The Maypole of Merry Mount


However, Morton’s attraction to New England was not only by way of material gain. Indeed, the special charm of New English Canaan lies in its warm sensitivity to nature as such. The book abounds with small, sharp descriptions of animal biology and behavior: the flying squirrel “with bat like winges, which hee spreads when hee jumpes from tree to tree,” the rattlesnake’s tail “which soundeth (when it is in motion,) like pease in a bladder,” the beaver’s way of drawing logs “with the help of other beavers (which held by each others tayles like a teeme of horses).…” One feels in all this an ease, a quiet confidence, a kind of concert between the man and his surroundings. Occasionally Morton’s tone becomes downright playful. “Turkies,” he writes, have “divers times in great flocks … sallied by our doores; and then a gunne (being commonly in a redinesse,) salutes them with such a courtesie, as makes them take a turne in the Cooke roome. They daunce by the doore so well.”

At some points the warmth of Morton’s feelings overwhelms his powers of observation—and strains his reader’s credulity. New England, he tells us, seems a “paradice” of “goodly groves of trees; dainty fine round rising hillucks: delicate faire large plaines; sweete cristall fountaines; and cleare running streames.…” Its very atmosphere is of such “excellency” that sickness has scarcely been known there; what is more, “divers arematicall herbes, and plants … with their vapors perfume the aire.…” The winds are “not so violent as in England,” the rains “more moderate,” the climate “a golden meane betwixt … the hole and cold.…” Take it altogether, and “in mine eie, t’was Natures Master-peece,” Morton concludes. “If this Land” be not rich, then is the whole world poore.”

Furthermore, the riches of the land are matched by the gifts and virtues of its native people. Morton describes at length the ingenuity of the Indians in practical things like house construction, garment-making, hunting, and fishing, their “Subtilety” in personal relations, their hardihood in the face of adversity, even their “admirable perfection, in the use of the sences.” But what he most admires is their moral character. Notwithstanding their ignorance of religion—and Morton says he would be “more willing to beleeve that the Elephants … doe worship the moone” than that Indians “have [any] kinde of worship”—their conduct is in many ways exemplary. They are honest, direct, generous to a fault. They especially discountenance lying and thievery. They share with one another the necessities of life: thus “Platoes Commonwealth is so much practiced by these people.” They value “usefull things,” not “baubles.” In sum, “According to humane reason guided onely by the light of nature, these people leades the more happy and freer life, being voyde of care, which torments the mindes of so many Christians.…”

This rosy estimate was based on a prolonged, and apparently quite close, acquaintance. “I have seene,” “I have observed,” “I have known them”: so speaks the first-person voice of authenticity. Indeed, New English Canaan offers many glimpses of Morton’s life among the Indians. One man “who had lived in my howse before hee had taken a wife” asked Morton to board his young son (that the boy should “thereby … become an Englishman…”). Another was wont to join Morton in deer hunting. Yet another had guided him to significant points in the countryside, such as the sites of duels with “the trees marked for a memoriall of the Combat.…”

Of course it was trade—the buying and selling of “commodities”—that formed the basis for these shared experiences with Indians. And just here Merry Mount differed sharply from its better-known neighbor “plantations.” At Plymouth, at Boston, and later at Hartford, New Haven, Providence, and elsewhere, the aim was to establish permanent communities based on a principle of self -provision. In these other places trade was secondary to agriculture and artisanship. In a sense these communities looked in on themselves, while Merry Mount faced out toward the wilderness. It is no accident, therefore, that Thomas Morton has more to tell us of New England and its original inhabitants than William Bradford, John Winthrop, and other resident-authors of the time.

But for all that, it was Plymouth and Boston that controlled the future; and it was Plymouth and Boston that would snuff out Merry Mount within a few years. The events that led to this are still not fully clear, but the notorious maypole surely played its part. In the spring of 1627, according to Morton, the Merry Mount group “did devise amongst themselves” a plan for “Revels, & merriment after the old English custome.…” A maypole was indeed constructed from “a goodly pine tree of 80. foote longe,” and fitted out with ribbons, garlands of flowers, and a “peare of buckshorns” nailed to the top. Large quantities of food and drink were laid by; “drumes, gunnes, pistols, and other fitting instruments” were brought in to provide a satisfactory clamor. Indians arrived to watch—and, no doubt, to participate. The party continued for days. Morton mentions in particular “a merry song … sung with a Corus” while “they performed in a daunce, hand in hand about the Maypole.…” The words, presumably, conveyed the spirit of the whole occasion: