Thomas Morton’s Mayday: The New English Canaan, Part II
“The Separatists, envying the prosperity and hope of [Merrymount]…conspired together against mine Host…accounting of him as of a great Monster.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In 1627, Thomas Morton and the residents, friends, and allies of Merrymount gathered together for a celebration of life and leisure. The settlement was a bustling little burgh, pleasantly situated on the fringes of Puritan Massachusetts Bay. Having prior felled one of New England’s many mighty pines, the revelers marked their New World holy day by building a grand Maypole. In a very conscious imitation of the ancient, pagan world, the crowd decked their construction in garlands and intertwined ribbons, topping the whole with a formidable set of antlers. Morton constructed what historian Peter Linebaugh claims were “the first lyric verses penned in America,” and he nailed the infamous (and excerpted) “Bacchanalian song” to the Maypole itself, in proud defiance of the Puritan norms prevailing elsewhere in Massachusetts. In Merrymount, Native Americans and English lived alongside one another peacefully, they traded, they enjoyed mutual and consensual romantic and sexual relationships, and they intermixed philosophies and perspectives in convivial atmospheres like the Mayday festival.
The Puritans viewed all of the above with nothing short of horror and contempt. Where the Merrymounters saw Natives as brothers and sisters, the Puritans saw Satan’s minions inhabiting the darkest corners of their New Israel. They called the Maypole “an Idoll,” and the free settlement “Mount Dagon.” As Linebaugh notes, in its short life, Merrymount had become “a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what [Governor Bradford] called ‘all the scume of the countrie.’” Convinced that the free settlers and Mayday revelers were devils in human skins, Miles Standish and a Puritan contingent destroyed the settlement with fire, and the Maypole got the axe. In Linebaugh’s estimation, Merrymount was but one short‐lived, though powerful, example of the modern era’s evolving “rainbow coalition” of radicals and those who dared to live free amongst the great empires.
In his short, fictionalized story on the subject, Nathaniel Hawthorne believed this episode determined “the future complexion of New England.” “Should the grizzly saints establish their jurisdiction over the gay sinners,” he wrote, “then would their spirits darken all the clime, and make it a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm forever.” Should the free settlers prevail, “sunshine would break upon the hills, and flowers would beautify the forest, and late posterity do homage to the Maypole.” Puritan victory inflicted irreparable damages on liberty in the New World. With the Maypole and Merrymount left in heaps of ashes, Hawthorne concludes: “As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gayety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more.” In the following selection, Morton relates his own saga of the Merrymount Mayday.
By 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.
Chap. XIV. Of the Revels of New Canaan.
The inhabitants of Pasonagessit, (having translated the name of their habitation from that ancient Savage name to Merrymount, and being resolved to have the new name confirmed for a memorial to after ages,) did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemn manner, with Revels and merriment after the old English custom; [they] prepared to set up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and Jacob, and therefore brewed a barrel of excellent beer and provided a case of bottles, to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And because they would have it in a complete form, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols and other fitting instruments for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Savages, that came thether of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it: where it stood, as a fair sea mark for directions how to find out the way to mine Host of Merrymount.
And because it should more fully appear to what end it was placed there, they had a poem in readiness made, which was fixed to the Maypole, to show the new name confirmed upon that plantation; which, although it were made according to the occurrents of the time, it, being Enigmatically composed, puzzled the Separatists most pitifully to expound it, which, (for the better information of the reader,) I have here inserted.
Rise Oedipus, and, if thou canst, unfold What means Caribdis underneath the mold, When Scilla solitary on the ground (Sitting in form of Niobe,) was found, Till Amphitrites Darling did acquaint Grim Neptune with the Tenor of her plaint, And caused him send forth Triton with the sound Of Trumpet loud, at which the Seas were found So full of Protean forms that the bold shore Presented Scilla a new paramour So strong as Sampson and so patient As Job himself, directed thus, by fate, To comfort Scilla so unfortunate. I do profess, by Cupids beauteous mother, Heres Scogans choise for Scilla and none other; Though Scilla’s sick with grief, because no sign Can there be found of virtue masculine. Esculapius come; I know right well His labor’s lost when you may ring her Knell. The fatal sisters doom none can withstand, Nor Cithareas power, who points to land With proclamation that the first of May At Merrymount shall be kept holy day.
The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise separatists, that lived at New Plymouth. They termed it an Idol; yea, they called it the Calf of Horeb, and stood at defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatening to make it a woeful mount and not a merry mount.
The Riddle, for want of Oedipus, they could not expound; only they made some explication of part of it, and said it was meant by Sampson Job, the carpenter of the ship that brought over a woman to her husband, that had been there long before and thrived so well that he sent for her and her children to come to him; where shortly after he died: having no reason, but because of the sound of those two words; when as, (the truth is,) the man they applied it to was altogether unknown to the Author.
There was likewise a merry song made, which, (to make their Revels more fashionable,) was sung with a Chorus, every man bearing his part; which they performed in a dance, hand in hand about the Maypole, whilest one of the Company sung and filled out the good liquor, like gammedes and Jupiter.
