My title comes from the name by which William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Plantation, referred to one of that colony's neighbors, Thomas Morton, head of the nearby settlement of Merrymount.
As a child, like many children in this country, as Thanksgiving approached, I formed turkeys from pieces of construction paper and colored pictures of Pilgrims sitting down to dinner with the Indians. By the time I was in high school, I had already learned that much of what we were led to believe about Thanksgiving was untrue and that American history contained much darker episodes than they told us as small children. Yet still, I had many misunderstandings. I can recall how ridiculous it seemed that the Pilgrims would arrive on these shores and be greeted by an English speaking native. Since I had learned that much of the story of Thanksgiving was fictitious, I assumed that Squanto, too, was a fiction. The reality it seems was far more complicated than even my revised history would have it.
During the century that transpired between the famous voyages, those of the initial explorations and those that brought over the habitants of the first permanent settlements, there were innumerable voyages of traders, fishermen, less famous explorers and kidnappers. Many of these people had made temporary settlements for a season or two in order to conduct their business or salt their fish. Squanto, or Tisquantum, had been kidnapped and brought to Spain with the intention of being sold into slavery. That did not occur and eventually he made his way to England and eventually back to North America. The ship on which Tisquantum returned to New England was sponsored by Sir Ferdinando Gorges who was a shareholder in the Plymouth Company, sponsored and directed many voyages to the New World, who received a patent for the territory of New England and who is considered the founder of Maine.
While Gorges was trying to establish a permanent colony in the area covered by his patent, the Mayflower, originally headed to Virginia, landed in New England. Gorges and other investors forged ahead with their plans and the Pilgrims, contrary to the impression I had as a child of a solitary settlement in an unknown wilderness, soon had a new neighbor.
In his account of the year 1628, Bradford writes*:
About some three or four years before this time, there came over one Captain Wollaston... and with him three or four more of some eminence, who brought with them a great many servants, with provisions and other implements for to begin a plantation; and pitched themselves in a place within the Massachusetts, which they called, after their Captain's name, Mount-Wollaston. Amongst whom was one Mr. Morton. . . .
Morton, was not only a colonist, but one of the investors in the enterprise as well as a lawyer and a poet. The servants were indentured servants.
The new plantation, led by Wollaston, did not prosper. It had been their intent to trade, but the animosity among the Indians toward the English created by the Pilgrims and by Wollaston's own blundering, made them reluctant. Wollaston and the other principals in the enterprise took the majority of the servants to Virginia on their ship, leaving Morton behind with the remainder. The intention was to see what sort of price the could get for the men in the more established colony. If the price was adequate to cover their expenses, they would return to fetch the remainder, sell those men as well and thus, cutting their losses, terminate the enterprise.
Thomas Morton, it seems, had other ideas.
But this Morton, having more craft than honesty, in the others absence, watches an opportunity and got some strong drink and other junkats, and made them a feast; and after they were merry, he began to tell them, he would give them good counsel. 'You see,' saith he, 'that many of your fellows are carried to Virginia; and if you stay till this Rasdall returns, you will also be carried away and sold for slaves with the rest. Therefore I would advise you to thrust out this Lieutenant Fitcher; and I, having a part in the plantation, will receive you as my partners and consociats; so may you be free from service, and we will converse, trade, plant, and live together as equals, and support and protect one another,' or to like effect. This counsel was easily received; so they took opportunity, and thrust Lieutenant Fitcher out a doors, and would suffer him to come no more amongst them, but forced him to seek bread to eat, and other relief from his neighbours, till he could get passage for England. After this they fell to great licentiousness, and led a dissolute life, powering out themselves into all profaneness. And Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained, as it were, a school of Atheism. They also set up a Maypole, 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 and celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians. Morton, to show his poetry, composed sundry rhymes and verses, some tending to lasciviousness, and others to the detraction and scandal of some persons, which he affixed to this idle or idol Maypole. They changed also the name of their place, and instead of calling it Mount Wollaston, they call it Merry-mount, as if this jollity would have lasted ever.I, for one, am skeptical of a Puritan Separatist's notion of licentiousness and am inclined to think that Morton knew how to throw a party. Clearly, Morton enjoyed traditional British seasonal celebrations which had come from their Pagan past and which the Pilgrims would have frowned upon for that reason alone.
