Who Are the Fathers of Survivalism?

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As the world grows ever-crazier, and 2020 has finally brought prepping and survivalism into the mainstream, I can’t help but finding myself consistently thinking back over the fathers of survivalism. In many ways, I believe that modern society has these men to thank for what we now know and think today within the world of prepping and survivalism.

These men saw the trouble that was being set up for the United States and sought to do what they could to save as many of their fellowman as possible by broadcasting their ideas on what it would take to survive war, financial collapse, and more on American soil.

Really, I think (many of) these men were spot on with their analyses, they were just off on the timing. It seems as if now we are seeing the fruition of the dangers these men pointed out so long ago.

Inflation is running rampant, grocery store shelves are barren, we are at risk of war from many angles, and tyranny is growing unchecked. And these men knew this was coming.

So, just who were these men? Who are the fathers of survivalism? Let’s take a look….

James Wesley Rawles

Personally, I consider Rawles to have had a larger impact on the world of survivalism than anybody else in history. His blog SurvivalBlog.com was started in 2005, serving to become the largest website on survivalism ever created, bringing effective information to millions for free.

His series Patriots is wildly popular, having been a best-seller on Amazon, and is often considered a classic text on both being a prepper and survivalism.

It was SurvivalBlog.com which was this author’s first touch (outside of various TV shows on primitive survival years prior) with prepping.

 

Ragnar Benson

One of the most prolific writers of survivalist books (within the 70s-80s) would easily be Ragnar Benson. He’s also one of the most controversial survivalist writers. Ragnar wrote well over 35 books dedicated to homesteading, DIY medicine, survival, retreat building, trap creation, and more.

It’s the “and more” of Ragnar’s writing which has cast him as such a controversial writer. Many of his books have actually been banned from appearing in many countries. Not much is known about his personal life.

Larry Dean Olsen

To my knowledge, Larry Dean Olsen opened the very first primitive skills/survival schools in the country. He founded the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah in the late 1960s after taking a trip with several of his fellow students (he was in college at the time) into the wilderness for 30 days to live off of the land.

Had it not been for Larry Dean Olsen, there wouldn’t have been a primitive skills movement. Had there been no primitive skills movement, there may not have been a survivalist movement (it depends on your take of whether the Cold War and mutually assured destruction would have bred survivalism even without primitive skills movement).

Without the early survivalist movement, what would have come of the prepper movement? Larry Dean Olsen created a massive ripple effect.

Jeff Cooper

One of the largest writers on self-defense via firearm, particularly within the realm of survivalism, is easily Jeff Cooper. He wrote extensively on pistols and rifles, was the man that pioneered shooting a pistol with two hands rather than one (via his beloved “Modern Technique”), and his pamphlet Principles of Personal Defense is a beloved classic. [source]

Bruce Clayton

Clayton wrote a number of survivalist books, but what he is most popular for is his 1980 book Life After Doomsday. Published by the now-closed (in 2018) Paladin Press, Life After Doomsday was what opened the eyes of many to the threats of nuclear war, as well as showing them what they could do to prepare for the mushroom cloud.

Howard Ruff

Survivalism has a long history with focusing on precious metals rather than either the stock market or fiat currency. Howard Ruff is part of the reason why. Working as a financial planner, Ruff consistently advocated that his clients put their money into gold and silver rather than stocks or bonds, spreading his message via his newsletter, The Ruff Times.

He also wrote heavily about the threat of financial collapse though, publishing books such as How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years.

Kurt Saxon

Here is the man who likely coined the term ‘survivalist.’ Saxon started a newsletter in 1975 called The Survivor which predominantly talked about primitive skills and technology. You can see an example of it here. From what I’ve seen about his personal life, the man was absolutely nuts, but there’s no doubt that his writings had an impact on the spread of survivalist know-how.

Joel Skousen

Strategic Relocation is hands-down the best book you’ll ever find on establishing a survivalist retreat, and it was to this topic that Skousen has largely devoted himself. He’s written a number of books on the subject, while simultaneously writing heavily on political philosophy (mainly on his outdated website).

(To see our thoughts on bugging-out be sure to check out our free QUICKSTART Guide as well as this book.)

