- 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
No early English settler was more delighted with New England than was Thomas Morton, lawyer of Clifford’s Inn, London. He had none of the dour misgivings of William Bradford and the other Mayflower Pilgrims who had landed at Plymouth less than two years before. From the moment he stepped ashore at Massachusetts Bay, in June, 1622, he fell in love with this American earth: its Indians, its wild life and plants, and its beauty. Only Captain John Smith left a more complete record of its resources. But Smith wrote mostly as a blunt, prosaic soldier, while every word in Morton’s account glows with enthusiasm.
He came with thirty well-heeled proprietors under Captain Wollaston, who brought many indentured servants and ample supplies to start a successful plantation near the southwest corner of Boston Harbor at what was called Mount Wollaston and which today is known as Quincy.
While the houses were building, Morton rushed through the countryside. “I do not thinke that in all the knowne world it could be parallel’d ... so many goodly groves of trees; dainty fine round rising hillucks . . . sweet crystal fountains, and cleare running streams ... in fine meanders through the meads, making so sweet a murmering noise to hear ... so pleasantly do they glide upon the pebble stones, jetting most jocundly . . . Fowles in abundance, Fish in multitudes . . . Millions of Turtle doves . . . pecking at the full ripe pleasant grapes.” He described the lilies and the flowers of the “Daphnean tree.” It was Paradise, ̶’twas Nature’s Master-peece ... if this land be not rich, then is the whole world poore.”
He found nearly all the animals, birds, fish and plants larger or better, the savor of the flesh superior, to those of England. The air was fragrant with the odor of herbs, and all had “more masculine virtue” than those at home. Here acorns, nuts and clams fed to swine produced “the delicatest bacon” known. The red cedars and firs were the equal of those Solomon had used to build “the glorious temple at Jerusalem.” The cypress trees, even more beautiful, were tough enough for the masts and yards of the “biggest ship” that ever sailed “the main Oceane.”
He was enraptured with the falcons and the sheen of hummingbirds, the swans, ducks and geese. He often had a thousand geese before the mouth of his gun and in a short time could kill enough to pay for all his powder and shot for an entire year.
He marveled at the large herds of “griseled” deer, the moose and reindeer, “the finest in all Christendom.” His description of the beaver is charming; forefeet like a “cunny,” and “hinder feet” like a goose; and he told how they cut trees with their teeth and how they took each other’s tails in their mouths to haul big logs to their dams like teams of horses; how they always sat with their tails hanging in the water, “which else would heat and rot off.”
Otter skins, “black as Jett,” were worth “3 or 4 angels of gold” each; the black wolf’s skin was “a present for a prince.” The bear’s fur was of “great utility” and the flesh better than beef for he fed upon berries, nuts and fish and was a “tyrante at a Lobster,” which he groped for at low tide “with great diligence.”
Cod was a better source of prosperity than all the gold of the Spanish Main. Enough bass filled the stream by his house to load a hundred-ton ship. He could not throw a stone without hitting one and sometimes could cross over on their backs dry-shod. Merely the head provided a good dinner, and the taste excelled the “marybones of beefe.” Mackerel, trying to escape the bass, “shot themselves a shore,” and whole hogsheads could be taken up from the sand. Smelt could be scooped up by basketfuls. Halibut were so large, two men could scarcely lift one out of the water. Salmon and hake, “a dainty white fish,” came in multitudes. The sturgeon were so fat they were yellow. The swarming shad were used only “to dung the ground.” A thousand per acre would triple the corn yield. He became so sated with lobsters—for five hundred to a thousand came in with each tide—that for five years he used them only for bait. Some oyster beds were a mile long, the mussels were “fat and large.” He defied anyone to show him “the like in any known part of the world.”
He found the hospitality and customs of the Indians in many ways superior to those of his fellow Europeans. He often visited their admirable, tough, walnutbark tepees, sat on their reed mats, sewn with hemp thread and cranes’ leg-bone needles, and slept on their eighteen-inch-high beds of spring branches, covered with mats and furs. His hosts woke him gently, tendering a wooden bowl of meat, saying “’Cart up jeene Mechin—eat if you are hungry’ . . . Such was their humanity.”
Their marvelous sense powers seemed “the intelligence of the Devil!” They could spot a ship two hours’ sail away, distinguish between a Spaniard and a Frenchman by the scent of the hand, sort out the crisscross tracks of deer by sniffing the earth.
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.
All the Merry Mounters were in the woods, but with two companions, Morton laid out his guns and bullets to resist. According to Bradford of Plymouth, they were so drunk one fell on the point of a sword held before his nose and lost some of his “hot blood.” Morton told a different story. The “worthies” coming “before the Denne of this supposed Monster . . . began like Don Quixote against the windmill,” coming “within danger like a flock of wild geese . . . tailed one to another, as cats to be sold at a faire.” To “save effusion of such worthy blood,” he capitulated on the promise of no violence to him or his possessions and that he could retain his arms.
The promises were not kept. He was brought to Plymouth, where they were puzzled whether to punish him or to deport him to England. According to Morton’s story, Standish thrust him on a desert island, “without gunne, powder or shot, or dogge or so much as a knife” to provide himself with something to eat. But the Indians brought him food and drink, “so full of humanity were these infidels before those Christians.” Presently he slipped off to England on a fishing boat.
