May Day is an opportune time to recall Thomas Morton, the sworn adversary of the Pilgrims and the Puritans. A Devonshire man born in circa 1578, Morton was an attorney and a lover of plays and classical learning. In 1624 he became involved in a trading venture to the Algonquian Indians in what is now Massachusetts. In 1626 he founded the settlement of Merrymount. Morton ran a free and easy settlement, with the English settlers mixing freely with the Indians and quite a good time apparently being had by all. On May 1, 1627 Morton erected a Maypole with much frolicking going on around it.
The pilgrims were shocked. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth wrote:
About some three or four years before this time, there came over one Captain Wollaston (a man of pretty parts) and with him three or four more of some eminency, 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, who it should seem had some small adventure of his own or other men’s amongst them, but had little respect amongst them, and was slighted by the meanest servants.
Having continued there some time, and not finding things to answer their expectations nor profit to arise as they looked for, Captain Wollaston takes a great part of the servants and transports them to Virginia, where he puts them off at good rates, selling their time to other men; and writes back to one Mr. Rasdall (one of his chief partners and accounted their merchant) to bring another part of them to Virginia likewise, intending to put them off there as he had done the rest. And he, with the consent of the said Rasdall, appointed one Fitcher to be his Lieutenant and govern the remains of the Plantation till he or Rasdall returned to take further order thereabout.
But this Morton abovesaid, having more craft than honesty (who had been a kind of pettifogger of Furnival’s Inn) in the others’ absence watches an opportunity (commons being but hard amongst them) and got some strong drink and other junkets 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 return, 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 consociates; so you may be free from service, and we will converse, plant, trade, 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 o’ doors, and would suffer him to come no more amongst them, but forced him to seek bread to eat and other relief from his neighbors until he could get passage for England.
After this they fell to great licentiousness and led a dissolute life, pouring out themselves into all profaneness. And Morton became Lord of Misrule, and maintained (as it were) a School of Atheism. And after they had got some goods into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians, they spent it vainly in quaffing and drinking, both wine and strong waters in great excess (and, as some reported) £10 worth in a morning.
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 likewise, 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 this idle or idol maypole.
Here is Morton’s version:
The Inhabitants of Pasonagessit (having translated the name of their habitation from that ancient Salvage name to Ma-reMount [MerryMount]; and being resolved to have the new name confirmed for a memorial to after ages) did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemne manner with Revels, & merriment after the old English custorne: prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob ; & 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 because they would have it in a complete forme, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. 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 Salvages, that came thether 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 one, somewhat neare unto the top of it : where it stood as a faire sea marke for directions; how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Ma-reMount.
And because it should more fully appeare to what end it was placed there, they had a poem in readiness made, which was fixed to the Maypole, to shew the new name confirmed upon that plantation; which although it were made according to the occurrents of the time, it being Enigmatically composed) puzzled the Seperatists most pitifully to expound it. . . .
The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise seperatists : that lived at new Plymouth. They termed it an Idoll; yea they called it the Calf of Horeb: and stood at defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatening to make it a woefull mount and not a merry mount. . . .
There was likewise a merry song made, which (to make their Revells more fashionable) was sung with a chorus, every man bearing his part; which they performed in a dance, hand in hand about the Maypole, whiles one of the Company sung, and filled out the good liquor like gammedes and Jupiter.
Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes,
Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes,
I? to Hymen now the day iscome,
About the merry Maypole take a Roome.
Make greene garlands, bring bottles out;
And fill sweet Nectar, freely about,
Uncover thy head, and feare noharm,
For hers good liquor to keepe it warme.
Then drinke and be merry, .
I? to Hymen, &c.
Nectar is a thing assign’d,
By the Deities owne minde,
To cure the hart opprest with grief,
And of good liquors isthe chief,
Then drinke, &c.
I? to Hymen, &c.
Give to the Mellancolly man,
A cup or two of’t now and than;
This physick’ will soone revive his bloud,
And make him be of a merrier mood.
Then drinke, &c.
I? to Hymen, &c.
Give to the Nymphe thats free from scorne,
No Irish; stuff nor Scotch over worn,
Lasses in beaver coats come away,
Ye shall be welcome to us night and day.
Then drinke, &c.
I? to Hymen, &c.
This harmless mirth made by young men (that lived in hope to have wives brought over to them, that would save them a labour to make a voyage to fetch any over) was much distasted, of the precise Seperatists: that keep much ado, about the tithe of Muit [mint] and Cunmin ; troubling their braines more then reason would require about things that are indifferent: and from that time sought occasion against my honest Host of Ma-reMount to overthrow his undertakings, and to destroy his plantation quite and cleane . . .
In 1628 the Pilgrims had had enough after the second May day celebration. The Plymouth militia under Miles Standish seized Merrymount and cut down the Maypole which they viewed as pagan idol. Morton was arrested for selling guns to the Indians, which was certainly true of Morton, but everyone else was also doing that, including the Pilgrims. Morton was exiled to the deserted Isles of Shoals off the coast of what would become New Hampshire. The colony established by Morton was eventually renamed by the Puritans Mount Dagon as befitting the pagan activities they suspected were going on there. Morton escaped to England, returned to now Mount Dagon in 1629, was arrested by the Puritans, who sent him back to England and the next year burned Mount Dagon to the ground. In England Morton busied himself in litigation against the Massachusetts Bay Company for his ill treatment and published the three volume New English Canaan, denouncing the Puritans in New England and all their works.
After his patron Sir Ferdinando Gorges was given what was now Maine, Morton returned to New England in 1642. With the outbreak of the English Civil War, Morton was arrested by the Pilgrims on suspicion of being a Royalist and held in Boston by the Puritans. He was eventually released on the grounds of lack of evidence and clemency due to his failing health. He died in Maine in 1647. Stephen Vincent Benet has Morton as a member of the jury of the damned in his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, a fate which would have come as absolutely no surprise to William Bradford!