Native Americans lived happier and freer, “being void of care, which torments…so many Christians: They are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things.”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

For Thomas Morton, the New World truly was a new English Canaan. As one of the very earliest English settlers on the Massachusetts coast, Morton experienced the New World as a singular and direct contrast to life in late feudal or early modern Europe. Born in Devon, England (1579), Thomas was educated as a lawyer and wrote extensive personal notes and observations about social reform inspired primarily by his time among Native Americans. His birthplace stamped Morton with the mark of High Church Anglicanism, considered by the rising tide of Puritans to be far too close to Catholicism. Morton spent the early part of his life traveling Elizabethan England, representing the “Old England” popular interest against the growing power of Crown and Court. When not reveling in Renaissance England’s libertinism–including, naturally enough, plays by Shakespeare and Ben Johnson–Morton sought to alleviate the sufferings of those displaced during the long centuries of land enclosure and structural unemployment. Ever‐​fearful of peasant rebellion, especially in London itself, Crown forces orchestrated a series of campaigns to stock the New World with indentured servants and ‘free’ settlers. Men like Sir Fernando Gorges led the colonization efforts, investing in land and labor alike. Gorges was personally granted a patent for what became Maine, the land between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers, and in 1618 Thomas Morton agreed to help Gorges oversee his American holdings.

Morton visited the New World for several months in 1622 and again from 1624–1630. We will take the opportunity in later posts to explore his activities as a colonist, but for the moment we will occupy ourselves with his initial observations of the New World and its native inhabitants. The first book of Morton’s New English Canaan is dedicated to the natural and social history of the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. In the sections below, Morton proceeds first under the assumption that virtually no place on Earth was better‐​suited for colonization than New England. Its practically perfect location and relative lack of concentrated population prepared an almost endless frontier for the British surplus population. Though Morton incorrectly estimates that Native Americans spoke a sort of transmuted Greek or Latin, he was quite correct in his belief that a “great mortality” destroyed most of the native population. To westerners, this fact generally spoke once again to the divinely‐​chosen nature of the land and its preparation as a home to white‐​skinned, Christian peoples. Nevertheless, Morton does not fall into the Puritan mode of standing in moral judgment over those with different lifestyles or historical situations. He remarks with great reverence and respect on the generosity and friendliness of the natives, he notes their extensive trading practices including the use of money, and perhaps most importantly, Morton determines that the Indians live happily and in relative abundance. It is true, he held, that the Indians lacked the knowledge of important arts and sciences (notably navigation), but they enjoyed full stomachs all around and contented, leisurely lives—things most of London’s poor had never known.

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Thomas Morton, Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam. 1637. This version has been modified from the original.

New English Canaan or New Canaan. Containing an Abstract of New England.

The First Book. Containing the original of the Natives, their manners & Customs, with their tractable nature and love towards the English.

Chap. I: Proving New England the principal part of all America, and most commodious and fit for habitation.

The wise Creator of the univsersall Globe hath placed a golden mean betwixt two extremes; I mean the temperate Zones, betwixt the hot and cold; and every Creature, that participates of Heavens blessings with in the Compass of that golden mean, is made most apt and fit for man to use, who likewise by that wisdom is ordained to be the Lord of all. This globe may be his glass, to teach him how to use moderation and discretion, both in his actions and intentions. The wise man says, give me neither riches nor poverty; why? Riches might make him proud like Nebuchadnezar, and poverty despair like Jobs wife; but a mean between both…

Therefore the Creatures that participate of heat and cold in a mean, are best and holsomest: and so it is in the choice of love, the middle Zone between the two extremes is best…
Behold the secret wisdom of almighty God, and love unto our Salomon, to raise a man of a large heart, full of worthy abilities, to be the Index or Loadstar, that doth point out unto the English Nation with ease and comfort how to find it out. And this the noble minded Gentleman, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Knight, zealous for the glory of God, the honor of his Majesty and the benefit of the wale publicke, hath done a great work for the good of his Country.

And herein this, the wondrous wisdom and love of God, is shown by sending to the place his Minister, to sweep away by heaps the Salvages; and also giving him length of days to see the same performed after his enterprise was begun, for the propagation of the Church of Christ.

This judicious Gentleman hath found this golden mean to be situated about the middle of those two extremes and for directions…and then keep us on that same side, and see what Land is to be found there, and we shall easily discern that new England is on the South side of that Center.

For that country doth begin her boundes at 40 Degrees…and ends at 45 Degrees…and doth participate of heat and cold indifferently, but is oppressed with neither: and therefore may be truly said to be within the compass of that golden mean most apt and fit for habitation and generation, being place by Almighty God, the great Creator, under that Zone called Zona temperata; and is therefore most fit for the generation and habitation of our English nation, of all other…This Country of new England is by all judicious men accounted the principal part of all America for habitation and the commodiousness of the Sea, Ships, there not being subject to worms as in Virginia and other places, and not to be paralleled in all Christendom. The Massachusetts, being the middle part thereof, is a very beautiful Land, not mountainy nor inclining to mountainy…and hath as yet the greatest number of inhabitants; and hath a very large bay to it divided by islands into 4 great bays, where shipping may safely ride, all winds and weathers…The riches of which Country I have set forth in this abstract as in a Landskipp, for the better information of Travellers; which he may peruse and plainly perceive by the demonstration of it, that it is nothing inferior to Canaan of Israel, but a king of parallel to it in all points.

