Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/November 1880/Sketch of Lewis H. Morgan

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 18 November 1880  (1880) 
Sketch of Lewis H. Morgan
By John Wesley Powell
PSM V18 D008 Lewis Henry Morgan.jpg



LEWIS HENRY MORGAN was born near the village of Aurora, New York, November 21, 1818. The subject of this sketch is eight generations in lineal descent on his father's side from James Morgan, who settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1646; and on his mother's side from John Steele, who settled in Newton, now Cambridge, in 1641; beginning with these, seven generations of his ancestors have lived and died in New England.

In 1840, at the age of twenty-one, young Morgan graduated at Union College, and was engaged in the study of law until 1844. During this time he occasionally wrote articles for the "Knickerbocker" and other periodicals. On his return to Aurora from college he was induced to join a secret society composed of young men of that place. This trivial circumstance had a great influence on his future career. The society was organized for no definite purpose, and failed to interest young Morgan, who at once looked about for some method of expanding the society and extending its influence; and finally, under his management, a new society was organized and styled "The Grand Order of the Iroquois." The plan was to model it somewhat after the pattern of Indian tribes, and to extend the organization over all the territory occupied by the Iroquois, and to have a group of branch societies for each area occupied by an Iroquois tribe, or nation, as they were then called, and these larger divisions divided into chapters as Indian nations were divided into gentes—so-called tribes.

In order that this new organization might be properly formed on the plan of the ancient Iroquois confederacy, young Morgan went among the Indians of New York for the purpose of studying their social organization and government. In this he soon became deeply interested, as did many of the originators of "The Grand Order of the Iroquois." A number of the gentlemen who took part in the organization of the society have since risen to important positions in American society, as a mention of the following names will demonstrate: Rev. Isaac N. Hurd; Henry Haight, afterward Governor of California; the late General Albert J. Myer, Chief of the Signal Service; Hon, George Barker, Justice of the Supreme Court of New York; the late Judge Charles P. Avery, of Oswego; the late Hon. Charles Billinghurst, member of Congress from Wisconsin; Rev. Anson J. Upton, President of the Auburn Theological Seminary; Charles T. Porter, of Philadelphia; Hon. Theodore Pomeroy, of Auburn; William Allen, of Auburn; C. White, of Aurora; the late Frederick De Lano, of Rochester; the late Alexander Mann, of Rochester; Hon. Stephen Goodwin, of Chicago; Rev. James S. Bush, of Staten Island; and George S. Riley, of Rochester.

The society seems to have greatly flourished for a time, and to have been very popular throughout that portion of New York west of the Hudson River. Its ceremonies were picturesque and attractive. The meetings of the society were called councils, and were held in the woods. The Grand Council was held in a forest near Aurora by night, and the forest aisles were illuminated by huge camp-fires, and the sachems and chiefs who there assembled came in Indian panoply, with chaplets of eagle-feathers, Indian tunics, scarlet leggins, and decorated moccasins. It was wild sport, in which the young men engaged in merry mood.

Morgan and his young associates soon became absorbed in active business, and found that the society they had organized could not be operated without consuming too great a portion of their time, and it died by premeditated neglect. But the discoveries made by Morgan were of such importance and interest that he continued his investigations from time to time, and, in order to obtain a deeper insight into the home life and customs of the Indians, and their social and governmental organization, he spent much time among them and was adopted into a gens of the Senecas.

In 1847 he published in the "American Review" a series of "Letters on the Iroquois," over the signature of "Skenandoah." In the mean time he was building up a legal practice, and found that he must neglect it or abandon his studies of Indian life and government; and so he determined to publish the materials on hand, and then devote himself exclusively to the practice of his profession. This resulted in the publication in 1851 of "The League of the Iroquois," in which the social organization and government of this wonderful confederacy were carefully and thoroughly explained. The volume also contains interesting accounts of the daily life, customs, and superstitions of these Indians, and was the first scientific account of an Indian tribe ever given to the world.

The work is not entirely free from the nomenclature of sociology previously, and to some extent since, used by writers on our North American Indians, in which tribes are described as nations, and the institutions of tribal or barbaric life defined in terms used in national or civilized life. But the series of organic units was discovered among the Iroquois and was correctly defined, though the confederacy was called a league, the tribe a nation, and the gens a tribe. In like manner, kinship as the bond of union was fully recognized.

In 1856 Morgan attended the Albany meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and read a paper called "The Laws of Descent of the Iroquois." The reading of the paper awakened great interest in the subject, and a number of the leading members of the Association urged Mr. Morgan to continue his studies in this field. Professors Henry and Agassiz were especially urgent in the matter, and Morgan decided to return to his old studies, but rather as an amateur and in such a manner as not to interfere with his profession.

