Had it not been for his May Day party with a giant Maypole, Thomas Morton might have established a New England colony more tolerant, easygoing and fun than the one his dour Puritan neighbors created at Plymouth Plantation.
A well-educated, well-connected, free-thinking Englishman, Morton came to America for business reasons. He held a senior partnership in a trading venture sponsored by the Crown. In 1624, he sailed aboard the Unity with Capt. Wollaston and 30 indentured servants. They arrived safely, settled in the future Quincy, Mass., and then began trading with the Indians for furs.
Morton wrote that he found two sorts of people in New England: the Christians and the Infidels. The Infidels he found ‘most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other.’
Morton would battle the Puritans over the next two decades using his wit, his pen, his political connections and his legal expertise. He even managed to get the royal charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony revoked.
Unfortunately for Morton, he tied his fortunes to the Crown. When the Puritan Roundheads gained the ascendancy over Royalists in 1643, Massachusetts officials arrested him. They called him a Royalist agitator and threw him into prison. Today people might call him America’s first hippie.
Nathaniel Hawthorne best described Morton’s struggles with his neighbors in his short story, The Maypole of Merrymount:
Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire.
Thomas Morton was born in 1576 in Devonshire, England, a part of the country that still bore remnants of Merrie Old England’s pagan past. The son of a soldier, probably a younger son, he studied law in London at the Inns of Court, the barristers’ professional association.
Morton’s lawyering brought him the connections that brought him to New England. After he arrived he discovered he couldn’t get along with the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation. So he, Wollaston and the indentured servants established their own colony, Mount Wollaston. It grew quickly and grew prosperous.
Morton then parted ways with Wollaston in 1626 when he learned Wollaston sold indentured servants into slavery on Virginia tobacco plantations. Morton encouraged the remaining servants to rebel against Wollaston and set up their own colony.
They didn’t need much persuading. The servants organized themselves into a free community called Merrymount with Morton in command. He called himself the ‘host.’ Wollaston fled to Virginia.
Merrymount was a colonial utopia in which the settlers were considered ‘consociates.’ They lived in harmony with the Algonquin Indians. The Puritans were horrified that the liberal-minded Morton and his men consorted with native women. They considered Morton an impious, drunken libertine. And they didn’t like that his easygoing colony attracted escapees from Plymouth’s strictness.
For his part, Morton disdained the Puritans at Plymouth, who he called ‘those Moles.’ He complained they ‘keep ‘much ado about the tithe of mint and cumin, troubling their brains more than reason would require about things that are indifferent.’
On May 1, 1627, Merrymount decided to throw a party in the manner of Merrie Olde England, Maypole and all. Morton hoped it would attract some Indian brides for his bachelor followers. According to Morton,
“The inhabitants of Merrymount … did devise amongst themselves to have … Revels, and merriment after the old English custom … & therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beer, & provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Savages, that came thither of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed on, somewhat near unto the top of it; where it stood as a fair sea mark for directions, how to find out the way to mine Host of Ma-re Mount.”
Gov. William Bradford was horrified by the ‘beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.’ After a second Maypole party the next year, Myles Standish led a party of armed men to Merrymount, seized Morton and put him in chains. Standish also took down the offending Maypole.
Not a shot was fired. According to Morton, the Merrymount inhabitants didn’t want bloodshed. According to Bradford, they’d had so much to drink they couldn’t resist.
Bradford feared executing Morton, who had too many friends in high places in London. He did maroon him on the Isles of Shoals until September, when an English ship took him back to England. During the next winter, an especially harsh one, John Endicott led a raid on Merrymount’s corn supply. The Puritans then chopped down what was left of the Maypole.
Morton returned to New England in 1629, only to find his friends the Indians decimated by plague. Most of the Merrymount residents scattered and the Puritans’ strength increased. In September 1630, the Puritans arrested Morton again. They banished him and burned down Merrymount.
In England, Morton plotted his revenge. Even as William Bradford was writing his History of Plimoth Plantation, Morton wrote New English Canaan, a witty composition that praised the wisdom and humanity of the Indians and mocked the Puritans. It made him a celebrity in political circles.
He also began a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Bay Colony, trying to revoke their charter. He succeeded, mostly because of King Charles’ animosity toward the Puritans. When the court ordered the charter revoked in 1634, Morton planned to return to Merrymount.
The Puritans, however, rejected the English court’s order. From 1637 to 1643, Morton and Sir Ferdinando Gorges petitioned for either a charter or an enforcement action. Unfortunately for Morton, the Crown had its own troubles – namely, the English Civil War.
Back to Plymouth
In 1642, Morton returned to Plymouth again, and again the Puritans arrested him. Not only did they view him as a ‘Royalist agitator,’ they blamed him for getting the charter revoked. They then sent him to prison in Boston, but didn’t charge him. Eventually, the Puritans granted the ill and aging Morton clemency.
Morton then spent his final days in York, Maine. He died in 1647.
Over the years other rebels and free-thinkers have lived in Merrymount, now Wollaston. Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the Puritan theocracy, lived there with her husband when they first arrived in New England in 1634. John Hancock was born there, and John Quincy Adams’ great-grandfather built a house on land in Wollaston. In 1925, a man named Howard Johnson built the first Howard Johnson’s there.
This story about the maypole that infuriated the Puritans was updated in 2023. Read more about Thomas Morton in The Trials of Thomas Morton: An Anglican Lawyer, His Puritan Foes, and the Battle for a New England by Peter C. Mancall. You can help independent bookstores and The New England Historical Society by buying it here.