Lewis H. Morgan

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Lewis H. Morgan : biography

November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881

Theory of social evolution

This original theory became less relevant because of the Darwinian revolution, which demonstrated how change happens over time. In addition, Morgan became increasingly interested in the comparative study of kinship (family) relations as a window into understanding larger social dynamics; he saw kinship relations as a basic part of society.

In the years that followed, Morgan developed his theories. Combined with an exhaustive study of classic Greek and Roman sources, he crowned his work with his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877). Morgan elaborated upon his theory of social evolution. He introduced a critical link between social progress and technological progress. He emphasized the centrality of family and property relations. He traced the interplay between the evolution of technology, of family relations, of property relations, of the larger social structures and systems of governance, and intellectual development.

Looking across an expanded span of human existence, Morgan presented three major stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. He divided and defined the stages by technological inventions, such as use of fire, bow, pottery in the savage era; domestication of animals, agriculture, and metalworking in the barbarian era; and development of the alphabet and writing in the civilization era. (In part, this was an effort to create a structure for North American history that was comparable to the three-age system of European pre-history, which had been developed as an evidence-based system by the Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in the 1830s; his work Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed (Guideline to Scandinavian Antiquity) was published in English in 1848. The concept of evidence-based chronological dating received wider notice in English-speaking nations as developed by J. J. A. Worsaae, whose The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark was published in English in 1849.

Initially Morgan’s work was accepted as integral to American history, but later it was treated as a separate category of anthropology. Henry Adams wrote of Ancient Society that it "must become the foundation of all future work in American historical science." The historian Francis Parkman also was a fan, but later nineteenth-century historians pushed Native American history to the side of the American story.

Morgan’s final work, Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines (1881), was an elaboration on what he had originally planned as an additional part of Ancient Society. In it, Morgan presented evidence, mostly from North and South America, that the development of house architecture and house culture reflected the development of kinship and property relations.

Although many specific aspects of Morgan’s evolutionary position have been rejected by later anthropologists, his real achievements remain impressive. He founded the sub-discipline of kinship studies. Anthropologists remain interested in the connections which Morgan outlined between material culture and social structure. His impact has been felt far beyond the Ivory Tower.

Morgan was not quite the social reformer some would believe him to be. Outraged at the manipulations of the Ogden Land Company to get possession of the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation, Morgan exerted some effort in behalf of the Indians, but not nearly as much or to such effect as is generally supposed.The oft-repeated statement that Morgan’s effort on behalf of the Tonawanda Senecas was the crucial one in preventing the sale of the Tonawanda Reservation to the Ogden Land Company apparently has its source in Charles Talbot Porter’s reminiscences written in 1901 and published that year in Herbert M. Lloyd’s edition of Morgan’s League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (New York, 1901), vol. 2, p. 156. The best account to date of what actually transpired is contained in William H. Armstrong, Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief (Syracuse, 1978). Most of his effort seems to have been limited to a few months in 1846, and the issue was not settled until 1857, more than ten years later. The Indians’ principal legal counsel in these years was not Morgan, but John Martindale. Morgan’s role, such as it was, was that of citizen activist. Then, too, although a champion of the Indian, Morgan was not an advocate of cultural pluralism nor did he work for "cultural survival." The Indian, Morgan exhorted his fellow citizens, ought to be rescued "from his impending destiny," "reclaimed and civilized, and thus saved eventually from the fate which has already befallen so many of our aboriginal races" by education and Christianity.Morgan, League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (Rochester, 1851), pp. 447 and 446.