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William Boyce, Boy Scouts Founder


It was on this date in 1910 that William Dickson Boyce founded the Boy Scouts of America. His mission was instigated a year earlier when he got lost in a thick London fog. A young man did him a “good turn” and helped him find his way. But when Boyce offered him a tip, the boy refused it, saying he was merely doing his duty as a Boy Scout. Boyce was so impressed he helped establish an American counterpart of the group when he returned to the United States.

Boyce was born in June 1858 to what he called “sturdy pioneer stock.” They farmed in rural Pennsylvania, where Boyce developed a strong work ethic and a deep love of nature and outdoor life. As a teenager, William had a job as a weight checker in a coalmine, and he also taught school for a time. True to his family background, he was tall and sturdy with blue eyes and wavy brown hair. He went to the Wooster Academy in Ohio when he was 20, then moved to Chicago.

By all accounts, Boyce was a charmer who loved travel and adventure. He was also a savvy businessman, and he prospered as a newspaperman. Moving from city to city, he co-founded a Winnipeg newspaper and worked as a reporter in Fargo. Then, in 1882, he settled in Lisbon, ND, and started the Dakota Clipper, a weekly paper that focused primarily on politics and business.

While in Lisbon, Boyce simultaneously organized the New Orleans Cotton Exposition, inspiring readers to explore the world beyond their backyards. It was during this time period that Boyce married a childhood friend, Mary Jane Deacon. Boyce was impressed with her marksmanship with a gun, as well as her poker-playing skills, and gave her the nickname “Rattlesnake Jane.”

Three years after Boyce started the Dakota Clipper, he sold it and went back to Chicago, where he used his rural experience to set up a syndication service for small-town newspapers. He also started up, or bought, several more papers, including the Chicago World, Saturday Blade, Farming Business and the Chicago Ledger.

By the time he got lost in the London fog in 1909, Boyce was a multi-millionaire. After the young “Unknown Scout” explained the organization to him, Boyce went to meet the group’s founder, Lt. Gen. Baden-Powell. Lord Baden-Powell explained his concept to Boyce and sent him home with a trunk full of Boy Scout materials, including uniforms and insignias. Four months later, Boyce had the organization up and running in the States.

Boyce was employing some 30,000 paperboys at that time and had a clear picture of what their lives were like. Unlike most other publishers, he had made some effort to look out for their welfare. In addition to drawing from their experiences, he was inspired by his own childhood love of nature to incorporate Indian lore into his new Boy Scout movement.

Unfortunately, the venture failed because of poor organization. Several YMCA executives had a deep interest in seeing the movement succeed, however, and helped Boyce begin again with better management. The Boy Scouts also incorporated two distinct but similar organizations, the “Sons of Daniel Boone” and the “Woodcraft Indians,” which added collaborators with important professional skills. But there was still one big problem. . . money.

Boyce’s response to the Scouts’ financial dilemma was possibly the most dynamic civic contribution of his life. During the next year, he personally contributed a minimum of a thousand dollars a month to keep the organization afloat. He had one condition, however: in exchange for his generosity, the Boy Scouts of America had to accept all boys, regardless of race or creed.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm