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The Maypole That Infuriated the Puritans

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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 his dour Puritan neighbors created at Plymouth Plantation.

Morton was a well-educated, well-connected, free-thinking Englishman who came to America in 1624 as a senior partner in a trading venture sponsored by the Crown. He sailed aboard the Unity with Capt. Wollaston and 30 indentured servants. They settled in what is now Quincy, Mass., and 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. But his fortunes were tied to the Crown. When the Puritan Roundheads were clashing with Royalists in 1643, America’s first hippie was arrested and thrown in prison.

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.

Illustration from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, 'The Maypole of Merrymount'

Illustration from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, 'The Maypole of Merrymount'

Pagan Past

Thomas Morton was born in 1576 in Devonshire, England, a part of the country that still bore remnants ot Merrie Old England’s pagan past. He was the son of a soldier, probably a younger son, and 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. 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 parted ways with Wollaston in 1626 when he learned Wollaston was selling 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’ and 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. They also weren’t happy his easygoing colony attracted escapees from the strictness and starvation of Plymouth.

Those Moles

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.’ He called the pompous John Endicott ‘that great swelling fellow, Captain Littleworth,’ and the short Myles Standish ‘Captain Shrimpe.’

On May 1, 1627, Merrymount decided to throw a party in the manner of Merrie Olde England. 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. Not a shot was fired. According to Morton, the Merrymount inhabitants didn’t want bloodshed. According to Bradford, they were too drunk to resist.

Capt. Littleworth

Capt. Littleworth

Bradford was afraid to execute 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 and 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.

Canaan

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. But the Puritans rejected the court order.  From 1637 to 1643, Morton and Sir Ferdinando Gorges petitioned for a charter or get an enforcement action, but the Crown had its own troubles – namely, the English Civil War.

In 1642, Morton returned to Plymouth again and was again arrested – this time for being a ‘Royalist agitator’ and for getting the charter revoked. He was sent to prison in Boston, but wasn’t charged. Ill and aging, he was granted clemency. Morton then spent his final days in what is now York, Maine, then a settlement of planters from the west of England. He died in 1647.

Over the years other rebels and free-thinkers have lived in Merrymount, which became 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. Wollaston was also the home of the first Howard Johnson’s.

This story was updated from the 2015 version. 

19 comments

  1. Guys, come on — You’re the New England Historical Society and you just got a critical and fundamental fact of our history wrong.

    Plymouth Colony was founded and controlled by Pilgrims. They had already seperated from the Puritans before coming to America.

    Massachusetts Bay Colony, which Quincy was in, was founded and controlled by Puritans.

    The Pilgrims, primarily, just wanted to worship in peace. The Puritans on the other hand wanted to be, well, puritanical in their pursuit of religious purity.

    • Leslie Landrigan

      Matt: Thank you for your interest. It’s really a matter of opinion rather than fact about whether to call the colonists at Plymouth Plantation ‘Puritans’ or not. We choose to view them as separating Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay colonists non-separating Puritans, as do many historians. The two groups shared many of the same beliefs, including the horror of paganism illustrated in this story.
      Yes, Quincy was in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; that’s why Morton wanted to revoke the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation were in the neighboring colony of Plymouth.
      The facts of the story suggest strongly that ‘worshiping in peace’ wasn’t quite what Plymouth Plantation was all about, since they harassed Morton, stole the corn at Merrymount and burned the village. ‘New English Canaan’ describes some of their harsh and puritanical practices.

      • Actually, “Puritan” was a term of derision given generally to those of the Protestant Reformation who wanted to “purify” English culture of its Catholic (and by extension, pagan) elements. So it fit both groups of Plimoth and Mass. Bay colonists, while “Pilgrim” was a title bestowed only much later by historians, taken from a self-descriptive remark in an early writing by William Bradford.

  2. Molly Landrigan

    Whatever happened to the custom of decorating May Baskets and leaving them on your friends doorsteps on May 1st?

  3. An interesting post – Thank you! Thomas Morton’s story is too much neglected.
    My favorite description of either Puritans or Pilgrims: “They came here to worship as they saw fit – and see that everyone else did, too!”

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