Nature Fakers: the war of the naturalists

John Burroughs was an American naturalist, essayist and an important figure in the conservation movement.

When Seton was in London and finally got access to the nature history library at the British Museum, the librarian suggested a book to him. It was Pepacton, A Summer Voyage by John Burroughs. Seton read it and Burroughs immediately became one of the heroes he worshipped.

In 1903, Burroughs wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled, “Real and Sham Natural History,” in which he absolutely roasted Ernest Thompson Seton and William J. Long. Seton had just published Wild Animals I Have Known, which in the opening of his article Burroughs “playfully” altered to Wild Animals I Alone Have Known.

The article got 11 pages in the journal, approximately 7700 words (11 pages, 2 columns, 50 lines per column, average 7 words per line), even after the editor sent it back to Burroughs for revisions. That he was given this much space for his scathing article shows how respected and well known he was at the time.

Burroughs begins his article with praise for a few natural history writers, including Charles G.D. Roberts. But even Roberts was not spared criticism.

Burroughs was known for believing naturalist writers should uphold the truth, but it seems what he meant was that naturalist writers shouldn’t write about experiences that Burroughs himself didn’t have. He said Roberts book was well done. “Yet I question his right to make his porcupine roll himself into a ball when attacked, as he does in his story of the panther, and then on a nudge from the panther roll down a snowy incline into the water. I have tried all sorts of tricks with the porcupine and made all sorts of assaults upon him, at different times, and I have never yet seen him take the globular form Mr. Roberts describes.” (“Real and Sham Natural History,” 1903)

Burroughs accused Seton of “romancing” natural history and of “deftly” blending fact and fiction. At this time Seton had published many volumes of non-fiction in addition to his animal stories and, in 1892, had been appointed Naturalist to the Manitoba Government. He was certainly not without credentials, and yet, this is what Burroughs has to say:

Mr. Thompson Seton says in capital letters that his stories are true, and it is this emphatic assertion that makes the judicious grieve. True as romance, true in their artistic effects, true in their power to entertain the young reader, they certainly are but true as natural history they as certainly are not. Are we to believe that Mr. Thompson Seton, in his few years roaming in the West, has penetrated farther into the secrets of animal life than all the observers who have gone before him? There are no stories of animal intelligence and cunning on record, that I am aware of, that match his.

“Real and Sham Natural History,” 1903

Burroughs’ beef with Long was that Long wrote about animals ability to learn and show intelligence. Burroughs wrote, “The crows do not train their young. They have no fortresses, or schools, or colleges, or examining boards, or diplomas, or medals of honor, or hospitals, or churches, or telephones, or postal deliveries, or anything of the sort. Indeed, the poorest backwoods hamlet has more of the appurtenances of civilization than the best organized crow or other wild animal community in the land!”

I discredit them as I do any other glaring counterfeit, or any poor imitation of an original, or as I would discredit a story of my friend that was not in keeping with what I knew of his character.

“Real and Sham Natural History,” 1903

Seton and many of the other authors in this roasting didn’t bother with writing a public reply, although many wrote to Burroughs to defend Seton’s work. They also wrote to Seton, inquiring what he was going to do about it. Seton felt nothing needed to be done, that the article “reeked of jealousy” and stood for itself. To reporters Seton gave the statement, “Nothing to say.”

Three weeks after the article was published, Seton and Burroughs met at a dinner.

The dinner was hosted by Andrew Carnegie to celebrate 50 outstanding New York writers. Among the attendants was none other than Mark Twain who witnessed the Seton-Burroughs confrontation.

In a far corner, I saw a group of three men in earnest discussion. All three had hair as white as snow. They were Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and John Burroughs. I learned afterwards they were talking about me.

I turned to Garland and said: “Now, Hamlin, watch your uncle, and learn a lesson on ‘how to win a battle.’ ”

I walked over to the group—all old acquaintances—and said cheerily: “How do, everybody.” Howells and Mark shook hands with me cordially. Burroughs turned his back, and began to study a small picture on the wall. But I followed him up and said: “Here, Uncle John, don’t try to pull that stuff on me.”

Howells, timid and gentle, was fearful of a scene, so fled away. Mark Twain cocked up his head in a comical way, and prepared to enjoy it.

Burroughs knew he was cornered. He turned red and stammered: “Now, see here, Seton, you are not holding that up against me personally?”

“Holding what?” I said with subterfuge.