Cor. Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys; Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys; So to Hymen, now the day is come, About the merry Maypole take a Room. Make green garlands, bring bottles out And fill sweet Nectar freely about. Uncover they head and fear no harm, For heres good liquor to keep it warm. Then drink and be merry, etc. So to Hymen, etc. Nectar is a thing assigned By the Deities own mind To cure the heart oppressed with grief, And of good liquors is the chief. Then drink, etc. So to Hymen, etc. Give to the Melancholy man A cup to two of it now and then; This physic will soon revive his blood, And make him be of a merrier mood. Then drink, etc. So to Hymen, etc. Give to the Nymph that’s free from scorn No Irish stuff nor Scotch over worn. Lasses in beaver coats come away, Yee shall be welcome to us night and day. To drink and be merry etc. So to Hymen, etc.
This harmless mirth made by young men, (that lived in hope to have wives brought over to them, that would save them a labor to make a voyage to fetch any over,) was much distasted of the precise Separatists, that keep much ado about the tyth of Muit and Cumin, troubling their brains more than reason would require about things that are indifferent: and from that time sought occasion against my honest Host of Merrymount, to overthrow his undertakings and to destroy his plantation quite and clean. But because they presumed with their imaginary gifts, (which they have out of Phaos box,) they could expound hidden mysteries, to convince them of blindness, as well in this as in other matters of more consequence, I will illustrate the poem, according to the true intent of the authors of these Revels, so much distasted by those Moles.
Oedipus is generally received for the absolute reader of riddles, who is invoked: Silla and Caribdis are two dangerous places for seamen to encounter, near unto Venice; and have been by poets formerly resembled to man and wife. The like licence the author challenged for a pair of his nomination, the one lamenting for the loss of the other as Niobe for her children. Amphitrite is an arm of the Sea, by which the news was carried up and down of a rich widow, now to be tane up or laid down. By Triton is the same spread that caused the Suitors to muster, (as it had been to Penelope of Greece;) and, the Coast lying circular, all our passage to and fro is made more convenient by Sea than Land. Many aimed at this mark; but he that played Proteus best and could comply with her humor must be the man that would carry her; and he had need have Sampsons strength to deal with a Dallila, and as much patience as Job that should come there, for a thing that I did observe in the life‐time of the former.
But marriage and hanging, (they say,) comes by destiny and Scogans choice tis better [that] none at all. He that played Proteus, (with the help of Priapus,) put their noses out of joint, as the Proverb is.
And this the whole company of the Revelers at Merrymount knew to be the true sense and exposition of the riddle that was fixed to the Maypole, which the Separatists were at defiance with. Some of them affirmed that the first institution thereof was in memory of a whore; not knowing that it was a Trophe erected at first in honor of Maja, the Lady of learning which they despise, vilifying the two universities with uncivil terms, accounting what is there obtained by study is but unnecessary learning; not considering that learning does enable mens minds to converse with elements of a higher nature than is to be found within the habitation of the Mole.
Chap. XV. Of a great Monster supposed to be at Merrymount; and the Preparation made to Destroy it.
The Separatists, envying the prosperity and hope of the Plantation at Merrymount, (which they perceived began to come forward, and to be in a good way for gain in the Beaver trade,) conspired together against mine Host especially, (who was the owner of that Plantation,) and made up a party against him; and mustered up what aid they could, accounting of him as of a great Monster.
Many threatening speeches were given out both against his person and his Habitation, which they divulged should be consumed with fire: And taking advantage of the time when his company, (which seemed little to regard their threats,) were gone up into the Inlands to trade with the Savages for Beaver, they set upon my honest host at a place called Wessaguscus, where, by accident, they found him. The inhabitants there were in good hope of the subversion of the plantation at Merrymount, (which they principally aimed at;) and the rather because mine host was a man that endeavored to advance the dignity of the Church of England; which they, (on the contrary part,) would labor to vilify with uncivil terms: envying against the sacred book of common prayer, and mine host that used it in a laudable manner amongst his family, as a practice of piety.
There he would be a means to bring sacks to their mill, (such is the thirst after Beaver,) and helped the conspirators to surprise mine host, (who was there all alone;) and they charged him, (because they would seem to have some reasonable cause against him to set a gloss upon their malice,) with criminal things; which indeed had been done by such a person, but was of their conspiracy; mine host demanded of the conspirators who it was that was author of that information, that seemed to be their ground for what they now intended. And because they answered they would not tell him, he as peremptorily replied, that he would not say whether he had, or he had not done as they had been informed.
The answer made no matter, (as it seemed,) whether it had been negatively or affirmatively made; for they had resolved what he should suffer, because, (as they boasted,) they were now become the greater number: they had shaked of their shackles of servitude, and were become Masters, and masterless people.
It appears they were like bears whelps in former time, when mine hosts plantation was of as much strength as theirs, but now, (their being stronger,) they, (like overgrown bears,) seemed monsterous. In brief, mine host must indure to be their prisoner until they could contrive it so that they might send him for England, (as they said,) there to suffer according to the merit of the fact which they intended to father upon him; supposing, (belike,) it would prove a heinous crime.
