- Fred Carstensen
Morris, Nelson (21 January 1838–28 August 1907), cattle trader, breeder, and meatpacker, was born in Hechingen, Germany, a province of Hohensollern; his parents’ names are unknown. His father had raised cattle in the Black Forest but, implicated in a plot to unite the area with Switzerland, fled to America. Morris thus arrived with his family in 1851 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, utterly poor, without formal education, and speaking no English. He had already worked in Germany selling rags, skins, and copper for his father; in America he took whatever odd jobs he could find and peddled for two years. In 1853 he headed north, working as a charcoal hauler in Lakerville, Connecticut; he then traveled west, working on boats on the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. When he arrived in Chicago, he took a job cleaning animal pens at John B. Sherman’s Bull’s Head Yard (Sherman later founded and promoted the Union Stock Yards). In winter he would work all night, watching hogs to ensure against their crowding together and suffocating. By the time Sherman moved his operations to his Lake Shore Yards, Morris was the feedmaster.
While still working for Sherman, Morris began in 1856 to purchase crippled and smothered hogs, which he sold to renderers. Morris often made his purchases at the end of the market week, taking whatever had not been sold when farmers were ready to accept almost any price. He soon expanded his venture by buying cattle as well, principally from farmers in Blue Island, which he sold to Sherman. In 1859 Morris was ready to become a full-time livestock broker (he was not Chicago’s first; that distinction belongs to Solomon P. Hopkins). Sherman encouraged him to do so, lending him money to get started and offering advice. In 1863 Morris married Sarah Vogel; they had five children.
Morris’s firm began in 1859 as a partnership with Isaac Waixel, a recent German immigrant knowledgeable about livestock. They soon established themselves as a leading firm by securing a major contract to provide meat for the Union army. By the end of the Civil War they were the sole meat provider for the Army of the West. Building on this experience, Morris would sustain goods links to governments, handling major contracts for the American, French, British, and German governments. This foundation propelled Morris into leadership in the live cattle trade from Chicago to Atlanta and made him a pioneer in transatlantic shipments, which he initiated in 1868 with shipments to Glasgow and London. By 1885 he had perfected techniques for handling livestock on ships, such as the design of stalls and specialized vessels, and among seagoing cattle mortality had dropped to below 1 percent. Morris also did some of the earliest experiments with shipping frozen beef to eastern markets, shipping frozen sides during the winter in standard boxcars (this succeeded only when the weather cooperated). Morris was a pioneer in transporting dressed beef to the seaboard.
With Hopkins and Samuel Allerton, Morris became the first, in 1865, to move his firm to the Union Stock Yards, creating the first consolidated stockyard with extensive, direct railroad connections. (Although John B. Sherman founded the Union Stock Yards, he was not himself a packer or a major trader.) The move was an immediate, unparalleled success, quickly putting all of the old, dispersed yards out of business. Morris’s own facility there eventually covered thirty acres. By 1873, when his revenues exceeded $11 million, Morris also began to handle pork, and by 1877 he was sufficiently established to expand his pork packinghouse. He then added packing plants in three other cities: East St. Louis, Illinois; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Kansas City, Kansas. In 1883 Morris joined Nathaniel Fairbank in a firm that produced and shipped dressed beef, canned meats, and butterine; in 1884 he began building his own refrigerated railroad cars and establishing branch sales houses. By 1888 he had nine branches spread throughout eastern cities and was the third largest meatpacker in the country. Thus, Morris followed a pattern of rarely pushing innovation himself but quickly exploiting techniques that others—principally Gustavus Swift—had demonstrated were successful.
In 1889 the practices of the “Big Four” meatpackers (Armour, Hammond, Morris, and Swift), which included price fixing and division of sales territories, came under scrutiny in a Senate investigation chaired by Senator George G. Vest; its report in 1890 was highly critical of the meatpackers, accusing them of collusion to control the meat market. Even if true, these alleged practices gave Morris little benefit in the 1890s: though slaughtering 5,000 to 8,000 cattle a day and as many pigs and sheep, and though generating nearly $1 billion in sales, the company’s profits were barely .5 percent. In 1893 Morris turned most management responsibilities over to his son Edward. Over the next thirty years, the company decreased in significance, and in 1923 Armour bought its physical assets.
Morris, like Swift, was an expert butcher in his own right, as well as a skilled cattle buyer. After he married, Morris built a large frame home at Indiana and Twenty-fifth Streets, just a “buggy ride away” from the yards. He arrived at his office when the yards opened at 6 A.M., coming in with the regular employees. Although Morris often struck people as cold and cruel, those close to him judged him as “warm-hearted.”
In addition to his importance as a meatpacker, Morris did significant work in breeding, which he carried out on a 300,000-acre ranch in Texas, another 30,000-acre spread in Indiana, and a third ranch of 30,000 acres in Nebraska. He was perhaps the first to import Polled-Angus and Galloway cattle. These large operations also made him at one point the largest cattle finisher in North America, handling 75,000 head annually.
In addition to serving as the president of both Nelson Morris & Company and Fairbanks Canning Company, Morris served as a director of the First National Bank, the First Trust and Savings Bank, the National Live Stock Bank, the People’s Trust and Savings Bank, the New England Stockyards Company, the Brighton Stockyards Company, the St. Joseph Stockyards Company, the Western Meat Company, the South Omaha Land Company, the San Francisco Land Improvement Company, and the Union Rendering Company. He was also a major owner of Chicago real estate. He established the Nelson Morris Institute of Pathological Research and was a major contributor to Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital. He died in his beloved Chicago home.
Morris was one of the principal actors in the development of the modern meatpacking industry, especially in developing export markets in Europe. Although he was rarely himself an innovator, he was an aggressive competitor who quickly exploited opportunities, thus pushing others to do the same.
The only extant original sources are Morris’s correspondence, included in the Jeremiah McLain Rusk Papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The autobiography of Ira Nelson Morris, Heritage from My Father: An Autobiography (1947), provides limited information on Morris’s career. There is substantial literature on the development of the meat-packing industry, the central role that it played in the development of refrigeration technology, and its sometimes bitter relationship with railroads. See Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr., Refrigeration in America (1953); Rudolf A. Clemen, The American Livestock and Meat Industry (1923); Wilfred V. Casgrain, Memorandum on the Life of George H. Hammond, 1838–1886 (1945); and Mary Yeager Kujovich, “The Refrigerator Car and the Growth of the American Dressed Beef Industry,” Business History Review 44, no. 4 (Winter 1970): 460–82. See also Jimmy M. Skaggs, Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607–1983 (1986); Mary Yeager, Competition and Regulation: The Development of Oligopoly in the Meat Packing Industry (1981); and Louise Carroll Wade, Chicago’s Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century (1987).