"The more I looked, the more I liked it. And when I had more seriously considered of the beauty of the place, with all her fair endowments, I did not think that in all the known world it could be paralleled -- In mine eyes, 'twas Nature's masterpiece.”
-- New Canaan, Thomas Morton, 1637
Had the Devil blighted New England's shores in June 1624, Satan would've been no less welcome to the Pilgrims of Plymouth than Thomas Morton, a lawyer, a poet, a sportsman and an adventurer. And in short order, a sharp thorn in the side of the saints and sore temptation to the strangers among them.
Thomas Morton was forty-eight when he came to America, leaving a family “snatching and snarling and brawling at every meal,” and escaping a rancorous quarrel with his eighteen-year-old stepson. He landed at Massachusetts Bay in the company of Captain Richard Wollaston, their plantation located in present-day Quincy and originally called “Mount Wollaston.”
When Wollaston and his second-in-command left for Virginia with thirty of forty indentured servants, esquire Morton stayed put with seven remaining “knights,” and an unknown number of traders, fishermen, sailors, trappers and “old planters.” The settlement received a new name, Mar-re-Mount, popularly known as Merrymount, for the revelries and free-spirited “misrule” of Mine Host, as Morton dubbed himself.
Merrymount engaged in “the old ways of doing business,” a direct cause of his clash with the Pilgrims and the Puritan advance guard at Salem. Morton's activities reflected decades of interaction between European fishing fleets and traders and Algonquin coastal tribes. Encounters sometimes brutal, as in 1614 when Thomas Hunt kidnapped twenty-seven Wampanoag for Malaga's slave market, Tisquantum among them.
Other meetings were mutually advantageous. English and French visitors bartered for beaver and other pelts; guns were the Indians' most prized trade items, with 'Kill-Devil” or rum not far behind.
By 1578, more than 200 English, French and Biscayan vessels made the Atlantic crossing annually. Ashore at seasonal camps, crews cohabited with the forest maidens, one of the “old ways” Morton embraced. In Puritan eyes, such unions were sinful and contrary to their errand in the wilderness. – Intermarriage would later be expressly forbidden; a settler could face three years' imprisonment for living with “pawns of Satan who might lure the pious from righteousness.”
Morton saw the Massachusetts Indians “more full of humanity than Christians. The more savages the better quarter, the more Christian, the worse quarter I had. These people lead the more happy and freer life, being void of care which torments the minds of many Christians.”
Merrymount supplied guns to Indian hunters; native women gathered sassafras and sarsaparilla for the traders. At one time, five ships lay in the bay off Squantum Head, coming to truck with Morton. Plymouth resented the competition as much as the morals of the “Lord of Misrule,” who was also damned for his Anglican beliefs.
On May Day, 1627, Mine Host and his knights celebrated with their Indian neighbors, the ancient revels around an eighty-foot Maypole garlanded with flowers and crowned with a pair of antler horns. Morton composed a drinking song for his guests:
“...Lasses in beaver coats, come away,
You'll be welcome to us night and day.
Then drink and be merry, merry, merry boys.
Let all you delight in Hymen's joys.”
[Images: 17th century matchlock musket and Wampum trade beads, courtesy South Coast Historical Associates; Thomas Morton's signature, from Thomas Morton of Merrymount by Jack Dempsey; Governor William Bradford, from The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, A.C. Addison, 1911; The Big Fish Eat the Small Ones, Peter Breughel the Elder, 1556, Wikipedia ]