Thomas Morton (colonist)

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Thomas Morton
Borncirca 1579
NationalityEnglish subject
OccupationLawyer, writer, social reformer
Known forEarly New England colonist

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


Early years[edit]

Thomas Morton was born in Devon in 1579, into a conservative Anglican family belonging to the landed gentry. Devon at that time was seen as the "dark corner of the land" by Protestant reformers, for its traditionalist intransigence, which included not only a High Church Anglicanism that shared many traits with Catholicism, but a paternalistic populism combined with rural folk tradition that to the Puritans seemed close to paganism. To locals, however, it was merely "Old England"—a culture firmly ingrained in them.[citation needed]

In the late 1590s Morton studied law at London's Clifford's Inn, where he made influential contacts and lasting friendships. He was also exposed to a popular Renaissance Classicism and to the "libertine culture" of the Inns of Court, where bawdy revels included Gesta Grayorum performances associated with Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, It is likely that he there met Ben Jonson, who would remain a friend throughout his life. Though an ardent Royalist, Morton became a proponent of common Law against the emerging direct legal powers of the Crown and Star Chamber.

The early years of the 17th century saw Morton travelling between London and the Devonshire countryside as a legal champion of displaced countrymen "whose economic straits filled new tent-cities, furnished prisons and gallows, and pushed Devon men to the Bristol sea-trades".[citation needed] He eventually settled into the service of Ferdinando Gorges, governor of the English port of Plymouth and a major colonial entrepreneur. Gorges, an associate of Sir Walter Raleigh who had been part of Robert Devereux's Essex Conspiracy, was heavily involved in the "permissive" economy of the seas, and with many interests in New England would become the founder of the colony of Maine. Morton initially served him in a legal capacity in England, but after failed marriage plans in 1618 (due to the influence of a Puritan stepson) he decided to become one of Gorges's "landsmen" to oversee his interests in the colonies. Neither experience would enamour him of the Puritans.

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 in certain elements of the Puritan community. He returned in 1624 as a senior partner in a Crown-sponsored trading venture, aboard the ship the Unity with his associate Captain Wollaston and 30 indentured young men. They settled and began trading for furs on a spit of land given by native Algonquian tribes, whose culture Morton is said to have seen as more "civilized and humanitarian" than that of his "intolerant European neighbours".[citation needed] "He revived forbidden old-world customs, faced off with a Puritan militia determined to quash his pagan festivals, and wound up in exile."[1]

The Pilgrim separatists of the New England Plymouth Colony objected to sales of guns and liquor to the natives in exchange for furs and provisions, which at the time was technically illegal, although almost everyone was doing it.[2] The weapons undoubtedly acquired by the Algonquians were used to defend themselves against raids from the northern Amerindian tribes, not against the fearful colonists. The trading post set up by the two men soon expanded into an agrarian colony that became known as Mount Wollaston – now Quincy, Massachusetts.

Morton fell out with Wollaston after discovering that he had been selling indentured servants into slavery on the Virginian tobacco plantations. Powerless to prevent him, he encouraged the remaining servants to rebel against his harsh rule and organize themselves into a free community. Wollaston fled with his supporters to Virginia in 1626, leaving Morton in sole command of the colony, or its "host" as he preferred to be called, which was renamed Mount Ma-re (a play on "merry" and "the sea") or simply Merrymount. Under Morton's "hostship", an almost utopian project was begun, in which the colonists were declared free men or "consociates" and a degree of integration into local Algonquian culture was attempted. However, it was Morton's long-term plan to "further civilize" the native population by converting them to his liberal form of Christianity and providing them with free salt for food preservation, so enabling them to give up hunting and settle permanently. Morton referred to Book 3 of his New English Canaan memoirs as a manual on "how not to colonize" – referring to the Puritan practices.[citation needed]

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; they suspected him of "going native". Scandalous rumours spread of debauchery at Merrymount, which they claimed included immoral sexual liaisons with native women under what amounted to drunken orgies in honour of Bacchus and Aphrodite, or as the Puritan Governor William Bradford wrote in his history Of Plymouth Plantation,

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.

