University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Lewis Henry Morgan Collection

Volume II   · June 1947  ·  Number 3
The Lewis Henry Morgan Collection

It sometimes happens that the reputation of a great man suffers during the first few decades after his death. He may fall into relative oblivion or even disrepute. But if he was truly great, if his life and work made a significant contribution to the ever‑flowing stream of culture, then memory of him will be revived and he will be restored to his proper place in the annals of men. Such has been the fate of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818‑1881). During his lifetime he was acknowledged to be one of the foremost scientists of America. His work was known to scholars of Europe as it was to those at home. He was, as indeed he has often been called, the "Father of American Anthro­pology." After his death, however, Morgan's reputation went into an eclipse. Members of the Boas school of anthropology, which arose in the late nineties and which came to dominate the "Science of Man" in the United States for many years, alternately ignored and ridiculed their great predecessor. Boas himself did not even mention Morgan's name in an essay on "The History of Anthropology" written in 1904. One of Boas' students tells us that "to all Boas' disciples Morgan has since remained anathema and unread." Another disciple once called Morgan "the typical incarnation of the 'comprehensive and weak mind.' " Fathers Schmidt and Koppers and other clerical anthropologists of the Kulturkreis school of ethnology have repeatedly attacked Morgan with vigor and venom. But today, three‑score and six years after Morgan's death, his stature looms large, larger than at any time since the turn of the century, and it is still growing.

The University of Rochester Library stands in a peculiar relation to the Morgan tradition for it is the custodian of almost all of the archival materials relating to Morgan that are accessible to scholars at the present time, and it has undertaken the important task of adding to them whenever possible. But more of this later. Let us turn now to the man and his work.

Lewis Henry Morgan was born on a farm near Aurora, New York, in 1818. He was educated at Cayuga Academy in Aurora and at Union College, from which he was graduated in 1840. He studied law upon his return to Aurora and began the practice of this profession upon his removal to Rochester in 1844. But it was not as a lawyer or jurist that Morgan was to make his mark in the world. A series of chance events, in addition to circumstances under which he spent his young manhood, turned him toward ethnology. When once he had come under the spell of science he devoted the rest of his life to it with energy and devotion.

As a young man in Aurora, Morgan became a member of a secret society called the Grand Order of the Iroquois. This organization patterned itself upon the famed League of the Iroquois. In order that their imitation might be more faithful, Morgan undertook to find out just what the League was like. Thus began an exhaustive study of the history and culture of the Iroquois Indians. In 1851, Morgan married his cousin, Mary Elizabeth Steele of Albany, and apparently decided to settle down and devote himself to domestic affairs and to his legal practice. In this same year he published his era‑opening book, The League of the Ho‑de‑no‑sau‑nee or Iroquois, which he wrote, so he tells us, to quit himself of his studies of the Indians. But this was not destined to be. A few years later, while on a business trip in northern Michigan, Morgan made a great discovery. Conversations with local Indians disclosed the fact that, although the languages were totally different, the rules for designating relatives were essentially the same for both Chippewa and Iroquois. Morgan had already realized that the Iroquois way of designating relatives was more than just "heathen practices." He now discovered that it was but one expression of a definite system. But how extensive was this system? What other systems were extant? And what was the significance of these systems in the history of human society?

Morgan set about to answer these questions. He spent more than a decade of prodigious labor in the collection of data from all over the world by personal field trips and by questionnaires. The results were published by the Smithsonian Institution in a monumental work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871); and out of this study grew the work through which he has exerted his widest influence, Ancient Society (1877).

This is not the place to summarize Morgan's contributions to ethnology. Suffice it to say that he produced an impressive interpre­tation of the evolution of society from the origin of man to the present time. Despite certain errors and shortcomings, this interpretation is still one of the best we have today. Ancient Society has been translated into many of the languages of Europe and into Chinese and Japanese, and only twelve years ago a new translation was issued in Argentina. Morgan himself was honored by fellow scientists by election to the National Academy of Sciences and to the Presidency of the American, Association for the Advancement of Science.

Partly because Ancient Society was hailed by Karl Marx and subsequently became a socialist classic, and partly because of a general reaction against the theory of evolution, Morgan was vigorously attacked after his death and eventually fell into disrepute. But in recent years appreciation of his contribution has been growing and attempts are being made to restore the concept of evolution to the study of culture.

