Lewis H. Morgan


Lewis H. Morgan : biography

November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881

Lewis and his wife were active in the First Presbyterian Church of Rochester, mainly of interest to Mary. Lewis refused to make "the public profession of Christ that was necessary for full membership." They both contributed to and sponsored charitable works. In 1856, Mary Elisabeth was born and in 1860 Helen King.

Supporting education

For several years "his ethnical interests lay dormant", but not his scholarship and writing. In 1852 Morgan and eight other "Rochester intellectuals" instituted The Pundit Club, shortened later to just The Club, a scientific and literary society before which the members read papers they had researched for the occasion. Morgan read papers to The Club every year for the rest of his life. He also joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Morgan and other leading men of Rochester decided to found a university, the University of Rochester. It did not support the matriculation of women. The group resolved to found a college for women, the Barleywood Female University, which was advertised but apparently never started. In the same year of its foundation, 1852, the donor of the land on which it was to be located gave it to the University of Rochester instead. Lewis was gravely disappointed. He believed that equality of the sexes is a mark of advanced civilization. For the present, he lacked the wealth and connections to prevent the collapse of Barleywood. Later he would serve as a founding trustee of the board of Wells College in Aurora. In addition, he and Mary would leave their estate to the University of Rochester for the foundation of a women’s college.

Success at last

In 1855 Morgan and other Rochester businessmen invested in the expanding metals industry of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After a brief sojourn on the 5-man board of the Iron Mountain Railroad, Morgan joined them in creating the Bay de Noquet and Marquette Railroad Company, connecting the entire Upper Peninsula by a single, ore-bearing line. He became its attorney and director. At that time the U.S. government was selling lands previously confiscated from the natives in cases where the sale benefited the public good. Although the Upper Peninsula was known for its great natural beauty, the discovery of iron persuaded Morgan and others to develop wide-scale mining and industrialization of the peninsula. He spent the next few years between Washington, lobbying for the sale of the land to his company, and in large cities such as Detroit and Chicago, where he fought law suits to prevent competitors from taking it. Morgan vigorously defended American capitalism to protect his own interests. After the stockholders refused to pay him for some of his legal work, he all but withdrew from business in favor of field work in anthropology.

In 1861 in the middle of his field work, Morgan was elected as Member of the New York State Assembly on the Republican ticket. The Morgans traditionally had belonged to the Whigs, which dissolved in 1856; most Whigs joined the Republicans, created in 1854. Morgan did not run with any agenda except his own as it pertained to the Iroquois. He was seeking appointment by the President of the United States as Commissioner of the new Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Morgan anticipated that William H. Seward would be elected president, and outlined to him plans to employ the natives in the manufacture and sale of Indian goods.

At the last moment Abraham Lincoln displaced Seward as the Republican candidate. The new president was deluged by letters from Morgan’s associates asking that Morgan be appointed commissioner. Lincoln explained that the post had already been exchanged by his campaign manager for political support. With the chance for appointment lost, Lewis, who had made no pretense of interest in New York state’s government, returned to field study of the natives.

Field anthropologist

After attending the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Morgan decided on an ethnology study to compare kinship systems. He conducted a field research program funded by himself and the Smithsonian Institution, 1859-1862. He made four expeditions, two to the Plains tribes of Kansas and Nebraska, and two more up the Missouri River past Yellowstone. This was before the development of any inland transportation system, and passengers could shoot Bison and other game for food from riverboats on the Missouri. He collected data on 51 kinship systems. Tribes included the Winnebago, Crow, Yankton, Kaw, Blackfeet, Omaha and others.