Lewis Henry Morgan: Theory & Biography

Instructor: Becky Kowalczyk

Becky has taught Literature, Writing, and Film Studies and has degrees in both English and Education.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Lewis Henry Morgan, the American anthropologist who studied native populations around the world to form his famous theories on social evolution in the 1800s.

How Curious

Lewis Henry Morgan, 1818-1881
Lewis Henry Morgan Portrait

Lewis Henry Morgan was a curious man who asked questions: What holds societies together? What causes them to change over time? What do beavers do when no one's watching?

That last one's no joke; he did groundbreaking research on the life and behavior of the American beaver. But we'll focus on what he's most well known for: his ideas about human families, social groups and the evolution of civilization.

Early Life and Education

Lewis Henry Morgan was born in 1818 in New York's Finger Lakes region. (His parents actually didn't give him a middle name; he himself added the initial H. as an adult. Eventually, he decided the H stood for 'Henry.') His family was wealthy, which was lucky considering Morgan had twelve brothers and sisters. His father died when he was just eight years old, leaving whole farms to his older sons, and over 500 acres of land and livestock for the rest of the family. This prosperity provided Morgan with a higher education and gave him the means to become the scholar he did.

After graduating in 1840 at age 22, he studied law. But, the US economy was doing poorly and when he tried to establish his career as a lawyer, nobody could afford to hire him. Living with his mother with plenty of free time, he began pursuing an interest in local American Indian tribes, especially those of the Iroquois Nation.

An Iroquois Woman
An Iroquois Woman

Interesting Iroquois

Most Iroquois tribes had been forced off their lands in New York after the Revolutionary War. Some moved to Canada while others, like the Seneca, were given small parcels of land through government treaties. However, these groups were eventually targeted by powerful land companies who fought in court to seize these areas for little compensation to the tribes.

Morgan helped found an organization whose aim was to closely study, research and even imitate the Iroquois…. kind of like an educational fan club. They began a huge publicity campaign on behalf of the Seneca in one land-grabbing case. Morgan became more and more involved in that tribe, making personal friends with tribal leaders, and would go on to publish books based on his extensive studies of their society.


Lewis Henry Morgan is known as a pioneer of anthropology, the study of human societies, cultures and how they develop. He was especially interested in ideas about kinship, classifying and defining family relationships. Different societies do this in different ways.

Morgan noticed that Iroquois kinship systems were very different from modern societies. His findings are detailed in his 1851 book, League of the Iroquois. It's complex, but here's one example to give you an idea:

Imagine you are an Iroquois girl. You have two parents and several aunts, uncles and cousins. Your father's sisters would be called your 'aunts,' right? Right. Now here's the tricky part: his brothers would NOT be labeled as your uncles. Instead, you'd call them 'Father,' too. In the same way, your mom's sisters would also be called 'Mother,' though her brothers would be known as your uncles. As far as what to call your cousins, well, it depends on whether they are the children of your mom's siblings or your dad's, whether those siblings are male or female, and also whether the cousins are male or female… you get the picture. And that's just one tiny aspect of kinship!

Theory of Social Evolution

Morgan went on to study the kinship systems of native groups around the world and, in 1877, published what became his best-known book, Ancient Society. In it, he introduced his famous theory of social evolution, on how societies change and develop over time.

He described three stages, beginning with savagery, progressing to barbarism and then civilization. In the savagery period, for instance, a society lives as hunter-gatherers. When they learn how to start growing some plants themselves, they have moved into the barbarism stage. Civilization, in turn, is characterized by advanced agricultural practices like mechanical plowing.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account