“I have found the Massachusetts Indian more full of humanity than the Christians…” Thomas Morton
The Ordinary Beginning of an Extraordinary Man
He was the first man banned in Boston. He was the first American foreclosed on by a company. He was the first American to publish a fart joke, and the first American to publish a dick joke. He was also the first American accused of being a traitor. He’s the first bad neighbor throwing a wild party in recorded American history. His name was Thomas Morton, but he would have wanted us to call him Tom.
Twelve year old Tom must have been terrified when the Spanish Armada cut through the waves almost in sight of England’s shore. Like every other Brit he knew the mighty ships carried the terrors of the Inquisition. But the King of Spain deforested the Spanish countryside for nothing. So was born the delusion of invincibility that built the empire on which the sun never set.
Nothing unusual about Tom as a boy. He was middle gentry so he learned to love the bold comedy of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes and the dry wit of the Roman philosopher Cicero. He learned to hunt when the skills included taming and training hawks and falcons. He learned how to use swords and guns, not to mention wine, women and song. He studied the law and became a lawyer, moving in circles buzzing with the worldly poetry of John Donne.
Tom even attended Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas gala. Torch-lit barges floated in procession on the Thames. Cavalry exercises dazzled spectators in the streets of London. Dramatic tongue in cheek proclamations included a ban on “windy meats.” Blustery declarations affectionately mocked the mysterious potions of alchemists like the Queen’s own court wizard John Dee. Sir Francis Bacon gave a stirring speech. The theatrical performances of dance and poetry featured the earliest contributions of a couple of young writers about to revolutionize European theater: Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare. Toward the end, the Masque of the God of Healing offered cures by musical charms for such troubles as lost virginity and old age. Finally a player named Paradox mocked ancient Athens, modern religious fanatics and everything in between. Then they raised a maypole, even though it was Christmas.
But this was also a London where Tom had to dodge the plague twice. Where returning war veterans and the poor massed at centers of power, making the powerful nervous. England’s population was doubling despite years of disastrous crop failures.
Tom was 27 when good Queen Bess who had reigned all his life at long last died. As Tom turned thirty the country was shocked by Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, an event that not only eventually spawned the English Civil War, it also inspired a movie that made a mask the symbol of today’s enigmatic Anonymous movement. At age thirty Tom couldn’t have imagined the adventures, and the enemies, awaiting him in far off lands. This quiet and average fellow would become so notorious he was all but written out of American history.
For years Tom rode his lawyer circuit between Devonshire and London. Well into middle age he met and married a wealthy widow. But her eldest son was suspicious of his lawyer stepfather and so, even though his inheritance was legally protected, he took his mother to court, selling off many of her possessions to demonstrate his power over her.
Meanwhile Tom had been granted part ownership of a land patent for a planting colony in New England. We don’t know why he chose to abandon his practice and his wife to go to America. From his later writings it seems he hoped at first to make his fortune and return to her. Certainly his absence would make her life with her son at least more civil. The lad was destined to become a Puritan, but Tom had no idea the generation gap ruining his marriage was a hint of a civil war still twenty years away.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Tom wasn’t the only Brit excited by the idea of an unexplored continent. Sir Walter Raleigh bragged he was after Virginia’s “maidenhead,” or as Tom later wrote in a bit of horny poesy worthy of American bards like Whitman and Ginsberg: “License my roving hands and let them go before, behind, between, above, below, O my America…”
One of the first and most excited was Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Military Governor of Plymouth, England when the first natives abducted from the New World arrived. Sir Gorges would not have appreciated us calling him Ferd. The New World captured Ferd’s imagination. He understood the business possibilities of a vast land of virgin resources. The massive royal land grant he got in the New World was challenged for decades in English courts as a monopoly.
Ferd organized a company and sold shares of land patents, a financial product as fuzzy as a subprime mortgage derivative when it came to nailing down land rights in court. Ferd sent over John Smith and many other expeditions. Among his shareholders was a lawyer he sometimes hired: Thomas Morton. In 1622, Tom visited the New World for three months. He returned complaining about intolerant Puritans, but he was eager to go back.
Apparently by placing Tom in charge of thirty indentured young men Ferd was hedging his bet. Tom was a creature of the Renaissance. He would fit in better with the culture of the New World, described by Ferd in Parliament as a lawless place where fur traders, a pack of jokers from all over Europe, were teaching the natives to fornicate, get drunk, and swear like pirates. They were also using sly hustles like putting a layer of butter over a pound of salt and selling it as a pound of butter, cheating the natives instead of offering them true religion and civilization. Apparently Ferd had a sense of humor, since he knew Tom would be a thorn in the side of the Puritans, but sent him to America on a ship ironically named Unity.
