"The Maypole of Merry-Mount," an excerpt from
New English Canaan
Reprinted in Eyewitness to America
Published in 1997
Edited by David Colbert
"The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise separatists that lived at new Plymouth."
Since the founding of the Plymouth Colony in 1620, Puritans dominated all aspects of life in New England, the northernmost region of the present-day United States. The Puritans were a Protestant Christian group who advocated radical reform of the Church of England (the official state religion) and stressed strict moral and religious codes. Also they objected to elaborate church rituals that were derived from Roman Catholicism (a Christian religion based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope who has absolute authority in all church affairs). Seeking religious freedom, the Puritans went to America in the early 1600s and founded two colonies—Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay—side by side in the southeastern part of New England. Within decades, however, serious social and political problems began to emerge when Puritans refused to grant others the freedom they had sought for themselves.
Leaders of the Plymouth Colony, who were called Pilgrims, had originally set out for Virginia, but a storm at sea forced them onto Cape Cod (off the coast of present-day Massachusetts). Since they were not on land that had been legally granted to them, the Pilgrims drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, which gave them the right to establish a colony (see "The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter"). In 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Company started a settlement to the north of Plymouth (see John Winthrop's Christian Experience), near Boston. After the arrival of a large group of Puritans in 1631, the settlement was reorganized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Although the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonists were Puritans, the colonies had different views of the Church of England. The Plymouth settlers were Nonconformists (also known as Separatists), who advocated complete separation from the church. The Massachusetts Bay colonists, however, wanted to reform the church and saw no reason to declare total independence. The Puritans sought religious freedom by moving to America, yet they generally did not tolerate the views of other groups. The Pilgrims were especially reluctant to admit anyone but Nonconformists to the Plymouth Colony.
Colonists in both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay settled close together in towns that functioned as the center of government for surrounding farms and rural villages. These towns were organized around Puritan congregations (separate groups of church members) that controlled all aspects of life in the colony. Soon after arriving in New England the Puritans adopted covenants (laws), or solemn and binding agreements, which they believed were patterned upon covenants God had made with humans. In the covenant of works, for instance, Adam and Eve (the first man and woman on Earth, according to the Christian Bible) agreed to achieve salvation (the state of being saved from sin) by their own good works (moral behavior). Adam and Eve broke this covenant by sinning, however, and lost God's grace (goodwill).
Through the covenant of redemption, Jesus of Nazareth (the founder of Christianity; also called Christ) agreed to take upon himself the guilt and sins of all other human beings, thereby saving them from falling from God's grace. In the covenant of grace, God's spirit entered certain people, called the "elect," who had been predestined (chosen by God) for salvation. According to the Puritans, God also made covenants with groups of people, such as Abraham (an important Hebrew leader in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) and his descendants. He looked upon these people with special favor if they tried to obey his will. The Puritans believed they were one of these favored groups, so they created their own covenants that regulated every function of society, including congregations, towns, government, and marriage. Taken together, these separate covenants formed society's covenant with God, and society was quick to punish anyone who violated these covenants.
Under Puritan covenants each congregation had authority to establish a town, form a government, and admit church members. Town leaders were a few "elect" men who had achieved salvation. Likewise, the Puritans accepted as members only those who could convince the leaders and the rest of the congregation that they had been saved. The Puritans believed that humans could reach salvation by hearing and understanding the word of God with the help of an ordained (officially appointed) minister.
The minister was therefore the most important person in a congregation. He had to be highly educated so he could explain the Bible and show how it related to daily life. The minister also led his congregation in performing good works, so people turned to him for advice on personal, economic, and political matters. Faced with these awesome responsibilities, neighboring ministers met in informal support groups to discuss common problems.
A Puritan church (also called a meeting house) was a plain, square building without a steeple (a tall structure, or tower, on the roof), stained-glass windows, or ornaments of any kind. The Puritans rejected these features, which could be found in Anglican churches (another name for the Church of England), as being too much like elaborate cathedrals built by the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans strongly disapproved of both the Catholic Church and the Church of England, maintaining that they were corrupt and gave too much power to the pope and bishops. Puritan worshipers sat on hard, wooden benches (also called pews) facing the minister, who often stood on a raised platform. Later the benches were sectioned off into squares of family pews with partitions around them. This was an attempt to cut down on cold drafts and retain the heat from warmed bricks that people wrapped in cloths and placed on the floor. Pews were assigned according to a family's rank in society.