Chap. II: Of the Original of the Natives.

In the year since the incarnation of Christ, 1622, it was my chance to be landed in the parts of New England, where I found two sorts of people, the one Christians, the other Infidels; these I found most full of humanity, and more friendly then the other: as shall hereafter be made apparent in due course by their several actions from time to time, whilest I lived among them. After my arrival in those parts, I endeavored by all the ways and means that I could to find out from what people, or nation, the Natives of New England might be conjectured originally to proceed; and by continuance and conversation amongst them, I attained to so much of their language, as by all probable conjecture may make the same manifest: for it hath been found by divers, and those of good judgement, that the Natives of this Country do use very many words, both of Greek and Latin, to the same signification that the Latins and Greeks have done…so that it may be thought that these people heretofore have had the name of Pan in great reverence and estimation, and it may be have worshipped Pan the great God of the Heathens: Howsoever they do use no manner of worship at all now: and it is most likely that the Natives of this Country are descended from people bred upon that part of the world which is toward the Tropick of Cancer…the Natives of New‐​England may proceed from the race of the Tartars, and come from Tartaria into those parts, over the frozen Sea, I see no probability for any such Conjecture…But it may perhaps be granted that the Natives of this Country might originally come from the scattered Trojans: For after that Brutus, who was the forth from Aneas, left Latium upon the conflict had with the Latins…this people were dispersed: there is no question but the people that lived with him, by reason of their conversation with the Grecians and Latins, had a mixed language that participated of both, whatsoever was that which was proper to their own nation at first I know not: for this is commonly seen where two nations traffick together, the one endeavoring to understand the others meaning makes them both many times speak a mixed language, as is approved by the Natives of New England, through the covetous desire they have to commerce with our nation and we with them…

Chap. III: Of a great mortality that happened amongst the Natives of New England, near about the time that the English came there to plant.

If fortuned some few years before the English came to inhabit at new Plymouth, in New England, that upon some distaste given in the Massachusetts bay by Frenchmen, then trading there with the Natives for beaver, they set upon the men at such advantage that they killed many of them, burned their ship, then riding at Anchor by an Island there…distributing them unto 5 Sachems, which were Lords of the several territories adjoining: they did keep them so long as they lived, only to sport themselves at them, and made these five Frenchmen fetch them wood and water, which is the general work that they require of a servant. One of these five men, out living the rest, had learned so much of their language as to rebuke them for their bloody deed, saying that God would be angry with them for it, and that he would in his displeasure destroy them; but the Savages (it seems boasting of their strength,) replied and said, that they were so many that God could not kill them.

But contrary wise, in short time after the hand of God fell heavily upon them, with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses; and the living, that were able to shift for themselves, would run away and let them die, and let there Carcasses lie above the ground without burial. For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left alive to tell what became of the rest; the living being (as it seems) not able to bury the dead, they were left for Crows, Kites and vermin to pray upon. And the bones and skulls upon the several places of their habitations made such a spectacle after my coming into those parts, that, as I travelled in that Forest near the Massachusetts, it seemed to me a new found Golgatha.

But otherwise, it is the custom of those Indian people to bury their dead ceremoniously and carefully, and then to abandon that place, because they have no desire the place should put them in mind of mortality: and this mortality was not ended when the Brownists of new Plymouth were settled at Patuxet in New England: and by all likelihood the sickness that these Indians died of was the Plague, as by conference with them since my arrival and habitation in those parts, I have learned. And by this means there is as yet but a small number of Savages in New England, to that which hath been in former time, and the place is made so much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.

Chap. IV: Of their Houses and Habitations.

…In the night they take their rest; in the day time, either the kettle is on with fish or flesh, by no allowance, or else the fire is employed in roasting of fishes, which they delight in. The air doth beget good stomachs, and they feed continually, and are no niggards of their vittels; for they are willing that any one shall eat with them. Nay, if any one that shall come into their houses and there fall asleep, when they see him disposed to lie down, they will spread a mat for him of their own accord, and lay a roll of skins for a boulster, and let him lie. If he sleep until their meat be dished up, they will set a wooden bowl of meat by him that sleepeth, and wake him saying, Cattup keene Meckin: That is, If you be hungry, there is meat for you, where if you will eat you may. Such is their Humanity.

Likewise, when they are minded to remove, they carry away the mats with them; other materials the place adjoining will yield. They use not to winter and summer in one place, for that would be a reason to make fuel scarce; but, after the manner of the gentry of Civilized natives, remove for their pleasures; some times to their hunting places, where they remain keeping good hospitality for that season; and sometimes to their fishing places, where they abide for that season likewise: and at the spring, when fish comes in plentifully, they have meetings from several places, where they exercise themselves in gaming and playing in juggling tricks and all manner of Revels, which they are delighted in; so that it is admirable to behold what pastime they use of several kinds, every one striving to surpass each other. After this manner they spend their time…

Chap. XII: Of their traffick and trade one with another.

