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Thomas Morton (colonist)

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Thomas Morton
Borncirca 1579
Devon, England
NationalityEnglish subject
Occupation(s)Lawyer, writer, social reformer
Known forEarly New England colonist

Thomas Morton (c. 1579–1647) was an early colonist in North America from Devon, England. He was a lawyer, writer, and social reformer known for studying American Indian culture, and he founded the colony of Merrymount, located in Quincy, Massachusetts.


Mount Wollaston[edit]

Morton took a three-month exploratory trip to America in 1622, but was back in England by early 1623 complaining of intolerance among ruling elements of the Puritan community. He returned in 1624 as a senior partner in a Crown-sponsored trading venture aboard the ship Unity with his associate Captain Wollaston and 30 indentured young men. They began trading for furs on a spit of land belonging to the Algonquian tribes.

Morton immediately began selling liquor and firearms to the Indians, disregarding the laws of Plymouth Colony.[1] Morton and his cohorts attempted to establish their own colony which they called Mount Wollaston. Captain Wollaston moved to Virginia in 1626, leaving Morton in command of the colony, which was renamed Merrymount.

Mayday at Merrymount
Maypole at Merrymount

Morton's religious beliefs were criticized by the Puritans of nearby Plymouth Colony as little more than a thinly disguised form of heathenism. The leaders of Plymouth charged him with having sexual relations with local Indian women and drunken orgies in honor of Bacchus and Aphrodite

They ... set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.

Banishment by the Puritans[edit]

Arrest of Thomas Morton

Morton's group performed a second Mayday ritual in 1628 by erecting an 80-foot (24 m) Maypole topped with deer antlers around which he and his followers caroused drunkenly. The Plymouth militia under Myles Standish took the town the following June with little resistance, chopped down the Maypole, and arrested Morton for supplying guns to the Indians.[2] He was given a trial in Plymouth, then marooned on the deserted Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire until an English ship could take him home. The Merrymount community survived without Morton for another year, but was renamed Mount Dagon by the Puritans, after the sea god of the Philistines.

"New English Canaan"[edit]

New English Canaan's title page

In 1637, Morton published his three-volume New English Canaan, a denunciation of Puritan government in the colonies and their policy of building forts to guard themselves against Indian attack. He described the Indians as a far nobler culture and a new Canaan under attack from the "New Israel" of the Puritans.[3]

Sedition trial and death[edit]

Morton returned to New England during the English Civil War where he was arrested for being a Royalist agitator. He was put on trial for his role in revoking the Plymouth Colony's charter and on charges of sedition. By September, he was imprisoned in Boston. His trial was delayed through winter but his health began to fail, so the Puritans granted him clemency. He ended his days among the planters of Maine, and he died in 1647 at age 71.[citation needed]


The English government destroyed the first edition of New English Canaan in 1637, with a small number of copies surviving in the Netherlands.[4] The Prince Society reprinted the original Amsterdam edition in 1883 with a foreword written by Charles Francis Adams Jr.[5] Jack Dempsey produced an edited edition of Morton's book including a biography of Morton which was published in 1999.[6]


In 1628, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford famously declared Morton a "Lord of Misrule."[7]

On October 12, 1812, John Adams wrote the following to Thomas Jefferson about Morton's book:

The design of the Writer appears to have been to promote two Objects: 1. to Spread the fame and exaggerate the Advantages of New England 2. to destroy the Characters of the English Inhabitants, and excite the Government to Suppress the Puritans, and Send over Settlers in their Stead, from among the Royalists and the disciples of Archbishop Laud.[8]

Morton's The New English Canaan has been described as "an important work of early American environmental writing",[9] as well as the first book banned in America.[10][4] Harrison T. Meserole describes Morton as "America's first rascal".[11] Ed Simon argues that Morton "remains a powerful disruptive presence in the common founding myth of American identity."[12]

In literature[edit]

Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" in his Twice-Told Tales (1837) and J. L. Motley's Merry Mount (1849) are based on Morton's colonial career.[13]


  1. ^ New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675, by Alden T. Vaughan. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-8061-2718-7 (pp. 89–90).
  2. ^ "Thomas Morton:Phoenix of New England Memory" in New England's Crises and Cultural Memory: Literature, Politics, History, Religion, 1620–1860 by John P. McWilliams, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-82683-9 pp. 44–73.
  3. ^ Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State (2009), by Paul Della Valle
  4. ^ a b Joshua J. Mark. New English Canaan, World History Encyclopedia, 11 December 2020
  5. ^ Morton, Thomas, and Charles Francis Adams. The New English Canaan of Thomas Morton: With Introductory Matter and Notes. Boston: Prince Society, 1883.
  6. ^ Morton, T. and Dempsey, J. New English Canaan: Text and Notes. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999.
  7. ^ Peter C. Mancall. The Trials of Thomas Morton. New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2019, p. 13.
  8. ^ John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 12 October 1812, NARA: Founders Online
  9. ^ Branch, Michael P. (2004). Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing Before Walden. University of Georgia Press. p. 63. ISBN 9780820325484.
  10. ^ Taub, Matthew (1 November 2019). "America's First Banned Book Really Ticked Off the Plymouth Puritans". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  11. ^ Meserole, Harrison T. (1985). American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. Penn State University Press. p. 369. ISBN 0271038101.
  12. ^ Ed Simon. Lord of Misrule Thomas Morton’s American Subversions, The Public Domain Review, November 24, 2020
  13. ^ Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Morton, Thomas, English colonist in America" . Encyclopedia Americana.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]