In 1858 he was at Marquette, where he found an encampment of Ojibwa Indians, and, going into a tent, sat down with an Indian, and gradually in conversation drew from him an account of the Ojibwa system of kinship, the list of gentes, and the gentile organization of the tribe, and found them essentially the same as the Iroquois.

To him this was a great surprise, for up to this time he had supposed that the Iroquois Confederacy had a system peculiar to itself and was an anomaly among governments. But here he found society and government organized upon the same plan, and yet the linguistic terms were totally different. He had thus discovered the essential characteristic of tribal government in two distinct stocks of our North American Indians, and it occurred to him that the system might extend further, so he determined to pursue his investigations among other Indians.

On his return to Rochester he took up "Riggs's Dakota Grammar and Dictionary," then lately published by the Smithsonian Institution, and found in the kinship terms as therein defined evidences of the same kinship system. He then more carefully examined the English and Roman systems, especially as they are set forth by Blackstone and in the Pandects of Justinian. Finally, he prepared schedules of inquiry to be circulated among missionaries, teachers, traders, and other persons familiar with Indian life.

At this stage Professor Henry became deeply interested in the investigations and published the schedules for Mr. Morgan, which were widely distributed in America and throughout the world by the Smithsonian Institution and by the active cooperation of General Cass, who was then Secretary of State.

During the earlier years Mr. Morgan was greatly disappointed with the returns from the circulation of these schedules. The subject was new and strange, and the persons to whom they were sent were slow in comprehending the nature and value of the researches suggested; and so he determined to pursue his investigations in person, and for this purpose in 1859 he made an expedition through Kansas and Nebraska. In 1860 he went over the same ground, revising his former work, increasing his observations, and extended his journey far up the Missouri River. In 1861 he made a trip to the Hudson Bay Territory and Lake Winnipeg, and in 1863 to Fort Benton and the Rocky Mountains.

In his travels he everywhere sought the Indian tribes, and through the aid of interpreters—white men and Indians—filled out his own schedules and extended his studies into the social life and government of the Indians and other collateral branches of anthropology.

Finally, returns from his schedules of inquiry began to pour in from all quarters of the globe, and gradually a vast correspondence grew up, until the kinship systems of more than four fifths of the world were recorded either directly by himself or by others whom he had enlisted in the work. The materials thus collected were gradually by years of labor thoroughly systematized, and finally published by the Smithsonian Institution as one of its "Contributions to Knowledge," entitled "Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family." It is a quarto volume of about six hundred pages, the result of many years of patient and well-directed labor, and it constitutes a model of inductive research. The kinship systems of eighty tribes of North America, together with those of a great number of the principal nations and tribes of the Old World and the islands of the sea, are fully and elaborately recorded in its tables.

This publication marks a most important epoch in anthropologic research. Prior to its appearance, the social and governmental institutions of mankind antecedent to the evolution of civilization were to a large extent unknown. Travelers and various persons more or less familiar with tribal life had put on record many curious facts, and the compilation of these facts by scholars had resulted in the accumulation of incoherent and inconsistent materials about which more or less crude and fanciful speculations were made; but the essential characteristics of tribal society, as based upon kinship in barbarism and upon communal marriage in savagery, were unknown.

This first volume was essentially a volume of facts, and only a brief and rather unsatisfactory discussion of the facts was undertaken. Mr. Morgan's final conclusion and philosophic treatment of the subject were reserved for a subsequent volume.

During the earlier years of Morgan's work upon the "Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity," he carried on an extensive law business, and was engaged in a railroad enterprise upon the Michigan Peninsula. The latter necessitated frequent visits to what was then a forest wilderness on the shores of Lake Superior, and here he became interested in the study of the beaver, which resulted in the publication, in 1868, of a volume entitled "The American Beaver and his Works." In his preface to this volume Mr. Morgan thus describes the circumstances under which these studies were made:

Having been associated in this enterprise from its commencement, as one of the directors of the railroad company, and as one of its stockholders, business called me to Marquette first in 1855, and nearly every summer since to the present time. After the completion of the railroad to the iron-mines, it was impossible to withstand the temptation to brook-trout fishing, which the streams traversing the intermediate and adjacent districts offered in ample measure. My friend Gilbert D. Johnson, Superintendent of the Lake Superior Mine, had established boat-stations at convenient points upon the Carp and Esconauba Rivers, and to him I am specially indebted, first, for a memorable experience in brook-trout fishing, and, secondly, for an introduction to the works of the beaver within the areas traversed by these streams. Our course, in passing up and down, was obstructed by beaver-dams at short intervals, from two to three feet high, over which we were compelled to draw our boat. Their numbers and magnitude could not fail to surprise as well as interest any observer. Although constructed in the solitude of the wilderness, where the forces of Nature were still actively at work, it was evident that they had existed and been maintained for centuries by the permanent impression produced upon the rugged features of the country. The results of the persevering labors of the beaver were suggestive of human industry. The streams were bordered continuously with beaver meadows, formed by overflows by means of these dams, which had destroyed the timber upon the adjacent lands. Fallen trees, excavated canals, lodges, and burrows, filled up the measure of their works. These together seemed to me to afford a much greater promise of pleasure than could be gained with the fish-pole, and very soon, accordingly, the beaver was substituted for the trout. I took up the subject, as I did fishing, for summer recreation. In the year 1861 I had occasion to visit the Ked River settlement in the Hudson's Bay Territory, and in 1862 to ascend the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, which enabled me to compare the works of the beaver in these localities with those on Lake Superior. At the outset I had no expectation of following up the subject year after year, but was led on by the interest which it awakened, until the materials collected seemed to be worth arranging for publication. "Whether this last surmise is well or ill founded, I am at least certain that no other animal will be allowed to entrap the unambitious author so completely as he confesses himself to have been by the beaver. My unrestrained curiosity has cost me a good deal of time and labor.

Morgan's researches among the tribes of North America were extended to many subjects not included in the great volume published by the Smithsonian Institution. The results of these collateral investigations led to the publication of a series of articles in the "North American Review." The first appeared in 1869, and was entitled "The Seven Cities of Cibola," in which he comes to the qualified conclusion that the ruins on the Chaco in New Mexico represent what remains to us of the so-called cities described by the ancient Spanish travelers. Incidentally, the paper also contains a careful description of pueblo architecture, and its relation to gentile life, and is compared with the architecture of old Mexico; and the statement is made that the buildings discovered by the Spaniards in Mexico were in fact pueblos, or communal dwellings, but were exaggerated by them into palatial residences of emperors, with retinues of serving lords and hosts of slaves. The lengthy article closes with the following paragraph:

When the romantic features of the discovery and conquest of Mexico, which made such a powerful impression upon the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which have not yet lost their influence, shall become softened down by our increasing knowledge of Indian character, arts, and institutions, it will be possible to reconstruct, from existing materials, a rational history of this interesting people. If the author of the volume, whoever he may be, will entitle his work 'A History of the Aztec Confederacy,' and, after explaining the political relations of the three nations of which it was composed, and the functions of the council by which it was governed, will then introduce Montezuma as the head chief of the Aztecs, one of the three confederated peoples, the reader will be certain to start with a tolerably clear impression. No harm will be done to truth, if the great lords, with many vassals and large landed estates, and the little lords, with few vassals and small landed estates, are introduced as plain Indian chiefs, innocent of all knowledge both of estates and vassals. Besides this, it is not improbable that the palaces and most of the temples will ultimately resolve themselves iuto plain communal houses, like those now standing in the picturesque and beautiful valley of the Chaco, roofless and deserted. With these, and a number of similar changes, the future student of aboriginal history will not be led to deceptive conclusions by the glitter of inappropriate terms. Such a history is due to the memory of the Aztecs, and to a right estimate of the Indian family.

This article inaugurated the reconstruction of the history of Mexican and Central American culture, which is now rapidly in progress. All the previous history had a been a vain but brilliant exaggeration of Indian society, with its languages, arts, religion, and social and governmental institutions—a picture derived from boastful and mendacious travelers.

In the latter part of 1869 a second article appeared in the same journal on Indian migrations, followed by a third on the same subject in 1870. The purpose of these articles was to indicate an original general dispersion of the Indian tribes from the region of the Columbia River.

In 1876 a fourth article appeared, entitled "Montezuma's Dinner," which was in part a review of Bancroft's " Native Races of the Pacific States," but in fact was a general characterization of the culture discovered in Mexico and Central America, with a review of the historic evidence, and was an exquisite satire on the exaggerated accounts of Spanish travelers and priests, expanded and glorified by modern writers.

In the same year a fifth article appeared, on the "Houses of the Mound-Builders."

The great work of Mr. Morgan was yet unpublished. It remained for him to gather the materials he had collected on tribal society into one philosophic treatise. This was accomplished in the publication of his volume entitled "Ancient Society" in 1877. This was divided into four parts, as follows: Part I. Growth of Intelligence through Inventions and Discoveries; Part II. Growth of the Idea of Government; Part III. Growth of the Idea of the Family; Part IV. Growth of the Idea of Property.