Tom was around 48 years old when he arrived in New England in June 1624 over a 150 years before the birth of America. Imagine how pristine it must have looked and smelled in early summer, the air was famous for its sweet fragrance, unspoiled for thousands of years. Later he would write about the beauty of what he called New Canaan.
When they first arrived in Boston harbor they camped on the beach and ate so much of the easily gathered lobster Tom grew tired of the delicacy. Because the natives burned the underbrush so they could farm and hunt more easily, the surrounding countryside looked like English parks: long grass meadows framed by mature trees. But the beauty of the place hid an ugly secret. Only ten years before, epidemics brought by the Europeans had spread tribe to tribe across the continent killing millions. Nine out of ten natives died. Between 1616 and 1619 over one hundred thousand natives living in what we now call New England died of plague. The beaches were littered with lobster shells but the woods were littered with skulls.
Tom was fascinated by the hummingbirds of America, and enchanted with all the other natural wonders of his new home, a place he later declared “Nature’s Masterpiece.” He hiked and explored the beaches, the streams and the hills, all teeming with life. Most of the hunters and fishermen who had helped keep the ecological balance for thousands of years, ever since their ancestors first arrived hunting the wooly mammoth, died in the epidemics. The resulting over population made America seem impossibly fertile and abundant.
Tom found the natives gentle and considerate. He hoped to bring a better life to them and he would certainly be more tolerant than the Pilgrims who saw the natives as devil possessed barely human creatures. Tom wanted to understand native culture. He learned the native language and believed that some words had the same pronunciation and meaning as their Greek or Latin equivalents which led him to suggest that the natives were descendants of ancient Troy. He insisted he didn’t trade them guns and metal knives only for profit, he wanted to help them defend themselves from stronger tribes invading to take their lands. He listened to their gossip and their dreams.
Most English thought it ironic that the natives lived a life of what Europeans thought was poverty amid the abundance of the New World. But Tom, who could not resist imagining all the ways the abundance could be exploited, nevertheless understood that the natives were not to be dismissed, as John Locke dismissed them, for “wasting” the natural resources of the new world. He understood their contentment living simple lives in harmony with nature. He even wondered if the native lifestyle made the European idea of wealth wrong. What good were piles of possessions that required constant protection? The natives lived without want, in communities of mutual trust, could that be the true definition of wealth, Tom wondered.
Mayday at Ma-re Mount
Tom enjoyed his explorations of the New World. He describes a native game a little like football but the field, a sandy beach, is a mile long, and the game took two days to play. Beaches were also the site for native feasts that we know today as clambakes.
Tom’s idyllic adventure ended when he caught the captain of the Unity selling indentured servants into slavery on the colonial plantations, where life was short and brutal, and many died their first year. Tom couldn’t stop the captain so with plain talk over ale he sparked a rebellion. The captain and his thugs fled and America’s first utopia was born. Tom declared everyone free. Tom was commander but he insisted everyone call him mine Host, after Falstaff, Shakespeare’s jovial free spirit with a frank sense of humor about life, whose cowardice and hospitality were equally self serving.
Tom named his new free community Ma-re Mount (pronounced Merry Mount). He was happily aware of all the puns, and in several languages, for example, Latin slang for a hard on. Tom’s business quickly flourished. Unlike the Pilgrims he was willing to trade guns, and once you had a Ma-Re Mount gun you had to come back to Ma-re Mount for powder and bullets. Tom also showed his customers how to maintain and repair their guns, right down to pouring and casting iron replacement screws. Soon the best furs were saved for Ma-re Mount.
Not only did the Pilgrims think this an unfair and illegal business advantage, they also considered it treachery since those guns would likely end up being used against them.
Tom adopted aspects of the local native culture. He intended to convert them but he thought a better way than bullets was giving them salt, so they could preserve meat, and give up their nomadic lifestyle of hunting. He hoped his experiment in freedom would grow to include all the locals, native and European, everyone was invited. Anyone, native or colonist, who joined him Tom called partner. Jamestown, that cannibal village, had required a stockade with cannon and formidable walls. But Ma-re Mount didn’t even need a fence.
Tom tried to be a good neighbor to the suspicious Pilgrims. He showed them a way to improve the construction of their houses so the mud huts wouldn’t fall apart every year. They spurned his advice. He wasn’t one of them. He was condemned as nothing more than an opportunist, his morals corrupted by alcohol, and the pagan myths of classical literature he so relished. To the Puritans he was a relic of their father’s rogue generation. Civil war in England was not far away but it had already started between Plymouth and Ma-Re Mount.
On one side were the royalists or Cavaliers. Like Tom they wore their hair long. They sported dashing beards and mustaches. Their costumes were lavish and romantic. Large codpieces were the fashion equivalent of the tight pants and bulge brigade of 70’s rock. The royalists were unrepentant drunks and fornicators, but they were also students of philosophy, inspired by all cultures of history, not only Christian. Their experiments in alchemy and astrology evolved into modern chemistry and astronomy.
