By Elizabeth Curler
Justin Morgan is most famous in history for the horse that founded the Morgan breed of horses. He is also less widely known, but equally respected, as a musical composer of notable talent. He composed 18th century musical renditions of poetry and psalms known as fuguing tunes or psalmody.
Justin Morgan was a descendant of Miles Morgan and born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1747. Miles Morgan was the head of one of the earliest families in Springfield, Massachusetts. Originally settling in the area in the 1640’s, the Morgans are described as being “substantial yeoman farmers”. Family members became active participants in their communities, frequently holding town and church offices.
Justin Morgan was the son of Isaac Morgan and his first wife Thankfull. He was the eighth of eleven children, mostly boys. Little documentation has been found of Justin’s childhood so his early life consists of much speculation. It is assumed that his life followed the same pattern as that of many other boys of the mid-18th century. He apparently received a quality education at some point in time, but where and when is not known.
In 1771 Justin was deeded a portion of his father’s barn and a small amount of land. He married his first cousin Martha Day in December 1774 at 27 years of age. His first child Martha was born in May of 1776. She was followed by six other children, two of whom did not survive young childhood.
Morgan’s occupations, as with others of that time period, appear to have been many and varied. He obtained a license to sell liquor at retail from his home and is said to have maintained a boatmen’s tavern. He described himself as husbandman, or farmer, in town records. He also was a stallioneer, that is: he maintained stallions at stud with the stud fees generating a portion of his income. During the Revolution Springfield was a cavalry depot for the Patriots which created a beehive of horse activity in the area. And Hartford, Connecticut, the acknowledged horse center of the times, was located relatively close, being just down the river.
In 1782 Morgan became involved in a lawsuit concerning a runaway slave named Price Freeman. Morgan, along with his brothers, was among those in the Springfield community who helped Freeman obtain his freedom so that he might join the Continental Army.
Morgan became a substitute tax collector for West Springfield in 1784. He apparently performed his duties as he was paid by the town in 1785. He again became tax collector in 1787. Taxes were very difficult to collect during this period. This was partially due to the poor economic conditions of the times, but equally difficult was meeting the requirement that tax debts be paid in spicie (or coins).
Massachusetts law allowed attachment of a tax collector’s property and for the auction of that property if the collectible tax funds were not forthcoming. Post-Revolutionary War times, the citizens of Massachusetts were suffering financially from an economic recession and high taxes to pay war debts. Morgan apparently did not fulfill his position satisfactorily as he was summoned into court in January 1788 regarding the lack of tax receipts.
He was directed to pay the balance owed by order of the court. Whether he paid the balance due is unclear. Morgan sold his remaining property in March 1788 and moved to Randolph, Vermont. The tax collection situation has been speculated as being one of the reasons why he left Massachusetts for the then independent republic of Vermont as many others were doing at the time.
An attempt to correct the situation developed as people became more desperate and were unable to meet their financial obligations. Now known as Shay’s Rebellion, action was undertaken to prevent the Court of Common Pleas from sitting. This court was where creditors sued debtors for payment of goods and services. By preventing the court from holding session, debt collection was disrupted and civil war threatened.
The rebellion was forcefully put down. Eventually the law was changed to allow the use of neat stock and produce to pay private debts. Still later public taxes were allowed to be paid in like manner and paper currency was issued to assist people with paying their debts. Another mitigating factor for Morgan may have been that his wife was a sister to Luke Day, who was the #2 man (behind Daniel Shays) of Shay’s Rebellion.
In an 1880”s interview, Morgan and his family are said to have gone to Randolph by ox sled. Once in Randolph, Morgan soon became active in local affairs. In 1789 he was elected a lister and grand juryman of the town. In 1790 he became town clerk and treasurer holding those positions for three years.
He owned and operated a tavern in Randolph Center. The relic of this tavern was burned by college students about 25 years ago. It was located virtually on the campus of Vermont Technical College. Two daughters were born to the Morgans in Randolph, but unfortunately, his wife died ten days after the birth of the second in March 1791.
Morgan has long been acclaimed for his elegant penmanship and as a singing master. He conducted both writing and singing schools, apparently traveling widely to do the latter. He has been detected as far afield as the Susquehanna River area (Wyoming Valley) of Pennsylvania and Jericho (now Bainbridge, NY). It has been speculated that he may have gone as far south as Baltimore, MD.
Morgan’s music was psalmody or fuguing tunes. This music is considered to be America’s first distinctive style of music. It has been called “America’s first original art music”. Fuguing tunes are a complex musical composition that involved the theme being elaborately repeated by voices or musical instruments. They require much practice and skill to execute successfully.
