Lewis H. Morgan


Lewis H. Morgan : biography

November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881

Later career

Having failed to become Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Morgan applied for various ambassadorships under the Grant administration, including to China and Peru. Grant’s administration rejected all the applications, after which Morgan resolved to visit Europe on his own with a professional as well as a personal agenda.

For one year, 1870–71, the three Morgans went on a grand tour of Europe. During his European travels, Lewis met Charles Darwin and the great British anthropologists of the age. He visited Sir John Lubbock, who had coined the words Paleolithic and Neolithic, and used the terms "barbarians" and "savages" in his own studies of the three-age system. Morgan adopted these terms, but with an altered sense, in Ancient Society. Lubbock was using modern ethnology as he knew it to reconstruct the ways of human ancestors. Lubbock’s main works had already been published by the time of Morgan’s visit. Morgan recorded his European travel and contacts in a journal of several volumes. Extracts were published in 1937 by Leslie White.

He continued with his independent scholarship, never becoming affiliated with any university, although he associated with university presidents and the leading ethnologists looked up to him as a founder of the field. He was an intellectual mentor to those who followed, including John Wesley Powell, who became head of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 at the Smithsonian Institution. Morgan was consulted by the highest levels of government on appointments and other ethnological matters. In 1878 he conducted one final field trip, leading a small party in search of native ruins in the American Southwest. They were the first to describe the Aztec ruins on the Animas River but missed discovering Mesa Verde.

Death and Legacy

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.

Professional associations

He was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879. Morgan was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.