Posted on Jul 1, 1996

Lewis Henry Morgan

When thinking about Union's great names of the nineteenth century, several jump
to mind-Chester A. Arthur, twenty-first president of the United States; William Seward, the secretary of state who bought Alaska; Squire Whipple, the father of American bridge building; Lewis Henry Morgan…

Lewis Henry Morgan?

Yes: Lewis Henry Morgan of the Class of 1840.

Relatively unknown today, Morgan quietly made his mark by becoming the most respected ethnologist in the Soviet Union and, to many, the father of modern American anthropology.

Once called “a prophet without honor in his own city,” Morgan was admitted to the bar in 1842 and settled in Rochester, N.Y., where he lived until his death in 1881. But law was only Morgan's “day job.” By investing wisely in the railroad, he was able to withdraw from his large and lucrative law partnership in the mid-1850s to pursue his scholarly interests.

Those interests went back to his youth on a farm near Aurora, N.Y., when he became intrigued by the Iroquois tribe that lived across Cayuga Lake. As a young man attending the Cayuga Academy, he became a member of a secret society known as the Gordian Knot, which he later reorganized as the Grand Order of the Iroquois. Late at night Morgan and his cohorts would don headdresses and moccasins and head into the woods surrounding Aurora to reenact the customs and traditions of the Iroquois people.

Morgan retained this intense interest in the Iroquois throughout his life and usually made it a part of the work he was doing. As a young lawyer, one of his first cases was to go to Washington, D.C., to help “his” tribe reclaim some of the reservation land that had been taken from them. Grateful for his loyalty and help, the Hawk Clan of the Seneca Tribe gave him the name Ta-ya-da-o-wuhkugh, or “one lying across.” The name was a symbol of the bridge of communication that Morgan attempted to create.

Throughout his life, Morgan never stopped trying to build these bridges of communication. The first of the several books he wrote was the
League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Published in 1851, this provided the
first ever scientific account of Native American people.

A second book, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), had its origins in his frequent trips to Michigan to keep an eye on his railroad investments. Morgan became acquainted with another Native American tribe, linguistically unrelated to the Iroquois but one that used the same system of family classification. Intrigued, Morgan began a ten-year study of kinship systems around the world. The book was published by the Smithsonian Institute.

It was on these trips to the wilderness of northern Michigan that Morgan began his study of the beaver, resulting in the book
The American Beaver and His Work. A contemporary of
Morgan's had this to say about the work: “If Morgan had done nothing else than write this book on the beaver, he had accomplished that to which any man might be justly proud as giving meaning and purpose to his life. But with Morgan, this splendid work was only the product of his summer vacation.”

Workaholic Morgan kept at his research and writing, and another book, Ancient
, propelled him to the forefront of ethnological studies. While Systems of Consanguinity put forth a theory of social evolution,
Ancient Society went several steps further to offer a theory of cultural evolution. This approach-known as unilinear evolutionism-was adopted by both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Engels's 1884 book,
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, was subtitled
In Light of the Research of Lewis H. Morgan).

There was much more to Lewis Henry Morgan than a list a book titles. He found time to be active in politics, serving in the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate.

He was a member of the National Academy of Science, and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And he was a strong advocate of popular education, helping to charter the University of Rochester (to which he left $85,000 for the education of women) and serving for many years as a trustee and advisor for Wells College, a women's college in his hometown of Aurora.