Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was a pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist who worked as a railroad lawyer.
He is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois.
Interested in what holds societies together, he proposed the concept that the earliest human domestic institution was the matrilineal clan, not the patriarchal family.
Also interested in what leads to social change, he was a contemporary of the European social theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were influenced by reading his work on social structure and material culture, the influence of technology on progress.
Morgan is the only American social theorist to be cited by such diverse scholars as Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Morgan served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879.
Morgan was a Republican member of the New York State Assembly (Monroe Co., 2nd D.) in 1861, and of the New York State Senate in 1868 and 1869.
According to Herbert Marshall Lloyd, an attorney and editor of Morgan’s works, Lewis was descended from James Morgan, brother of Miles, who were Welsh pioneers of Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts, respectively. Various sources record that the three sons of William Morgan of Llandaff, Glamorganshire, took passage for Boston in 1636. From there Miles went to Springfield, James to New London, Connecticut and John Morgan to Virginia.
Lloyd writes, “From these two brothers [James and Miles] all the Morgans prominent in the annals of New York and New England are believed to be descended.”
The Morgans to which he refers played a critical part in the foundation of the colonies. During the American Revolutionary War, they were Continentals. Immediately after the war, the Connecticut line, along with many other land-hungry Yankees, migrated into New York State.
Following the United States’ victory against the British, the new government forced the latter’s Iroquois allies to cede most of their traditional lands in New York and Pennsylvania to the US. New York made 5 million of acres available for public sale.
In addition, the US government granted some plots in western New York to Revolutionary veterans as compensation for their service in the war.
Lewis’ grandfather, Thomas Morgan of Connecticut, had been a Continental soldier in the Revolutionary War. Afterward he and his family migrated west to New York’s Finger Lakes region, where he bought land from the Cayuga people and planted a farm on the shores of Lake Cayuga near Aurora.
He and his wife already had three sons, including Jedediah, the future father of Lewis; and a daughter.
In 1797, Jedediah Morgan (1774–1826) married Amanda Stanton, settling on a 100-acre gift of land from his father. After she had five children and died, Jedediah married Harriet Steele of Hartford, Connecticut.
They had eight more children, including Lewis. As an adult, he adopted the middle initial “H.” Lewis later decided that this H, if anything, stood for “Henry.”
A multi-skilled Yankee, Jedediah Morgan invented a plow and formed a business partnership to manufacture parts for it; he built a blast furnace for the factory. He moved to Aurora, leaving the farm to a son. After joining the Masons, he helped to form the first Masonic lodge in Aurora. Elected a state senator, Morgan supported the construction of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825.
At his death in 1826, Jedediah left 500 acres with herds and flocks in trust for the support of his family. This provided for education as well. Lewis studied classical subjects at Cayuga Academy: Latin, Greek, rhetoric and mathematics.
His father had bequeathed money specifically for his college education, after giving land to the other children for their occupations. Lewis chose Union College in Schenectady.
Due to his work at Cayuga Academy, Lewis finished college in two years, 1838–1840, graduating at age 22. The curriculum continued study of classics combined with science, especially mechanics and optics. Lewis was strongly interested in the works of the French naturalist Georges Cuvier.
Eliphalet Nott, the president of Union College, was an inventor of stoves and a boiler; he held 31 patents. A Presbyterian minister, he kept the young men under a tight discipline, forbidding alcoholic beverages and requiring students to get permission to go to town. He held up the Bible as the one practical standard for all behavior. His career ended with some notoriety when he was investigated by the state for attempting to raise funds for the college through a lottery.
The students evaded his strict regime by founding secret (and forbidden) fraternities, such as the Kappa Alpha Society. Lewis Morgan joined in 1839.
In 1851 Morgan summarized his investigation of Iroquois customs in his first book of note, League of the Iroquois, one of the founding works of ethnology. In it he compares systems of kinship. In that year also he married his cross-cousin, Mary Elizabeth Steele, his companion and partner for the rest of his life. She had intended to become a Presbyterian missionary.
On their wedding day he presented to her an ornate copy of his new book. It was dedicated to his collaborator, Ely Parker.
In 1853 Mary’s father died, leaving her a large inheritance. The Morgans bought a brownstone in a wealthy suburb of Rochester. In that year their son, Lemuel, was born, who “turned out to be mentally handicapped.” Lewis’ rising fame brought him public attention. Lemuel’s condition (on no specific evidence) was universally attributed to the first-cousin marriage.
The Morgans had to endure perpetual criticism, which they accepted as true, Lewis going to far as, in Ancient Society, to take a stand against cousin marriage. The Morgan marriage remained a close and affectionate one.
Lewis and his wife were active in the First Presbyterian Church of Rochester, mainly of interest to Mary. Lewis refused to make “the public profession of Christ that was necessary for full membership.” They both contributed to and sponsored charitable works. In 1856, Mary Elisabeth was born and in 1860 Helen King.
In 1879 Lewis completed two construction projects. One was his library, an addition to the house he had purchased with Mary many years before and where he died in December 1881. He combined the opening of the library with a celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Club.
It included a dinner for 40 persons, who were by that time the leading lights of Rochester. The library acquired some fame as a local monument. Pictures were taken and published. The Club only met there one other time, however, at Lewis’ funeral in 1881. The second building project was a mausoleum for his daughters in Mount Hope Cemetery. It became the resting place of the entire remainder of the family, starting with Lewis.
His wife survived him by two years. They both left wills. A nephew of Lewis moved to Rochester with his family and took up residence in the house to care for Lewis’ and Mary’s son. On the son’s death 20 years later, the entire estate reverted to the University of Rochester, which by the terms of the wills was to use the funds for the endowment of a college for women, dedicated as a memorial to the Morgan daughters.
The nephew attempted to break the wills on his behalf but lost the case in the state supreme court. The house with the library survived into mid-20th-century, when it was demolished to make way for a highway bypass system. Materials relating to Morgan’s writings are held in a special collection at the University of Rochester library.