Then Bradford lays his most serious charge against Morton. He accuses Morton of selling guns and the moulds to create shot to the Indians, contrary to British law. This is a charge that Morton would later deny as he would the charge of Atheism.
First he taught them how to use them, to charge and discharge, and what proportion of powder to give the piece, according to the size of the same; and what shot to use for fowl, and what for deer. And having thus instructed them, he employed some of them to hunt and fowl for him, so as they became far more active in that employment then any of the English, by reason of their swiftness of foot, and nimbleness of body, being also quick-sighted, and by continual exercise well knowing the haunts of all sorts of game.There was another way in which Morton was a threat to the Plymouth colony:
Besides, they [other colonists] saw they should keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country, or any discontents, would flock to him from all places, if this nest was not broken; and they should stand in more fear of their lives and goods (in short time) from this wicked and debased crew, then from the salvages themselves.Morton was arrested by the Pilgrims for the crime of selling guns to the Indians and sent to England to be tried.
So they mutually resolved to proceed, and obtained of the Governor of Plymouth to send Captain Standish to take Morton by force. The which accordingly was done; but they found him to stand stiffly in his defence, having made fast his doors, armed his consorts, set diverse dishes of powder & bullets ready on ye table; and if they had not been over armed with drink, more hurt might have been done. They summoned him to yield, but he kept his house, and they could get nothing but scoffs and scorns from him; but at length, fearing they would do some violence to the house, he and some of his crew came out, but not to yield, but to shoot; but they were so steeled with drink as their pieces were to heavy for them; himself with a carbine (over charged & almost half filled with powder & shot, as was after found) had thought to have shot Captain Standish; but he stepped to him, and put by his piece, and took him. Neither was there any hurt done to any of either side, save that one was so drunk that he ran his own nose upon the point of a sword that one held before him as he entered the house; but he lost but a little of his hot blood. Morton they brought away to Plymouth, where he was kept, till a ship went from the Isle of Shoals for England, with which he was sent to the Counsel of New England; and letters written to give them information of his course and carriage.In England, "nothing was done to him, not so much as rebuke," and Morton "returned the next year. Some of the worst of the company were dispersed, and some of the more modest kept the house till he should be heard from. But I have been too long about so unworthy a person, and bad a cause."
As we know, there are two sides to every story and, fortunately for us, Morton told his. In 1637, he published The New English Canaan which was afterwards banned. It would not be reprinted again until the Massachusetts Historical Society republished a collection of first person accounts of early colonization in 1883. After that, it would not be republished in its entirety again until 1999.
The work is comprised of three books, the first of which is a lengthy description of the inhabitants of the land. The second book describes the flora and fauna. The last part is a description of the European settlers and includes a scathing indictment of the behavior of the people of the Plymouth colony toward their neighbors, both the indigenous people and other colonizers from Europe. That he is their contemporary and English makes his account all the more important. He cannot be accused of having altered his account to fit modern attitudes.
This conflict between Morton and his neighbors took place during a time of religious conflict in England. Some researchers have suggested that Morton was a Catholic sympathizer. The evidence for this is circumstantial, but from his own writings Morton appears to have little sympathy for religious intolerance, an intolerance that marked the Puritans and helped cause their difficulties with the American Indians whom the Pilgrims saw as heathens. Morton, in contrast, comes across as a cultural relativist avant la lettre. If anything, he says he prefers the company of the people he calls "Salvages," a name also used by Bradford.
He gives his version of the earliest interactions between the Pilgrims and the Indians, which happened before his arrival and he must have heard second hand. According to Morton, upon seeing the arrival of the Pilgrims, the local Sachem sent Tisquantum as an ambassador to determine if the newcomers were friend or foe. The English told the Sachem that they had brought with them "the plague" and "that if he should give offense to the English party, he would let out the plague to destroy them all."