Throughout his life Morgan was deeply interested in education, particularly the education of women. Accordingly, he bequeathed his fortune, which was not inconsiderable, to the University of Rochester to promote the education of young women. To the University also went a goodly portion of his library, the original manuscripts of some of his published works, as well as many unpublished manuscripts, note­books, journals, and a great many letters. Among the manuscripts there are several drafts of portions ofSystems of Consanguinity and Ancient Society which enable us to trace the development of Morgan's thought in the writing of these works. Among the journals are the six little leather‑bound volumes of the diary kept by Morgan during the thirteen months he spent in Europe in 1870‑71. Only a portion of this treasure, his rich observations upon the life and culture of the Old World, has been published so far, as Extracts from the European Travel Journal of Lewis H. Morgan (Rochester, 1937).

Morgan corresponded with distinguished persons in Europe as well as at home, and many of the letters received by him are now preserved in the Rush Rhees Library. Among them might be mentioned letters from Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Joseph Henry, F. W. Putnam, Francis Parkman, Henry Adams, Major J. W. Powell, J. J. Bachofen, Andrew D. White, Adolph F. Bandelier, S. F. Baird, Horatio Hale, Wendell Phillips Garrison, John F. McLennan, Jeffries Wyman, and many others. In 1935, Professor Isaak Vinnikov, an anthropologist in Leningrad, published a number of these letters in a volume entitled Materials from the Archives of Lewis. H. Morgan; so far relatively little of this material has been published in the United States.

The Morgan archives are of course far from complete. A few dupli­cate copies of letters and documents written by Morgan were found among his papers when they were originally acquired by the University of Rochester. But until the last decade or so, the collection contained very few letters written by Morgan himself. Diligent search in recent years, however, has discovered a considerable number of such items. In some instances it has been possible for the Library to acquire the originals; in others, photostatic copies have been obtained. The Smithsonian Institution and other government bodies in Washington, universities, historical societies, and private individuals have cooperated in this quest and have contributed generously to the growing archives. In some cases, almost the entire correspondence with certain persons, Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, for example, has been recovered and is now deposited in the Library.

But much work remains to be done. Some of the government de­partments and bureaus in Washington have yet to be combed. Material is probably still to be had in historical societies, museums, and uni­versities. Search for letters to foreign correspondents must still be made in most cases. And a widespread and thorough investigation among the descendants or other relatives of men and women with whom Morgan corresponded will have to be made.

Special mention might be made of a few persons to whom Morgan wrote many letters but for which search has so far proved unsuccessful. Perhaps the most important of these is J. H. McIlvaine. McIlvaine was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Rochester for many years and was one of Morgan's close friends. He was a scholar of some distinction. He occupied the chair of belles‑lettres at Princeton, from 1860 to 1870. In 1887 he became President of Evelyn College for Women. Some of McIlvaine's letters to Morgan are preserved in the archives. Morgan's letters to him would be invaluable. Considerable search has so far failed to discover them.

During the last eight years of his life Morgan corresponded continu­ally with a brilliant and erudite young Swiss scholar, Adolph F. Bandelier, then living in Highland, Illinois. Virtually all of Bandelier's letters are in the Morgan collection; they were published a few years ago by the University of New Mexico. Press under the title Pioneers in American Anthropology. But the most diligent search has failed to disclose the whereabouts of Morgan's letters to his protege. Bandelier unques­tionably kept them as precious treasures. It has been suggested that they might have been put in storage somewhere in New York when Bandelier left that city for Mexico and Spain about 1913. When his Widow, Mrs. Fanny Bandelier, died at Fiske University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1937, her papers went to the Museum of New Mexico. But aside from a note in her hand stating that a small number of Morgan letters had been borrowed by a fellow anthropologist, no trace of them has been found. There is still hope for their recovery. It would, be difficult to exaggerate their value.

If the letters written by Morgan to Wendell Phillips Garrison, literary editor of The Nation, could be found they would unquestionably illuminate an important aspect of his life and thought. Morgan's correspondence pertaining to his political activities - he served two terms in the New York State Legislature, one in the Assembly, one in the Senate - would likewise give us invaluable information on one of the little known facets of this man's many-sided life. The same may be said concerning Morgan's business activities. He amassed a considerable fortune from investments in mining ventures in the vicinity of Marquette, Michigan, yet we know very little of this important story. And, of course, Morgan's private life, his correspondence with his relatives and friends, is another field that needs much attention. There is unquestionably much Morgan material still extant. But vigilance and patient search will be required to bring it to light and to make it available to scholars through the archives of the Rush Rhees Library. It is earnestly hoped that anyone who finds anything of significance, or who discovers any promising clues, will take immediate and appropriate action so that anything of value may be added to the archives of Lewis H. Morgan.