Remembering Lewis Henry Morgan
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) was a distinguished Rochester attorney and businessman who served two terms in the New York State Legislature. He was also an internationally known scholar who corresponded with Charles Darwin, influenced Karl Marx, and established the fields of anthropology and archeology in the United States. In 1931, a Democrat and Chronicle article hailed Morgan as “Rochester’s most distinguished man of science.” Today, however, Morgan is less well remembered in Rochester than his two visionary contemporaries: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
A Scholar and Scientist
While studying law in Aurora, N.Y., after graduation from Union College, Morgan led a semi-secret fraternal society that he modelled on the Iroquois Confederacy. Dressed in Indian regalia, young white men enacted ceremonies in which they imagined themselves to be the new American successors to the past inhabitants of the land. Society members also recorded the historical traditions of local Indians. These activities led to Morgan’s first book,The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851), which marks the beginning of American anthropology. Although flawed, the book is notable for its attempt to understand Haudenosaunee social and political institutions in their own distinctive cultural terms. It was written with the assistance of Ely S. Parker and Caroline G. Parker, prominent members of a Tonawanda Seneca family that befriended Morgan and facilitated his field research.
Morgan’s later publications made substantial and enduring contributions to subjects as diverse as the study of domestic architecture and the natural history of beavers. His landmark 1871 book Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family initiated the comparative study of kinship as a central anthropological concern. Morgan’s collections of Iroquois material culture, now housed at museums in Albany and Rochester, continue to provide a touchstone for contemporary Haudenosaunee artists.
A Man of his Time
Despite his scholarly insights and his occasional advocacy for the interests of the Tonawanda Senecas and other Native Americans, Morgan failed to overcome the racial assumptions and prejudices of the settler colonial society in which he lived. He imagined assimilation to white American society and eventual citizenship, rather than cultural autonomy and political sovereignty, as the future for Native people and nations.
Morgan’s 1877 book, Ancient Society, charted a single path of progress for all human societies that led from “savagery” to “barbarism” to “civilization.” For Morgan, as for many other social thinkers in his day, Indigenous peoples such as the Onondawaga (Seneca) represented earlier phases of history through which his own Euro-American society had evolved on the way to “civilization.” Morgan accordingly thought of his task as documenting the lifeways of Indigenous peoples before they vanished—a fate that he wrongly believed to be inevitable.
A Rochester Citizen
Morgan moved to Rochester in 1844. He lived with his wife Mary E. Steele and family in the Third Ward until his death in 1881. Morgan was elected to both the New York State Assembly (1861) and New York State Senate (1868-1869). He lobbied for improvements in the Erie Canal in order to enhance commerce, and he amassed a sizeable fortune through his work as a corporate lawyer and his investments in railroads and iron smelting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Morgan also co-founded and led “The Club,” a fraternal literary society that brought together many of Rochester’s leading intellectuals and professionals.
A firm believer in democracy and the power of education, Morgan also favored greater equality of the sexes. He bequeathed his estate and library to the University of Rochester for the specific purpose of making available to women the same higher education already available to men. At the university, there were no memorials to Morgan until a wing of the new Women’s Residence Halls was named after him in 1955. In 1963, the Department of Anthropology created an annual lecture series for Morgan.
Morgan is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in a tomb that he designed after the deaths in 1862 of his two young daughters while Morgan was conducting fieldwork on the upper Missouri River. A primary school in Rochester’s 19th Ward named after Morgan closed in the early 2000s.