Their opposition, the Puritans, were a younger generation rebelling in every way against their fathers whom they considered irresponsible, reprehensible and downright pagan. The Puritans were sober. They forbid dancing. Laughter was right out. And they couldn’t run or walk too fast, only proceed at a measured pace.
In May1627 Tom decided to celebrate May Day with the locals. There would be food, drink, a maypole, music, dancing, and hopefully wenching; everyone was invited including native men and women, a guest list that scandalized the Pilgrims.
Imagine a green round hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Red gooseberry flowers and white dogwood blossoms decorated the forest bright under the May sun. Natives and Europeans alike helped prepare and raise the maypole. Stripped of bark the eighty foot tall yellow pine practically glowed, decorated with multicolored ribbons flowing in the breeze. A noble set of antlers crowned the top. They served beer they had brewed from their own hops, and they marched with guns and drums in a parade that faintly echoed the cavalry procession at Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas gala Tom had seen so long ago.
Tom and his men composed The Poem. Not quite a manifesto, he read it aloud then nailed it to the maypole. Tom must have had to explain the ancient Greek myths he referenced . The widow he loved and left back home in England must still have been on his mind; as were native widows, who were often seen weeping over the graves of their lost loved ones.
When Tom begins The Poem by calling on Oedipus he’s asking the famous solver of the riddle of the Sphinx to solve Tom’s riddle. But Tom also knew that Oedipus had cured the plague that was destroying ancient Thebes so The Poem was asking for a healing of the plague devastated New World.
In The Poem, America is a widow weeping among graves. But the ancient Gods take pity and send a lover strong as the biblical Samson, the European colonists. In the style of Merrie Olde England it reminds the listeners that life is short, so appreciate it while you can. It concludes with a tradition demanded by the Goddess of Love:
With proclamation that the first of May
At Ma-Re Mount shall be kept hollyday
The Poem is a riddle, but it’s also a declaration; it’s an origin story for the community, but also a prayer and a healing. And since in his explanation Tom mentions Scogan, one of the most famous fools of England, it’s also a jest. But The Poem is also a justification for invasion. The bereft widow of a fallen culture needed the strong new man divinely sent from across the sea. The maypole wasn’t only a billboard for Ma-re Mount, it was a phallic symbol. Tom wasn’t a hero for the natives, he was just a friendlier enemy.
Then they sang The Song, no doubt mostly composed by Tom. They sang in chorus, dancing hand in hand around the maypole. The Song, a celebration of marriage, and of the tonic joys of liquor, concluded by declaring native lasses welcome day or night. Every night was lady’s night at Ma-re Mount! With its drink and be merry lyrics The Song would fit right into Jethro Tull’s obscure Songs From the Wood album of reworked Olde English ditties like “Cup of Wonder,” or any May Day repertoire by a Renaissance Faire musical troupe.
Everyone shared what they brought to the feast: venison, sturgeon, clams, oysters, lobsters, chestnuts, honey, English biscuits and native corn cakes, not to mention wines and brandies. Natives from all over the New England area attended, along with fishermen, trappers and entrepreneurial sailors. A young servant who became pregnant by her married master in Plymouth ran off with him but he abandoned her. She came to Ma-re Mount for May Day.
Tom admitted dangerous people attended: pirates, swindlers, outlaws, renegade natives, but they respected him. Tom must have cut a striking figure presiding over Ma-re Mount, on his arm a male falcon it had taken him only two weeks to train. Among all his other firsts Tom was America’s first falconer. He referred to himself using the Algonquin word for chief: sachem. Tom Morton at age fifty seemed to have found something greater than the wealth he sought in the New World: a community that looked up to him.
The party lasted for days. Music, dancing, singing! You could hook up, trade, fall in love, run away from an unjust fate, reinvent yourself. You could cross cultural and racial boundaries in ways unimaginable in Plymouth or Salem. Like a rock concert in the 1950’s, May Day at Ma-Re Mount was the American melting pot boiling hot.
The Pilgrims understood if they didn’t do something they’d lose all their servants and allies. Who wanted to hang out in dismal Plymouth? How are you going to keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Ma-Re Mount? Still, the maypole of the familiar woods of England must have inspired a very different feeling from this ominous maypole at the edge of endless and hostile wilderness. An entire wild continent surrounded them but there was not room in the New World for both Plymouth and Ma-re Mount.