Although worship services were held throughout the week, the major service was on Sunday. It was a lengthy and formal event with a two-hour sermon (minister's lecture) that opened and closed with long prayers. Worshipers stood during the prayers and throughout much of the service. Sometimes the congregation would take a lunch break after the morning service and return for another session in the afternoon. Singing or chanting of psalms (song-poems from the Bible) was allowed, but with no musical accompaniment (an instrumental or vocal part designed to support a melody). A person called a "liner" would sing a line, and the congregation would repeat it in whatever tunes individuals chose to follow.
Since the Puritans lived close together, they were able to observe each other's behavior and make sure everyone obeyed the covenants. As a result, there was no privacy in Puritan communities. The cornerstone of the society was the family, which was carefully monitored by the townsfolk. If trouble arose in a family, church elders (leaders who were not ordained ministers) would take action. They were given the authority to remove children, apprentices, and servants from households that did not meet community standards.
A hierarchy (rank according to importance) existed within a family so that all members would know their places, thus avoiding competition and arguments. The husband was the head of the household and represented the family at public and church events. He was also responsible for raising the children in a strict manner to save them from the temptations of Satan (the devil, or the ultimate evil). A woman obeyed her husband and supervised private household affairs. The Puritans considered marriage a holy state blessed by God, viewing sexual relations between a man and a woman as a way to fulfill God's will in creating life. In fact, sexual activity was confined to this purpose alone. Since having sexual relations outside of marriage was sinful, the Puritans ostracized (banned from society) both unmarried women who became pregnant and married women who had children by men other than their husbands.
A hierarchy also existed in Puritan society. The most important institution was the church, with the minister at the top and the elders below him, followed by church members. At the bottom were nonchurch members. Government was in the hands of the "elect" because they alone could understand and follow God's will. Church membership was required of all adult males who wished to vote and hold political office. Since women were under the control of their husbands, they were excluded from holding office. Town government was strongly influenced by the church—although the Puritans held public meetings where all community members had a voice in resolving issues, decisions were based on obedience to God's will. The government of the colony was supposed to be separate from the church, but officials passed laws to insure that colonists adhered to Puritan covenants. Those who strayed would receive harsh punishment because God would punish the whole society if the government failed to maintain proper standards. The Puritans assumed that the Bible contained all necessary laws for a moral society, so they did not write a legal code (official set of laws) until 1641. The government also established schools to insure that everyone was able to read the Bible.
With religion at the center of their lives, the New England Puritans lived simply, dressed plainly, and worked constantly. Since they frowned on any activities that did not glorify God, they had strict rules against dancing, card playing, drinking alcohol, and other "immoral" or "frivolous" pastimes. The Puritans held special days of thanksgiving when they had good fortune, and they fasted (went without food) when they experienced widespread sickness or prolonged dry spells without rainfall. (They thought they had caused these misfortunes themselves by committing sins, so they fasted to seek God's forgiveness.)
The Puritans did not observe the holy days traditionally celebrated in the Catholic Church and the Church of England—not even Christmas (the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth) and Easter (the commemoration of Jesus's resurrection, or rising from the dead). The Puritans thought the Catholic Church had simply made up religious holidays to fit the dates of pagan (non-Christian) rituals so it would be easier to convert nonbelievers to Christianity. They also considered the popular holidays such as May Day to be mere superstitions. (May Day was a celebration held in England on May 1, in the tradition of the spring fertility rites of Egypt and India.)
In fact, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay officials passed laws that prohibited any special observances of Christmas, Easter, and other holidays. They strictly enforced these laws by imposing stiff fines and other punishments on violators. Not surprisingly there were frequent conflicts between the Puritans and colonists who did not share their beliefs. The most famous was an incident at the town of Merry Mount in Massachusetts Bay. In 1627 Plymouth governor William Bradford (1590–1657) led a small party of Puritans into Merry Mount and disrupted a May Day celebration. The festivities had been organized by Thomas Morton (c. 1590–1647), the leader of the town. Morton had long been a nuisance to the Puritans because he not only ridiculed their way of life but he also encouraged rowdy behavior at a trading post he operated in Merry Mount.
Morton was an Englishman who arrived in New England in 1625 with a company headed by a Captain Wollaston. Wollaston founded a settlement called Mount Wollaston (now the city of Quincy, Massachusetts) and Morton set up a trading post, which he named Merry Mount. After Wollaston moved to Virginia, Morton took control of Mount Wollaston and renamed the town Merry Mount. He immediately had problems with the Puritans, particularly the Plymouth settlers, who lived nearby. Morton and his companions were Anglicans, who engaged in all of the "sinful" activities prohibited by the Puritans. Plymouth citizens objected to Morton's trading post, where he sold whiskey, guns, and ammunition to Native Americans in exchange for furs. Moreover, in violation of the law, he showed Native Americans how to use firearms (weapons). But Puritans were especially troubled because he had interfered with their fur trading activities. For instance, when the Plymouth settlers opened their first trade route in Maine in 1625, Morton followed them and established his own contacts with Native American traders.
