University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Correspondence Between Lewis Henry Morgan and Joseph Henry

Volume XII · Winter 1957 · Number 2
The Correspondence between Lewis Henry Morgan and Joseph Henry

Lewis Henry Morgan was born on a farm near Aurora, New York, in 1818. He was educated at the Cayuga Academy of Aurora and at Union College. He was admitted to the bar and went to Rochester about 1844 to practice. In 1851 he married and established himself and family in a house on South Fitzhugh Street where he lived until his death in 1881.

As a young man Morgan became engrossed in the life and customs of the Iroquois Indians: his League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, 1851, was "the first scientific account of an Indian tribe ever given to the world" (J. W. Powell). From 1859 to 1862 he extended his researches to many other tribes on four field trips to the Great Plains and to Hudson's Bay Territory. The results of his investigations were published by the Smithsonian Institution in his monumental Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, 1871. It is this volume and the researches upon which it was based that form the subject of most of the letters to be discussed below.

Morgan's best-known work, however, is Ancient Society, 1877. It has been translated into German, Russian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese, and is still being published, in India as well as the United States.The American Beaver and His Works, 1868, and Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines, 1881, complete the list of his major works.

Morgan became the foremost American anthropologist of his day. He was active in the affairs of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and served as its president in 1880. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1875. Thus, the two highest honors that American science can confer were bestowed upon him.

Joseph Henry was born in Albany in 1797. He attended Albany Academy and in  1826 became a teacher of mathematics and "natural philosophy" at that institution. Henry became one of the leading, if not the foremost, American physicist of his day. According to C. G. Abbot, Henry devised and constructed the first electromagnetic motor, "the forerunner of all electric motors." He also invented the first practical electromagnetic telegraph. In 1832 Henry was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey (renamed Princeton University in 1896), a post which he held until 1846, when he became the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He organized, directed, and inspired the work of this great scientific institution for more than three decades, until his death in 1878.

Henry took a leading part in the organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was president in 1849. He was a prime mover in the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences and served as its second president from 1868 until his death. "His influence," says Abbot, "not only upon the development of scientific work in the United States, but upon its character, cannot be overestimated."

One of the major interests of the Smithsonian Institution in its early years, as well as today, was anthropology. Given this common interest, plus dedication and devotion to science in general, it was inevitable that Morgan and Henry should come together. This they did, and for almost a quarter of a century they kept in touch with each other, by correspondence and exchange of visits, at times in each other's homes, collaborating in scientific labors and sustaining the warm friendship that had grown up between them.

There are some 148 Morgan-Henry letters in the University Library's manuscript collection. In addition to those written by Morgan and Henry, there are a number of letters from Spencer F. Baird, of the Smithsonian, Joshua Hall McIlvaine, D.D., of Princeton, William H. Green, William Dwight Whitney, et al., dealing with the principal subject of the Morgan-Henry correspondence, namely, the publication of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity.

The earliest of the Morgan-Henry letters in the Library is one written in 1854 by Henry in which he thanks Morgan for articles about the Smithsonian Institution which the latter was publishing in the Rochester Daily Democrat. There are three letters in the five-year period 1855-59, eight for 1860-64. But between 1865 and 1871, inclusive, i.e., between the time that the manuscript of Systems was submitted and its publication, ninety-two letters were exchanged between Morgan and Henry. As early as 1846, Morgan discovered a peculiar kinship system among the Seneca-Iroquois: mother's sister was called 'mother,' and her children were 'brother' and 'sister' ; a man called his brother's children 'son' and 'daughter.' At first Morgan regarded these customs as a peculiarity of the Iroquois; but, after discovering them among the Ojibwa, their presence among other Indian tribes, and even peoples on other continents, appeared probable. Also, Morgan quickly realized that information on this point might prove to be enormously important in ethnology, specifically in tracing historic connections between peoples and in reconstructing stages of social evolution. He therefore determined to extend his researches as widely as possible. In the summers of 1859 to 1862, inclusive, he made field trips to Kansas and Nebraska Territories, up the Missouri River almost to its source, and to Hudson's Bay Territory in order to gather data on kinship systems and other aspects of social organization. He also drew up a questionnaire which he sent to Indian agents and missionaries. Then he turned to Joseph Henry for assistance, and the result was the dissemination of scores of questionnaires all over the world under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and with the assistance of the Department of State.