The Pilgrims Bring A Whole New Meaning to May Day
In Plymouth, the Pilgrims commented on the kindness of the natives, but they were terrified of them. The Puritans weren’t above using fear of the plague to frighten their native allies, claiming they could free it from a hiding place where they had put it in the ground (actually their gunpowder stash). They were fighting Satan in the New World. They understood Ma-re Mount was calculated to draw in every free wheeling trader in the territory so they maneuvered for power with the authorities by insisting they represented maximum profit and family values. Ma-re Mount was supposed to have been a law abiding self sufficient plantation but was no more than a pirate’s cove.
The Pilgrims denounced the maypole as an idol, comparing it to the Old Testament golden calf. They wrote Tom what may be America’s first cease and desist letter. They justified themselves by referencing the ban on illegal trades ordered by King James; after all, selling guns to natives was illegal. Tom’s saucy response was that the king was dead and his ban with him. The English had been trading guns with the natives for over a hundred years. Plymouth decided they would have to use force. Letters were written to people of influence of the new world and old. Meanwhile Myles Standish planned, and drilled his Pilgrim soldiers.
The Pilgrims were understandably nervous about the gun trade. Terror was their policy toward the natives. They relied on the hostilities between tribes and lived in fear of the kind of unified attack that finally happened much too late for the native cause some forty years later when King Phillip’s War wiped out half the colonial settlements.
In their letters to authorities back home the Pilgrims created the impression that an army of natives had guns, swords and other metal implements of war. But the written records by travelers at the time describe natives who used bows and arrows; a hundred of them fleeing from a few guns. The Pilgrims accused Tom of providing sixty guns to three different tribes, two of them enemies of Plymouth. The actual number of guns he traded may have been much smaller.
To the Pilgrims Ma-re Mount was “a school of atheism and licentiousness.” Tom thought the community, The Poem and The Song, celebrations of education. Before any Puritan, Tom was the first to convince a native father to allow his son to be raised by a colonial family, so the boy would be fluent in English and so could read the Bible. He commented that the Pilgrims said uncivilized things about the great universities like Cambridge and Oxford back home in England. To Tom the Pilgrims were low class, “clumsy, anti-intellectual and busily self righteous, anxious to display bogus purity by bursts of oppression,” in John McWilliams succinct prose.
For all the lasciviousness of Ma-re Mount imagined by the Puritans the truth is probably closer to Tom’s own account. Innocent dancing and frolic perhaps but, as Tom later wrote, the native women were extremely modest. Did the colonists and native girls get drunk and celebrate May Day fornicating on the grass? Not likely. No doubt some native women, after the loss of their families and most of their tribe and way of life, turned to the colonists for a future. Intermarriage between Europeans and natives occurred for generations before Tom arrived.
Tom and his seven traders were hardly an immediate threat to the Plymouth colony but the proclamation of Aphrodite to celebrate May Day was broken the very next year. Apparently Tom thought the Pilgrims were riled up enough. It made no difference. The Company the Pilgrims worked for claimed legal ownership of Ma-re Mount. Even the English courts were unsure who owned what thanks to years of contradictory royal edicts, Parliamentary procedures and court judgements.
In June, Myles Standish arrested Tom, who probably didn’t shirk from using his nickname for Standish to his face: Captain Shrimp. According to Tom, the Pilgrims ambushed him away from Ma-Re Mount, but he escaped their cabin, slamming the door contemptuously on his way out. Lightning lit the wetlands as Tom fled home through a storm. He reports that he felt confident out there, like he was part of the wilderness, unlike the inept Pilgrims who wouldn’t dare follow him into the elements.
They didn’t have to, instead when the storm ended the Pilgrims marched straight to Ma-re Mount where they said Tom and his assistants had been drinking to steel their confidence and were so drunk their attack was easily foiled. Tom’s version is a little different.
When Captain Shrimp arrived the certainty of bloodshed convinced Tom to negotiate. He would surrender his arms and go with them if they promised not to harm him, or the people or property of Ma-re Mount. The Pilgrims agreed. But, as Tom pointed out, they believed their promise to a sinner meant nothing, so as soon as he opened the door they attacked him. He describes their ferocious violence by comparing them to hungry cannibals. He says only the presence of an old war veteran saved him from being hacked up then and there. The old soldier, horrified by their violence, stopped the frenzied Pilgrims.
When Tom faced judgement by the assembled Puritans, he said Standish was enraged and wanted him dead. But cooler heads prevailed. Tom was too well connected back home. They’d send him to face a trial in London. That would give them plenty of time to deal with Ma-re Mount. After Tom’s arrest some of those who lived at Ma-re Mount had sudden religious conversions to the Puritan way. One of Tom’s own assistants fell to his knees in front of the Pilgrims and addressed them as if they were holy messengers. It was a good career move. He went on to become a Puritan general and eventually mayor of Boston.
