Thomas Morton Abandoned at Isles of Shoals
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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And you think you have a hangover. One minute Thomas Morton and his friends were happily drinking and dancing around an 80-foot maypole in Massachusetts. The next minute he was all alone on a deserted island off the New Hampshire coast. Was he just a rabble-rouser or a visionary founding father beaten up by the Boston area Puritans? (Complete article below)
Late in the spring of 1628 a shallop from Plymouth Colony commanded by military leader Myles Standish dropped off a single prisoner at the Isles of Shoals. Thomas Morton, then 50 years old, was the leader of another early English settlement originally called “"Ma-re Mount” (meaning “hill by the sea”). It is best known as Merrymount, and part of Quincy, Massachusetts today. Unlike the dour religious Separatists at Plymouth Plantation, Morton ran his group loosely and established a close relationship with the local Indians whom he saw as friends and trading partners in the lush and beautiful New World. Unlike the starving and defensive Plymouth colony, Merrymount was festive, utopian, diverse, and commercially successful. Other Boston-area settlers, however, found Merrymount threatening. So they hired Myles Standish to ambush its leader and dump him off the coast of New Hampshire.
There was no Portsmouth in 1628. The Strawberry Bank settlement was still two years away. David Thomson’s 1623 fishing post at what is now Odiorne’s Point in Rye, had already been largely abandoned. So Morton, previously a lawyer and a poet from London, was stranded without a boat on the barren islands six miles offshore.
The hot tempered Myles Standish wanted to execute Morton on the spot, but cooler heads prevailed. So Standish left him alone at the Shoals “without gun, powder, or shot, or dog or so much as a knife to get anything to feed upon,” Morton later wrote. With only a single thin suit of clothes Morton survived for at least a month, possibly longer. His only help came from Native Americans who arrived by canoe and “would bring bottles of strong liquor…and unite themselves into a league of brotherhood,” Morton said.
A different founding father
Thomas Morton survived his stay at the Shoals. He was picked up by a passing fishing ship and returned to England to stand trial for his crime of selling guns and gunpowder to the Indians and for engaging in licentious behavior with Native American women. According to Pilgrim leader William Bradford, Morton was a “pettifogger” who ran a “School for Atheism.” Standish had seen the citizens of Merrymount “dancing and frisking together” with Native women. But despite Plymouth Colony complaints, no trial was held in England.
Morton hopped aboard another ship and returned to Massachusetts the following year to revive his colony at Merrymount. He was ultimately arrested, this time by the new Puritan leaders of Massachusetts Bay Company who now claimed to control local trading rights. The trumped up charge was stealing a canoe from an Indian. Morton was subjected to another mock trial, publicly humiliated in “the stocks.” All his possessions were confiscated and his house was burned to the ground as he watched. Morton says he managed to avoid having his tongue pierced, his nose slit, and his face branded, typical Puritan punishments. He was banished back to England in 1630 just as Captain John Mason’s settlers were beginning to arrive at Strawberry Bank.
From London Morton fought back with words. His three-volume book New English Canaan, probably written around 1634, offered a rapturous description of New England’s abundant natural resources and a scathing attack on the harsh Separatists regime there. Referring to the vertically challenged Myles Standish as “Captain Shrimp,” Morton explained how he had escaped his captors after they got drunk, but then chose to turn himself in rather than start a bloody battle. At that point Standish’s men “fell upon him, as if they would have eaten him,” Morton wrote.
The Separatists had seen maypoles before. They were commonly used at festivals in parts of England, although perhaps not 80-feet tall and topped with deer antlers like the one at Merrymount. They had seen one at the fishing colony at Damariscove Island in Maine, but did not arrest the leaders there. They knew of interracial marriages between Europeans. John Rolfe of Jamestown married Powhatan princess Pocahontas in 1614, and was presented English royalty. But the Separatists were not fans of kings and queens. They had come to the New World to get away from Church of England men like Thomas Morton. They were also not fans of the French fur traders or the fishermen who had engaged in interracial co-habitation and marriage with Native Americans in Canada and the Gulf of Maine since the 1500s. The Plymouth colonists were not opposed to sex, or drinking, or even dancing – but only with their own kind on their own terms. Morton railed against the arrogance and bigotry of the Separatists and found the local Indians – in his words -- “more full of humanity than the Christians.”
THOMAS MORTON OF MERRYMOUNT continued
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