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Lewis H. Morgan

Lewis H. Morgan
Born November 21, 1818(1818-11-21)
Aurora, Cayuga County, New York, U.S.
Died December 17, 1881 (aged 63)
Rochester, New York, U.S.
Occupation Anthropologist
Parents Jedediah and Harriet (Steele) Morgan

Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was a pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist, and one of the greatest social scientists of the nineteenth century in the United States. He is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois. Due to his study of kinship, Morgan was an early proponent of the theory that the indigenous peoples of the Americas had migrated from Asia in ancient times. His social theories influenced later Leftist theorists. Morgan is the only American social theorist to be cited by Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.



Born in Aurora, New York, Morgan graduated from Union College in 1840, where he became a member of the Kappa Alpha Society.[citation needed] He "read law" and studied for the bar in his home town. Based on his early interest in the Iroquois and their society, he became a founding "warrior" of the Grand Order of the Iroquois. The fraternity of young white men adopted some of the social practices of the Iroquois, and were particularly interested in their confederacy. They dressed in traditional clothing and adapted some Iroquois rituals with the purpose of understanding the people better.

In 1844, Morgan moved to Rochester, New York, still within former Iroquois territory. He expanded his interests to learn more about Iroquois society. With the help of fellow "warriors," including Ely S. Parker, of Seneca descent, Morgan started to do pathbreaking ethnographic work: he studied facts to understand Iroquois society on its own terms. Inspired by Parker, Morgan and his fellow warriors worked to protect the Tonawanda Seneca reservation from being broken up by men eager for its land.

Marriage and family

Morgan married his cousin Mary Steele, with whom he had three children, two daughters and a son. Two daughters died when young, two weeks apart in May 1862, while Morgan was traveling in the West. Morgan wrote in his journal, "Our family is destroyed."[1]


Morgan went into business, and made a small fortune in railroads and mines. He was elected to the New York State Assembly and Senate. His passion remained ethnographic scholarship.

When he traveled to the frontier of Michigan on railroad business, Morgan became interested in the beaver, and did research to publish a work on the animal that shaped the environment through its construction of dams.

In the late 1850s, Morgan took up the comparative study of kinship terms in time he spared from business and law pursuits. Originally this was an attempt to prove that the natives of the New World originally came from Asia; Morgan's intention was to provide evidence for monogenesis, the theory that all human beings descend from a common source. This original inspiration became less relevant because of the Darwinian revolution. In addition, Morgan became increasingly interested in the comparative study of kinship (family) relations as a window into understanding larger social dynamics; he saw kinship relations as a basic part of society.

In the late 1850s and 1860s, Morgan collected kinship data from a variety of Native American tribes. In his quest to do comparative kinship studies, Morgan corresponded with scholars, missionaries, US Indian agents, colonial agents, and military officers around the world. He created a questionnaire which others could fill out so he could collect data in a standardized way. Over several years, he made months-long trips to what was then the Wild West to further his research. In 1862 in Sioux City, North Dakota on what would be the last of such trips, Morgan found out that his two young daughters, Mary and Helen, had died.

"Two of three of my children are taken," he wrote in his journal. "Our family is destroyed. The intelligence has absolutely petrified me. I have not shed a tear. It is too profound for tears. Thus ends my last expedition. I go home to my stricken and mourning wife, a miserable and destroyed man."

Morgan continued to live a full life with his wife and son. He had an expansive business and political career. He engaged actively with American policy toward Native Americans and tried unsuccessfully to become Commissioner of Indian Affair and an ambassador. During his European travels, he met with Charles Darwin and the great British anthropologists of the age. He continued with his independent scholarship and was not affiliated with any university.

In addition to his important books, Morgan was an intellectual mentor to those who followed, including John Wesley Powell, who became head of the Smithsonian Institution. He commented on the issues of the day. Through his anthropological work, he helped his contemporaries make sense of the social flux around them.

Elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, Morgan was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Morgan died in 1881. That same year, Karl Marx started reading Morgan's Ancient Society, thus beginning Morgan's posthumous influence among European thinkers.

Work in ethnology

Morgan became interested in the Native Americans during his days with the Grand Order of the Iroquois. While studying Seneca society, he was formally incorporated as an adopted member, in part to honor his work with them to preserve their reservation lands from being taken by European Americans. They named him Tayadaowuhkuh, meaning bridging the gap (between the Iroquois and the European Americans.)

