Morgan, Lewis Henry

views updated May 18 2018

Morgan, Lewis Henry



Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), American anthropologist, was born near Aurora, New York, of a Welsh family who had settled in New England as early as 1640. He attended Cayuga Academy in Aurora before going to Union College, from which he was graduated in 1840. He then returned to Aurora, where he studied law. In 1844 he went to Rochester and established himself as an attorney. In 1851 he married his cousin, Mary Elizabeth Steele, by whom he had three children. In the 1850s Morgan invested in mining and railroad ventures in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. From these investments he acquired a modest fortune which he bequeathed to the University of Rochester. He served two terms in the New York State legislature, one in the Assembly and one in the Senate. He tried repeatedly, but without success, to obtain a position as United States minister to a foreign country. Morgan never served on the staff of a scientific or educational institution; he declined President A. D. White’s offer of a chair of ethnology at Cornell University. He retired from his legal practice in 1862, although he continued to represent some of the Michigan corporations in which he had invested. He resided in Rochester until his death.

Morgan’s ethnological career began when he joined a young men’s club, the Grand Order of the Iroquois, in Aurora after graduating from college. In order to pattern this club upon the famous Iroquois confederacy, Morgan undertook an exhaustive study of the Iroquois, their history, and their culture, particularly of the Seneca tribe. The results of his research were published in 1851 as The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, dedicated to his friend and co-worker Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian. Morgan was adopted into the Seneca tribe in 1846, but he did not “live the life of an Indian among them for years,” as some have assumed. He was, however, a lifelong and stanch champion of the American Indians in their losing struggle against encroachment by the white man.

After a few fallow years, Morgan’s interest in ethnology was revived in 1856, when he attended a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He returned to further consideration of the Seneca method of designating relatives, which differed radically from Anglo-American usage at many points. In 1858 he discovered that the same system of terminology existed among the Ojibway Indians who lived at Marquette, Michigan. It occurred to Morgan that this system might be widespread and that if it could be found in Asia, the Asiatic origin of the American Indians could be demonstrated. He at once began a vigorous and comprehensive program of field research and circulated questionnaires to distant lands in the hope of obtaining data. His monumental Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1871, was the result. He believed that his data definitely proved that the American Indians had migrated to America from Asia. But, more important, his interpretation of the kinship terminologies led him to formulate a comprehensive theory of social evolution, according to which forms of the family evolved by stages from an original state of promiscuity, culminating in monogamy in the stage of civilization.

Morgan’s researches and writings led to the publication in 1877 of his best-known and most influential work, Ancient Society. The book attempts to embrace culture in its entirety, but its emphasis is upon the evolution of society. It is divided into four parts, titled (1) “Growth of Intelligence Through Inventions and Discoveries”; (2) “Growth of the Idea of Government”; (3) “Growth of the Idea of the Family”; (4) “Growth of the Idea of Property.” Two theories of evolution are used: an idealistic and a materialistic one. According to the idealistic one, institutions are explained as the accumulated product of germs of thought in the human mind; this concept was widely held by Morgan’s predecessors and contemporaries. The second theory rests on zoological, ecological, and technological explanations. Man is seen as an animal species effecting life-sustaining adjustments to his habitat by technological means; culture evolves as control by these means is improved and extended.

Morgan tended to view the evolution of culture as the progress of the human mind, but he did not avoid the word “evolution” as some have claimed. He divided man’s career, which is “one in source, one in experience, and one in progress,” into three great stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Each stage was subdivided into upper, middle, and lower “statuses.” He likened stages of sociocultural development to successive geological strata.

Ancient Society has a number of defects and shortcomings. Morgan’s whole theory of the evolution of the family has now been abandoned as obsolete. But this work was the first impressive attempt to provide a scientific account of the origin and evolution of civilization and to illustrate the successive stages of this development by the use of descriptions of specific cultures. For examples Morgan drew on ethnographic knowledge of such societies as the aborigines of Australia and America and on classical sources concerned with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Ancient Society became a classic in Marxist literature. Marx and Engels were attracted to Morgan’s writings: his emphasis on the role of property in the evolution of culture, his criticism of the “property career” of modern societies, and his predictions of a nobler and a more just social order to come unquestionably drew Marx and Engels to his work. Above all, Ancient Society provided the best available account in Marx’s day of how culture had actually evolved, and emphasized—or called attention to—the revolutionary character of some cultural changes. Marx died before he was able to write a book he had planned about Morgan’s work; in his stead Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Therein he credited Morgan with having independently formulated the Marxist materialist conception of history. Yet Morgan’s lecture entitled Diffusion Against Centralization (1852) as well as several other writings make it clear that he had not clearly grasped the conception of a proletarian revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order and that he was an enthusiastic admirer of the achievements of the so-called bourgeois revolution, that is, of the emergence and rise to predominance of the industrial and commercial classes as against the landed aristocracy.