Plymouth authorities claimed that Merry Mount undermined morality in New England. Bradford later wrote in his history of Plymouth, titled Of Plymouth Plantation (first published in 1857), that Merry Mount was a "den of iniquity [sin]." Morton's establishment attracted drunken carousers (people who drink liquor and engage in rowdy behavior) and men of questionable character—historians say it was a favorite meeting place for pirates (bandits who robbed ships at sea). Even worse, some Christians came there to drink rum and often socialized with Native Americans. Morton's troubles peaked on May Day 1627 when he built an eighty-foot Maypole (a flower-wreathed pole that is the center of dancing and games) at Merry Mount and hosted a noisy celebration. Colonists and Native Americans enjoyed a day of drinking and dancing. The Puritans were furious because Morton was violating their law against the celebration of holidays.
Things to Remember While Reading "The Maypole of Merry-Mount":
- "The Maypole of Merry-Mount" is Morton's account of his May Day confrontation with the Puritans. It appears as a chapter titled "Of the Revels of New Canaan" in New English Canaan, a history of New England that Morton published in 1637. It gives one of the few existing non-Puritan descriptions of early colonial life in Massachusetts.
- Details in "The Maypole of Merry-Mount" explain why the Puritans disrupted Morton's festivities. They were certainly upset by the dancing, drinking, and uninhibited (unrestrained) behavior, which broke Puritan laws, but they also objected to May Day itself as a sinful celebration of fertility (sexual reproduction). The Puritans strongly disapproved of any public references to sexual matters. They were offended by the buck's horns (a symbol of male sexuality) atop the Maypole, and they were uncomfortable with the pole, which was intended as another symbol of male virility (manliness).
- To the Puritans, May Day was a pagan (Greek and Roman) ritual that offended the Christian God. (Christians believe in only one god, whereas the Greeks and Romans worshipped many gods.) Note Morton's references to Jupiter, the chief Roman god, and Ganymede, the cupbearer to the gods (one who brings them mead, an intoxicating drink). Although May Day honored the Christian saints Philip and Jacob, the Puritans disapproved of saints as simply another form of paganism created by the Catholic Church. To make matters worse, Native Americans—themselves pagans—had helped Morton put up the Maypole, which the Puritans called the Calf of Horeb (a golden false god worshipped by the ancient Israelites, who were not Christians).
- The fertility celebration had particular significance because Merry Mount, like many frontier settlements, probably had mostly male inhabitants. In the early colonial years men came to America without women in order to prepare the way for future settlers by building towns and starting farms. Women arrived much later. In 1627, the time of the May Day incident, the Massachusetts colony had not yet been settled and Merry Mount was one of a few trading post villages along the frontier. Life was rough, and European women generally could not be found in these remote areas. The men at Merry Mount were therefore playfully honoring Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, so he might bring some women to the town. According to Morton, the young men "lived in hope to have wives brought over to them."
Pasonagessit: Native American place name meaning "Little neck of land"; now part of Braintree, Massachusetts
Revels: A wild party or celebration
Maypole: A decorated pole around which people dance on May Day
Philip and Jacob
Philip and Jacob: May Day is the feast day honoring Philip and James (Jacob in Latin), saints in the Roman Catholic Church
"The Maypole of Merry-Mount"
The Inhabitants ofPasonagessit (having translated the name of their habitation from that ancient savage name to Merry-Mount) did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemn manner withrevels and merriment after the old English custom. They prepared to set up aMaypole upon the festival day ofPhilip and Jacob; and brewed a barrel of excellent beer, and provided a case of bottlesto bespent, 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 there to see the manner of our revels. A goodly pine tree, eighty feet long, wasreared up, with a pair ofbuck's horns nailed on, somewhat near unto the top of it: where it stood as a fairsea mark for directions; how to find out the way to my host of Merry-Mount [Morton was referring to himself].
The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the preciseseparatists that lived at new Plymouth. They termed it an Idol; yea they called it theCalf of Horeb, and stood atdefiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon; threatening to make it a woeful mount not a merry mount. . . .