Morgan met and became friends with Ely S. Parker, of the Seneca tribe and the Tonawanda Reservation. Classically educated and a diplomat on behalf of the Seneca, Parker had also studied law. With his help, Morgan studied the culture and the structure of Iroquois society. Morgan had noticed they used different terms than Europeans to designate individuals by their relationships within the extended family. He had the creative insight to recognize this was meaningful in terms of their social organization. He defined western terms as "descriptive" and Iroquois (and Native American) terms as "classificatory", terms that continue to be used as major divisions by anthropologists and ethnographers.

Based on his extensive research, Morgan wrote and published The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851). He demonstrated the importance of Parker's contribution by dedicating it to him and "our joint researches."[2] This work, which presented the complexity of Iroquois society, was a pathbreaking work of ethnography and a model for future anthropologists.

Morgan presented the kinship system of the Iroquois with unprecedented nuance. After putting aside scholarship to devote himself to his own family and his work as a lawyer, his interest in kinship and human social organization was reignited in the late 1850s. This time, Morgan expanded his research far beyond the Iroquois. American and European scholars had widely varying ideas about the origin of Native Americans. Morgan had begun to believe they originated in Asia. He thought he could prove it by a study of kinship terms used by people in Asia as well as tribes in North America.

He determined to collect and sort the systems of relationship terms used by tribes spanning the greater part of the United States of America, and then collect data from peoples across the globe. With the help of local contacts and after intensive correspondence over the course of years, this research culminated in Morgan's seminal Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871), which was printed by the Smithsonian Press. In this work, Morgan set forth his argument for the unity of humankind. At the same time, he presented a sophisticated schema of social evolution based upon the relationship terms, the categories of kinship, used by peoples around the world. Through his analysis of kinship terms, Morgan discerned that the structure of the family and social institutions develop and change according to a specific sequence.

In the years that followed, Morgan developed his theories. Combined with an exhaustive study of classic Greek and Roman sources, he crowned his work with his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877). Morgan elaborated upon his theory of social evolution. He introduced a critical link between social progress and technological progress. He emphasized the centrality of family and property relations. He traced the interplay between the evolution of technology, of family relations, of property relations, of the larger social structures and systems of governance, and intellectual development.

Looking across a vastly expanded span of human existence, Morgan presented three major stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. These stages were further divided and defined by technological inventions, such as use of fire, bow, pottery in the savage era; domestication of animals, agriculture, and metalworking in the barbarian era; and development of the alphabet and writing in the civilization era. (In part, this was an effort to create a structure for North American history that was comparable to the three ages of European pre-history, developed by scholars in Denmark during these years.)[3]

Morgan's final work, Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines (1881), was an elaboration on what he had originally planned as an additional part of Ancient Society. In it, Morgan presented evidence, mostly from North and South America, that the development of house architecture and house culture reflected the development of kinship and property relations.

Many specific aspects of Morgan's evolutionary position have been rejected by later anthropologists. His real achievements remain impressive. He founded the sub-discipline of kinship studies. Anthropologists remain interested in the connections which Morgan outlined between material culture and social structure. His impact has been felt far beyond the Ivory Tower.

Although Karl Marx never finished his own book based on Morgan's work, Frederick Engels continued his analysis. Morgan, a capitalist, railroad lawyer and Republican state legislator, strongly influenced Engels' sociological theory of dialectical materialism (expressed in his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884). Scholars of the Communist bloc considered Morgan became the preeminent anthropologist.[4]

Morgan believed that American greatness rested upon the diffusion of property and political power. He was strongly against class systems and the structure of feudalism. He believed that wage-earning would be and should be only a stage of life in the United States: after the American Civil War, he grew increasingly worried about the concentration of wealth and power among the elite. In his social theory, he demonstrated that progress was driven by greed. He was nostalgic for the virtues that he saw among the classical Stoics, among Native Americans and other "primitive" peoples. He was concerned that what he called "the mere property career" was spinning out of control. His faith in the human capacity to learn, to cope with the surroundings, to adapt, to, in short, progress, enabled him to overcome his ambivalence about the mixed results. Looking to the future, he foresaw a revival, in new form, of "the liberty, equality and fraternity" of primitive peoples.

Legacy and honors


  1. ^ Lewis Henry Morgan, The Indian Journals, 1859-62, ed. Leslie A. White, New York: Dover Publications, 1993, p. 231
  2. ^ Steven Conn, History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 210
  3. ^ Steven Conn, History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004,
  4. ^ Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society, online, Marxist Internet Archive Reference Archive, accessed 16 Feb 2009

Daniel Noah Moses. The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Columbia, Missouri and London: University of Missouri Press, 2009.

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