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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Thomas Morton (c. 1579-1647)

[6740] Nicolaes Visscher, Novi Belgii Novaeque Angliea Nec Non Partis Virginiae Tabula Multis in Locis Emendata (1685), courtesy of the Library of Congress [97683561].

The historical record does not offer much detail about Thomas Morton’s early life beyond the basic facts that he was born in England, received a traditional education, worked as an attorney, and had connections within the court of King Charles I. Those connections with wealthy court gentlemen probably enabled Morton’s first visit to North America in 1622 and, as part of a trade venture, his settlement there in 1624. He established a fur-trading post at Mount Wollaston (modern-day Quincy), Massachusetts, and quickly began turning a steady profit dealing in beaver pelts. Morton called his community Mar-re-Mount, supposedly in reference to its position overlooking the sea; his Puritan neighbors saw through his pun and called it “Merrymount” in an indictment of what they viewed as the group’s heedless indulgence in worldly pleasures. Indeed, the community at Mar-re-Mount did not share Puritan values and openly engaged in practices the Puritans condemned: drinking, dancing, and general “revelry.” Tensions between Morton and the Puritans escalated, both because of the discrepancies between their respective moral systems and because of Morton’s decision to trade rum and firearms with the local Native Americans, a practice the Plymouth group perceived as inimical to the safety of all European settlers in the region.

The situation came to a head with the famous Maypole incident in the spring of 1627, the conflict for which Morton is best known. When Morton invited local Native Americans, men, boys, and “lasses in beaver coats”, to dance around the eighty-foot maypole he had erected at Mar-re-Mount in a celebration of spring, the Puritans were so outraged by this open display of “profaneness” that they sent a military contingent out to arrest him. Morton was deported to England in 1628, where he stood trial and was acquitted. He returned to New England in 1629 as a free man only to have the Puritans seize his property, burn down his house, and banish him again. Back in England in 1630, Morton dedicated himself to creating difficulties for the Puritans, calling the legality of their colonial charter into question and condemning their religious practices. In 1643 he returned to New England, where he was imprisoned for slander until 1645 and died two years later in the northern part of the Massachusetts colony (present-day Maine).

Morton’s only literary work is New English Canaan (1637), a satirical tract he drafted as part of his campaign against his Puritan enemies while in exile in England. Although part of the book is dedicated to chronicling Morton’s skirmishes with the Puritans and ruthlessly satirizing the Plymouth group, New English Canaan is not simply a history, nor is it wholly satirical. The book is also meant to serve as a promotional piece, celebrating the wealth and promise of the lands of New England and encouraging non-Puritans to settle there. Morton’s florid, urbane writing style and witty irreverence make him unique among seventeenth-century New England writers.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask students to read aloud a few sentences from the Morton selection. They will probably be struck by the difficulty of the prose and the proliferation of classical allusions. After reassuring them that Morton’s style was intentionally highbrow and difficult (in many ways, the exact opposite of Bradford’s prose), you might ask them to consider why Morton chose to write in this manner. Whom was he emulating? To what sort of audience was this text designed to appeal? Students who have some familiarity with English Renaissance writers will probably see the connection and understand that Morton was trying to establish himself as an educated, urbane Englishman who had more in common with people living in London than with the dour Puritans of colonial America.
  • Compare Morton’s account of the maypole incident with Bradford’s. Ask students to generate a list of where the two stories agree on the facts and where they differ. What is at stake in these different accounts? Which is more persuasive? As your students draw their conclusions, ask them to consider the audiences Bradford and Morton were trying to reach.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What strategies does Morton use to satirize the Puritans in New English Canaan? How do the names he gives to the various characters in his tale undermine Puritan values and structures of authority? What is the significance of the title of his book?
  2. Context: How does Morton’s prose compare to Bradford’s “plain style“? Bradford draws most of his metaphors and allusions from the Bible; what sources does Morton draw upon? What kind of identity is Morton trying to construct for himself through his literary style?
  3. Exploration: Morton’s portrait of Native Americans is quite different from the accounts offered by most other seventeenth-century American writers. What qualities does he ascribe to the Indians? How does his description of Native American culture compare to his description of Puritan culture? What reasons might Morton have had to portray the Indians so positively? Why do you think Morton’s relationship to Native Americans was so threatening to the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation?
  4. Exploration: What genre do you think New English Canaan falls into? Is it a history, a satire, a travel narrative, a promotional brochure, or some combination thereof?
  5. Exploration: Read “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1836 story about the conflict between Morton and the Puritans. How does Hawthorne portray the revelers? How does he portray the Puritans who confront them? With which group do his sympathies seem to lie? Why do you think Hawthorne chose this particular incident as the subject for his story?

Selected Archive Items

[1210] John Underhill, The Figure of the Indians’ Fort or Palizado in New England and the Manner of Destroying It by Captayne Underhill and Captayne Mason (1638),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-32055].
In 1636, English settlers engaged in a genocidal campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe. Captain John Underhill chronicled the Pequot War in his News from America (1638), providing this sketch of the Puritans, along with their Narragansett allies, encircling and destroying a Pequot village.

[3217] The Bible and the Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and New Testament (1560),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Title page from the Geneva Bible depicting the pursuit of the Hebrews by the Egyptians, as described in Exodus. Puritans who envisioned themselves as New Israelites used this Bible.

[6324] Sarony and Major, The Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, Dec. 11th 1620 (1846),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4311].
Plymouth Rock has been used as a symbol of New England’s settlement as the first event in American history�a myth not supported by the complex history of Native Americans and European exploration and settlement.

[6740] Nicolaes Visscher, Novi Belgii Novaeque Angliae: Nec Non Partis Virginae Tabula Multis in Locis Emendata (1685),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [97683561].
This is a detail from the best-known map of New Netherland. The map details natural resources as well as geography. Beavers were a crucial, and profitable, trade item for places such Thomas Morton’s Mar-re-Mount.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6