- Historic Sites
The Rebels Of Merry Mount
Thomas Morton liked the lush country, the Indians liked Thomas—and the stern Puritans cared little for either
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
They wore their soft skins with fur inside in winter, outside in summer. Their woven turkey-feather coats and soft moose or bearskin mantles were decorated around the edges “like lace set on by a taylor.” They wore their deerskin stockings, fastened at the belt, inside their flexible moose-skin shoes “like stirrop stockings.” The tail of the deerskin served as a girdle to which they tied a bag with instruments for making fire. The woman’s mantle, two deerskins sewed together, trailed behind “like a Great Ladies’ Train.” When changing clothes, they slipped the new cloak on under the old, “being unwilling ... to discover their nakedness . . . Therein they seem to have as much modesty as civilized people, and deserve to be applauded for it.”
He told of their wampum money, their crafts and trade. Their highly esteemed “Ingling Powah” or medicine men effected remarkable cures and were paid just as were English physicians.
Morton was especially impressed by the Indians’ respect for their aged, their good humor and lack of quarreling, their generosity and equal sharing of all things, “the wife excepted.” They were so compassionate “that rather than one should starve . . . they would starve all.” There were no hungry beggars, no gaols, no gallows “furnished with poor wretches.” And Morton added, “Plato’s commonwealth is much practised by these people,” mostly “more Christian” than the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Boston Bay site proved less rewarding than Captain Wollaston had anticipated, so he took some of the indentured servants to Virginia and sold them at such good profit that he ordered others sent on. Morton, who could not bear to see the settlement broken up, assembled those remaining and warned them of their impending fate. As a proprietor, he offered to receive them as “partners and consociates,” free from bondage. “We will converse, plant, trade and live together as equals and support and protect one another.”
They ran out the lieutenant in charge and set up a free commonwealth, renaming the place Ma-Re-Mount (a translation of the original Indian designation). To celebrate their new freedom, they held a festival on Philip and Jacob’s day, in a “solemn manner with Revels and Merriment after the old English custom.” Helped by the “Salvages” to the accompaniment of “Drums, gunnes, pistols and other fitting instruments,” they put up an eighty-foot Maypole, with a pair of “Buckshorns nailed near the top.” They “brewed a barrel of excellent beer and provided a case of bottles . . . with other good cheer for all comers.”
Morton wrote a complicated allegorical poem to the goddess Maja, with obscure classical references, which he tacked to the pole, and a song which the company sang as they danced “hand in hand about the Maypole,” a “harmless mirth,” in which the Indians and Indian girls “in beaver coats” joined.
Such unseemly pagan revelry, though Merry Mount was remote from Plymouth bounds, sat ill with the “Visible Saints,” who even considered it a sin to celebrate Christmas. For them it was the worship of the golden “Calf of Horeb.” They considered Morton’s poem indecent. Morton gibed back at the Plymouth “moles” unable to converse “with climates of a higher nature.”
The Pilgrims accused Morton of running “a school of atheism”; in the next breath, of adhering to the High Church Common Prayer Book, a sore point with the Saints, who in England had suffered much persecution for refusing to accept it as the word of God. But their fears of Merry Mount went beyond religion and morals. The freeing of indentured servants frightened the proprietors of the other settlements. According to Bradford, Morton entertained any, “how vile soever, and all the scum of the country or any discontents.”
On his side Morton told tales of harsh Puritan injustices, how the Saints had declared a ship captain insane in order to steal his cargo, of a treacherous assassination of Indians at a friendly banquet, of how they had strung up an old man for stealing from the Indians, rather than the strong young artisan who was the real culprit; how they had beaten and bloodied and run into the wilderness a settler demanding free elections and equal food distribution.
But what incensed the other settlers most was Morton’s success with the sacred beaver trade. His friendly, fair treatment of the Indians brought them flocking there. Also, Morton sold them guns, powder and shot, with which they could kill more game and profit more. Bradford called him a “gain-thirsty” murderer for arming the “barbarous savages.” But Morton and his friends amassed large sums in a short time.
Captain Myles Standish was dispatched to break up the Merry Mount settlement. “Mine Host” was captured on a visit to Weymouth, but though a guard slept across the bed, he escaped, leaving Standish’s men butting their heads together in the dark “like rames” and galloped off in a driving storm, only lightning showing him the path.