Mention should be made of Morgan’s work in Australian ethnology. He was the first anthropologist to publish a treatise on Australian kinship. Through correspondence, he taught the scientific principles of ethnology to Lorimer Fison, an English missionary in Fiji, and to A. W. Howitt, a police magistrate in Australia. He guided their field work and wrote the introduction to their book, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880), which was dedicated to him.

Morgan’s ethnology was harshly criticized by John F. McLennan and was treated with some condescension by other British anthropologists. Nevertheless, he was recognized in England as a great pioneer in the field. On his European tour in 1870–1871 Morgan met Darwin, Huxley, McLennan, Lubbock, and Maine. He corresponded with these men and also with J. J. Bachofen on the Continent. In the United States, Morgan achieved great distinction. He knew all the leading anthropologists, many of whom came to him for advice and counsel. In 1879 the newly established Archaeological Institute of America asked Morgan to provide it with a comprehensive program for field research in the Americas (1879–1880). Union College awarded him an honorary degree. He was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1868, elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1875, and elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879.

Morgan fell into disrepute in the United States when Franz Boas and his students rose to ascendancy in anthropological science. As an American he was looked down upon or ignored by the European-born members of the Boas school. The reaction against cultural evolutionism, which became vigorous in the United States under Boas, and in Europe under the leadership of Fritz Graebner and later of Schmidt and Koppers, took Morgan as its prime target. He was in turn ignored, belittled, and ridiculed. The fact that Ancient Society had become a Marxist classic unquestionably contributed to the hostility to and rejection of Morgan’s work, but it is difficult to gauge the magnitude of this factor. The Catholic anthropologists of the Kulturhreis school, in the United States as well as in Europe, were especially venomous in their attacks upon Morgan’s “crass materialism” and his “evolutionist vagaries.”

The theory of evolution, however, has become respectable again, at least among many cultural anthropologists; the numerous Darwin centennials in 1959 did much to bring about this change of attitude. With this about-face has come a reconsideration and re-evaluation of Morgan and his work. The League of the Iroquois was reprinted for the fifth time in 1962. A new printing of Ancient Society, with an introduction and annotations by Eleanor Burke Leacock, was issued in 1963, and still another edition was published in 1964. The University of Rochester sponsored a series of Lewis Henry Morgan lectures in 1963 and 1964. The re-evaluation of Morgan and his work has contributed greatly to an appreciation of his full stature as one of the great pioneers in the science of anthropology.

Leslie A. White

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Morgan’s ideas, see Anthropology, article onthefield; Culture; Evolution, article onculturalevolution; field Work; Indians, North American; Kinship; Socialstructure; and the biographies of Bachofen; Bandelier; Engels; Mclennan; Maine; Rivers; Tylor; Westermarck.]


(1851) 1962 The League of the Iroquois. New York: Citadel. → First published as The League of the Hodé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois.

1852 Diffusion Against Centralization. Rochester, N.Y.: Dewey.

1868 The American Beaver and His Works. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

1871 Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Vol. 17, Publication No. 218. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

1872 Australian Kinship: From Original Memoranda of Reverend Lorimer Fison. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Proceedings 8:412-438.

(1877) 1964 Ancient Society. Edited by Leslie A. White. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.

1879-1880 A Study of the Houses of the American Aborigines With a Scheme of Exploration of the Ruins in New Mexico . . . [and Elsewhere]. Archaeological Institute of America, Annual Report 1:27-80.

1881 Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines. Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. 4. Washington: Government Printing Office.

1937 Extracts From the European Travel Journal of Lewis H. Morgan. Edited by Leslie A. White. Rochester Historical Society, Publications 16:219-389.

1959 The Indian Journals, 1859-1862. Edited and with an introduction by Leslie A. White. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.


Bandelier, Adolph F. A. 1940 Pioneers in American Anthropology: The Bandelier-Morgan Letters, 1873-1883. Edited by Leslie A. White. 2 vols. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press.

Eggan, Fred 1960 Lewis H. Morgan in Kinship Perspective. Pages 179-201 in Gertrude E. Dole and Robert L. Carneiro (editors), Essays in the Science of Culture, in Honor of Leslie A. White. New York: Crowell.

Eggan, Fred 1966 The American Indian: Perspectives for the Study of Social Change. Chicago: Aldine. → This volume contains Eggan’s “Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures” given at the University of Rochester in April 1964.

Engels, Friedrich (1884) 1942 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers. → First published in German.

Fison, Lorimer; and Howitt, A. W. 1880 Kamilaroi and Kurnai: Group-marriage and Relationship, and Marriage by Elopement, Drawn Chiefly From the Usage of the Australian Aborigines; Also the Kurnai Tribe, Their Customs in Peace and War. With an introduction by Lewis H. Morgan. Melbourne: Robertson.

[Lewis Henry Morgan: A Bibliography.] 1923 Volume 2, pages 165-179 in Rochester Historical Society, Publication Fund Series. Rochester, N.Y.: The Society.

Lowie, Robert H. 1936 Lewis H. Morgan in Historical Perspective. Pages 169-181 in Robert H. Lowie (editor), Essays in Anthropology Presented to A. L. Kroeber. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Resek, Carl 1960 Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Stern, Bernard J. 1931 Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist. Univ. of Chicago Press.

White, Leslie A. 1944 Morgan’s Attitude Toward Religion and Science. American Anthropologist New Series 46:218-230.

White, Leslie A. 1948 Lewis Henry Morgan: Pioneer in the Theory of Social Evolution. Pages 138-154 in Harry E. Barnes (editor), An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

White, Leslie A. (editor) 1957 How Morgan Came to Write Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity. Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Papers 42:257-268.

Lewis Henry Morgan

views updated May 29 2018

Lewis Henry Morgan

The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) wrote one of the first ethnographies, invented the study of kinship terminology, and made an early attempt to grapple with the idea of universal principles of cultural evolution.

Lewis Henry Morgan was born on Nov. 21, 1818, near Aurora, N.Y. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1840. He then returned to Aurora, where he read law. In 1844 he opened a law office in Rochester.

Morgan became interested in the Iroquois of western New York State and undertook a field study of the Iroquois Confederation, especially the Seneca tribe. His League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851) is considered one of the earliest objective ethnographic works.

In the 1850s Morgan concentrated on his law practice. He invested in railroad and mining ventures and accumulated a small fortune. After attending a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856, he resolved to pursue his anthropological interests scientifically.

Morgan noticed that the Seneca designate their consanguineous kin in a manner different from that of civilized peoples. They merge collateral relatives, such as uncles, cousins, and nephews, into the direct line, classifying those relatives as fathers, brothers, and sons. While the kinship terminologies of civilized peoples recognize a distinction between kin in one's direct line of descent, Seneca kinship terminology does not recognize that distinction.

In 1858, on a business trip to Michigan, Morgan discovered that the Ojibwa have a "classificatory" system like that of the Seneca. He suspected that this system was characteristic of Indians. He believed that if he could find evidence for the system in Asia the Asiatic origin of the American Indians would be proved. He sent a questionnaire to likely informants. Finding evidence for the classificatory system in India, he circulated an expanded questionnaire. Morgan went on four field trips (1859-1862) to the West, traveling up the Missouri River as far as western Montana, to gather information on kinship terminology and other aspects of culture.

In Morgan's monumental Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871) he presented kinship terminologies, showing the widespread occurrence of the classificatory system in both the New and Old Worlds. This work was the first in the important field of kinship terminology, and it represents his most lasting contribution.

Morgan believed that the classificatory system represented a survival from a time of promiscuity when it was impossible to tell fathers from uncles, brothers from cousins, and sons from nephews. Society subsequently developed marriage rules, but the older terminology persisted. Later, according to Morgan, with the rise of civilization and private property, a distinction was made between one's own family line and one's collateral relatives for purposes of establishing inheritence. The "descriptive" system of kinship terminology developed out of the classificatory system. Today anthropologists do not believe that there was a promiscuous stage in the development of the family, at least not in recent human history. Also, Morgan's scheme is a simplification of what is actually a complicated matter.

His interest in the development, or evolution, of social institutions culminated in Morgan's most famous work, Ancient Society (1877). He recognized three stages in the cultural evolution of man: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Savagery and barbarism are divided into lower, middle, and upper stages. These stages are defined in terms of means of subsistance or technological inventions. Thus, savagery was preagricultural, barbarism was marked by pottery and agriculture, and civilization arose with the invention of writing.

Morgan also traced the growth of ideas of government, the family, and property. Stages in the development of these ideas are associated with stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. He saw the evolution of human culture as essentially a single development from the most primitive stage to civilization. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels viewed Morgan's Ancient Society as complementing their own work, and the book is regarded by Marxists as a classic.

Morgan was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, the first anthropologist so honored. He died on Dec. 17, 1881, in Rochester.

Further Reading

An excellent biography of Morgan is Carl Resek, Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar (1960). See also Bernhard Joseph Stern, Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist (1931).