In the first part technologic evolution was discussed, and culture periods, or what Mr. Morgan denotes "ethnical periods," were defined. These grand periods, through which the most highly developed races of mankind have passed, and into which the various peoples on the globe may be distributed, were set forth as the savage, the barbaric, and the civilized. These were defined in terms relating: to the evolution of arts. Savagery and barbarism were divided into three periods each, giving the lower, middle, and upper status of savagery, and the lower, middle, and upper status of barbarism; these subdivisions also being established on the development of specified arts.

Two grand plans of government are also set forth—tribal and national; tribal government being personal, i. e., taking into account persons only, and national government being territorial and based on property.

In the second part he discussed in a thorough manner the different forms of government in the order of their evolution, beginning with the organization of society upon the basis of sex, as it is found in Australia, and fragments of which are found as survivals among other tribes of the world. He then expounded the organization of society and tribal governments based upon kinship; and having by wide research discovered this system in every quarter of the globe among people living in barbaric life, and having discovered by abundant evidence that the same form of society and government existed in the early history of the most civilized peoples, he logically inferred that gentile society and tribal government as based upon kinship are the universal characteristic of man in his passage through the period of barbarism. He also discussed the evolution of gentile society from connubial society; defined the organic units of tribal government as gentes, phratries, tribes, and confederacies, pointing out their origin and growth as illustrated by abundant examples throughout the globe; and, finally, the evolution of gentile society and tribal government into property society and national government.

In Part III he treats of the evolution of the family—discovers five successive forms, and sets forth the processes by which the first or consanguineal family, which is founded upon the intermarriage of brothers and sisters, own and collateral in a group, was developed into the last or monogamian, which is founded upon marriage by single pairs with exclusive cohabitation. In the final chapter of this part he gives the sequence of institutions connected with the family in tabular form with appended explanations.

In the fourth part Mr. Morgan deals with the origin of civilization. Discovery and invention finally led to the accumulation of property, and society was organized on this basis; and for the protection of property and the industries by which it is produced civilized governments have finally been established over territorial areas. The growth of the idea of property with the development of industries is explained, together with the evolution of laws of inheritance.

Thus the plan of Mr. Morgan's great work was completed. In it was laid the foundation for the science of government as it is finally to be erected by the philosophy of evolution.

In the progress of human culture institutions are developed; new rights with their correlative duties arise from the new relations into which men are placed. For the maintenance of these rights and the enforcement of these duties, governments change in all their substantial characteristics, and the great laws of evolution in the processes of differentiation and integration are followed, as tribes integrate into nations and the functions of government are differentiated; communal industries change to individual and corporate industries; communal property to individual and corporate property; communal marriage to individual marriage; communal government to organized national government, with the differentiation of the three great departments, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial; and these again elaborately differentiated with special organic members for special organic functions—all progressing with advancing intelligence to secure justice and thereby increase happiness.

This survey of governments in their totality presents one fact of profound interest to statesmen. Government by the people is the normal condition of mankind, as a broad review of human history abundantly maintains. Monarchies are temporary phases of government in the evolution of mankind from barbarism to civilization; and these monarchies with their attendant hierarchies, feudalisms, and slavery, appear only as pathologic conditions of the body politic—diseases which must be destroyed or they will destroy—and hence disappearing by virtue of the survival of the fittest. Hope for the future of society is the best-beloved daughter of Evolution.

Morgan has here been spoken of as a pioneer in a special field of research, but many others worked contemporaneously with him in the same field. Notable among these are Tylor and Maine, whose fields of investigation were, to some extent, identical with Morgan's; though in a larger sense, the areas which they covered were diverse. Where their studies were in common their methods of research were diverse. Maine and Tylor ransacked recorded history. Morgan plunged into the wilderness and studied Indian tribes, but his plan also included the study of annals; yet his work is largely made up of a record of facts previously unknown to science.

Long years of excessive labor, with sorrows that invade the domestic circle through disease and death, have somewhat decreased the vigor of physical life not long ago so characteristic of the man. On account of his infirmities he presided with some difficulty at the last meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; but his mental vigor continues, and he is now engaged in the preparation of a volume on the "House Life and Architecture of the North American Indians," to be published by the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution.

May his years continue and his works multiply! It is not one of the least of the results accomplished by Mr. Morgan that he has gathered about him loving disciples who are reaping harvests from fields planted by himself.