Morton had taken traditional West Country May Day customs to the colony, and combined them with fashionable classical myth, couched to his own libertine tastes and fuelled by the enthusiasm of his newly freed fellow colonists. On a practical level the annual May Day festival was not only a reward for his hardworking colonists, but a joint celebration with Native tribes who also marked the day, and a chance for mostly male colonists to find brides among the natives.

Puritan ire was no doubt also fuelled by the fact that Merrymount was the fastest-growing colony in New England, rapidly becoming the most prosperous, as an agricultural producer and in the fur trade, where Plymouth Colony was trying to build a monopoly. The Puritan account of this regarded the colony as a decadent nest of good-for-nothings that annually attracted "all the scum of the country" to the area, or as Peter Lamborn Wilson puts it, "a Comus-crew of disaffected fur traders, antinomians, loose women, Indians and bon-vivants".[3]

Banishment by the Puritans[edit]

Arrest of Thomas Morton

The second 1628 Mayday, "Revels of New Canaan", inspired by "Cupid's mother" – with its "pagan odes" to Neptune and Triton (as well as Venus and her lustful children, Cupid, Hymen and Priapus), its drinking song, and its erection of a huge 80-foot (24 m) Maypole, topped with deer antlers – that proved too much for the "Princes of Limbo", as Morton referred to his Puritan neighbours. 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".[4] He was put in stocks in Plymouth, given a trial and finally marooned on the deserted Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, until an "English ship could take him home", as he was believed too well connected to be imprisoned or executed (as later became the penalty for blasphemy in the colony). He was essentially left to starve on the island, but supplied with food by friendly natives from the mainland, who were said to be bemused by the events, and he eventually gained strength to escape to England under his own volition. The Merrymount community survived without Morton for another year, but was renamed Mount Dagon by the Puritans, after the Semitic sea god, and they pledged to make it a place of woe. During the severe winter famine of 1629 residents of New Salem under John Endecott raided Mount Dagon's plentiful corn supplies and destroyed what was left of the Maypole, denouncing it as a pagan idol and calling it the "Calf of Horeb". Morton returned to the colony soon after, and after finding most inhabitants had been scattered, was rearrested, again put on trial and banished from the colonies. The following year the colony of Mount Dagon was burned to the ground and Morton shipped back to 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 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 King Charles I to the Puritan colonists. In 1635, Morton's efforts were successful, and the Company's charter was revoked. Major political rearrangements occurred thereafter in New England, though these were mainly due to colonial rejection of the court decision, subsequent isolation, lack of supplies and overpopulation, and increased conflict between foreign colonists and natives. Nonetheless, Plymouth became a place of woe, and many left Massachusetts for the relative safety of Connecticut.[citation needed]

"New English Canaan"[edit]

New English Canaan's title page

In 1637 Morton became a political celebrity with the publication of his three-volume New English Canaan, based on notes of his legal campaign. Morton produced in these three books an inspired denunciation of Puritan government in the colonies and their policy of land enclosure against the native population, who were described as a far nobler culture, and defined as a Canaan under attack from the "New Israel" of the Puritans.[5] "His New English Canaan mounted a harsh and heretical critique of Puritan customs and power structures that went far beyond what most New England settlers could accept. So they banned it – making it likely the first book explicitly banned in what is now the United States."[1] He summed up his magnum opus with a call to "demartialise" the colonies and create a multicultural New Canaan along the lines of Merrymount, as well as tantalisingly describing the commercial worth of North America. Ultimately, though, very different things would emerge with the reorganisation of New England and the introduction of the triangular trade.[citation needed]

At this time Gorges was declared the new Governor of the Colonies by King Charles I, though he would never set foot in America. Yet Morton's victory was cut short by the beginning of the English Civil War, which was triggered by reactions to Charles's absolutism and by agitation from the Puritans. In 1642 Morton planned to flee to New England with Gorges, but when his aged mentor failed to make the trip, he returned alone as Gorges' agent in Maine.[citation needed]

Sedition trial and death[edit]

After an ill-conceived triumphal return to the Plymouth Colony, he was arrested and accused of being a Royalist "agitator", and 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 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.[citation needed]


The first edition of New English Canaan was destroyed by the English government in 1637 with a small number of copies surviving in the Netherlands.[6]

The Prince Society reprinted the original Amsterdam's edition of New English Canaan in 1883 with a foreword written by Charles Francis Adams Jr..[7]

