Nov 212013


Today is the birthday (1818) of Lewis Henry Morgan, pioneering U.S. 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. Morgan was a near contemporary of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were influenced by reading his work on the evolution of culture. Morgan was cited by such diverse scholars as Marx, Charles Darwin (Descent of Man), and Sigmund Freud (Totem and Taboo).

Morgan’s father, Jedediah Morgan invented a new type of plough and formed a business partnership to manufacture parts for it. Among other things he built a blast furnace for the factory. He moved to Aurora, leaving the farm to a son. At his death in 1826, Jedediah left 500 acres with herds and flocks in trust for the support of his family. This provided for education as well. Lewis studied classical subjects at Cayuga Academy: Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and mathematics. His father had bequeathed money specifically for his college education, after giving land to the other children for their occupations. Lewis chose Union College in Schenectady. Due to his work at Cayuga Academy, Lewis finished college in two years, 1838–1840, graduating at age 22. The curriculum continued study of classics combined with science, especially mechanics and optics. Lewis was strongly interested in the works of the French naturalist Georges Cuvier.

Eliphalet Nott, the president of Union College, was a Presbyterian minister who kept the young men under a tight discipline, forbidding alcohol on campus and requiring students to get permission to go to town. He held up the Bible as the one practical standard for all behavior. His career, however, ended with some notoriety when he was investigated by the state for attempting to raise funds for the college through a lottery. The students evaded his strict regime by founding secret (and forbidden) fraternities, such as the Kappa Alpha Society. Lewis Morgan joined in 1839.

After graduating in 1840, Morgan returned to Aurora to study 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 because the nation was in an economic depression, which had started with the Panic of 1837. Instead 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 patterns of the Iroquois. 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.”

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 segment of Iroquois who had allied with the British to cede their lands and migrate to Canada. By specific treaties, the U.S. 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. Intrigued by Morgan’s talk of the New Confederacy, Parker invited him to interview Johnson and meet the delegation. Morgan took pages of 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.

Ely Parker far L

Ely Parker far L

After attending the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Morgan decided to embark on an ethnological 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 Indians of Kansas and Nebraska, and two more up the Missouri River past Yellowstone. He collected data on 51 kinship systems. Groups he worked with included the Winnebago, Crow, Yankton, Kaw, Blackfeet, Omaha and others.

At the height of Morgan’s anthropological field work, death struck his family. In May and June, 1862, his two daughters, ages 6 and 2, died as a result of scarlet fever while Morgan was traveling in the West. In Sioux City, Iowa, Morgan received the news from his wife. He wrote in his journal:

Two of three of my children are taken. Our family is destroyed. The intelligence has simply petrified me. I have not shed a tear. It is too profound for tears. Thus ends my last expedition. I go home to my stricken and mourning wife, a miserable and destroyed man.

Morgan had noticed that indigenous North American cultures used different terms from 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. The Iroquois, for example, called their fathers’ brothers “father,” their mothers’ sisters “mother,” and their children “brother” and “sister.” He called this system of naming the Iroquois kinship system and, it turns out, it is more common worldwide than the European system.


Based on his extensive research of the Iroquois, Morgan published The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851). This work presented the complexity of Iroquois society in a path-breaking ethnography that was a model for future anthropologists; Morgan presented the kinship system of the Iroquois with unprecedented detail and nuance.

Morgan expanded his research far beyond the Iroquois. Although Benjamin Barton had posited Asian origins for indigenous Americans as early as 1797, in the mid-nineteenth century, other U.S. 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 that indigenous 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 groups in North America.

In the late 1850s and 1860s, Morgan collected kinship data from a variety of Native American groups. In his quest to do comparative kinship studies, Morgan also corresponded with scholars, missionaries, U.S. 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 of the Human Family (1871). In it he laid the groundwork for the study of kinship in anthropology. He presented a sophisticated schema of social evolution based upon the terms used for kin and the categories of kinship used by peoples around the world. Through his analysis of kinship terms, Morgan proposed that the structure of the family and social institutions develop and change according to a specific sequence.

Morgan became increasingly interested in the comparative study of kinship relations as a window into understanding larger social dynamics; he saw kinship relations as the basic building block of society. Combined with an exhaustive study of classic Greek and Roman sources, he crowned his work in kinship with his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877). Morgan elaborated upon his theory of social evolution. He introduced a critical link between social evolution and technological change and 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 (stone age, iron age, bronze age), which had been developed by the Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in the 1830s.


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, particularly the idea that social evolution is linear and inevitable, have now been rejected by anthropologists, his real achievements remain impressive. He founded the sub-discipline of kinship studies which still lies at the core of cultural anthropology, and his schema of kinship systems remains valid in essence. Anthropologists also remain interested in the connexions which Morgan outlined between material culture, technology, and social structure.

In 1881, Karl Marx started reading Morgan’s Ancient Society, thus beginning Morgan’s posthumous influence among European thinkers. Frederick Engels also read his work after Morgan’s death. Although Marx never finished his own book based on Morgan’s work, Engels continued his analysis. Morgan’s work on the social structure and material culture strongly influenced Engels’ sociological theory of dialectical materialism, expressed in his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, (1884).

It seems fitting to give you an Iroquois recipe to celebrate Morgan’s life work.  Contemporary Iroquois recipes emphasize traditional ingredients, such as corn, but have also incorporated European basics, such as dairy products.  Iroquois corn pudding is now a classic, especially at the Thanksgiving table at this time of year.  If you use fresh corn you can make the pudding richer by broiling the corn ears first until the kernels are lightly charred, and toasting the cornmeal in a heavy, dry skillet.


Iroquois Corn Pudding

1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon butter
1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal
3 cups half-and-half
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ cups milk
5 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen

Preheat oven to 325°F/160°C

Grease a 9×13” baking dish with butter.

Sauté onion in butter until translucent. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, whisk the cornmeal with the half and half. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat. Add the onion mixture, milk, eggs, and corn kernels.

Pour the entire mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 45–50 minutes, until set and lightly browned.