts the lives of their membership. The history of the Boy Scouts, when looked at through an accurate historical context, allows us to see American values in a crystalized and sterile way.