No ships were due to stop at Plymouth that summer so they marooned Tom on New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals from June to September, a place barren as a desert. They sent him a change of clothes, some raisins, sugar and wine, perhaps so they could claim they provided for him. Tom says the local natives helped him survive by bringing him supplies, but they did not help him escape. They understood the gravity of the conflict between Ma-re Mount and Plymouth.
While Tom was headed back to England, a Puritan captain named Endicott was on his way to the New World. Endicott didn’t wait for his official authority to kick in on May 17. Though there had been no more May Day celebrations Endicott cut down the maypole, and he warned the remaining residents of Ma-re Mount to repent.
Tom reached England before Winter. He says the cunning men of London were ready to use poison or false affidavits to defeat him but Tom was much more a threat where he could use his legal skills and royalist connections. Not only did his case never reach trial, the Pilgrims were told to lay off.
By spring 1629 Tom was back in America. But things had changed. The Pilgrims had rechristened Ma-re Mount with the ominous name Mt. Dagon, after the god of the Philistines. Farms had gone to seed, abandoned by colonists who died or went home. The Puritans had bought off Tom’s allies with big orders of goods they paid for in cash.
That autumn the Pilgrims summoned their allies and remaining rivals to Salem to sign paperwork granting them a monopoly. Only Tom refused to sign what he called a mousetrap. The pilgrims complained that the new recruits from England were lazy, they relied too much on servants, and they hadn’t planted enough corn. That winter starvation brought fever to Salem; Endicott’s wife was one of those who died.
Endicott led a raid on what was left of Ma-re Mount. Tom hid his guns, his powder and bullets, but the Pilgrims took all his corn. He said he didn’t mind. Turning to hunting, he commented only in writing on the irony that the Pilgrims starved while the woods around them offered abundant food. When he became their prisoner, they made him hunt food for them, but they still allowed their poorest to starve, Tom says, though he was more than willing to hunt for them all.
In 1630 with Tom’s royalist connections back in England breathing down their necks the Puritans offered to make a secret deal with Tom so they wouldn’t have to undermine their aura of infallibility by the embarrassing public admission they had falsely arrested and imprisoned him. They would let him go but he must keep silent so as not to undermine their authority with “the vulgar people,” as they called everyone but themselves.
Parliament was beginning to swing over to the Puritan side as the English Civil War inched nearer. The gun trade was too risky now. Tom would never lead a community again, the most he could do was advise some friends since he understood the native people and terrain as well as or better than any other white man.
Then began the Great Migration. Tom stood somewhere in the Blue Hills watching the Massachusetts Bay Company ships arrive. Governor Winthrop and 400 Puritans, with 600 more Puritans to follow. Winthrop had a plan to purify the colonies, to make a holy land. What was left of Ma-re Mount was gone just three months after the Great Migration.
John Winthrop, author of A Model of Christian Charity, twelve years younger than Tom, brought a new legal justification for taking native lands. So called natural rights were superseded by the rights of the civilized, and the measure of civilization was cattle breeding. Winthrop unknowingly harkened all the way back to the original Indo-Aryan invasion.
The Indo-Aryans also considered cattle breeding the measure of civilization. Their greatest compliment for a beautiful woman, or a Goddess, was cow eyes. The native tribes of India, dark skinned people, they considered savages without rights. As usually happens, a few hundred years later the religion of the conquered became the religion of the conqueror, a fate America may yet experience. Captain John Smith had a simpler criteria; the natives were uncivilized because they did not enjoy “drudgery.” “Carking” was Tom’s word for what he also called “anxious toil.”
A story is told about Winthrop cowering in a native menstrual hut after dark, lost only a mile from his house, bellowing hymns for fear of the wilderness. When a native woman showed up to use the hut for the purpose for which it was built he kept her out until she gave up and left, grumbling about the crazy white man. Winthrop wasn’t in the New World to revel in the beauties of the wilderness. Behind those Pilgrim eyes were highways and minimalls.
Aug 23, 1630 Massachusetts Bay’s first court took its first action by process. It ordered the arrest of Tom Morton. Winthrop spent the two weeks until Tom’s arrival looking for evidence against him but found none. They kept Tom at Salem, forcing him to attend their religious services. Rumors that Tom had been stirring up the natives against the new colonists could not be substantiated. Accusations that he had cheated the natives were unsupported by any witness. Lawyer Tom argued they had no jurisdiction over him but they ignored him. They charged him with stealing the canoe he took trying to get away from them. The court ordered Tom jailed and sent back to England for trial for his many crimes against the natives, none of which could be proven, not even the canoe. They ordered all his remaining goods seized by the court to be sold to pay for Tom’s time in jail and his trip home, and Ma-re Mount was to be burnt to the ground.