Jack Dempsey, an academic and writer, spent over ten years preparing the first edited edition of Morton's book including researching and writing Morton's biography, which was published in 1999.[8]


In 1628 Governor of the Plymouth Colony William Bradford famously declared Morton a "Lord of Misrule.[9]

On 12 October 1812, John Adams, who studied history of Mount Wollaston, wrote the following to Thomas Jefferson about Merton'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.[10]

In O Brave New World: American Literature from 1600 to 1840, a paperback original "Critical Anthology of American Literature" edited by Leslie A. Fiedler and Arthur Zeiger, the editors include selections on Morton from Morton's and Bradford's accounts in the section "The Heritage of Melancholy". In the section introduction, the editors write:

Side by side with [Puritanism], there was exported [to America] a Cavalier style of life, a blend of English countryside paganism and Gentleman's Christianity that managed to survive for a while in the South . . . but was almost immediately driven out in the colder climate of the do-it-yourself North. . . . Sometimes one wonders what would have happened if it had survived, this beatnik colony in the seventeenth-century New England woods, presided over by university Bohemians—full of classical quotations, rum and deviltry. . . . But the archetypal conflict of Cavalier and Puritan is surely operative, too; and it is this archetypal aspect of the story that has persuaded some critics to treat it as a full-blown myth—one strong and attractive enough in any case to have cued innumerable retellings." [11]

Morton's The New English Canaan has been described as "an important work of early American environmental writing",[12] as well as the first book banned in America.[1][6]

Harrison T. Meserole describes Morton as "America's first rascal".[13] Ed Simon, an academic and writer focusing on seventeenth-century literature, argues that Morton "remains a powerful disruptive presence in the common founding myth of American identity."[14]

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.[15]

Merry Mount is a 1933 opera with libretto written by Richard Stokes and music by Howard Hanson. Based on Hawthorne's story, it premiered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1933 and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1934. Seldom performed, it was revived in 2014. A suite compiled from the opera by Hanson is available in several recordings.

Morton appears as a member of the "jury of the damned" summoned by the Devil in Stephen Vincent Benet's short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1936).

Philip Roth references Morton and the colony of Merrymount in his novel The Dying Animal.

Morton is a central character in Robert Lowell's play "Endecott and the Red Cross", first published in a trilogy of one-act plays, The Old Glory (1965). Lowell cites Morton's book New Canaan and Hawthorn's story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" as two of his sources for the play.

"The Disturber" by L. S. Davidson Jr., published by Macmillan Company in 1964, is a fictional account of Thomas Morton.


  1. ^ a b c Taub, Matthew (1 November 2019). "America's First Banned Book Really Ticked Off the Plymouth Puritans". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  2. ^ 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).
  3. ^ Sakolsky, Ronald B.; Koehnline, James (1993). Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Drop Out Culture. Autonomedia. ISBN 9781873176863.
  4. ^ "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.
  5. ^ Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State (2009), by Paul Della Valle
  6. ^ a b Joshua J. Mark. New English Canaan, World History Encyclopedia, 11 December 2020
  7. ^ Morton, Thomas, and Charles Francis Adams. The New English Canaan of Thomas Morton: With Introductory Matter and Notes. Boston: Prince Society, 1883.
  8. ^ Morton, T. and Dempsey, J. New English Canaan: Text and Notes. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999.
  9. ^ Peter C. Mancall. The Trials of Thomas Morton. New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2019, p. 13.
  10. ^ John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 12 October 1812, NARA: Founders Online
  11. ^ O Brave New World: American Literature from 1600 to 1840, edited by Leslie A. Fiedler and Arthur Zeiger, Dell, New York 1968, p. 380
  12. ^ Branch, Michael P. (2004). Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing Before Walden. University of Georgia Press. p. 63. ISBN 9780820325484.
  13. ^ Meserole, Harrison T. (1985). American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. Penn State University Press. p. 369. ISBN 0271038101.
  14. ^ Ed Simon. Lord of Misrule Thomas Morton’s American Subversions, The Public Domain Review, November 24, 2020
  15. ^ Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Morton, Thomas, English colonist in America" . Encyclopedia Americana.

Further reading[edit]

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