Although these people have not the use of navigation, whereby they may traffick as other nations, that are civilized, use to do, yet do they barter for such commodities as they have, and have a kind of beads, instead of money, to buy withal such things as they want, which they call Wampampeak: and it is of two sorts, the one is white, the other is of a violet color. These are made of the shells of fish. The white with them is a silver with us; the other as our gold: and for these beads they buy and sell, not only amongst themselves, but even with us.
We have used to sell them any of our commodities for this Wampampeak, because we know we can have beaver again of them for it: and these beads are current in all the parts of New England, from one end of the Coast to the other.

And although some have endeavored by example to have the like made of the same kind of shells, yet none hath ever, as yet, attained to any perfection in the composure of them, but that the Savages have found a great difference to be in the one and the other; and have known the counterfeit beads from those of their own making; and have, and do slight them.

The skins of beasts are sold and bartered, to such people as have none of the same kind in the parts where they live…

So likewise (at the season of the year) the Savages that live by the Sea side for trade with the inlanders for fresh water… chestnuts, and such like useful things as one place affordeth, are sold to the inhabitants of another, where they are a novelty accounted amongst the natives of the land. And there is no such thing to barter withal, as is their Wampampeak…

Chap. XX. That the Savages live a contented life.

A Gentleman and a traveler, that had been in the parts of New England for a time, when he returned again, in his discourse of the Country, wondered, (as he said,) that the natives of the land lived so poorly in so rich a Country, like to our Beggars in England. Surely that Gentleman had not time or leisure while he was there truly to inform himself of the state of that Country, and the happy life the Savages would lead were they once brought to Christianity.

I must confess they want the use and benefit of Navigation, (which is the very finnus of a flourishing Commonwealth,) yet are they supplied with all manner of needful things for the maintenance of life and livelihood. Food and raiment are the chief of all that we make true use of; and of these they find no want, but have, and may have, them in a most plentiful manner.

If our beggars of England should, with so much ease as they, furnish themselves with food at all seasons, there would not be so many starved in the streets, neither would so many jails be stuffed, or gallows furnished with poor wretches, as I have seen them.

But they of this sort of our own nation, that are fit to go to this Canaan, are not able to transport themselves; and most of them unwilling to go from the good ale tap, which is the very loadstone of the land by which our English beggars steer their Course; it is the Northpole to which the flower‐​du‐​luce of their compass points. The more is the pity that the Commonalty of our Land are of such leaden capacities as to neglect to brave a Country, that doth so plentifully seed many lusty and a brave, able men, women and children, that have no the means that a Civilized Nation hath to purchase food and raiment; which that Country with a little industry will yield a man in a very comfortable measure, without overmuch carking.

I cannot deny but a civilized Nation hath the preeminence of an uncivilized, by means of those instruments that are found to be common amongst civil people, and the uncivil want the use of, to make themselves masters of those ornaments that make such a glorious show, that will give a man occasion to cry, sic transit Gloria Mundi [“thus passes Earthly Glory”].

Now since it is but food and raiment that men that live needeth, (though not all alike,) why should not the Natives of New England be said to live richly, having no want of either? Cloths are the badge of sin; and the more variety of fashions is but the greater abuse of the Creature: the beasts of the forest there do serve to furnish them at any time when they please: fish and flesh they have in great abundance, which they both roast and boil.

They are indeed not served in dishes of plate with variety of Sauces to procure appetite; that needs not there. The rarity of the air, begot by the medicinable quality of the sweet herbs of the Country, always procures good stomachs to the inhabitants.

I must needs commend them in this particular, that, though they buy many commodities of our Nation, yet they keep but few, and those of special use.

They love not to be cumbered with many utensils, and althought every proprietor knows his own, yet all things, (so long as they will last), are used in common amongst them: A Biscuit cake given to one, that one breaks it equally into so many parts as there be persons in his company, and distributes it. Plato’s Commonwealth is so much practiced by these people.

According to human reason, guided only by the light of nature, these people leads the more happy and freer life, being void of care, which torments the minds of so many Christians: They are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things.

Their natural drink is of the Cristal fountaine, and this they take up in their hands, by joining them close together. They take up a great quantity at a time, and drink at the wrists. It was the sight of such a feat which made Diogenes hurl away his dish, and, like one that would have this principal confirmed, Natura paucis contentat [nature is satisfied by meager things], used a dish no more.

I have onserved that they will not be troubles with superfluous commodities. Such things as they find they are taught by necessity to make use of, they will make choice of, and seek to purchase with industry. So that, in respect that their life is so void of care, and they are so loving also that they make use of those things they enjoy, (the wife only excepted,) as common goods, and are therein want, they would starve all. Thus do they pass away the time merrily, not regarding our pomp, (which they see daily before their faces,) but are better content with their own, which some men esteem so meanly of.

They may be rather accounted to live richly, wanting nothing that is needful; and to be commended for leading a contented life, the younger being ruled by the Elder, and the Elder ruled by the Powahs, and the Powahs are ruled by the Devil; and then you may imagine what good rule is like to be amongst them…