Poor Tom was then locked up in the stocks, freshly carved by a carpenter who had been their first prisoner, punished for charging too much. They shipped Tom back to Ma-re Mount so he could watch them confiscate his tools, powder, even his last saucer, then they burned down his dream. The natives were summoned with the idea that they would celebrate Tom’s punishment, or at least be intimidated by Puritan authority. Instead they berated and laughed at the Pilgrims for burning down shelter just before what they knew would be a very cold winter.
They sent Tom back to England on a ship that survived by stopping at ports of call. Between the furthest stops the voyagers would be forced to live on a biscuit and a lime a day during the grueling nine month journey. Tom knew they were trying to kill him. He refused to go. They had to bundle him up and hoist him like baggage onto the ship. He said by the time he arrived in England he looked like Lazarus.
Back in London, Tom’s story helped back up Ferd as he tried to convince the authorities that the Puritans were acting like an independent country, not a colony of the crown. Ironically, Ferd described the Pilgrims as “too free.” They were setting up their own church, their own court. 1630 was the year King Charles I, who had granted the charter for the Great Migration of Pilgrims, and who was known to be more religious than his rake father, nevertheless dissolved Parliament. Puritan writings burned in bonfires. Puritan ministers were whipped in the streets.
“I fart” – Tom Morton
America’s First Published Fart Jokes
1633 was a sinister year. The Inquisition silenced Galileo. The Lancashire witch trials ended with ten of the accused executed by hanging. Smallpox and an outbreak of revenge killings ravaged the colonists and the natives in the New World. Tom was still in London fighting the Puritans in court. He had another year of legal arguments ahead of him.
Tom celebrated May Day 1634 by writing a gloating letter to an infamous gossip back in the New World. He wrote that a new governor was being sent to right all wrongs. Tom would be at his side upon his arrival. The letter, like The Poem, references ancient Greek myths. Tom compares himself to Perseus holding up the head of Medusa, the new edict that would turn the Puritans to stone. He especially relishes the approaching comeuppance of “King Winthrop.” The new governor was Ferd himself, the ambitious seventy year old was mustering troops to enforce the King’s justice, and was having a magnificent ship built to carry them.
But the Governor of Puritan Plymouth arrived from the New World to defend Pilgrim interests. He warned that the French and the Dutch could attack at any time and England would lose her colonies. Tom was rebuked, and Ferd with him, for overstating the case against the Puritans. But all that changed quickly when a few questions about religious practices were asked. The Governor of Puritan Plymouth found himself sentenced to four months in prison.
When Ferd launched his grand ship for the voyage to the New World, the vessel, which had been cheaply and hurriedly built, because money was running out, fell apart and promptly sank. As England sank with it into an economic depression, a key partner in Ferd’s New World venture died. Meanwhile the Puritans were building forts to repel the new order they thought would arrive any day from England. One of the forts melted in the rain; they had again ignored Tom’s long forgotten good advice about using lyme in their mixture.
Tom was appointed prosecutor for the New England Council against the Puritans. He argued that the Puritans were religious separatists; their politics would certainly follow their religion. Tom spent years arguing what to him must have seemed his own case. He wrote out long legal documents staking his claim against the Puritans and the company behind them that had closed him down. Somewhere during the process someone told him he should write a book.
Tom must have been a happier man in 1637. The Massachusetts Bay Company’s rights were declared void. Tom had reworked his legal briefs into a book he called New English Canaan. The Puritans claimed it was all slander and lies, but others familiar with the New World praised its accuracy. In it Tom even grudgingly admitted that the Pilgrims were such hard workers their future wealth was assured. He was right about that. 1637 was also the year that the Puritans sent out their first slave ship, named Desire.
By then the Pequot War was raging as the English and Dutch fought alongside their native allies. In May 1637 a native village of children, women, and old men was attacked and burned by Puritan soldiers whose merciless killing so alienated their native allies they left the war and went home. Survivors were sold into slavery. The leader of the Mystic Massacre, as it came to be called, later defended it by describing it as God scornfully laughing at the enemy.
New English Canaan was printed in England but made to look like it was printed in Amsterdam, including carefully placed typos, in the hopes it would protect the author and publisher, and the book itself, from censorship and prosecution for such a frank assessment of the New World debacle.
Tom was the first American to publish a fart joke. In fact he wrote several that would have made Ben Franklin, author of Fart Proudly, quite proud indeed. New English Canaan begins with the two words: “If art” which with the ornately capitalized “i” reads “I fart.” He also noticed the near interchangeability of the f and s and the nc and r in the popular font of the time and so coined a new word for his description of Puritan sanctity: fartity.
The first section of New English Canaan is a report on the natives. Tom goes into detail about how they lived, their clothing, utensils and habits. He compliments the respect given to elders by the young. He claims the natives have no religious practice. We know now that native medicine men drew power from dreams, visions, and rituals. They had plant and animal spirit helpers, and served the tribe with healing and divinatory skills. Tom does tell a story about a medicine man healing an Englishman, but the good results mine Host attributes to conjuring tricks and the devil.