“Oh, well!” he said. “You know——”

“Know what?” I answered.

“You know I roasted you in The Atlantic Monthly.”

“You did?” I replied with an affectation of great surprise.

He went on: “There was nothing personal in it, it was purely an academic analysis.”

“You amaze me,” I answered.


At this point Carnegie interrupts and leads Seton away to meet some people. Seton used the opportunity to ask Carnegie to seat him next to Burroughs at dinner. Carnegie complied.

He changed the place-cards, so Burroughs and I sat side by side. And, believe me, I was conscious of the fact that every one near by was watching and listening to us.

Burroughs looked unhappy and terribly nervous, but I assumed the mastery and talked with academic aloofness. Part of our dialogue ran thus:

“Mr. Burroughs, did you ever make a special study of wolves?”


“Did you ever hunt wolves?”


“Did you ever photograph or draw wolves in a zoo?”


“Did you ever skin or dissect a wolf?”


“Did you ever live in wolf country?”


“Did you ever see a wild wolf?”


“Then, by what rule of logic are you equipped to judge me, who have done all of these things hundreds of times?”

Burroughs turned very red. He was much flustered, and exclaimed: “Well, there are fundamental principles of interpretation and observation that apply to all animals alike.”

One other shot I fired into him. “Of course,” I said, “it is all right to criticize me. I am used to it. I am public property. But why did you attack that innocent young child of nature, W. J. Long [whom I knew nothing about]? He is telling the truth sincerely as he sees it. Now he is crushed and broken, sitting desolate on the edge of his grave. Mr. Burroughs, if you hear of a terrible tragedy in that boy’s home in the near future, you can lay it to only one cause—the blame will be wholly yours.”


The confrontation at dinner resulted in Burroughs issuing a public apology to Seton in the July 1904 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. Later, Burroughs invited Seton to his home and Seton reciprocated with bringing Burroughs to his place in Connecticut.

When I showed him my library, some five thousand volumes then, my collection of two thousand photos of animals, taken by myself, my museum of one thousand mammal skins and two thousand bird skins collected and skinned by myself, one thousand drawings of birds and mammals by me; and, last of all, my journals, some thirty fat volumes, detailing my travels and observations during thirty years, he broke down and surrendered. “I had no idea—— ” “I never dreamed——,” etc. he said again and again. “I knew nothing of this, ——” etc. He, himself, never kept a journal, never made a drawing and never skinned a bird or a beast in his life. He was not a naturalist, but a fine poet with the gift of excellent English expression.


Not long after this, Seton and Burroughs went together at the behest of Henry Ford to meet with a pair of obstinate senators who were blocking a new bill that would protect migratory birds. Ford reasoned, “There are only two naturalists in the United States that every Senator will come out into the lobby to discuss such matters with—John Burroughs and Thompson Seton.” (Autobiography, Seton, 1940)

Although Seton and Burroughs had patched their relationship, the controversy continued to blaze. Many others writers and politicians jumped in and offered up their own opinions, including Jack London and President Roosevelt. (Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the entire controversy, which I’ve only briefly hinted at here.)

Roosevelt made a public statement in Everybody’s Magazine in 1907, in which he praised Burroughs and others, and went after Long, calling him out for being reckless with the truth, in an article titled, “Nature Fakers.”

Privately, Roosevelt told Seton, “Burroughs and the people at large don’t know how many facts you have back of your stories. You must publish your facts.” (Autobiography, Seton, 1940)

So Seton set to work writing his “masterpiece.”

I set to work to do so; and after three or four years got out my scientific work, Life Histories of Northern Animals, in two quarto volumes. This was acclaimed as a masterpiece. For this I was awarded the Camp-fire Gold Medal, for the most valuable contribution to popular natural history of the year. It was, however, merely the prodrome of my Lives of Game Animals, which came out ten years later in four large quarto volumes, and for which I got the Burroughs Medal and the Elliott Gold Medal of the National Institute of Science. This is the highest recognition offered in America, and effectively silenced all my critics. Every scientific library in America today points to Seton’s Lives, as the last word and best authority on the subject.


Life Histories of Northern Animals was published in 1909.

And ironically, Seton won the James Burroughs medal in 1927.

This article is one of several about Ernest Thompson Seton and his life:

About his life in Kawartha Lakes: Ernest Thompson Seton

Ernest Thompson Seton and his father

Ernest Thompson Seton and the kingbirds of Kawartha Lakes

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