Justin Morgan became far more famous for the horse he owned than for the brilliant music he wrote.
A little six-year-old horse he walked from Springfield, Mass., to Randolph, Vt., would father the first, famous American horse breed. That little horse has 175,000 descendants, known by the name of Morgan.
Justin Morgan only owned his horse for three years, but he had a lifelong passion for music. He wrote psalmody, the first distinctive American style of music.
Popular for a while, Morgan’s music was forgotten for more than a century, then rediscovered. Nine of his compositions survive.
Justin Morgan was a descendant of Miles Morgan, an early pioneer of Springfield, Mass., and ancestor of financier J.P. Morgan. The family was described as “substantial yeoman farmers,” involved in civic and church affairs.
Justin was born in 1747, the eighth of 11 children. He probably had a quality education. After he inherited a part of his father’s barn and a small piece of land, he married his cousin, Martha Day. Martha’s brother Luke played sidekick to Daniel Shay, who led the famous rebellion.
Springfield, a cavalry depot during the American Revolution, was a hive of horse activity. While starting his family, Justin Morgan rented horses for stud, ran a farm and served as a part-time tax collector.
Then, after the war, people couldn’t pay their taxes because of hard times and lack of currency. The state could seize tax collectors’ property if they didn’t come up with enough tax receipts. Morgan couldn’t, and he got hauled into court.
Around 1788, he moved his family to the independent Republic of Vermont, perhaps to escape Massachusetts taxes.
In Randolph, Justin Morgan farmed, sold liquor, bred horses, served as town clerk and wrote music on the side. He also taught penmanship and singing. He traveled widely, as far as the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, Bainbridge, N.Y., and perhaps as far as Baltimore.
Just after the Morgan family left Massachusetts, a stallion named Figure was born in Southern New England. His owner may have owed Justin Morgan money. But for whatever reason, he gave the little horse to him. Morgan walked him home to Randolph.
Figure stood just under five feet at the shoulder, athletic, graceful, pleasant and handsome. Strong enough to pull stumps from rocky soil, he had enough speed to win races. Morgan recognized the little horse’s unique qualities, the result of a genetic mutation.
Morgan owned Figure for about three years, advertising him for stud in Randolph and Lebanon, N.H., and Royalton, Williston and Hinesburg, Vt. He leased Figure in 1795 to clear land for $15 a year. He eventually traded the horse for land in Moretown, Vt.
Figure had 11 more owners during his life. They used him for logging, racing and breeding. In 1796, Figure easily won a race against two New York horses in Brookfield, Vt. The stretch of road he raced is known as the “Morgan Mile.”
Three of Figure’s children then became foundation bloodstock: Woodbury, Bulrush and Sherman. Vermont farmers loved them. By the 1830s, Vermont farmers were sold Morgan horses outside the state. Many paid off their mortgages with the proceeds.
The Morgan Horse
Morgans were ridden by Pony Express carriers and President James Monroe. They fought on both sides of the Civil War, favored by officers and the First Vermont Cavalry Regiment. When the regiment captured a Confederate soldier, he said, “It was yer hosses done likked us!” A Morgan horse was the only survivor of Little Big Horn.
In 1821, another horse kicked Figure and he died of his injuries. His owner buried him in Tunbridge, Vt.
In 1907, the US Department of Agriculture decided to perpetuate and improve the Morgan breed, so it established the US Morgan Horse Farm near Middlebury, Vt. The University of Vermont eventually took over the farm in 1951.
Justin Morgan died of tuberculosis in 1798, three years after he sold Figure. He left five children. Two had died before reaching adulthood. He wrote one of his hymns, Amanda, on the death of his infant daughter.
Morgan’s musical compositions, known as psalmody, are complex with elaborate repetitions of a theme. They take great skill to execute.
Morgan’s music was popular with Congregational and Baptist churches throughout New England. Today his compositions are viewed as outstanding original folk music.
Some of his songs were printed in tune books published by others and sold widely. They then fell out of style in the cities around 1810, when European music came into fashion. Social snobs made fun of the rustic New England psalmody.
Justin Morgan, Rediscovered
Then in the mid-20th century, it was rediscovered during a revival of early American music.
Conductor Leopold Stokowski led the Houston Symphony Orchestra in Fantasy on a Hymn Tune (listen to it here. The Ebenezer Church choir in Dunwoody, Ga., performed his hymn Montgomery (watch it here.) Amanda has been performed by Czech choral group Ensemble Versus.
Marguerite Henry wrote an award-winning children’s book about Justin Morgan published in 1945. Called Justin Morgan Had a Horse, Disney made it into a film in 1972.
Images: Morgan Horse Farm By Greenmountainboy – Own work. This photo uploaded with Wiki Loves Monuments mobile 1.2.5 (Android)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22178500. Morgan Horse By Laura Behning. – Emma Brunberg, Leif Andersson, Gus Cothran, Kaj Sandberg, Sofia Mikko und Gabriella Lindgren. A missense mutation in PMEL17 is associated with the Silver coat color in the horse. BMC Genet. 2006; 7: 46. Published online 2006 October 9. doi:10.1186/1471-2156-7-46, also available from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1617113 – license: CC BY 2.0., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1907056.
This story updated in 2022.