The Anti-Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Thomas Morton

Around this time of year, there is often a lot of focus on the so-called, “Pilgrims” (ie Settlers) who emigrated in 1620 to the land that became known as New England. But they were far from being the only people with a desire to settle in this region of North America or with a vision of what the new world could become. I first heard of Thomas Morton while taking an English literature course at Boston College via a reading of an excerpt from his, New English Canaan, a scathing critique of the Puritan and Separatist settlers and vociferous defense of the Native population as a far nobler culture.

As Mount St. Mary’s University Professor of English, William Heath pointed out in a 2007 article for the Journal of American Studies, Morton remains one of the best sources on New England’s indigenous culture and ecology at the time of English settlement. Not surprisingly, some of his observations were off the mark; he concluded, for example, that the Natives were remnants of “the scattered Trojans,” and that they had no religion to speak of, the same mistake made by Columbus on his first day in America. But other observations are quite acute. For example, Morton noted that the Indians set fire to the country periodically, thereby cleaning away underbrush and creating more grasslands for the deer to feed on. He was also quick to praise them when he found their conduct superior to that of the Puritans and Separatists. In New English Canaan he wrote, “I have found the Massachusetts Indians more full of humanity than the Christians, and have had much better quarter with them.”

The details of Morton’s early life in England are scanty. Heath speculates that he could have been from the southwestern county of Devon, a region famed for its adherence to old English folk customs, Anglo-Catholic ritual, and “good hospitality,” as well as for its swashbuckling, sea-faring sons, including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and Sir Walter Raleigh. The just published, The Trials of Thomas Morton by USC Professor of Humanities, History and Anthropology, Peter C Mancall places Morton’s birth at around 1575 or 76 possibly in Somerset, also in the southwest of England. As Heath notes, Morton’s family could afford to send him to the Inns of the Court, England’s peculiar combination of law school and professional association, so it can be presumed that he was an aristocrat of sorts whose education was probably similar, if not superior, to that of Shakespeare.

Sometime during the last decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1593-1603), Morton attended Clifford’s Inn, part of the Inner Temple; the oldest Inn of Chancery, dating from 1345. Since 1505 Clifford’s had selected a Master of Revels to organize the festive calendar, especially the twelve days of Christmas, with its feasts, masques, and dances. The Inns of Court are especially celebrated for fostering Elizabethan drama. In addition to many amateur productions, Shakespeare’s early play The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray’s Inn Hall in 1594 and his masterpiece of festive comedy, Twelfth Night, at Middle Temple Hall in 1602. Morton learned enough law at Clifford’s Inn to go into practice in the West Country, but given what we know of his character, during his London years it is safe to assume that he was, like young John Donne, once selected Master of Revels at Lincoln’s Inn, “a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses,” Of Morton Heath tells us:

“[He was] Elizabethan to the core, his education had shaped him as a man of classical learning and literary aspirations on the one hand, and a quick-witted, hot-tempered, high-hearted, adventure-seeking, enterprising rogue and rakehell on the other; later, after the Puritans turned this fun-loving scapegrace into their scapegoat, he would assert with pride that he was both a “Gent.” and a “carnal man.”

In 1621 Morton was in Swallowfield, Berkshire, where we find him doing a very Elizabethan thing: marrying a widow of means. Morton had known Alice Miller and her husband for several years, and, when he died, Morton was quick to propose. Alice’s son, George, saw in this a threat to his patrimony and warned his mother against the “turbulent and troublesome” Morton, “a person … of noe worth.” He suggested, as a “triall of the affection” of Morton, that Alice lease her farm to him for fifty years. As soon as she did so, George proceeded to turn “her haye grasse corne cattell chattels goods howsehold stuff and implements ” to his own profit. After Morton and Alice were married in November of 1621, Morton and some friends broke into the house to retrieve George’s lease; then George and his friends showed up to drive out Morton. During these encounters Morton brandished a pistol while George and company flashed “nyked knyves and other unlawfull weapons,” and “did teare the Clothes from your said subject Thomas Mortons back and the hayre from his head.” Alice was subjected to “scurrilous obscene and lascivious speeches,” as well as “divers blowes strypes and bruses upon diverse partes of her body soe as shee beinge then with Child did shortly after … miscarry thereof. ”

