Drawing of Thomas Morton of Merrymount being arrested by Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony, 1628

G.J. Perrett

Thomas Morton of Merrymount being arrested by Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony, 1628; from James Otis’s Ruth of Boston: A Story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1910

Missing from the traditional Thanksgiving narrative—the brutal winter followed by the bountiful harvest—is the horrific epidemic that raged through the Native American community during the three years immediately preceding the 1620 arrival of the Mayflower. Rat feces on boot soles are believed to have carried lethal bacteria from European ships anchored along the New England coastline to Native villages. Whatever the precise nature of the disease, it worked with ruthless efficiency during the years 1616 to 1619. “The pace of death must have been terrifying,” Peter Mancall writes in The Trials of Thomas Morton, his book about a little-known chapter in the European settling of New England. “Most epidemics, even of highly contagious diseases like the plague, typically leave survivors. But this series of infections apparently killed almost everyone.” The Pilgrims regarded the “wonderfull Plague,” which decimated the Native farmers but left their cleared fields, as one more God-given thing to be thankful for.

Natives spared by the disease suffered another disaster in 1637, in what came to be known as the Pequot War but was more accurately a massacre. Colonists seized on various pretexts to slaughter 1,500 Natives in two months, including women and children in a village on the Mystic River that they deliberately torched. “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire,” the Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of the atrocity, “and the streams of blood quenching the same.” Again, Bradford thanked a providential God for aiding his men, “thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

But there were other challenges to the Pilgrims’ fragile utopian experiment, and to the more worldly and successful Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, founded in 1630, that eventually absorbed it. This threat arose from fellow Englishmen, many of whom regarded the Pilgrims, with their astringent separatist views that had taken them first to Holland and then to New England, and the more moderate Puritans, who wished to reform the abuses of the Anglican Church, with distaste.1 It would be difficult to imagine someone more abhorrent to the godly colonists than Thomas Morton, an adventurer, a libertine, a lover of the natural world, and a passionate admirer (and lover) of Native Americans. An Anglican loyal to the king and the national church, Morton was also some kind of lawyer, as well as some kind of poet. This real-life Sir Toby Belch, from his base in the aptly named settlement of Merrymount, seems to have taken particular delight in driving first the Pilgrims, then the Puritans, out of their minds.

It is the precise nature of the threat—or, rather, threats—posed by Morton that interests Mancall in his short, incisive, and enjoyable book. In order to suggest what might be at stake in a proper assessment of Morton, Mancall draws his epigraph from Philip Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal, in which the narrator, a literature professor who preys on his female students, makes an extraordinary (and not disinterested) claim:

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.

No such honor was forthcoming, of course, though Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts did proclaim May 1, 2011, Thomas Morton Day, urging “all the citizens of the Commonwealth to take cognizance of this event and participate fittingly in its observance.”

A major impediment to making sense of Morton’s chaotic career is that we know so little about him. “Precious few details about Morton’s life survive,” Mancall concedes. “There are no known portraits, no archive of his papers, and his gravesite, if it exists, bears no marker.” Mancall’s sketch of Morton’s early life is hedged with qualifiers. He was “probably born around 1575 or 1576,” “possibly in Somerset.” As for his shadowy legal career in London, “Morton was likely at Clifford’s Inn” in the 1590s. In 1620, the same year the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod, Morton married a widow and client named Alice Miller, and was promptly embroiled in a vicious lawsuit, with reports of brawls and other extralegal actions, brought by his stepson (whom Mancall also refers to, confusingly, as his son-in-law).

Mancall believes that the experience Morton gained in this legal wrangling served him well in later civil actions involving land claims in New England, where he “likely” made his first journey in 1622, apparently abandoning his wife and family. Morton liked what he saw. He was particularly impressed with the seemingly laid-back Indians, who “leade the more happy and freer life, being voyde of care, which torments the minds of so many Christians.” A disreputable band of “Adventurers,” as Bradford disdainfully called them, had settled thirty miles from Plymouth, near present-day Quincy, in a village named for its founder, Captain Wollaston, who had since shifted his base of operations to the Virginia Colony. After crossing the Atlantic a second time around 1624 (again, the historical record is thin), Morton assumed leadership—to the degree that such an anarchic and fun-loving community could be said to have a leader—of the settlement and renamed it Ma-re Mount, meaning a mountain with a view of the ocean, or mare.2 But such was the reputation of the place for nonstop reveling and loose morals that it came to be known instead as Merry Mount or Merrymount.


Concerning the goings-on at Ma-re Mount, we have primarily the reports of indignant antagonists like Bradford, the well-educated secular leader and inspiriting mythographer of the Pilgrim enterprise. By 1628 the festivities had apparently reached some kind of climax, as Morton and his band erected an eighty-foot maypole, a pagan practice long abhorrent to the Puritans. According to Bradford, the locals spent several days drinking and cavorting around the maypole, “inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices.” Morton topped the phallic monument with deer antlers and attached obscene poems to it. As they circled the maypole, Morton’s merry pranksters sang a licentious song:

Drink and be merry, merry, merry boyes;
Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys;
Lo to Hymen, now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a Roome….
Lasses in beaver coats come away,
Yee shall be welcome to us night and day.