Mel Tappan

One of the predominant survivalist writers of the 70’s would easily be Mel Tappan. Rawles quotes from Tappan extensively throughout his books/website, and Tappan’s Survival Guns and Tappan on Survival are some of the pioneering works of literature within the genre.

He was able to reach an incredibly broad audience via his regular newsletter Personal Survival Letter (often abbreviate to the P.S. Letter), his Survival Notes column in Guns & Ammo magazine, and his columns in Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Lofty Wiseman

Within the more modern era, one would be hard-pressed to find any author who has taught as many bushcraft and survival skills via book than has Lofty Wiseman with his SAS Survival Guide. Published the in 1986, this book is still in print, and has sold thousands of copies.

Though his opinions on gun laws are laughable (he believes the UK likely has the best firearm laws in the world. Don’t people have to defend themselves with narwhal tusks there?), this is an essential text for the survivalist as I’ve yet to come across any book which covers so many aspects of survival in such a pleasing format.

Cresson Kearney

What’s the best book on nuclear war survival ever written? Without a doubt, it’s Kearney’s Nuclear War Survival Skills. Kearney wrote this after his stint as a soldier in World War 2 teaching soldiers tactics in jungle warfare (Kearney had previously worked as a exploration geologist in the jungles of Venezuela).

Where would we be without these men?

If we were just now having to figure out all this today – what it took to preserve food, live in the wild, defend ourselves, etc. – where would we be? It’s an interesting question, is it not? These men served as the fore-bearers of that knowledge to the American people.

I am thankful for what they have done.

What are your thoughts on the situation though? Are there others you believe we’ve missed? Are there other books from these writers you’ve enjoyed? Let us know in the comments below!

About Aden

Aden Tate has a master’s in public health and is a regular contributor to TheOrganicPrepper.com, TheFrugalite.com, PewPewTactical.comSurvivalBlog.comSHTFBlog.comApartmentPrepper.comHomesteadAndPrepper.com, and PrepperPress.com. Along with being a freelance writer, he also works part-time as a locksmith. Aden has an LLC for his micro-farm where he raises dairy goats, a pig, honeybees, meat chickens, laying chickens, tomatoes, mushrooms, and greens. Aden has two published books, The Faithful Prepper and Zombie Choices. You can find his podcast The Last American on Preppers’ Broadcasting Network.

Aden Tate

Aden Tate

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  • Though there´s some confusion as to prepping and survivalism definitions, I´d bring Matt Bracken and his 2003-2009 Enemies Foreing and Domestic series to the list. He goes into the dynamics of many situations we´re seeing unfolding now. He´s well informed on the workings of governments, politicians, agencies, foreign and domestic entities, migration, economy, geopolitics, etc. And it´s great reading too very entertaining.

  • The first and biggest impact on me for preparedness was Alas Babylon. There’s a bit of prepping in it but a ton of old skills along with some morality type discussions. I think I read it 50 years ago in my teens and I reread it every 4-5 years. One Second After is a more modern version and both are excellent. It was long after I’d read these that I discovered James Wesley, Rawles.

    • ” I heard ‘One Second After’ is a real good book?”

      yes and no.

      the protagonist is a gamma prepper’s dream – everybody looks up to him, he dominates the mayor and sheriff and even the mayor of the next town over, he gets ahold of half the remaining insulin in the town for his own daughter leaving the other 67 families with insulin-problem relatives high and dry, he keeps his own car while everyone else is reduced to walking, he’s a logistical genius who plans food distribution around the town, he has plenty of food while half the town starves, he’s a military genius whom everyone turns to when hostilities start and a technical genius who shows them how to make improvised weapons, etc etc etc. it’s nauseating.

      on the other hand the book pretty much faces and walks through the reality of the situation head-on – loss of communication, loss of medical support, loss of infrastructure support, loss of food sources, too many unsupportable refugees, internal politics and rebellion (preppers NEVER talk about that one), and formal military assault by a looter cannibal army resulting in lots of dead kids. no literary magical solutions are employed, it’s just one long slog through a disgusting disaster.

      yeah, read it.

  • “(it depends on your take of whether the Cold War and mutually assured destruction would have bred survivalism even without primitive skills movement)”

    it did. the “primitive skills” movement was an anti-technology back-to-nature thing. the cold war survivalists just wanted to survive the anticipated nuclear exchange by any means they could use.

