Thomas Morton (?1579-1647) was a colonial American poet, lawyer, writer and social reformer


Morton was the 1st published poet in North America. He is known for founding the colony of Merrymount (now Quincy, Massachusetts) and his work studyingNative American culture.



Thomas Morton was born in Devon, England around 1578, into a conservative Anglican family of the Devon gentry. Devon at that time was considered the “dark corner of the land” by Protestant reformers, due to its traditionalist intransigence, which included not only a High Church Anglicanism, that shared many traits with Catholicism, but also a paternalistic populism combined with a rural folk tradition that for the Puritans came close to paganism. To the local inhabitants however it was merely “Old England.” It was this culture that was firmly ingrained in him.

In the late 1590s Morton was studying law at London’s Clifford's Inn where he made many influential contacts and lasting friendships. He was also exposed here to both a popular Renaissance Classicism and the ‘libertine culture’ of the Inns of Court themselves, where the bawdy revels included the Gesta Grayorum performances associated with Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, and it is most likely that he first met Ben Jonson here, who would remain his friend throughout his life. Though an ardent Royalist, Morton became a proponent of the Common Law against the emerging direct legal powers of The Crown and the Star Chamber.

The early years of the 17th century saw Morton traveling between London and the Devonshire countryside as the legal champion of displaced countrymen ‘whose economic straits filled new tent-cities, furnished prisons and gallows, and pushed Devon men to the Bristol sea-trades’. He eventually settled into the service of Ferdinando Gorges, the governor of the English port of Plymouth, and a major colonial entrepreneur. Gorges, who was an associate of Sir Walter Raleigh and had been part of Robert Devereux’s Essex Conspiracy, was heavily involved in the ‘permissive’ economy of the seas, and with many interests in New England was to become the founder of the colony of Maine. Morton initially served him in a legal capacity in England, but following his failed marriage plans, due to the influence of a Puritan stepson, in 1618 he decided to become one of Gorges’ ‘landsmen’ who oversaw his interests in the colonies. Neither experience would enamour him of the Puritans.

Trip to AmericaEdit

Morton spent 3 months on an exploratory trip to America in 1622, but was back in England by early 1623 complaining of the intolerance of certain elements of the Puritan community. He returned in 1624 as a senior partner in a Crown-sponsored trading venture, onboard the ship the Unity with his associate Captain Wollaston and 30 indentured young men. They settled and began trading for furs on a spit of land given them by the native Algonquian tribes, whose culture Morton is said to have admired as far more ‘civilized and humanitarian’ than that of his ‘intolerant European neighbours’. The Puritans of the New England colony of Plymouth objected to their sales of guns and liquor to the natives in exchange for furs and provisions, which at that time was technically illegal (although almost everyone was doing it).[1] The weapons undoubtedly acquired by the Algonquians were used to defend themselves against raids from the Northern Tribes, however, and not against the fearful colonists. The trading post set up by the two men soon expanded into an agrarian colony which became known as Mount Wollaston (now Quincy, Massachusetts).

Morton fell out with Wollaston after he discovered he had been selling indentured servants into slavery on the Virginian tobacco plantations. Powerless to prevent him, he encouraged the remaining servants to rebel against his harsh rule and organise themselves into a free community. Wollaston fled with his supporters to Virginia in 1626, leaving Morton as sole commander (or 'host' as he preferred to be called) of the colony, which was renamed Mount Ma-re (a play on ‘merry’ and ‘the sea’) or simply Merrymount.

Under Morton’s 'hostship' an almost utopian project was embarked upon, in which the colonists were declared free men or ‘consociates’, and a certain degree of integration into the local Algonquian culture was attempted. However, it was Morton’s long-term plan to ‘further civilize’ the native population by converting them to his liberal form of Christianity, and by providing them with free salt for food preservation, thus enabling them to give up hunting and settle permanently. He also considered himself a ‘loyal subject’ of the British monarchy throughout this period, and his agenda remained a colonial one, referring to Book 3 of his New English Canaan memoirs as a manual on ‘how not to colonize’, in reference to the Puritans.

Morton’s ‘Christianity’, however, was strongly condemned by the Puritans of the nearby Plymouth Colony as little more than a thinly disguised heathenism, and they suspected him of essentially ‘going native’. Scandalous rumours were spread of the debauchery at Merrymount, which they claimed included immoral sexual liaisons with native women during what amounted to drunken orgies in honour of Bacchus and Aphrodite. Or as the Puritan Gov. William Bradford wrote with horror in his history Of Plymouth Plantation: "They ... set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians." Morton had transplanted traditional West Country May Day customs to the colony, and combined them with fashionable classical myth, couched according to his own libertine tastes, and fuelled by the enthusiasm of his newly-freed fellow colonists. On a practical level the annual May Day festival was not only a reward for his hardworking colonists but also a joint celebration with the Native Tribes who also marked the day, and a chance for the mostly male colonists to find brides amongst the native population. Puritan ire was no doubt also fueled by the fact that Merrymount was the fastest-growing colony in New England and rapidly becoming the most prosperous, both as an agricultural producer and in the fur trade in which the Plymouth Colony was trying to build a monopoly. The Puritan account of this was very different, regarding the colony as a decadent nest of good-for-nothings that annually attracted “all the scum of the country” to the area. Or as Peter Lamborn Wilson more romantically puts it, ‘a Comus-crew of disaffected fur traders, antinomians, loose women, Indians and bon-vivants’.

