Lewis H. Morgan

Lewis H. Morgan bigraphy, stories - United States ethnologist

Lewis H. Morgan : biography

November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881

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; the idea was accepted by most pre-historians and anthropologists throughout the late nineteenth century.

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.

The thought of Lewis Morgan

Work in ethnology

In the 1840s, Morgan had befriended the young Ely S. Parker, of the Seneca tribe and the Tonawanda Reservation. With a classical missionary education, Parker went on to study 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 European 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 dedicated the book to Parker (who was then 23) and "our joint researches." This work presented the complexity of Iroquois society in a path-breaking ethnography that was a model for future anthropologists, as Morgan presented the kinship system of the Iroquois with unprecedented nuance.

Morgan expanded his research far beyond the Iroquois. Although Benjamin Barton had posited Asian origins for Native Americans as early as 1797, in the mid-nineteenth century, other American and European scholars still supported widely varying ideas, including a theory they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, because of the strong influence of biblical and classical conceptions of history. Morgan had begun to theorize the Native Americans originated in Asia. He thought he could prove it by a broad study of kinship terms used by people in Asia as well as tribes in North America.

He wanted to provide evidence for monogenesis, the theory that all human beings descend from a common source (as opposed to polygenism).

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 also corresponded with scholars, missionaries, US Indian agents, colonial agents, and military officers around the world. He created a questionnaire which others could complete 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.

With the help of local contacts and, after intensive correspondence over the course of years, Morgan analyzed his research and wrote his seminal Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871),Lewis Henry Morgan. 1871. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. Washington DC. which was printed by the Smithsonian Press. It "created at a stroke what without exaggeration might be called the seminal concern of contemporary anthropology, the study of kinship…"Thomas R. Trautmann, p. 62, Dravidian Kinship. Cambridge University Press. "It has been argued kinship was ‘invented’ by the US lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan, with the publication of his ‘Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family’ in 1871." "Kinship", pp. 543-546. Peter P. Schweitzer. Volume one. The Social Science Encyclopedia, Third Ed., edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper. London: Routledge. 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.