  • I read Howard Ruff’s book when it first came out in the late 1970s / early 80s. I’ve never been invested in precious metals. If you read closely he also advocates investing in steel and aluminium – buy a junk yard. Many people will be trying to keep older cars running and fixing stuff. Also buy lots of hand tools, for yourself, and some smaller sets for sale or barter or rent to fixer-uppers. Get welding rigs and learn how to weld and cut. A good sideline business.

    Since a junkyard business is mostly cash, it gives you the opportunity to fly below the radar of the taxing authorities, not that I’m advocating tax evasion, just a data point.

  • Going back: I would add Milton William “Bill” Cooper, radio show host of long ago and author of the seminal book “Behold A Pale Horse”. A trail blazer in many ways. Who was sadly assassinated by some, hmm, “local Sheriffs”? in 2001. Look it up.
    Then again, I’m old enough to remember Benton Harbor and Ms. Helfinger on the Chickenman radio show on AFN… He’s everywhere!

  • While I make no pretense to any kind of complete list, here are few historic favorites:

    World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker was carrying a message from FDR to General MacArthur during WWII across the Pacific when his pilot got lost and had to ditch. During the 22 days of survival using 3 rubber rafts, Rickenbacker his men discovered that the survival gear did not contain any gear to make sea-water drinkable, so they had to just barely improvise. The result of his recommendation was to add seawater distilling gear to pilots’ survival equipment for the rest of that war.

    In 1907 ex-British Army officer Robert Baden-Powell took the first steps that led to the organization of the world wide Boy Scout movement. That was the result of learning so many British soldiers during the second Boer War in South Africa were not trained or equipped for living in wilderness conditions. Later after the Boy Scouts were organized in America, Earnest Seton Thompson was instrumental in trying to get the boys’ training to benefit from the knowledge of American Indians living in the wilds.

    The Mormon community is famous for their teachings even today that a family should collect and store a year’s supply of food. They had learned the hard way that a year’s crop failure meant a long period of privation before the next year’s crop might come in. One of their most notable stories came from the pre-Civil War years when they had to flee the midwest and survive to resettle in Utah. Some didn’t even have money for horses or oxen to pull wagons of their goods and food, so those unfortunates had to rely on 2-wheel carts that one man could pull. The book “Handcarts to Zion” tells those stories of their ultimate bug-out the hard way.

    –Lewis

  • Being a child of the sixties, I truly believe that had it not been for the hippie movement and communes, survivalism and self-reliance would have had a much slower start.

  • The start of my awareness of survivalism, and relevant skills, was the Boy Scouts handbook and the first 2 of the Foxfire series. The start of my awareness of apocalypse survival, and relevant skills, was seeing Red Dawn while I was a Boy Scout, and parts of the Anarchist’s Cookbook. (The Foxfire books also started my looking for alternate solutions to modern tech solutions, like sulfuring fruits instead of using sugar or salt or drying to preserve them.)

    • I remember when I first began writing in this industry ten years ago. Women were just beginning to be taken seriously talking about things other than canning and putting back food. I can’t even count the number of times that a male commenter recommended I shut up and get back in the kitchen in those early years. So it’s unlikely that back in the seventies and before a whole lot of women were looked upon as leaders of survivalism.

      Luckily, things have changed and people are now judged in this industry based on their knowledge and skills, not their genders.

      I’m not saying that it was right back in the day – just that it’s true.

      • I know of a woman who through social media, found a sustainability group, networked within it, and now has 400 members within a 50 mile radius. Most are women.
        They have varying degrees of skill sets, but nearly all of them are head and shoulders above the average American.

      • Carla Emery – the encyclopedia of country living, I read bits of it last week when canning. Still your point is valid, she didn’t talk much about guns.

  • Two men I’d recommend looking into, Tom Brown Jr…Still teaching for decades! And Michael C Ruppert, no longer with us, but is alive through his film, Collapse. Watch that movie, as it blew me away back in 2010 and Tom is a treasure trove of incredible information!

