- 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
Meanwhile a new shadow began to loom from the north. Endicott had been the leader of a small advance guard, and in 1630 the Puritan migration to Massachusetts began in earnest. This group, though not “separatist” (that is, cut off from the English mother church) like the Plymouth settlers, would be no less hostile to Morton and his irreverent ways. In fact, the former scenario soon repeated itself: confrontation, arrest, banishment to England. The charge was “a multitude of complaints were received” for harm done by him to both the English and the Indians; but more than that, the Puritan leadership wanted him out of the way. The court directed that all his goods be confiscated and his house burned to the ground. The order was carried out as the prisoner watched from the deck of the ship that would once more carry him overseas.
Through the next dozen years the trail of Thomas Morton can be followed only intermittently. His tracks appear most often in the records of various courts and commissions—the scene of his efforts to undo the “Kingdome of the Seperatists” (and his other New England adversaries) behind their backs. For this he was able to call on his skills as a lawyer—and as a writer. New English Canaan was composed sometime between 1632 and 1635, largely for political reasons. Morion’s glowing picture of New England and its “commodities” was meant to heighten royal interest there, while his account of Puritan misgovernment would presumably arouse royal indignation. The issue of the colonial charters did, in fact, reach the highest levels of Court administration, and at least twice revocation seemed near. But the outbreak of the English Civil War, in 1642, removed any realistic chance of turning official attention toward such remote problems.
There was, however, one route left to try: Morton could go back to his beloved “Canaan” to assert his claims in person. And by this time his claims had become very large indeed. With patents and commissions variously obtained he hoped to prove ownership of vast tracts in Maine, in Connecticut, in the Narragansett country of Rhode Island, and on Martha’s Vineyard.
So it was that, in autumn 1643, he went westward across the Atlantic for the third and final time. As before, he landed at Plymouth; as before, he was greeted with much doubt and suspicion but was allowed to stay through the winter. Spring found him on the move through the wilderness, in pursuit of his ever-receding goals. Far from becoming a rich landowner at last, he “lived meanly” (so said his old Pilgrim antagonists) and “could not procure the least respect” from anyone. His land claims came to nothing.
Again the long arm of Puritan law caught up with him. Arrested in Massachusetts in September 1644, he was accused of having made “complaint against us” to the royal privy council. Why this should have been accounted a crime is far from clear, but in any case Morton could scarcely deny it. (A related accusation, that he had “set forth a book against us,” could not be proved, since there was no copy of New English Canaan at hand.) The magistrates sent to England for “further evidence,” while the defendant languished in a Boston jail. There he remained for almost a year— “laid in Irons,” he complained, “to the decaying of his Limbs.” Eventually the court released him (“being old and crazy”) with a view to enabling him “to go out of the jurisdiction.” And go he did—to a tiny fishing station in non-Puritan Maine. There he lived, Winthrop tells us, “poor and despised, [and] died within two years after.”
It is fitting that what little we know of Morton’s death should come from John Winthrop. For Morton’s life would scarcely have been known to us but for the Puritans. Had he chosen to settle in Virginia or Maryland or New York, had he traded there with Indians, and raised a maypole, and led a springtime revel “after the old English custome,” he would have gone unrecorded and unremembered. If he is in our history books today, and even in our folklore, it is because the Puritans put him there.
The Merry Mount-Puritan contrast is, in fact, still instructive. The Puritans’ encounter with presettlement New England went all one way: in their own terms, the Indians had to be “civilized” (or eradicated), the “howling wilderness” had to be progressively transformed into a “pleasant garden.” The sheer force of it all was, and remains, impressive. Here is a prototype of much that came later in American history: the conquest of frontiers and their native populations, the massive development of environmental bounty, the whole “go-ahead spirit.”
But Morton shows us another way—what might have been but wasn’t. A willingness to bend to the wilderness, to learn from it, to enjoy its beauty (as well as its abundant “commodities”); an appreciation for the strange ways of a “savage” people; an instinct for compromise between human need and environmental constraint—if there is any enduring message from Morton and Merry Mount, that is it. On our shrinking planet of the late twentieth century, it sounds almost modern—and not a little appealing.