Morgan's work has undergone several reevaluations. Franz Boas and his students devalued Morgan's Ancient Society in their opposition to the idea of cultural evolution. A resurgence of interest in the concept of cultural evolution, begun by Leslie White, has tended to restore Morgan's reputation. Thus the historical writings on him by anthropologists are often mutually contradictory and polemical. For example, Robert Lowie, a student of Boas, paints an unfavorable picture of Morgan in a chapter of The History of Ethnological Theory (1937), while a chapter by White in An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948), edited by Harry Elmer Barnes, attributes to Morgan achievements that were not his.

Meyer Fortes describes Morgan's lasting contributions to social anthropology in the first part of Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan (1969). See also the chapter on Morgan and kinship by Frederick Russell Eggon in Essays in the Science of Culture in Honor of Leslie A. White, edited by Gertrude Evelyn Dole and Robert L. Carneiro (1960). □

Morgan, Lewis Henry (1818-1881)

views updated May 14 2018

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)



Background. Scholars consider Lewis Henry Morgan, who was born in a well-to-do family in western New York, to be the father of American anthropology. Educated at Union College, Morgan studied ancient history, mathematics, and comparative political economy. He combined his studies with a romantic optimism in American democracy and institutions, beliefs that somewhat colored his nationalistic view of American westward expansion. Yet unlike many historians of his day, Morgan believed that a societys progression and decline depended less on key individuals than on its laws, customs, political culture, religion, and civil institutions. Heavily influenced by the Romantic movement, Morgan grew fascinated with Native American cultures. His work provided a theoretical framework for the burgeoning field of ethnology and even informed federal policies toward Indians.

Collaboration with Ely Parker. Morgans League of the Ho-de-no-saunee, or Iroquois (1851) remains one of the premiere anthropological studies, a work he completed with the aid of Ely S. Parker. A Seneca Indian who met Morgan as a teenager, Parker provided him with information on the structure and history of the Iroquois League. The book focused primarily on Iroquois political organization, as well as subsistence patterns, laws, and material culture. Morgans emphasis on politics, perhaps a result of his legal training, caused him to slight discussion of religious and family life even though he spent considerable time attending Iroquois ceremonies and rituals at many reservations in western New York. His collaboration with Parker established a model for later anthropological studies. The two mens partnership proved mutually beneficial; Parkers reputation enabled him to serve as a spokesman for his own people on the Tonawanda reserve. In the 1860s Parker became military secretary to Ulysses S. Grant. During Grants presidency Parker also became the first Native American to hold the office of commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Social Evolution. Morgans research into the lro-quois and other North American tribes led him to a monogenic (one origin) hypothesis that claimed Indians and whites descended from the same branch of humanity. Morgan explained cultural differences in a manner similar to Gallatin, relying less on the assumption of inherent characteristics than on how societal organizations and institutions affected a peoples development. By positing the importance of hunting as a means of subsistence, Morgan tried to explain the Indian lack of both literacy and the need for money, features crucial for the advancement of any civilization. He believed that once Indians abandoned their traditional patterns, they would easily assimilate to American norms and become indistinguishable from any other group. Following a trip to Kansas and Nebraska in 1859, Morgan even encouraged intermarriage as a way of hastening the civilizing process. By this time he had immersed himself in kinship studies, trying to accumulate evidence in support of an Asian origin for Native Americans. He published a full account of his progress theory in Ancient Society; or, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (1877). Most scientists of the time considered this work too specialized. They preferred the grander evolutionary scheme established by Charles Darwin. Morgans rather rigid paradigm of societal transitions now appears outdated. However, at the time, his theories lent support to missionaries and government agents who hoped that Indians and whites could live together peaceably. In his later years he turned to studying architecture and archaeological ruins to discover the pasts of preliterate societies. He remains famous today among scientists for his assertions of evolutionary anthropology. Eventually the Senecas called Morgan One Lying Across, signifying his role as a bridge between North American peoples.


Robert E. Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986);

Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982).

Morgan, Lewis Henry

views updated May 23 2018

Morgan, Lewis Henry (1818–81) A New York State lawyer whose interest in the ethnography of native Americans led him to develop a kinship classification system (Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, 1871) that eventually yielded a conjectural history of the family (Ancient Society, 1977) which was the basis of Friedrich Engels's work on the origins of the family and the state.

Morgan was an essentially evolutionary theorist (see EVOLUTIONISM), whose project was to examine the progress of human society from a state of original promiscuity to modern monogamy, which he saw as the basis of the modern state. History was thus driven by a moral imperative, and the legitimacy of modern state forms and monogamous relationships were neatly coincident. Although his conjectural history is no longer taken seriously, the moral link between family and state persists in the twentieth century, not only in political thought but also in functionalist theories of the family.

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