Bruce lee the man only i knew
T IME : Summer, There is food and drink aplenty; jollity reigns. Caught in the spirit of the moment, the revelers do not sense an alien presence in the forest nearby.
Then a band of Pilgrim foot soldiers bursts onto the scene. The dancing stops. The maypole comes down. Merry Mount will be merry no more. Thus, the scenario above is a familiar set piece from the lore of early American history.
But the script can be shaded in various ways. In one version this is a story of God-fearing pioneers clearing out a nest of wickedness. In another it is a tale of bigots and busybodies aroused to action against the innocent pleasures of simple country people. In still others, the elements are blended in more complicated ways.
Like all such set pieces, this one has its cast of stick-figure characters. Standish, of course, is a folklore perennial, known to generations of schoolchildren from his own time to ours. But who was Morton? In fact there is a real historical personage buried somewhere in these contradictions—a man whose life can still speak to us across the centuries.
Almost nothing is known of his origins. Certainly he practiced law in the environs of London. His first definite appearance in any records still extant came with a series of legal proceedings that began about ; he was representing a certain widow Miller in a struggle with her eldest son for control of family properties. With this Morton then recedes into obscurity, emerging a couple of years later on the shores of New England.
He belonged now to a shipload of would-be colonists led by a trader and sea captain named Wollaston. A landing was made near the site of the present-day town of Quincy, Massachusetts, and before long the group had erected a modest settlement there.
The following spring, however, Captain Wollaston decamped to Virginia, taking most of the erstwhile settlers with him. Perhaps no more than a dozen remained—among whom Morton became de facto leader. This settlement was the germ of the place that Morton would soon christen Ma-re Mount—and that others would know as Merry Mount.
It was, in fact, less a full-fledged community than a simple trading station, one of several such scattered around the perimeter of Massachusetts Bay. The goal was a share in the fur trade with local Indians, and there are reasons to think it was rapidly achieved. Entitled New English Canaan , this work mixes propaganda, self-promotion, travel notes, and literary effect in roughly equal proportions.
Indeed, the special charm of New English Canaan lies in its warm sensitivity to nature as such. They daunce by the doore so well. Furthermore, the riches of the land are matched by the gifts and virtues of its native people.
They are honest, direct, generous to a fault. They especially discountenance lying and thievery. This rosy estimate was based on a prolonged, and apparently quite close, acquaintance. Another was wont to join Morton in deer hunting. In these other places trade was secondary to agriculture and artisanship.
In a sense these communities looked in on themselves, while Merry Mount faced out toward the wilderness. It is no accident, therefore, that Thomas Morton has more to tell us of New England and its original inhabitants than William Bradford, John Winthrop, and other resident-authors of the time. But for all that, it was Plymouth and Boston that controlled the future; and it was Plymouth and Boston that would snuff out Merry Mount within a few years.
The events that led to this are still not fully clear, but the notorious maypole surely played its part. Indians arrived to watch—and, no doubt, to participate. The party continued for days. Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes, Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes, Io! Make greene garions, bring bottles out; And fill sweet Nectar, freely about, Uncover thy head, and feare no harme, For hers good liquor to keepe it warme.
In due course news of the Merry Mount revels reached Plymouth, some forty miles to the south, and provoked a predictable outrage. The fur trade at Merry Mount was flourishing; increasingly, Bradford charged, its basis was guns and liquor.
With firearms in the hands of the Indians, Englishmen all over Massachusetts would be endangered. Morton seems not to have denied the accusation, though he did deny trading in liquors. Finally, in the spring of , the Plymouth leaders joined with representatives of the smaller settlements along the coast to plan a concerted response.
They followed him and made their arrest, only to lose him again in a midnight escape. Morton then made his way back to Merry Mount with Standish in hot pursuit. And there a second arrest was made. This time they made it stick. The ostensible charge against Morton was that he traded firearms to Indians—a practice forbidden, so the Plymouth leadership claimed, by royal proclamation.
But behind this lay deeper worries. There was the maypole and the explicit affront it gave to Pilgrim sensibilities. How revolting, how horrifying to right-thinking Englishmen! Merry Mount had realized their worst fears of the wilderness—the crumbling of civilized ways and a reversion to savagery.
He seems, instead, to have remained free to pursue his own interests—and to subvert those of his Plymouth adversaries. He began at this time a lasting alliance with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an English courtier with strong claims of his own to land in New England. Henceforth Morton, Gorges, and various associates would work almost continuously to undermine the legal foundations of the Puritan colonies.
Surprisingly Morton managed to recross the ocean to New England, barely a year from the time of his departure in chains. The maypole was gone—destroyed the preceding autumn by the Massachusetts magistrate John Endicott.
And the name Merry Mount had been changed to Mount Dagon. But otherwise the little settlement remained intact. Morton resumed his Indian trade—more quietly this time. Meanwhile a new shadow began to loom from the north. Endicott had been the leader of a small advance guard, and in the Puritan migration to Massachusetts began in earnest.
In fact, the former scenario soon repeated itself: confrontation, arrest, banishment to England. The court directed that all his goods be confiscated and his house burned to the ground. The order was carried out as the prisoner watched from the deck of the ship that would once more carry him overseas. Through the next dozen years the trail of Thomas Morton can be followed only intermittently. For this he was able to call on his skills as a lawyer—and as a writer.
New English Canaan was composed sometime between and , largely for political reasons. The issue of the colonial charters did, in fact, reach the highest levels of Court administration, and at least twice revocation seemed near. But the outbreak of the English Civil War, in , removed any realistic chance of turning official attention toward such remote problems. And by this time his claims had become very large indeed.
So it was that, in autumn , he went westward across the Atlantic for the third and final time. As before, he landed at Plymouth; as before, he was greeted with much doubt and suspicion but was allowed to stay through the winter. Spring found him on the move through the wilderness, in pursuit of his ever-receding goals. His land claims came to nothing. Again the long arm of Puritan law caught up with him.
Why this should have been accounted a crime is far from clear, but in any case Morton could scarcely deny it. If he is in our history books today, and even in our folklore, it is because the Puritans put him there. The Merry Mount-Puritan contrast is, in fact, still instructive. On our shrinking planet of the late twentieth century, it sounds almost modern—and not a little appealing. Please support this year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.
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