Lewis H. Morgan

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Lewis H. Morgan : biography

November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881

The New Confederacy of the Iroquois

After graduating in 1840, Morgan returned to Aurora to read the law with an established firm. In 1842 he was admitted to the bar in Rochester, where he went into partnership with a Union classmate, George F. Danforth, a future judge. They could find no clients, as the nation was in an economic depression, which had started with the Panic of 1837. Morgan wrote essays, which he had begun to do while studying law, and published some in the The Knickerbocker under the pen name Aquarius.

On January 1, 1841, Morgan and some friends from Cayuga Academy formed a secret fraternal society which they called the Gordian Knot. As Morgan’s earliest essays from that time had classical themes, the club may have been a kind of literary society, as was common then. In 1841 or 1842 the young men redefined the society, renaming it the Order of the Iroquois. Morgan referred to this event as cutting the knot. In 1843 they named it the Grand Order of the Iroquois, followed by the New Confederacy of the Iroquois. They made the group a research organization to collect information on the Iroquois, whose historical territory for centuries had included central and upstate New York west of the Hudson and the Finger Lakes region.

The men intended to resurrect the spirit of the Iroquois. They tried to learn the languages, assumed Iroquois names, and organized the group by the historic pattern of Iroquois tribes. In 1844 they received permission from the former Freemasons of Aurora to use the upper floor of the Masonic temple as a meeting hall. New members underwent a secret rite called inindianation in which they were transformed spiritually into Iroquois. They met in the summer around campfires and paraded yearly through the town in costume. Morgan seemed infused with the spirit of the Iroquois. He said, "We are now upon the very soil over which they exercised dominion … Poetry still lingers around the scenery…." These new Iroquois retained a literary frame of mind, but they intended to focus on "the writing of a native American epic that would define national identity."

Encounter with the Iroquois

On an 1844 business trip to the capital of Albany, Morgan started research on old Cayuga treaties in the state archives. The Seneca people were also studying old treaties, to support their land claims. After the Revolutionary War, the United States had forced the four Iroquois tribes allied with the British to cede their lands and migrate to Canada.

By specific treaties, the US set aside small reservations in New York for their own allies, the Onondaga and Seneca. In the 1840s, long after the war, the Ogden Land Company, a real estate venture, laid claim to the Seneca Tonawanda Reservation on the basis of a fraudulent treaty. The Seneca sued and had representatives at the state capital pressing their case when Morgan was there.

The delegation, led by Jimmy Johnson, its chief officer (and son of chief Red Jacket), were essentially former officers of what was left of the Iroquois Confederacy. Johnson’s 16-year-old grandson Ha-sa-ne-an-da (Ely Parker) accompanied them as their interpreter, as he had attended a mission school and was bilingual. By chance Morgan and the young Parker encountered each other in an Albany book store. Soon intrigued by Morgan’s talk of the New Confederacy, Parker invited the older man to interview Johnson and meet the delegation. Morgan took pages of organizational notes, which he used to remodel the New Confederacy. Beyond such details of scholarship, Morgan and the Seneca men formed deep attachments of friendship.

Morgan and his colleagues invited Parker to join the New Confederacy. They (chiefly Morgan) paid for the rest of Parker’s education at the Cayuga Academy, along with his sister and a friend of hers. Later the Confederacy paid for Parker’s studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he graduated in civil engineering. After military service in the American Civil War, from which Parker retired at the rank of brigadier general, he entered the upper ranks of civil service in the presidency of his former commander, Ulysses S. Grant.