Nothing was done to him there. The Plymouth agent showed up with “a big bag of gold” to get him punished, but was told “Leave Mine Host alone.”
Wrathfully William Bradford tossed aside his violet cape and stood before Plymouth court in his scarlet grogram suit, breeches and vest, to ask for action once more against Thomas Morton.
Isaac Allerton, the colony’s own agent, had brought him back to Plymouth as his secretary and had installed him in his own house, “as if to nose them.”
Morton was ordered out of town.
Back in his “old nest” in Massachusetts, he faced trouble from a new quarter. John Endecott—”a great swelling fellow,” whom Morton dubbed “Littleworth”—had arrived in Salem, armed with a patent for all Massachusetts. “In his progress to and froe,” Endecott used the patent, locked up in a covered case, as an emblem of authority, which vulgar people took to be “some instrument of musick” and “this man of littleworth ... a fiddler.” He forced all people to accept his “articles of government” drawn up “by himself and the Salem minister” or else “pack.”
Mine Host Morton refused to sign such “a very mousetrap,” or to put his goods into a “general stock” to be traded by one body headed by Endecott himself. At the end of twelve months, not only were the colonies without corn, which had all been traded off, but had to make up a heavy loss to Littleworth. General sickness was compounded by hunger, and more than half the people died. Morton, who had saved his own stock “from such a cancer” and had profited six- or seven-fold, “derided the Contributors” for having been “catch’d in that snare.”
Endecott had “an akeing tooth at mine Host of Ma-Re-Mount” and ordered Morton’s goods seized. Endecott’s deputies feasted at Morton’s expense and carried off everything except “a small parcell of refuse corn with which to celebrate Christmas.” But Mine Host “merrily” derided Captain Littleworth, sending word he was getting along well on game and venison.
In July, 1630, seven ships arrived, bringing Governor John Winthrop—“their Joshua”—with settlers and supplies to take charge of all Massachusetts. “What!” cried Morton, gazing upon the largest flotilla of vessels ever to come to the English colonies, “Are all the 12 Tribes of the new Israel come? No, none but the Tribe of Assacar” and some “scattered Levites, remnants of the descendants of Eli ... come to rid the Land of all pollution.”
Morton was quickly hailed before the General Court and confronted with flimsy charges. The real “snare,” he believed, was that he had refused to despise the Common Prayer Book. “Wherefore,” he demanded, “are you so violent against a man you never saw before?” They shouted him down: “Hear the Governour! Hear the Governour!”
Without more ado, Winthrop sentenced him to the stocks, and ordered all his goods confiscated, his plantation burned and that he be banished “with all speede.”
Only friendly Indians protested against this harsh sentence in words of “unexpected divinity,” reproving those “Eliphants of witt for their inhuman deed” and warning them the Lord “would not love them,” and that the colonists would rue destroying such good shelter.
Winthrop’s agents came “like Sampson’s foxes with firebrands on their tails.” Nothing remained of Merry Mount “except the bare ashes as an emblem of their cruelty,” a “very sacrifice of Kain.”
Morton was thrust into the hold of the Handmaid —like “Jonah in the whale’s belly”—allowed only three small pieces of pork for two or three months’ provision. He decided to have one good meal before he died and invited the sailors to the feast. Thereafter they shared their rations with him, however scant. In England, after brief imprisonment in Exeter gaol, he was released without charges.
He wrote a biting book, New English Canaan , and aligned himself with Sir Ferdinando Gorges and others trying to get the Massachusetts charter revoked. The testimony of Morton and others who had been maltreated by the Visible Saints, before the King’s Privy Council, was telling, and the royal edict went out, granting authority to Gorges.
But Gorges’ ships met disaster, and civil war in England prevented the carrying out of Morton’s hopes for revenge on his persecutors.
Morton may have been sincerely concerned over High Church ritual, but what he craved was to get back to beloved New England, and the only way to do so safely was to get rid of the Puritans. His craving for the good earth of the New World, plus an unfavorable shift in English politics, led him to risk putting himself once more in the clutches of the Saints.
December 10, 1643, Winthrop’s Journal reported that Thomas Morton, “our professed old adversary, who had set forth a book against us and had written reproachful and menacing letters to some of us,” had arrived in Boston on the Hopewell .
He was thrown into jail to await additional evidence from England. There he lay for nearly a year. Then, without proper trial, he was fined £100, all he had left in the world, but, since he was now “old and crazy,” no corporal punishment was inflicted except to send him out of Massachusetts’ jurisdiction.
He went into the northern wilderness where, according to Winthrop, he lived “poor and despised” until his death two years later.
No man ever loved the American earth more, and he bequeathed to us a beautiful, pungent and moving story of the land and its people. He loved the freedom of America and tried to augment it. For all his waywardness, pedantry and bitterness, he shines like a single bright gem from out the dourness and solemnity of early settlement with its prevailing intolerance and persecution, soon to be challenged by far abler men such as Roger Williams and Thomas Hooker. Even before the Saints broke Morton’s spirit, there in the tight little circle of “the Blue Hills of Massachusetts,” voices were already demanding democratic expression, free government, free enterprise and religious tolerance.