By European Standards, however, the New Englanders’ attempts to compose music would have been considered rustic as it lacked the musical pattern of English anthems. In psalmody the text of the music governs its musical structure. The native New England composers were not formally educated in musicianship. Psalmody closely reflected the Calvinist Protestant religious practices of the day. The Calvinists practiced “sacred harmony” as singers of psalms. They were popular with the congregations of the Congregational and Baptist churches which dominated New England culture.
Morgan’s musical compositions are now highly regarded as exceptional, original pieces of music. The rest of his musical compositions are described as having “vivid pictorial quality” which appealed to its audience. The musicianship which created it was highly imaginative if untutored. The “Judgment Anthem” was particularly popular and contained many difficult parts which required singers of exceptional ability.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Morgan did not publish a tune book, many of which were quite thick. However, nine pieces of Morgan’s music survive today in tune books published by others. The first eight were published in Federal Harmony in 1790. The ninth piece was published later. The tune books were widely distributed and used in rural areas until circa 1810 when fuguing tunes went out of style. Many later publications often did not credit Justin Morgan as the original composer.
Fuguing tunes went out of style about 1810 and were replaced by European music which was in vogue. The native New Englander’s fuguing tunes were considered to be rustic and were frequently made fun of by the socially conscious. Although fuguing tunes were relegated to dusty shelves by the trend setters of the early 19th century, they were used in rural areas much longer. This was particularly true of rural Pennsylvania and the Southern mountain areas.
Morgan’s music continued to be used. However, it was changed over time through simplification and the musical scores roughened. They began to sound like folk tunes and when published, were attributed to others. Not until the mid-20th century did the fuguing tunes again regain the attention of the musical world. Morgan’s music was highly acclaimed and appears to have earned a place in history that is as respected as that of his famous horse.
In addition to his ongoing musical activities Morgan continued his horse activities. While in Massachusetts, he had owned a few mares and raised foals by the stallions he stood at stud. One of the last mares he owned was bred to the stallion True Briton the year he left Springfield, in 1788. The resulting bay stud colt foaled in 1789 was to have a profound and far-reaching effect in his role in American history.
Named Figure, the colt was advertised at stud in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1792. He was apparently taken to Randolph by Justin Morgan late that spring as he was no longer advertised at stud after May 21st. Morgan advertised him at stud in 1793, 1794 and 1795. Just when Figure passed out of Morgan’s hands is not certain.
He was no longer advertised by Morgan at stud after 1795. In 1796 he was advertised at stud by Jonathan Shepard of Montpelier, VT. However, he was raced against two New York running horses in Brookfield, VT in 1796 (defeating both easily). That stretch of road is known as “Morgan Mile” to this day and is located close to the place Morgan is said to have lived near the Randolph-Brookfield town line.
Figure went on to become known as the Justin Morgan horse. To dedicated fanciers he was often simply called “The Justin”. He spent the balance of his life in and around the state of Vermont. Legends of his skills as a racing and pulling horse abound, some fanciful, some based on fact.
His most respected quality among horsemen, however, was his ability to reproduce himself and his qualities. His descendants were instantly recognizable for their distinctive look (or type). They were revered for their stamina, beauty, willingness to please and easy keeping qualities on Vermont’s marginal hillside farms.
The descendants of Justin Morgan’s horse played a prominent role in Vermont history by serving as the general purpose horse of the farm. They served as stage horses when the Concord Coach was introduced and stage lines flourished in Vermont. They also fulfilled the role of race horse on America’s early harness racing tracks.
Outside markets developed for Morgan horses in the 1830’s and 1840’s enabling many Vermont farmers to pay off their mortgages or provide school tuition for their children. The First Vermont Cavalry was mounted entirely on Morgans during the Civil War. After the Civil War the Morgan began to lose favor as it was not fast enough for short distance racing on the tracks. It lacked the height desired by many in the city markets.
In the mid to late 19th century Morgan breeding stock helped lay the foundation for other Native American horse breeds. These breeds included the Standard bred, American Saddle bred, Tennessee Walking Horse and in the 20th century, the American Quarter Horse. These specialized breeds often outstripped the Morgan breed’s ability to perform the more specialized tasks.
The Morgan horse was developed as a general purpose horse with an ability to do many tasks well. That versatility continues to stand him in good stead today for those who like a horse that can do a little of everything. The fame of Justin Morgan’s horse quickly outstripped that of his master’s musical abilities.
Justin Morgan died in March 1798 at 51 years of age. He lies buried in the Randolph Center, VT cemetery beside his wife. He had contracted consumption or lung fever (which is now known as tuberculosis). Signs of his debilitation are evident in the deterioration of his fine penmanship in the town’s records. His contributions to the musical world and equine development of the nation have been immeasurable.