The result was an enormous mass of data, and Morgan industriously set about tabulating and interpreting them. Since the Smithsonian Institution had assisted in the research, it was agreed that the final manuscript should be submitted for publication in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge.

The manuscript of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family was virtually finished by the end of 1864. Concern with other matters, however, kept Morgan from shipping it promptly to Henry. And a fortunate circumstance this was, too, for a devastating fire swept through the Smithsonian's building in January, 1865, destroying many precious manuscripts and collections. Morgan was much distressed by this disaster and, in addition to writing letters of encouragement and advice to Henry and to his assistant, Spencer F. Baird, he published an article on the fire in the Rochester Daily Democrat.

Morgan shipped the manuscript of Systems to Henry in March, 1865, and, in accordance with established policy, Henry sent it to a commission composed of Professor J. H. McIlvaine and Professor William H. Green, both of Princeton University, for their appraisal. In March, 1866, they reported favorably, but suggested that it be revised and reduced in length. This Morgan did and returned the work to Henry. But no decision with regard to publication was reached in 1866, and Morgan became restive. On February 21, 1867, Morgan wrote to Henry:

"I must now make it my constant effort to see this work published until it is accomplished. It is absolutely necessary that I should be relieved from it, and turn my attention to other matters. . . It is also necessary for another reason, lest I should be forestalled in some of its conclusions. This has already occurred, as to one or two points…If…I am obliged to seek another publisher, I ought to be free to do so at the earliest moment."

But Henry was not yet ready to forward the manuscript to the printers; he wished to have an appraisal of the revision. He therefore sent it to the American Oriental Society with the request that they appoint a committee to evaluate it. This committee was composed of two distinguished professors at Yale—William Dwight Whitney and James Hadley—and an eminent philologist, James A. Trumbull, of Hartford, Connecticut. Time dragged on. On June 5, 1867, two years and three months after the manuscript had been delivered for the first time, Morgan wrote to Henry:

"As there seems to be a growing probability that the Institution will not accept it for publication I am becoming more restive each day with the loss of time, and wish to be free at the earliest moment, if such is to be the result, to take its publication into my own hands."

Henry counseled patience, assuring Morgan that "time is not as essential an element in the examination of the memoir as a determination of its true character…" (June 22, 1867). To this Morgan made apt reply: "I can see that it makes but little difference with an Institution like the Smithsonian whether a particular memoir is examined, revised and published in two or six years; but it is very different with the author…" (October 15, 1867).

Early in October, 1867, after two and one-half years of waiting, Morgan had received word from Henry that the manuscript had received final approval and that publication would get under way early in '68.

The manuscript went to the printer in April, 1868, but so little progress was made that by mid-September, 1869, only seventy-five pages had been put into type. "At this rate," Morgan wrote to Baird, "it will require ten years to print it…" (September 18, 1869).

In addition to difficulties of electrotyping plates and delays in typesetting, there arose another obstacle that almost wrecked the whole venture of publication, and it might well have terminated the friendly relations between Morgan and Henry: this was the matter of a dedication. Morgan's two little daughters died of scarlet fever while he was far from home on a field trip in 1862, gathering data for Systems. He identified their death with this scientific project and was determined that it should be dedicated to their memory. Henry, feeling that expressions of personal grief and sentiment were out of place in a scientific series, was adamant in his refusal to permit it. For a time Morgan was disposed to withhold his consent to publication, and it was only at the last moment, virtually, that he was persuaded by Baird to yield.

Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family was finally published early in 1871. Morgan first saw a copy while on his European tour, in London, in July of that year. "The book is immensely large," he wrote in his Journal. And indeed it is: 13 inches long, 10 inches wide, 2 inches thick, and weighs about 7 pounds; it contains over 600 pages plus 14 plates. It was the largest and most costly of the Contributions published up to that time. In significance it has been termed "monumental" by scholars, both contemporary and recent. Professor George P. Murdock, of Yale University, has called it "perhaps the most original and brilliant single achievement in the history of anthropology" (Social Structure, p. 91, 1949).

The cordial relationship between Morgan and Henry became strained at times during the many, many months that the manuscript of Systems was being evaluated and, later, set into type. Occasionally the tone of Morgan's letters was curt, almost harsh. On April 19, 1867, when Henry, busy with manifold duties at the Smithsonian, had left Morgan's letters unanswered, the latter wrote:

"My dear Sir: Allow me to call your attention to my letter of Oct. 29, 1866, which still remains unanswered; and also to my letter of February 21, 1867, which in like manner remains unanswered.

"There must be reasons for the delay of which I should be glad to receive an explanation.

Yours Respectfully,
L. H. Morgan"

Henry, too, was aware of the tension between them. "The paper [i.e., Systems]," he once wrote Morgan, "has given me, as well as yourself, much disquietude" (October 18, 1869).

But both Morgan and Henry were men of high principles and strong character, and neither the vexatious delays nor the clash of wills over the proposed dedication could destroy the cordial relations that had grown up between them. Throughout those trying times, each was frank and honest with the other at all times. Morgan once wrote to Henry: "Whatever may be the final result as to the publication of this work, I trust it will be reached in such a manner as to leave no unpleasant recollections for either of us behind" (July 25, 1867).

And, indeed, after the publication of Systems, the friendship between these two great men of science matured and became a value precious in the life of each one. In a letter to Henry on March 30, 1874, Morgan wrote:

"I fear the weight of years begins to bear upon you and that you now contemplate the end of life as not far distant. Although some years your junior my own thoughts have begun to turn in this direction…I remember my long acquaintance with you with the utmost possible pleasure; and if I may be allowed to say it, in addition to respect and veneration, I entertain for you a sentiment of affection which no other man among my limited acquaintance with Scientific Men has ever inspired to an equal degree. It is the moral element in your character as well as your great mental experience that has drawn me towards you so strongly. I have never before ventured to touch this subject and I trust you will receive this expression of friendship in the spirit in which it is tendered."

Both Morgan and his wife were guests in the Henry household on occasional visits to Washington, and Henry reciprocated by accepting their hospitality in Rochester. Yet, despite the friendly—almost brotherly—feeling between them, the language of their letters was, for the most part, rather formal. Morgan almost invariably addressed Henry as "My Dear Sir," and signed himself "Yours very truly," or "Yours respectfully, L. H. Morgan." Henry was only slightly more relaxed. His usual salutation was "Dear Sir," but occasionally he used "Dear Mr. Morgan," and once or twice he addressed him as "Dear Friend" or "My Dear Friend." He usually signed himself "Yours Very Truly, Joseph Henry," but sometimes in later years it was "Your Friend." Henry's letter of August 16, 1876, closed as follows: "I remain as ever with High appreciation of your character, Your friend, Joseph Henry." Their formality was, however, in accord with the custom of that day; the present practice of calling virtually every colleague or acquaintance by his first name had not then come into vogue.

Morgan and Henry continued to correspond with each other almost to the end of the latter's life. Morgan wrote several times and at some length about his work on Ancient Society; Henry discussed affairs at the Smithsonian, his researches in meteorology, and scientific meetings. The correspondence between these two distinguished men constitutes an interesting and significant chapter in the history of American science.


(Dr. Leslie A. White is Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. During the present semester he is serving as Visiting Professor of Anthropology at the University of California. He has used the Lewis Henry Morgan Collection in the University of Rochester Library on numerous occasions and has published a number of studies based on material in this collection. Dr. White wishes to acknowledge with gratitude assistance rendered him by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in his researches upon the life and work of Lewis H. Morgan.)