Tom claimed the natives believed in one god above all others who created a man and woman, and who drowned most of humanity for their wickedness. Later studies of Algonquin beliefs in the area suggest Tom was getting told what he wanted to hear by natives already familiar with Christian dogma. But modern scholars agree with Tom on Kytan, the god who makes plants grow, who makes the world fertile, and who looks after the righteous dead, who are fed without having to hunt or labor, living in an eternity of pleasure. Tom wrote that the two sins most despised among the natives were lying and stealing. Afterlife for the wicked meant wandering in the Northeast in the constant twilight and freezing cold of endless winter.
In section one Tom also describes the native’s robust health, musing that it did not save them from the plague and other epidemics brought by colonists from Europe. He describes their sharp senses, reminiscing about a native confronted by two sets of deer tracks who could tell from the smell of the soil which was freshest. He concludes the first section of New England Canaan with a chapter about how content the natives were as they had little desire for possessions and for the most part shared and enjoyed the wealth of nature. He described their pleasure at drinking from their cupped hands water bubbling up from natural crystals.
In the second section of New English Canaan Tom rhymed a long list of all the possible products America had to offer. Every description of vegetation or animal is followed with a sentence about its usefulness and potential for profit. It’s not quite as disturbing a shopping list as Thomas Harriot’s fifty years earlier, which concluded nearly every description of any natural thing with or without a pulse with the catch phrase “we have taken and eaten.”
It’s hard to read these lists that describe in detail the flora and fauna we have lost: spruce trees twenty feet around, a mile long oyster bank, and the seasonal flock of a million passenger pigeons the natives welcomed as an easy feast. Tom describes a variety of local waters. One induces sleep, or among the natives visionary states. Another, near Ma-re Mount, he recommends for curing melancholy.
In the third section of New English Canaan Tom told stories about Puritan violence and unfairness to the natives. “…you may easily perceive,” he wrote, “that the uncivilized people are more just than the civilized.” Then Tom told the story of the maypole and what he suffered because of it. He referred to himself as “a great monster supposed to be at Ma-re Mount.”
In New English Canaan Tom admitted that rum, or Kill-Devil as it was known, caused numerous deaths among the natives, from old women who drank too much at one sitting, and expired on the spot, to the warrior Tom described accidentally shooting himself in the chest. Tom confessed he sold alcohol to the natives, he said because he would have had no trade with them otherwise.
Tom studs his writing with references to Don Quixote and ancient Greek myths. His dry humor can turn a clever phrase but too often his writing reads like the endless sentences of a legal document, leaving the reader wondering about the point of many a paragraph. But one finds moments of writing that are the seeds of what will become the poetry of Whitman and Ginsberg and the prose of Muir and Twain.
Original editions of Tom’s book are extremely scarce now since almost all copies were seized and destroyed. An original is up for sale for the first time in 25 years, for a mere $137,500.00. With only one limited edition reprint in two centuries, we came very close to never hearing about Thomas Morton, never hearing his point of view.
Banned in Boston
In 1641 twenty thousand Puritans suffered America’s first economic depression. Then Massachusetts Bay’s ironically titled “Body of Liberties” document gave legal legitimacy to slavery and the slave trade began to flourish thanks to the market for American tobacco.
Soon the original Plymouth colonists were overwhelmed. Not by the new governor from England, who never arrived, or by the natives, but by competition from the colonists arriving by the boatload. Boston banned the newcomers whose beliefs didn’t fit in, who didn’t “resemble” them to use their terminology, resulting in flourishing colonies in areas once wild, like the one led by visionary Samuel Gorton whose followers didn’t believe in a real hell, and who referred to the judges of Boston and Plymouth as “just asses”
By now Ferd was out of money and wondering if he was too old to take a boat to America. He couldn’t afford to bring an army with him to the New World so he proposed a new more modest approach: developing a royalist colony in Maine while letting the Puritans have their way in the south. Ferd sent over his 22 year old nephew who was a Puritan sympathizer, but the new governor once informed by the Puritans of Tom Morton’s reputation didn’t support his uncle’s idea that Tom should come to New England to give hope to royalists there.
Tom was in London for the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642. The incident that finally triggered the war was a budget crisis that should be familiar to all today. The royalists had emptied the treasury. They approached Parliament for more money as they had many times before. But this time the Puritans controlled Parliament and they said no. What began as a debate about who really rules, the king or the people, ended in war. Ferd forgot all about New England. In his seventies now he raised a troop and led them in a battle where he lost the gate under his command, and thus the city. They say the old man died imprisoned by the Puritans.
