- Historic Sites
The Maypole of Merry Mount
Had Thomas Morton raised his maypole anywhere but next door to the Pilgrims, history and legend probably would have no record of him, his town, or his “lascivious” revels
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
In due course news of the Merry Mount revels reached Plymouth, some forty miles to the south, and provoked a predictable outrage. In Bradford’s eyes it was all a matter of “scandall” and “lasciviousness,” something that recalled the “beastly practices of ye madd Bacchinalians!” (The maypole he branded an outright “idol.”) But it was another year before he and his Plymouth colleagues could find sufficient pretext to intervene.
In fact, there was more than a maypole to worry the “precise Seperatists” (as Morton called them). The fur trade at Merry Mount was flourishing; increasingly, Bradford charged, its basis was guns and liquor. With firearms in the hands of the Indians, Englishmen all over Massachusetts would be endangered. Morton seems not to have denied the accusation, though he did deny trading in liquors. Finally, in the spring of 1628, the Plymouth leaders joined with representatives of the smaller settlements along the coast to plan a concerted response. They elected, first, to “write to him [Morton] and in a friendly & neighborly way to admonish him to forbear those courses.” But when he “scorned all advice,” they felt obliged to proceed to stronger measures.
Merry Mount realized the Englishmen’s worst fears of wilderness—a crumbling of civilized ways and a reversion to savagery.
Miles Standish and his band of soldiers set out for Merry Mount in early June, with orders to apprehend “this wicked man.” But Morton proved to be absent—visiting, it seemed, at a neighboring settlement. They followed him and made their arrest, only to lose him again in a midnight escape. Morton then made his way back to Merry Mount with Standish in hot pursuit. And there a second arrest was made. This time they made it stick. Captors and captive marched away to Plymouth, from where Morton was “sent to England a prisoner.” The sequence is fully detailed—with mixed bitterness and hilarity—in the concluding section of New English Canaan .
The ostensible charge against Morton was that he traded firearms to Indians—a practice forbidden, so the Plymouth leadership claimed, by royal proclamation. But behind this lay deeper worries. There was the maypole and the explicit affront it gave to Pilgrim sensibilities. There was the prospect that Merry Mount would become a magnet to evildoers—a place where runaway servants, “discontents,” and “all ye scume of ye countrie … would flock” without regard for law or duty. And there was a darker threat implicit in Morton’s close ties to the land and its “savage” people. “Lasses in beaver coats come away,/yee shall be welcome to us night and day,” the Maypole revelers had sung. How revolting, how horrifying to right-thinking Englishmen! Merry Mount had realized their worst fears of the wilderness—the crumbling of civilized ways and a reversion to savagery.
There is no record of Morton’s arrival in England, but evidently he did not stand trial. He seems, instead, to have remained free to pursue his own interests—and to subvert those of his Plymouth adversaries. He began at this time a lasting alliance with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an English courtier with strong claims of his own to land in New England. Henceforth Morton, Gorges, and various associates would work almost continuously to undermine the legal foundations of the Puritan colonies.
Surprisingly Morton managed to recross the ocean to New England, barely a year from the time of his departure in chains. Indeed, his first stop was at Plymouth—“in the very faces” of Bradford and company, he wrote, and “to their terrible amazement to see him at liberty.” A few weeks later he was back in his house by the bay. The maypole was gone—destroyed the preceding autumn by the Massachusetts magistrate John Endicott. And the name Merry Mount had been changed to Mount Dagon. But otherwise the little settlement remained intact. Morton resumed his Indian trade—more quietly this time.