Thomas Morton Abandoned at Isles of Shoals
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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
Try, try again
History has not been kind to Thomas Morton. He has often been dismissed as a crank, a reckless arms dealer, or as the leader of a social experiment gone wrong. But in the last 50 years, some scholars have warmed to his non-Puritan view of the founding years in New England. By trading arms for furs, according to one 19th century historian, Morton showed the Indians that their goods were highly valuable, making them less willing to trade for baubles. He was bartering with the Natives, value for value, rather than tricking them. It was not the wild party atmosphere at Merrymount that made him an enemy of the Separatists, he explained in his defense, but their jealousy over his economic success.
Like the fur traders and fisherman before him, Morton’s sales plan was to make friends with the Natives. They clearly knew how to survive in this part of the world, he said. They knew where to find the furs that commanded high prices in Europe. Plus, Morton noted, they knew how to have fun. He admired their customs, their art, their women, their honesty, and their intellect. The Indians were very friendly – as long as they got what they wanted out of the bargain. When they wanted guns, Morton gave them guns which they used to hunt game and defend themselves against enemy tribes. Merrymount was not surrounded by defensive walls like Plymouth Colony, Morton noted, because he trusted the Indians and dealt with them fairly.
William Bradford saw it differently. Merrymount, in his eyes, was made up of godless criminals, vagabonds, and runaway servants. If they were financially successful, New England would become a lawless frontier. Eventually the Separatists “would stand in more fear for the lives and goods from this wicked and debauched crew than from the savages themselves,” Bradford wrote. The Separatists and Boston-area settlers believed they had no choice except to make a pre-emptive strike on Merrymount, and for a fee, Myles Standish was the man to do it. Years earlier, Standish had led the massacre against a group of Native Americans that the Separatists feared were plotting to attack them.
According to contemporary historian Eric Jay Dolin: “Each beaver that went to Morton and his men was one less that potentially could have gone to Plymouth, and Plymouth’s leaders hated being undercut in the trade that was literally keeping them afloat…But with the trade in guns Morton had crossed the line and set the stage for his ultimate downfall.”
One last shot
Morton refused to give up. Back in England he was doing his best to rid the Massachusetts region of its greatest dangers – not gunrunners, or wild animals, or savage Indians – but the religious zealots he feared were taking over the region. Morton wanted to return, but first he wanted to remove the Puritan and Separatist threat. His book New English Canaan offered an alternative view of the American colony that is still studied today. But his attempt to nullify the land grant to the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not successful.
Morton aligned himself with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a staunch Royalist who felt the same way about Puritans. Gorges owned the patent to Maine while his partner John Mason owned the patent to New Hampshire. (They divided the Isles of Shoals where Morton had been imprisoned between themselves, each taking half the valuable islands.) Both Gorges and Mason intended to establish their own colonies in opposition to the Puritan movement, but fate intervened. Mason died just as he was about to leave for Strawberry Bank in 1635. As the “father of New England colonization,” Gorges argued that it was a bad idea to let one religious group or one political party dominate the region. His attempts to establish the strong Royalist colony of Georgiana at what is now York Maine did not succeed. As the Puritan forces began their Civil War against the English monarchy in 1642, Gorges and Morton planned to flee to Maine, but Gorges died.
In one last crazy effort Thomas Morton returned to America in 1643. His timing was terrible. From 1630 to 1640 some 20,000 Puritans had arrived in Massachusetts to establish a righteous “redeemer nation” and their influence spread rapidly. The so-called “Great Migration” spread to New Hampshire and Maine, although the Piscataqua region managed to retain significant loyalty to the English monarchy and the Anglican church. New Hampshire came in and out of Massachusetts control from 1641 to 1691 when it became a separate royal colony. Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1819.
Thomas Morton languished in Plymouth Colony for a while. He was by this time, according to biographer Charles Francis Adams, “in all human probability, a broken-down disreputable sot.” Morton was imprisoned for a year and then released with a fine because he was too old and feeble to suffer further corporal punishment. In his final years Morton could not “produce the least respect among our people,” according to Puritan leader John Winthrop. Morton was “old and crazy.”
On his release from prison, Winthrop wrote, the poverty-stricken Morton chose to go to “Acomenticus” in Maine, or as we know it today Agamenticus in York County. Morton languished there for roughly two years in view of the rugged Isles of Shoals where he had been imprisoned two decades before. Prof. Emerson Baker, a 17th century scholar who lives in York, Maine, says Morton likely lived his final months somewhere near the modern York Country Club. This forgotten “founding father” is probably buried in the first York burial ground, behind the Anglican chapel in York Harbor (right near the present-day site of St. Georges.).
The Plymouth Colony and the Boston-area colonists saw him as the “great monster,” Thomas Morton once joked. They believed he had the power to destroy their fragile new settlements. The maypole monster died in Maine in 1647. Two years later King Charles I of England was beheaded by victorious Puritan forces under Oliver Cromwell. The party was definitely over.
Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. His tenth hardcover history book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, is now available at select local shops and online as a “collectible” item in the author’s Amazon.com bookstore.
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