In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lewis Henry Morgan

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Histories of Anthropology
  • Collaborators
  • Disciples
  • Impact on Marxist Thought
  • Boas and the Anti-Evolutionary Reaction

Anthropology Lewis Henry Morgan
Robert Launay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0050


Lewis Henry Morgan (b. 1818–d. 1881) is considered one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology. As a young lawyer in Rochester, New York, he founded a local club, The Grand Order of the Iroquois, whose members championed Iroquois rights to their land, claimed by the Ogden Company. In the process, he acquired a more systematic interest in Iroquois culture. His researches among them led to the publication of a book-length study. His later discovery that patterns of kinship terminology in other, even unrelated, Indian cultures were very similar to those of the Iroquois launched a systematic survey of kinship nomenclature that provided a template for modern studies of kinship in anthropology. While he was working on kinship terminology, he also conducted an extensive, pioneering field study of the activities of beavers. Toward the end of his life, he formulated a grand scheme of social evolution focusing on progress in the domains of technology, government, family, and property. His work attracted the favorable attention of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but it was sharply criticized by a subsequent generation of anthropologists, especially followers of Franz Boas in the United States, who were skeptical of grand evolutionary schemes. Nonetheless, his work remains an enduring influence in the discipline.


Stern 1931 is the first full-length biography of Morgan, written at a time when the evolutionary anthropology of the 19th century was systematically disparaged. Resek 1960 and Moses 2009 are more contemporary accounts of his life and career. More recently, scholars have focused on the processes that lay behind Morgan’s production of particular works: Tooker 1983 analyzes the background to Morgan’s early ethnography of the Iroquois; Trautmann 1987 is specifically centered on Morgan’s “discovery” of the field of kinship, which is expounded in Morgan 1997 (cited under Books).

  • Moses, Daniel Noah. 2009. The promise of progress: The life and work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press.

    A biography that focuses on Morgan’s early enthusiasm and eventual ambivalence about social progress.

  • Resek, Carl. 1960. Lewis Henry Morgan: American scholar. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A short, straightforward, and very readable biography, the standard reference on the life of Morgan.

  • Stern, Bernhard Joseph. 1931. Lewis Henry Morgan, social evolutionist. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The first full-length biography of Morgan, a highly sympathetic account by an anthropologist whose sympathies for evolutionary perspectives ran counter to the prevailing tendencies of his day.

  • Tooker, Elisabeth. 1983. The structure of the Iroquois League: Lewis H. Morgan’s research and observations. Ethnohistory 30.3: 141–154.

    DOI: 10.2307/481022

    Based on Morgan’s papers at the University of Rochester, Tooker reevaluates the process by which Morgan collected and published his research on the Iroquois League.

  • Trautmann, Thomas R. 1987. Lewis Henry Morgan and the invention of kinship. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    The book focuses on both the genesis and the impact of Morgan 1997 (cited under Books) and its establishment of the anthropological study of kinship. Includes a very complete bibliography of Morgan’s publications.

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