In the battle of affidavits that followed, George accused Morton of showing “his owne cuninge … to gaine the whole estate to himself,” and Morton retorted that Alice’s “most unnaturall sonne” was guilty of “lascivious and lewd behaviour” and desired his mother’s death and ruin. The Chancery Court on 8 June 1623 settled the matter by awarding both George and Alice separate farms. Morton, for his part, having lost access to Alice’s estate, and presumably her affections, “sould all her goode even to her wearing apparel and … fledd,” showing up the next year in New England.

As Mancall tells us, the year Morton married the widow Miller roughly coincided with the first voyage of the Pilgrims across the Atlantic. They were a subset of the larger group of Puritans who sought to purge the established Church of England of all remaining vestiges of Roman Catholicism. The Pilgrims had come to the conclusion that the Anglican Church was beyond reform and sought to separate from it entirely, which was illegal in England. Thousands of miles away in New England, the Separatists and later Puritan settlers were free to worship as they pleased and also empowered to deny such freedom to others wherever they held sway. They saw their trials and struggles to survive in the new world as a test from God. As Mancall notes, among the problems they wrote about was Sir Fernandino Gorges, well-connected, highly decorated military veteran whose program for North America conflicted with the well-laid plans of the Pilgrims and Puritans. Gorges had been governor of the important port of Plymouth, England. He was involved in the Earl Essex’s Rebellion against the Queen Elizabeth I in 1601, but escaped punishment by testifying against the main conspirators. He was a man with imperial ambitions, who dreamt of one day making all of New England his manorial estate and did in fact own much of the territory of present-day Maine for a time. As luck would have it, Gorges and Morton began to work together at some point in the early 1620s.

How long Morton had known Gorges is unclear; he might have met him years before through his father, who was also a soldier. Perhaps Morton’s interest in New England was stimulated by talking with one of the kidnapped Indians Gorges put on display to promote his ventures. Morton may have sought him out in London and obtained some kind of patent or petty grant for land; what is almost certain is that on March 23, 1624 Morton was one of the adventurers, led by Humphrey Rastall and Captain Richard Wollaston, who set sail from London on a ship called the Unity. Once in New England they established a colony, “Mount Wollaston” (present-day Quincy), on the southern side of the Massachusetts Bay.

According to one early colonist who left an account, after “neare a yeare famin was thayr finall aforthrow. ” Rastall, who had traveled on to Virginia in a smaller craft, sent word for Captain Wollaston to join him with the Unity, in order to sell their indentured servants for a profit there. At this point Morton, according to Pilgrim leader William Bradford, prepared a feast for the men, and once they were “merie” proposed that they should “converse, trad, plante, and live together as equals. ” Morton states that they changed the name of their town to “Ma-re Mount”, but Bradford insists that it was “Meriemounte” and that they then “fell to great licensciousness, and led a dissolute life, powering out themselves into all profanenes. ” Because of Morton’s improvised democracy, the Pilgrims “saw they should keep no servants … and all the scume of the coun trie … would flock to him. ” But as Heath notes, what Morton and his merry men actually “powered” themselves into was the fur trade, which gravely threatened Plymouth Plantation’s perilous finances. The key to their advantage was the reciprocity they displayed in their working (and playing) relationship with the local Indians.

In New English Canaan Morton explains that he and his men wanted to commemorate the changing of the settlement’s name “in a solemn manner, with Revels, and merriment after the old English custom,” and so they “set up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and Jacob,” (May 3), “brewed a barrel of excellent beer, and provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day.” Morton saw this as “harmless mirth” but William Bradford saw nothing harmless about it. For him, Morton “became a lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a schoole of Athisme” (Atheism).