Tom was appointed to wrangle over land grants with his old nemesis Winthrop but the Puritans were gaining the upper hand and beheadings were considered a more merciful way to die than being drawn and quartered. So Tom wrote his will while he accumulated the money for his last trip to the New World. He was almost seventy now. On August 23, 1643, exactly thirteen years after the Boston Court ordered his arrest, Tom left his niece a list of lands he said he “ought to have.”
As 1644 began Tom was back in the New World. He lived on so little money he was forced to drink only water, never wine. His Puritan neighbors called Tom a serpent. They accused him of being a Jesuit agent. They suspected he had no rights to anything that he really represented no one, only pretending to be there on a client’s business. Captain Shrimp, now a tax collector, was infuriated by Tom’s return. That was the year the Puritan parliament back in England outlawed Christmas. Soon after, Boston forbid singing carols, exchanging gifts, or the mention of St. Nicholas.
Tom really was an agent for royalist friends in Maine who sent him and others to recruit anyone who wanted to innovate away from the Puritan’s smothering laws and customs. Endicott sent spies, and Tom’s old enemies concluded he was there to help raise a royalist rebellion against them. Winthrop ordered him arrested again. For ten years the Pilgrims had held on to Tom’s gloating letter, now it was exhibit A. Exhibit B was his book, which the Pilgrims considered libel.
Tom was jailed. He sought release as winter approached but they refused, saying they were gathering witnesses. They left him in a cell without bedding or fire through the cold winter. His hands and feet in irons, he withered. He petitioned for mercy again. Perhaps this time his old assistant, now Mayor of Boston, would help his old master from Ma-re Mount.
The Pilgrims decided Tom was too expensive to keep, and too “old and crazy” for execution. They fined him what little he had on him and let him go. We don’t really know what happened to Tom after that. Winthrop got the final published gloat, claiming Tom died soon after “poor and despised.” They say Tom was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery that no longer exists.
By1646 the Puritans imposed the death penalty against blasphemy by anyone including natives. By 1648 openly questioning the Puritan strategy of using guns and Bibles to mercilessly convert natives was legally declared blasphemy.
John Smith, Endicott, Winthrop went on to be enshrined in American history and Disney fantasies of Pilgrims and natives. Ferd is remembered as the Father of Maine. But poor Tom was all but forgotten except by a few key American writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne, respectful but not affectionate toward the Pilgrims, wrote a short story called The Maypole of Merrymount including this memorable line: “jollity and gloom were contending for an empire.”
William Carlos Williams thought the Puritans were driven by sexual jealousy. He meticulously examined the historical record on sexuality among the natives and came to the conclusion that like women anywhere some were chaste and some not. While Hawthorne praised the determination of the Pilgrims, Williams despised them for being “shriveled with fear and hate” of the wilderness.
American poet laureate Robert Lowell wrote a play about Ma-re Mount, which he thought a fine example of his view of history as the result of inept fools using bits of ideology to justify actions that cause only damage for everyone involved.
There you have it. America’s split personality from the very start: dour businessmen vs. dirty hippies, ruthless Wall Street cliques vs. Burning Man. Tea Party vs OccupyWallStreet, isn’t it all still Plymouth vs. Ma-re Mount?
Freud thought the determining factors of the human personality were set early. To heal he would search back to those moments that defined a life. Is Ma-re Mount one of America’s earliest repressed memories?
The Wounded Cavalier, a painting by William Shakespeare Burton, captures the demise of Elizabethan England. But I like to think of it as symbolic of that moment in American history when the Pagan Pilgrim failed and America’s destiny was left in the cold pale hands of the Puritans. The Puritans would win the English Civil War. They beheaded their king. Of course, they were doomed to be as disappointed with their children as their fathers were with them, since the royals were welcomed back only eleven years later.
Perhaps the Pilgrims were smart to eliminate the competition. One can easily imagine Thomas Morton leading tribal allies against the Pilgrims in an American reflection of the English Civil War. Instead of slaughtering millions of turkeys for Thanksgiving every year, we might have been celebrating May Day.
A Study of William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain
University of Illinois Press, 1990
Changes in the Land
Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Hill and Wang, 1983
Thomas Morton of Ma-re Mount
The Life and Renaissance of an Early American Poet
by Jack Dempsey
Twice Told Tales
“The Maypole of Merry Mount”
American Stationer’s Co. 1837
The Old Glory
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965
New England’s Crises and Cultural Memory:
Literature, Politics, History, Religion, 1620-1860
Cambridge University Press, 2004
New English Canaan
edited with notes by Jack Dempsey
Manitou and Providence
Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England
Oxford University Press, 1982
Puritans at Merry Mount:
Variations on a Theme
American Quarterly Vol. 22 No. 4 1970
In the American Grain
William Carlos Williams
Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge. He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.