The Pilgrims soon afterward defaced the graves of Indians, including that of the sachem Chikatawbak's mother, thought to have been one of the Great Squa Sachems of the region. The Indians headed to Plymouth to take revenge.
Thither the Salvages repaired in hope to have like success, but all in vain, for the English captain warily foresaw and perceiving their plot, knew the better how to order his men fit for battle in that place. He boldly leading his men on, ranged about the field to and fro, and taking his best advantage, let fly, and made the Salvages give ground. The English followed them fiercely on and made them take trees for their shelter (as their custom is), from whence their captain let fly amain, yet no man was hurt. At last, lifting up his right arm to draw a fatal shaft (as he then thought) to end this difference, he received a shot upon his elbow and straightway fled; by whose example all the army followed the same way, and yielded up the honor of the day to the English party. Who were such a terror to them after, that the Salvages durst never make to a head against them anymore.In another episode, the Plymouth planters went to another settlement, Wessaguscus, while the Englishman who founded it, Captain Weston, was away. They invited some Indians who were there to dinner and, upon a signal, took the Indians' own knives and stabbed them to death. In revenge, a group of Indians killed unsuspecting Englishmen at that settlement in their sleep.
The Salvages of the Massachusetts, that could not imagine from whence these men would come, or to what end, seeing them perform such unexpected actions, neither could tell by what name properly to distinguish them, and did from that time afterwards call the English Planters Wotawquenange, which in their language signifieth Stabbers, or Cutthroats.Morton not only portrays the Pilgrims as intolerant and aggressive, but also as greedy. He accuses them of using underhanded means to drive out other plantations, like that established by Weston, that could possibly be competition for the beaver trade. He also accuses them of exaggerating the danger posed by the native inhabitants in order to keep new colonists from becoming competitors.
And this, as an article of the new creed of Canaan, would they have received of every newcomer there to inhabit; that the Salvages are a dangerous people, subtle, secret, and mischievous, and that it is dangerous to live separated, but rather together, and so be under their lee; that none might trade for Beaver but at their pleasure, as none do or shall do there.Morton's version of the story, in which he refers to himself with the Falstaffian "Mine Host", also tells about his Maypole festivities that so affronted Bradford and his narrative is punctuated with the very poetry Bradford mentioned.
The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise Separatists that lived at New Plimoth. They termed it an Idol; yea they called it the Calf of Horeb, and stood at defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatening to make it a woeful mount and not a merry mount.Jack Dempsey, who edited a recent edition of New English Canaan and wrote a biography of Morton has this to say of the revelries that took place at Merrymount:
In both Old and New England, new kinds of economics were moving people "away from a grounded site of exchange in a traditional and geographically locatable marketplace," toward a "growingly abstract" system whose "culturally incomprehensible" operations would be increasingly controlled and policed by anti-traditional, would-be social and moral elites. So the 80-foot Maypole erected by Morton's company in May 1627, "barked" to its bright yellow pine-timber and crowned with a rack of antlers to make it "a fair sea mark for directions", was the deft effort of men "as few as might be" to compete amid all these carnages, by attracting New England's oldest traders with a symbol of the older, carnivalesque Elizabethan way: what Shannon Miller has analyzed as "old" England's hardly-utopian but "recognizable, community-based, and physical marketplace."If you are familiar with David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed, it might be useful to know that Morton is presumed to have come from Devonshire, an area of England quite different from the East Anglia of most of the Pilgrims, and could be seen as having been raised in a very different regional English culture than that of his English neighbors in the New World.
Morton's iconoclastic personality come through in New English Canaan, especially in the third book and provides a welcome counter narrative to the more frequently read On Plymouth Plantation.
I confess to having heavily edited Bradford's writing for brevity and ease of reading. The original is available at Gutenberg.