Such lewd behavior was too much for the straitlaced Pilgrims, who feared the contagion might spread to their own villages. But there was more. Morton was openly trading guns to the Indians for furs. The exchange constituted a double injury to the Pilgrims, who coveted the furs for themselves and considered armed Indians a serious threat. In late 1628 the Pilgrims under Bradford—who believed they faced as grave a danger from “this wicked and debased crew as from the savages themselves”—determined that decisive action was necessary. They sent their military enforcer, Myles Standish, to arrest Morton, who was too drunk to offer resistance. Standish dumped Morton on the isolated Isles of Shoals, near present-day Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A month later, aided by Indians, Morton was picked up by an English ship and transported back to England. The following year the arch-Puritan John Endecott (also spelled Endicott) of Salem—notorious for his persecution of “pestilent” Quakers and (in the historian Bernard Bailyn’s phrase) “given to fistfights on occasion and enthusiastic assaults on Indians”—sought to finish the work by having the offending maypole chopped down.

A replica of the Mayflower

Erich Lessing/Art Resource

A replica of the Mayflower, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Bradford and Endecott might have been better served by leaving Morton and his maypole alone. Once back in England, Morton somehow came to the attention of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a rich aristocrat and military veteran whose investment company held title to land north of Plymouth Colony, territory on which the Pilgrims, in their search for a perfect site for their settlement, had apparently encroached. With his direct knowledge of the English colonists, the land, and the Indians, Morton seemed ideally suited to litigate Gorges’s claim. The quo warranto, a legal proceeding to determine “by what warrant” the colonists occupied the disputed land, took years to reach the attention of the distracted monarch, Charles I, who was dealing with a Puritan uprising closer to home, which would eventually cost him his head. But the king eventually ruled in Gorges’s favor, demanding, in an official letter, the return of the royal patent, the physical document bearing the signature and seal of the king, which constituted proof of the colonists’ right to the land. With the return of the charter, Gorges would become the rightful governor of the region. In a prelude to future colonial insubordination, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, in what Mancall calls their “first declaration of independence,” refused to return the patent.

Morton tried one more stratagem to undercut the hated Puritans. He wrote an idiosyncratic book, New English Canaan, in which he celebrated all that was native to New England—a “Rich, hopefull and very beautifull Country, worthy the Title of Natures Masterpeece”—and reviled the English colonists as an invasive species. Melding a garrulous, highly metaphorical prose with sporadic verse, accompanied by learned quotations from Ovid and Cicero, much of Morton’s book consists of a wide-eyed inspection of curiosities. The hummingbird is “no bigger then a great Beetle,” he writes in a section devoted to natural wonders. “His fethers have a glosse like silke, and, as hee stirres, they shew to be of a chaingable coloure.” The beaver is said to yield “a masculine vertue for the advancement of Priapus” (Morton may have had in mind the animal’s castor sacs, used for scenting territory), while its fur is “the best merchantable commodity that can be found.”


Another section is an enthusiastic ethnographic description of the Indigenous people, sometimes correcting what Morton considers false reports. He praises their subtle intelligence (“These people are not, as some have thought, a dull, or slender witted people, but very ingenious”), their astonishing sense of sight and smell, and their admirable respect for their elders (putting to shame “some nations civilized”). In the third and final section, Morton dolefully recounts the incursion of the Pilgrims, first glimpsed through anxious Native eyes, as a blight on an earthly paradise. “Not knowing what they were, or whether they would be freindes or foes, and being desirous to purchase their freindship,” the Natives hoped to “have the better Assurance of quiet tradinge with them.” Such peaceful overtures, in Morton’s telling, were repeatedly met with hostility and violence, a fate he himself endured at the hands of the Pilgrims and Puritans. “I have found the Massachussets Indian more full of humanity then the Christians,” he concluded.3

Again, the Puritans sought to cut down the maypole, so to speak, sending agents to London, in 1632 or 1633, to suppress publication of Morton’s book, which was eventually published in Amsterdam in 1637. Morton’s final years, like his beginnings, are shrouded in mystery. Doggedly, he returned to Massachusetts Bay once more, in 1643, and was immediately jailed, then exiled to Maine, a broken man, the following year. He “disappears from the historical record after May 23, 1643,” and died, according to Mancall’s chronology, in “1646/1647.”

Mancall is not the first to claim that Morton was some kind of proto-environmentalist or that he was, for his time, surprisingly sympathetic to the Indians, hoping for “a different kind of colonial enterprise” than the hostile Puritan bastions.4 He mentions, repeatedly, that Morton lobbied for “coexistence” with the Indians, though the precise nature of what such a coexistence might have looked like remains unclear. When his patron, Gorges, divided up his lands in Maine, the distribution, as Mancall concedes, “rewarded his English friends and allies, not Natives.”