But it was the1628 Mayday ‘Revels of New Canaan’, inspired by ‘Cupid’s mother’, with its ‘pagan odes’ to Neptune and Triton, as well as Venus and her lustful children, Cupid, Hymen and Priapus, its drinking song, and its erection of a huge 80 ft. Maypole, topped with deer antlers, that proved too much for the ‘Princes of Limbo’, as Morton referred to his Puritan neighbours. The Plymouth Militia under Myles Standish took the town the following June with little resistance, chopped down the Maypole and arrested Morton for ‘supplying guns to the Indians’.[2]He was put in stocks in Plymouth, given a mock trial and finally marooned on the deserted Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, until an ‘English ship could take him home’, apparently as he was believed too well connected to be imprisoned or executed (as later became the penalty for ‘blasphemy’ in the colony). He was essentially starved on the island, but was supplied with food by friendly natives from the mainland, who were said to be bemused by the events, and he eventually gained enough strength to escape to England under his own volition. The Merry Mount community survived without Morton for another year, but was renamed Mount Dagon by the Puritans, after the 'evil' Semitic Sea God, and they pledged to make it a place of woe. During the terrible winter famine of 1629 residents of New Salem under ’ and denouncing it as a pagan idol. Morton returned to the colony soon after and, after finding most of the inhabitants had been scattered, was rearrested, again put on trial and banished from the colonies without legal process. The following year the colony of Mount Dagon was burnt to the ground and Morton shipped back to England.

Barely surviving his harsh treatment during his journey into exile, he regained his strength in 1631 and following a short spell in an Essex jail was released and began a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Bay Company, the political power behind the Puritans. To the surprise of the Protestant English supporters of ‘Plymouther Separatists’, Morton won influential backing for his cause and was treated as a champion of liberty. With the help of his original backer Ferdinando Gorges he became the attorney of the Council of New England against the Massachusetts Bay Company. The real political force behind his good fortune, however, was the hostility of Charles I to the Puritan colonists. In 1635 Morton’s efforts were successful, and the Company's charter was revoked. Major political rearrangements occurred in New England after this, though these were primarily due to the colonial rejection of the court decision, subsequent isolation, lack of supplies and overpopulation, and increased conflict with foreign colonists and natives. Nonetheless, Plymouth became a place of woe, and many left Massachusetts for the relative safety of Connecticut.

In 1637 Morton became a political celebrity with the publication of his three-volumed New English Canaan, based on the notes of his legal campaign. With the probable assistance of Ben Jonson and his other literary friends at the Mermaid Tavern(Citation needed), Morton produced in these three books an inspired denunciation of the Puritan regime in the colonies and their policy of land enclosure and near genocide of the Native population. In contrast, the latter were described as a far nobler culture, and defined as a Canaan under attack from the 'New Israel' of the Puritans. He summed up his magnum opus with a call for the 'demartialising' of the colonies and the creation of a multicultural New Canaan along the lines of Merrymount, as well as tantalisingly describing the commercial worth of North America, though something very different would begin to emerge with the reorganisation of New England and the beginning of the Triangular Trade rooted in slavery.

At this time Gorges was declared the new Governor of the Colonies by King Charles I, though he would never set foot in America. Morton’s victory, however, was cut short by the beginning of the English Civil War, triggered by both reaction to Charles’ absolutism and agitation from the Puritans. In 1642 Morton planned to flee to New England with Gorges, but his aged mentor failed to make the trip, and he returned alone as Gorges’ agent in Maine.

Following an ill-considered triumphal return to the Plymouth Colony he was arrested and accused of being a Royalist “agitator”, and put on trial for his role in the revocation of the colony's charter, as well as charges of sedition. By September he was imprisoned in Boston, but his trial was delayed, “so evidence could be sought” through winter, but none ever arrived. As his health began to fail, his petition for clemency and release was granted.

Isolated from his English supporters during the English Civil War, he ended his days amidst the West Country planters of Maine, under the protection of Gorges’ supporters. He died at the age of 71 in 1647.


In May 1627 Thomas Morton raised a Maypole to celebrate and foster more success at this fur-trading plantation, and nailed up a "Poem" and "Song" (one a densely-literary manifesto on how English and Native people came together there and must keep doing so for a successful America; the other a light "drinking song" also full of deeper American implications). These were published in book form along with other examples of Morton's American poetry in New English Canaan (1637), making Morton America's 1st poet in English. [3]


  1. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, by Alden T. Vaughan. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, ISBN 9780806127187 (pp. 89-90).
  2. "Thomas Morton:Phoenix of New England Memory" in New England's Crises and Cultural Memory: Literature, Politics, History, Religion, 1620-1860 by John P. McWilliams, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521826839 (pp. 44-73)
  3. Jack Dempsey, ed., "New English Canaan by Thomas Morton of 'Merrymount'" and his biography "Thomas Morton: The Life & Renaissance of an Early American Poet" Scituate MA: Digital Scanning 2000)

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