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 while one of the Company sung, and filled out the good liquor likeGanymede andJupiter:
Drink and be merry, merry, merry, boys,
Let all your delight be in Hymen 's joys,
Joy to Hymen now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a room.
Make greene garlands , bring bottles out;
And fill sweet Nectar , freely about,
Uncover thy head, and fear no harm,
For here's good liquor to keep it warm. . . .
This harmlessmirth made by young men (that lived in hope to have wives brought over to them . . .) was much distasted by the precise Separatists . . . troubling their brains more than reason would require about things that areindifferent, and from that time sought occasion against my honest host of Merry-Mount to overthrow his undertakings, and to destroy his plantation quite and clean [completely]. . . .
Spent: Consumed until empty
Buck's horns: The horns of a male sheep or deer; considered a symbol of virility (manliness)
Sea mark: An elevated object serving as a guide to sailors
Separatists: The Pilgrims
Calf of Horeb
Calf of Horeb: An idol falsely worshipped by Israelites as their deliverer from slavery in Egypt
Defiance: Resistance to authority
Ganymede: In Roman myth, the cupbearer to the gods
Jupiter: The chief Roman god, the god of the skies
Hymen: The Greek god of marriage
Garlands: Ropes made of vines or flowers
Nectar: In Greek and Roman mythology, the drink of the gods
Mirth: Gladness or gaiety expressed with loud laughter
What happened next . . .
Resolving to shut down Merry Mount, Puritan officials tried unsuccessfully to reason with Morton over the next several months. In 1628 a company of men led by Plymouth colonist Miles Standish (1584–1656) arrested Morton, but he managed to escape. He was soon recaptured and charged with selling guns to Native Americans. He was then deported (forced to leave a country) to England for trial. After Morton's departure John Endecott (1588–1665), the extremely stern governor of Massachusetts Bay, took over Merry Mount, chopped down the Maypole, and changed the name of the place to Mount Dagon. Morton was finally acquitted (found innocent) of the charges in England, and he returned to Massachusetts. He resumed trading with Native Americans and stirred up opposition to Endecott.
In 1630 Morton was again arrested, more or less for being a public nuisance. Historians speculate that he may also have been a spy for Ferdinando Gorges (c.1566–1647), head of the Council of New England (a private organization that promoted trade and settlement in New England), who wanted to make Massachusetts a royal colony. (A royal colony would be under the direct control of the English king. Leaders of the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Company had been given private charters, or grants of land. They were permitted to form their own governments without interference from the king.)
Before deporting Morton to England a second time, Massachusetts authorities placed him in stocks (a device used for public punishment), took all of his property, and burned down his house. Morton was acquitted once again and remained in England for over a decade. He worked as a legal counsel for Gorges, who was trying to revoke the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. In the mid-1630s Morton wrote New English Canaan, in which he encouraged others to seek their fortune in New England. ("Canaan" in the title refers to the Promised Land, or destined home, of the Israelites in the Christian Bible. Likewise, New England was the promised land of the Puritans, who sought religious and political freedom.) Yet he also ridiculed Puritan manners and narrow-mindedness, depicting the Native Americans as being more Christian than the Puritans. Although he knew the Puritans would seek revenge for the book, Morton returned to Massachusetts in 1643. He was immediately arrested and jailed in Boston for two years. Upon his release in 1645, officials forced him to go to Maine, which was being colonized by Gorges. Morton died in poverty in 1647.
Did you know . . .
- Morton was unknown at the time of his death, but New English Canaan became a classic work of literature that influenced several American writers. Among them was Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), an author who was also harshly critical of the Puritans. In addition to such tales as The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne wrote "The Maypole of Merrymount," a story based on Morton's celebration.
- The Pilgrims encountered numerous obstacles to making the Plymouth Colony a success. They had no luck in establishing a fur trade, which was thriving in other colonies, because they knew little about business. Pilgrim leaders paid attention to immediate needs rather than long-term plans, and they would admit only Nonconformists to the colony. In fact, they invited large numbers of Nonconformists from Europe even when there was a severe shortage of food. In 1692 the English government merged Plymouth with Massachusetts Bay under a royal charter that formed the colony of Massachusetts.
For more information
Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 25–26.
Connors, Donald Francis. Thomas Morton. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969.
Elliott, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice-Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991, pp. 105–06.
Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–1958, p. 267.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 86–98.
Stephen, Leslie, and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1917, pp. 1055–57.
"Morton, Thomas." Colonial America Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/morton-thomas
"Morton, Thomas." Colonial America Reference Library. . Retrieved August 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/morton-thomas
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