The Maypole of Merry Mount


TIME: Summer, 1628.

PLACE: Merry Mount, a small coastal settlement on the edge of the Massachusetts wilderness. “Pilgrim” Plymouth lies somewhat to the south; “Puritan” Boston will not be founded for another two years.

ACTION: A group of young revelers, Englishmen and Indians together, dance around a lofty maypole. There is food and drink aplenty; jollity reigns. Caught in the spirit of the moment, the revelers do not sense an alien presence in the forest nearby. Then a band of Pilgrim foot soldiers bursts onto the scene. The dancing stops. The maypole comes down. Merry Mount will be merry no more.

Thus, the scenario above is a familiar set piece from the lore of early American history. But the script can be shaded in various ways. In one version this is a story of God-fearing pioneers clearing out a nest of wickedness. In another it is a tale of bigots and busybodies aroused to action against the innocent pleasures of simple country people. In still others, the elements are blended in more complicated ways. Indeed, Merry Mount figures in various guises in the work of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Robert Lowell.

Like all such set pieces, this one has its cast of stick-figure characters. The principals are Miles Standish, captain of the Pilgrim band, and Thomas Morton, chief of the Merry Mount revelers. Standish, of course, is a folklore perennial, known to generations of schoolchildren from his own time to ours. But who was Morton? “A lord of misrule and riot and sin,” writes Longfellow (taking his cue from William Bradford). “A merry man … [who] liked a merry frolic … [and] said ‘Those long-nosed Pilgrims give an honest heart the colic,’” counters Benét (following Hawthorne and Morton himself). In fact there is a real historical personage buried somewhere in these contradictions—a man whose life can still speak to us across the centuries.

Almost nothing is known of his origins. An educated guess has him born about the year 1580, somewhere in the English “West country.” He claimed for himself the status of a “gentleman” and the training of an attorney. Certainly he practiced law in the environs of London. His first definite appearance in any records still extant came with a series of legal proceedings that began about 1618; he was representing a certain widow Miller in a struggle with her eldest son for control of family properties. In 1621 Morton married his client and became himself a principal in the Millers’ court case. The upshot, however, was a complete victory for the son, and a magistrate’s complaint that Morton had “sold all [his wife’s] goods, even to her wearing apparel, and is fled.”

Early in 1627 Morton wrote, the Merry Mount group “did devise amongst themselves” a plan for “Revels, & merriment after the old English custome.”

With this Morton then recedes into obscurity, emerging a couple of years later on the shores of New England. He belonged now to a shipload of would-be colonists led by a trader and sea captain named Wollaston. A landing was made near the site of the present-day town of Quincy, Massachusetts, and before long the group had erected a modest settlement there. The following spring, however, Captain Wollaston decamped to Virginia, taking most of the erstwhile settlers with him. Perhaps no more than a dozen remained—among whom Morton became de facto leader.

This settlement was the germ of the place that Morton would soon christen Ma-re Mount—and that others would know as Merry Mount. It was, in fact, less a full-fledged community than a simple trading station, one of several such scattered around the perimeter of Massachusetts Bay. The goal was a share in the fur trade with local Indians, and there are reasons to think it was rapidly achieved.

Much of what we know about all this comes from an oddly engaging book written by Thomas Morton some years after Merry Mount’s demise. Entitled New English Canaan , this work mixes propaganda, self-promotion, travel notes, and literary effect in roughly equal proportions. Long sections detail the manifold “commodities” of wilderness New England. (“The Otter … hath a furre so black as jett, and is a furre of very highe price.… Ducks, there are of three kindes … very fatt and dainty flesh.… Oakes are there of two sorts, white and redd … and they are found to be a tymber, that is more tough than the oak of England.”) Indeed, this catalog of commodities reveals a commercial ambition extending well beyond the matter of furs. Morton conjures up visions of trade with far-off partners: barrel staves, for example, will make a “prime commodity” in the Canary Islands, while codfish will prove “better than the golden mines of the Spanish Indies; for without dried Codd the Spaniard, Portingal, and Italian, would not be able to vittel of a shipp for the Sea.…”