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The Maypole of Merry Mount

July 2024
12min read

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

TIME: Summer, 1628.

PLACE: Merry Mount, a small coastal settlement on the edge of the Massachusetts wilderness. “Pilgrim” Plymouth lies somewhat to the south; “Puritan” Boston will not be founded for another two years.

ACTION: A group of young revelers, Englishmen and Indians together, dance around a lofty maypole. There is food and drink aplenty; jollity reigns. Caught in the spirit of the moment, the revelers do not sense an alien presence in the forest nearby. Then a band of Pilgrim foot soldiers bursts onto the scene. The dancing stops. The maypole comes down. Merry Mount will be merry no more.

Thus, the scenario above is a familiar set piece from the lore of early American history. But the script can be shaded in various ways. In one version this is a story of God-fearing pioneers clearing out a nest of wickedness. In another it is a tale of bigots and busybodies aroused to action against the innocent pleasures of simple country people. In still others, the elements are blended in more complicated ways. Indeed, Merry Mount figures in various guises in the work of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Robert Lowell.

Like all such set pieces, this one has its cast of stick-figure characters. The principals are Miles Standish, captain of the Pilgrim band, and Thomas Morton, chief of the Merry Mount revelers. Standish, of course, is a folklore perennial, known to generations of schoolchildren from his own time to ours. But who was Morton? “A lord of misrule and riot and sin,” writes Longfellow (taking his cue from William Bradford). “A merry man … [who] liked a merry frolic … [and] said ‘Those long-nosed Pilgrims give an honest heart the colic,’” counters Benét (following Hawthorne and Morton himself). In fact there is a real historical personage buried somewhere in these contradictions—a man whose life can still speak to us across the centuries.

Almost nothing is known of his origins. An educated guess has him born about the year 1580, somewhere in the English “West country.” He claimed for himself the status of a “gentleman” and the training of an attorney. Certainly he practiced law in the environs of London. His first definite appearance in any records still extant came with a series of legal proceedings that began about 1618; he was representing a certain widow Miller in a struggle with her eldest son for control of family properties. In 1621 Morton married his client and became himself a principal in the Millers’ court case. The upshot, however, was a complete victory for the son, and a magistrate’s complaint that Morton had “sold all [his wife’s] goods, even to her wearing apparel, and is fled.”

Early in 1627 Morton wrote, the Merry Mount group “did devise amongst themselves” a plan for “Revels, & merriment after the old English custome.”

With this Morton then recedes into obscurity, emerging a couple of years later on the shores of New England. He belonged now to a shipload of would-be colonists led by a trader and sea captain named Wollaston. A landing was made near the site of the present-day town of Quincy, Massachusetts, and before long the group had erected a modest settlement there. The following spring, however, Captain Wollaston decamped to Virginia, taking most of the erstwhile settlers with him. Perhaps no more than a dozen remained—among whom Morton became de facto leader.

This settlement was the germ of the place that Morton would soon christen Ma-re Mount—and that others would know as Merry Mount. It was, in fact, less a full-fledged community than a simple trading station, one of several such scattered around the perimeter of Massachusetts Bay. The goal was a share in the fur trade with local Indians, and there are reasons to think it was rapidly achieved.

Much of what we know about all this comes from an oddly engaging book written by Thomas Morton some years after Merry Mount’s demise. Entitled New English Canaan , this work mixes propaganda, self-promotion, travel notes, and literary effect in roughly equal proportions. Long sections detail the manifold “commodities” of wilderness New England. (“The Otter … hath a furre so black as jett, and is a furre of very highe price.… Ducks, there are of three kindes … very fatt and dainty flesh.… Oakes are there of two sorts, white and redd … and they are found to be a tymber, that is more tough than the oak of England.”) Indeed, this catalog of commodities reveals a commercial ambition extending well beyond the matter of furs. Morton conjures up visions of trade with far-off partners: barrel staves, for example, will make a “prime commodity” in the Canary Islands, while codfish will prove “better than the golden mines of the Spanish Indies; for without dried Codd the Spaniard, Portingal, and Italian, would not be able to vittel of a shipp for the Sea.…”

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:

Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes, Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes, Io! to Hymen now the day is come, About the merry Maypole take a Roome. Make greene garions, bring bottles out; And fill sweet Nectar, freely about, Uncover thy head, and feare no harme, For hers good liquor to keepe it warme.… Give to the Nymphe thats free from scorne, No Irish; stuff nor Scotch over worne, Lasses in beaver coats come away, Yee shall be welcome to us night and day.

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.

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.

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