• Richard Murff

America's First Lousy Neighborhood


Thomas Morton (1575-1647, not pictured) was not a brooding loner. He liked company, female company, and lots of it. He was from Devonshire gentry, and moved to London to be a lawyer. There he behaved like most ambitious men from the country when they find themselves in the city with disposable income.

He went to work for one Fernando Gorges, who had interests in New England. Not that Morton had any intention of going to America, he was going to get married. How much of a dent this was going to put into his gambling/ whoring/ drinking, we’ll never know because a Puritan relation derailed his wedding plans. This was short-sighted, all things considered, the Puritans should have opted to sacrifice one of their own to keep Morton in England.

To America he went in 1622, returning the next year to say that the Puritans had not developed a sense of humor in the New World. In 1624, Morton was off to New England again. This time sailing under a Captain Wolleston, whose first name seems to be lost in the mists of time along with the identity of the 30 indentured servants they were transporting. Once in America, they talked the Algonquin Indians out of a strip of land a set up a trading post known as Mount Wollestan (Now Quincy, Massachusetts) where they sold guns and liquor to the locals. While completely illegal, it was a crown-sponsored venture no one took much notice. Except the Puritans. They decided that roving bands of buzzed, well-armed Algonquins was definitely not as pleasing to God as, say, a righteous frowning.

The two neighborhoods would have likely peacefully coexisted, each sneering at the other, had not Wolleston started selling indentured servants to planters in Virginia colony. It’s unclear whether Morton took exception to being left out of the scheme, or just thought that slavery was no way to treat a white man, but he encouraged the rest of the inventory to revolt and Wollestan fled to Virginia.

Without the stabilizing influence of a hated commanding officer, Morton became the first in a long line of imperial Englishmen to go native. Imagine Heart of Darkness if Joseph Conrad had described Kurtz as quick with a drink and good with the ladies. The colony was re-christened Merry Mount, and the servants declared freemen. Some attempt at integration with the local Algonquians was made, but this didn’t amount to much more than buying the native girls beer. Nearby Plymouth, being both a commercial and social venture, showed the foresight to import women.

History, especially history involving religious movements, is subject to revision. New Age sorts have cast Thomas Morton as a pioneer in eco-friendly multi-cultural deism. This is a bit strong. He just liked a party and threw up a maypole at one of them. The maypole was an old Devon tradition which does date to pagan times, but by the Morton’s day held about as much of its original religious significance as the Mardi Gras does now.

In Chapter XIV Of The Revels Of New Canaan, Morton describes the offending party thusly:

The inhabitants of Merrymount ... did devise amongst themselves to have ... Revels, and merriment after the old English custom ... & therefore brewed a barrel 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.

Drunken fornication with native women as giving ground to pagan orgies that the Puritans had taken the good time and trouble to leave in the old country. They attacked Morton’s Christianity, although there probably wasn’t much to attack. He was christened in the High Anglican Church, but can’t be accused of taking it seriously. It wouldn’t have helped if he had. In Plymouth, the Anglicans were only few Hail Marys better than the Catholics. Which, the Puritans reckoned, was another religion best left to the Old World. What they were seeking wasn’t religious tolerance, but a nice place to exercise their own religious intolerance.

There was another, more practical, problem; one familiar to every salesman who was ever gone drinking with a customer. Both Merry Mount and Plymouth were primarily trading operations, which meant developing local business relationships. Regardless of race, anyone can usually tell when another person holds them in contempt. For that reason, the Algonquins just liked the Morton and the gang better. They were friendlier, drinks were better and the locals were invited to the party. Merry Mount became the fastest growing colony in New England and was stealing a huge chunk of the fur trade that Plymouth was looking to monopolize.

In 1628, on the second annual May Day “Revels of New Canaan”, the girl shy Miles Standish raised an army of about nine men to go set things right. Morton called him Captain Shrimpe, because he was short. The Algonquins called him Little-Pot-That-Soon-Boils-Over, because of his temper. Priscilla Mullins, with whom he was smitten, called him unlucky in love and married his best friend. All of which accounts for the pent-up anger.

The ensuing battle was not the stuff of Grecian poetry. Team Merry Mount were too gassed to hold their guns level and only managed to give the lawn a good aerating. The only recorded non-alcohol related injury was when someone listed hard enough forward to poke his nose on the point of a drawn sword, resulting in the loss of a little “hot blood.” Standish, while no ace with the ladies, could round up drunken fornicators and chop down a Maypole. Morton was arrested and marooned on the Isle of Shoals off New Hampshire until an English ship would take him home. Or die.

Fortunately, the Algonquins, who thought the whole thing was pretty funny, brought him food so he wouldn’t starve until he got to back to the motherland. Merry Mount survived another year without Morton, but it was like having the Three Stooges without Curly - still fun but not the same. In Plymouth, they recast the place as Mount Dagon because that sounds so much less jovial. And for once Captain Standish got to assign a nickname.

In 1629, colonists from New Salem, under John Endicott raided the corn supplies and, naturally, the beer. Later that year, Morton returned to the old haunts only to find the gang gone. He wandered down to Plymouth and was rearrested and sent back to England. In 1630, the powers that be did what governments have been doing to lousy neighborhoods ever since: raze it to the ground.

England wasn’t the best place to be either. James I was dead and his son, Charles I was king. Charles dismissed Parliament in 1929 and wouldn’t call another for eleven years. He thought Parliament should know its place. While he had every legal right to do it, there was a flaw in his plan: Collecting taxes without Parliament was illegal. The crown was strapped for cash and Charles wanted to go to war like all the other kings got to do. In 1642, Parliament obliged their king by giving Charles not one, but two, civil wars. This saved the taxpayer a lot of money because they didn’t have to ship the army to the Middle East or some such place to get to the fighting.

Morton, his warrior mettle tested in Merry Mount, decided to flee to New England again. He landed in Maine, where for some inexplicable reason, he returned to Plymouth. Thomas Morton was great at a party, but a slow-learner. He was arrested him again, this time for being a royalist agitator. He was sent to Boston where he was imprisoned while “evidence was sought”. None was found so he was released.

In Maine, Morton knew some planters from Devon and thought it best to get around some familiar faces who’d take the maypole in the spirit it was intended. There he died in 1647.