Morton, with his love of word play, deliberately chose a name for his plantation susceptible to many meanings ma-re, mare, Mary, marry, merry mount: the place could connote a seaside mountain, sodomy in the stable, honoring or dishonoring the Virgin, marriages of various sorts, and a cornucopia of ways to be happy. As Heath points out, the sexual nature of most of these puns does raise questions about the purpose of the maypole festivities at Merry Mount. He cites Richard Slotkin’s observation in his book, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, that “Morton regarded his own colony … as the fountainhead of … erotic energy” where “passion expressed in openly sexual relationships between whites and Indians … becomes the source of a renewal of the virility and fertility of both races.” The Puritans hated Morton for this and because as John Seelye noted in, Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Life and Literature: “He held out the promise of America as an earthly paradise, a pagan, not a protestant prospect, a zone of pleasure, not salvation through suffering.”

The issue of Morton selling guns to the Indians finally provided the Pilgrims with the pretext to get rid of Morton. According to Heath, Morton may well have traded a few guns and taught the Indians to hunt for him, thus contributing to his success over his Separatist rivals. He was, of course, hardly the first person to do so, and the number of guns in his possession to trade was very limited. In Heath’s opinion Morton’s observance of reciprocity with the Indians was probably the best way to preserve the peace. Although the threat of armed Indians was not totally negligible, the Pilgrims’ harsh treatment of Morton was, ultimately, based on selfish motives. The danger of an Indian war was vague at best, but Morton’s superiority over them in the fur trade was palpable and had to be stopped. In early June 1628, Myles Standish, who Morton referred to as “Captain Shrimp” because his red hair and small stature, stormed Merry Mount with a contingent of armed men and arrested Morton. He was imprisoned on the Isle of Shoals, off the New Hampshire coast, without “so much as a knife” to procure food “or any other clothes to shelter him with at winter then a thinne suite”. Had friendly Indians not provided aid, Morton would have in all likelihood have perished.

On 6 September 1628, while Morton was on the Isle of Shoals, John Endecott, “a narrow, rigid, and choleric Puritan,” known to his admirers as “strong, valiant John,” arrived in Naumkeag (Salem) with the vanguard of what would in two years become known as “the Great Migration”. Although he had no legal jurisdiction to do so, at some point he went to Merry Mount, “caused that May-polle to be cutt downe, and rebuked” the remnant of Morton’s men “for their profaneness, and admonished them to looke there should be better walking.” This incident was the basis for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short-story, The Maypole of Merry Mount.

In 1629, Morton was banished from New England. Barely surviving his harsh treatment during his journey into exile, he regained his strength in 1631, and after a short spell in an Essex jail, was released and began to sue the Massachusetts Bay Company, the political power behind the Puritans. To the surprise of Protestant English supporters of “Plymouther Separatists”, Morton won strong backing for his cause and was treated as a champion of liberty. With the help of his original backer, Ferdinando Gorges, he became the attorney of the Council of New England against the Massachusetts Bay Company. The real political force behind him, however, was the hostility of Charles I to the Puritan colonists. In 1635, Morton’s efforts were successful, and the Company’s charter was revoked. In 1637 Morton became a political celebrity with the publication of New English Canaan. After an ill-conceived triumphal return to the Plymouth Colony, he was arrested and accused of being a Royalist “agitator”, put on trial for his role in revoking the colony’s charter, and on charges of sedition. By September he was imprisoned in Boston. His trial was delayed through winter “so evidence could be sought,” but none arrived. As his health began to fail, his petition for clemency was granted. Isolated from his English supporters by the English Civil War, he ended his days amid the West Country planters of Maine, protected there by Gorges’ supporters. He died in 1647 at the age of 71.

Mancall includes the following quote from Philip Roth’s 2001 novel, The Dying Animal at the beginning of his book:

“Our earliest American heroes were Morton’s oppressors, Endicott, Bradford, Miles Standish. Merry Mount’s been expunged from the official version because it’s the story not of a virtuous utopia but of a utopia of candor. Yet it’s Morton whose face should be carved in Mount Rushmore.”

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City