    • Crossing The Rubicon, 675 pages of good info (in the paperback edition) forword by CatherineAustin Fitts.
      just sayin’

  • Boy, are you way off the mark!!!!! Try Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Thompson Seton and Barry Davis for survival and william Cobbett and John Seymore for self-sufficency (Homesteading, to you)

  • The “Backwoods Home” magazine & related books. Also their authors on the subjects we need to survive. You can by their whole anthology series on thumbdrive for a very reasonable price and has homesteading info, firearms, and more from I believe 1990-today.

  • I grew up in an era where every man was a “great depression era kid” and a WWII vet. Their knowledge was their way of life and made it possible to make it home. Our Mothers & Aunts all learned to survive during that era also. The lessons they taught us helped form a lifetime of survival skills (that served me well as a young Marine in the early 70’s).

    The names listed in the article are great, we should never forget what they have taught us.

    My “eye opener” book was Earth Abides by George Stewart. It still holds up well.

  • Rawles, I pulled many lists out of his first book. Are the rest of his books worth reading?
    Benson, I’ve read at least a dozen of his books, all more than once.
    Olsen, never heard of him, probably because apparently he wrote no books.
    Cooper, got 1 or 2 of his books.
    Clayton, read several of his books. Top notch.
    Ruff, got his newsletter for years and read 2 of his books. Was disappointed when he got licensed and changed to an investment advisor. Yes, he advocated PMs and preparedness.
    Saxon, got all his works off archive.org, before Covid. Archive.org cleaned house after 1/6/21. I’m afraid to look at see if they are still there. Probably not.
    Skousen, read 2 or 3 of his books, including the named one. Good stuff.
    Tappan, read both his books. He had passed on before I heard of him so no news letters for me.
    Wiseman, only heard of him in the last few years but have his Guide.
    Kearney, got his book. An essential classic.

    One Second After. In one of the books in that series they find century old Proceeding from the IEEE. The IEEE had a few predecessor associations that were around 100 years ago. One, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) has many “Transactions” volumes of their early meeting papers/presentations, available on archive.org.

  • Per Scarlet:
    “Olsen, never heard of him, probably because apparently he wrote no books.”

    Hmm… that suggested that I check my home library collection where I found the 254 page 6th edition of “Outdoor Survival Skills” by Larry Dean Olsen, most recently published in 1973. His website from that time was never saved on archive.org

    –Lewis

  • It’s a toss up between Baden-Powel and Bradford Angier (How to Stay Alive in the Woods) I don’t remember which one I read first as a kid in the mid 70s. After that I read every book on outdoor skills and survival skills I could get my hands on. Kephart and contemporaries were still in decent circulation so I read them.

    I’d also add Robert Heinlein as he wrote several stories that dealt with survival and helped keep it alive and well in the mind of a much younger me.

    My grandmother talked about living through the Great Depression, that had a huge impact on me.

    • I started to mention Heinlein. Many of my views come from reading his “boys books”. I disagree with many of his views expressed in his later book.

      • Yep. Loved Starship Troopers and his “juvenile” stories, but some of his later work espoused some weird stuff.

  • Don’t forget people like SF author Jerry Pournelle, who was an editor and columnist for Survive during the 80s. He worked survival skills into many of his books (and many he co-authored with Larry Niven (among others)).

    I first heard about survivalism when I read Lucifer’s Hammer in 1977.

  • I was inspired as a very young girl by the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Lots of insight into the pre-electric world, and quite entertaining for children to read and maybe get excited about the prepping/homestead lifestyle.

  • For me, the one who introduced me to survivalism was Ken Neumeyer and his book “Sailing the Farm”. I still have that wanderlust that wants to sail the world. And no, having been in a storm with waves over 100 feet high, from trough to crest, hasn’t dampened that desire.

    I grew up in the woods with a father who never bought a home, rather a project. As a result, I’ve done everything from laying a foundation, to putting shingles on the roof, and everything between. Including electrical and plumbing.

  • Alas Babylon. Read it as a kid whose grandparents survived the Depression. Have not read all listed in post. Rawles is good. But some have let fame get to their heads. Like anything else, take it with a grain of salt and glean what you can.

  • One of the first books that caught my attention years ago was the _extraordinarily dated_ book Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart. (I think the first edition was 1908).
    A look back at living / camping comfortably in the woods, when there were few alternatives.
    John in Indy

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