Much rejoicing was made that they had gotten their capital enemy, (as they concluded him;) whom they purposed to hamper in such sort that he should not be able to uphold his plantation at Merrymount.
The conspirators sported themselves at my honest host, that meant them no hurt, and were so jocund that they feasted their bodies and fell to tippling as if they had obtained a great prize; like the Trojans when they had the custody of Hippeus pinetree horse.
Mine host feined grief, and could not be persuaded either to eat or drink; because he knew emptiness would be a means to make him as watchful as the Geese kept in the Roman Capital; whereon, the contrary part, the conspriators would be so drowsy that he might have an opportunity to give them a slip, instead of a tester. Six persons of the conspiracy were set to watch him at Wessaguscus: But he kept waking; and in the dead of night, (one lying on the bed for further surety,) up gets mine Host and got to the second door that he was to pass, which, notwithstanding the lock, he got open, and shut it after him with such violence that it affrighted some of the conspirators.
The word, which was given with an alarme, was, ‘Oh he’s gon, he’s gon, what shall we do, he’s gon!’ The rest, (half asleep,) start up in a maze, and, like rams, ran their heads one at another full butt in the dark.
Their grand leader, Captain Shrimp [Miles Standish], took on most furiously and tore his clothes for anger; to see the empty nest, and their bird gone.
The rest were eager to have torn their hair from their heads; but it was so short that it would give them no hold. Now Captain Shrimp thought in the loss of this prize, (which he accounted his Masterpiece,) all his honor would be lost forever.
In the mean time mine Host was got home to Ma‐re Mount through the woods, eight miles round about the head of the river Monatoquit that parted the two Plantations, finding his way by the help of the lightening, (for it thundered as he went terribly;) and there he prepared powder, with bullets of several sizes, three hundred or thereabouts, to be used if the conspirators should pursue him thether: and these two persons promised their aides in the quarrel, and confirmed that promise with health in good rose solis.
Now Captain Shrimp, the first Captain in the Land, (as he supposed,) must do some new act to repair this loss, and, to vindicate his reputation, who had sustained blemish by this oversight, begins now to study, how to repair or survive his honor: in this manner, calling of Council, they conclude.
He takes eight persons more to him, and, (like the nine Worthies of New Canaan,) they imbarque with preparation against Ma‐re‐Mount, where this Monster of a man, as their prase was, had his den; the whole number, had the rest not been from home, being but seven, would have given Captain Shrimp, (a quondam Drummer,) such a welcome as would have made him wish for a Drum as big as Diogenes’ tub, that he might have crept into it out of sight.
Now the nine Worthies are approached, and mine Host prepared: having intelligence by a Savage, that hastened in love from Wessaguscus to give him notice of their intent.
One of mine Hosts’ men proved a craven: the other had proved his wits to purchase a little valour, before mine Host had observed his posture.
The nine worthies coming before the Den of this supposed Monster, (this seven headed hydra, as they termed him,) and began, like Don Quixote against the Windmill, to beat a parly, and to offer quarter, if mine Host would yield; for they resolved to send him for England; and bade him lay by his arms.
But he, (who was the Son of a Soldier,) having taken up arms in his just defence, replied that he would not lay by those arms, because they were so needful at Sea, if he should be sent over. Yet, to save the effusion of so much worthy bounty, as would have issued out of the vaynes of these nine worthies of New Canaan, if mine Host should have played upon them out at his port holes, (for they came within danger like a flock of wild geese, as if they had been tied one to another, as colts to be sold at a fair,) mine Host was content to yield upon quarter; and did capitulate with them in what manner it should be for more certainty, because he knew what Captain Shrimp was.
He expressed that no violence should be offered to his person, none to his goods, nor any of his Household: but that he should have his arms, and what else was requisite for the voyage: which their Herald returns, it was agreed upon, and should be performed.
But mine Host no sooner had set upon the door, and issued out, but instantly Captain Shrimp and the rest of the worthies stepped to him, laid hold of his arms, and had his down: and so eagerly was every man bent against him, (not regarding any agreement made with such a carnal man,) that they fell upon him as if they would have eaten him: some of them were so violent that they would have a slice with scabbert, and all for haste; until an old Soldier, (of the Queens’, as the Proverb is,) that was there by accident, clapt his gunner under the weapons, and sharply rebuked these worthies for their unworthy practices. So the matter was taken into more deliberate consideration.
Captain Shrimp, and the rest of the nine worthies, made themselves, (by this outrageous riot,) Masters of mine Host of Mar‐re Mount, and disposed of what he had at his plantation.
This they knew, (in the eye of the Savages,) would add to their glory, and diminish the reputation of mine honest Host; whom they practices to be rid of upon any terms, as willingly as if he had been the very Hydra of the time.
Further Reading: Peter Linebaugh, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, PM Press, 2016; Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” in Twice‐Told Tales, American Stationers, Co., 1837.