But Mancall believes that Morton’s strange career reveals a crucial historical truth, though less about him than about his enemies. Why, Mancall wonders, did the Pilgrims and Puritans respond so hysterically to Morton’s actions, repeatedly arresting him, banishing him to England, and seeking to suppress his book? What exactly did they have to fear? Mancall has an interesting answer: “Thomas Morton posed a danger because the Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ success was, contrary to the dissenters’ explanations, precarious.” Their claim to their land was suspect; their hostility to the Natives led to continual conflict rather than safety; not everyone in their colony shared their strict views. Had events played out slightly differently—if Charles I had acted more swiftly and decisively on the quo warranto, for example, thus enabling English authorities to “send new colonists with a new charter to replace” the Puritans—the course of history might have taken another direction.

What kind of man was Thomas Morton? Was he a utopian schemer, in single-minded pursuit of a religiously tolerant and racially diverse social order inimical to the Puritan ideal? Or was he a drunken rapscallion, assembling a motley crew of fellow drifters and debauchees, and seducing or raping Native women? While leaning toward the inclusive visionary rather than the Lord of Misrule, Mancall is too scrupulous a historian to invent a plausible psychological profile, a believable character, for Morton. The thin documentary record, however, has proved fertile ground for fiction; writers rush in where historians fear to tread. “A figure of contempt” before the American Revolution, Morton inspired, a century later, “a vein of countercultural thinking that moved into the mainstream in the works of authors who became part of the American literary canon.”

Washington Irving, Lydia Maria Child, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick (who depicted Morton as “reputed crazy—as, doubtless, he is!”) were among the early nineteenth-century writers momentarily engaged by Morton. But it was Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his classic story “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1836), who established Morton, unnamed in the story, as a crucial figure in the popular history of New England. “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire,” Hawthorne writes of the conflict between “grisly saints” and “gay sinners.” Hawthorne finds fault with both extremes, discounting the mirth of the revelers as “the counterfeit of happiness” while the Puritans aspire to an unbearable “land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm, forever.” John Endecott, “the Puritan of Puritans,” cuts down the maypole with his “keen sword” and suggests that the whipping post “might be termed the Puritan May-Pole.” However, he spares the young couple at the center of the festivities, the Lord and Lady of the May, who show signs that they recognize that the marriage they are embarking upon is a “difficult path which it was their lot to tread.” In another Hawthorne story, “Endicott and the Red Cross,” Endecott uses his keen sword to slice the papal red cross from the English flag, “the first omen of that deliverance which our fathers consummated.”5

No affirmation of traditional marriage can be teased from the historical record concerning Merrymount, nor have twentieth-century writers followed Hawthorne’s moderate lead. A chapter in William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, something of an alternative or even outlaw history of the United States, is devoted to Morton. Williams takes his claim of “harmless mirth made by younge men” at face value, playing “Proteus (with the help of Priapus).” Like Mancall, he sees in the Puritans’ overreaction a sign of their own insecurities:

Forced by Morton’s peccadillo they countered with fantastic violence…. As Morton laid his hands, roughly perhaps but lovingly, upon the flesh of his Indian consorts, so the Puritans laid theirs with malice, with envy, insanely, not only upon him, but also—one thing leading to another—upon the unoffending Quakers.

Trustless of humane experience, not knowing what to think, they went mad, lost all direction.

“These fucking Puritans are crazy,” says David Kepesh, the philandering literature professor in Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. Adopting a similar stance to Williams’s regarding Morton’s “harmless mirth” and “peccadillos,” he defends his own serial seductions of college students as an affirmation of traditional American values. For Kepesh, Morton is the great sexual liberator of early American history, an alternative “founding father of personal freedom.” Kepesh draws a straight line between Morton and the sexual revolution of the 1960s:

The clash between Plymouth and Merry Mount, between Bradford and Morton, between rule and misrule—the colonial harbinger of the national upheaval three hundred and thirty-odd years later when Morton’s America was born at last, miscegenation and all.

Roth, perhaps a bit defensively, told an interviewer for The Guardian, “These observations are Kepesh’s, not mine.”

Is there a way to reconcile Mancall’s sober assessment of Morton’s historical significance—as environmentalist and promoter of peaceful coexistence with the Indians—with the anarchic prophet of free love celebrated by Williams and Roth? In his final paragraph, Mancall notes that the Pequot massacre and other unsavory events of the 1630s “remind us that colonial goals, no matter how aspirational to those who proposed them, could also justify violence and dispossession. This was Morton’s insight,” he concludes, “and one reason why his story continues to resonate.” It might be more accurate to say that this is Mancall’s insight, congruent with our own twenty-first-century distrust of imperial ambitions, our alarm concerning climate change, and our sympathy for the rights of Indigenous peoples. With verve, tact, and insight, Mancall has teased out those strands of Morton’s career that suggest an attractive alternative to some of the grim realities of early American history. As the most recent witness in Morton’s ongoing “trial,” he has launched a vigorous, though not impartial, defense of a complicated man.