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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Morton
Little is known about Morton’s early life except that he became a lawyer in the “west countries” of England and married in 1621. In 1622 he first sailed to New England and in 1626 established himself as head of a trading post at Passonagessit, which he renamed “Ma-re Mount” (or, as Bradford spelled it, “Merry-mount”). There he offended the neighboring Separatist Puritan settlement by erecting a maypole and cavorting with the Indians, to whom, according to Bradford, he sold guns. He was arrested by Miles Standish, the military leader at Plymouth, and sent back to England in 1628. He returned, however, acquitted of the charges against him in 1629, but in 1630 his property at Ma-re Mount was seized or burned by Puritan authorities, and he was banished to England again. He then worked with the anti-Puritan Anglican authorities in England to undermine the Massachusetts Bay Company, but his effort did not succeed. He returned to New England in 1643, was imprisoned for slander by the authorities in Boston in the winter of 1644–1645, and died two years later in Maine (then part of the Massachusetts colony), where he had finally settled. His only literary work is New English Canaan (1637), best known for its satire of Puritans in general and the Separatists in particular.

Throughout New English Canaan, Thomas Morton more often resorts to brief essays and loosely related anecdotes rather than to continuous historical narration. The lack of narrative continuity can be attributed in large part to the generically hybrid status of the text. Although it is most often referred to by critics as a promotional tract, Morton’s New English Canaan also read at times like a natural history, an ethnography, and a political pamphlet. In the first two sections of his three-part text, Morton follows the format adhered to by many other writers of promotional literature: he offers readers information about New England’s native inhabitants and its natural resources. Echoing opinions voiced by early English explorers and colonial commentators like Thomas Harriot and Richard Hakluyt, Morton argues that New England is a valuable region inhabited by friendly natives, a region that well deserves English colonization. In the third part of New English Canaan, Morton makes explicit his larger purpose in writing his tract—namely to suggest that England’s colonial effort is being hampered by the Separatist colonists of Plymouth and their Puritan allies. In this section of his text, Morton offers readers an alternative version of many of the same events of 1620–1630 that William Bradford recounts from an opposing point of view in his history of Plymouth Plantation. In his version, Morton tries to counter Bradford’s portrayal of him as a lawless and unscrupulous troublemaker. Instead, he suggests that his various disputes with the Plymouth colonists resulted from their own intolerance and lack of respect for someone who does not adhere to their austere brand of Christianity. In so doing, Morton provides an English context within which to read his version of colonial events. Morton’s English readers would have readily recognized him as a “Cavalier,” a term used loosely to refer to English people who supported the authority of the king and the Church of England and opposed the political and religious reforms advocated by the Puritans.

In addition to his endorsement of the politics of the Cavaliers, Morton embraces their literary values as well. Rejecting texts written in the so-called “plain style” favored by the Puritans, Cavaliers generally preferred writing that drew attention to itself with its ornate or flowery style. The three opening dedicatory poems, written by supporters of Morton and included in the 1637 edition of the text, suggest that Morton wished to appeal to a readership that valued things explicitly literary. And by self-consciously fashioning his New English Canaan as a flamboyantly mock-heroic epic, Morton would have pleased just such an audience. The same can be said for Morton’s other literary flourishes, such as attaching titles like those found in Jacobean comedy to his main characters. Referring to himself as “the Great Monster” and to Miles Standish as “Captain Shrimp,” Morton turns his caricature of the Puritans into a parody of knightly romance in the manner of Don Quixote. To the extent that Morton adheres to the stylistic tastes of the Cavaliers, he reveals the ways in which American colonial writing was often produced against the backdrop of the English literary landscape.

In spite of their disagreements on political, social, and literary questions, Puritans and their opponents all agreed on the importance of the native populations in the English colonial enterprise. Morton’s flattering portrayal of the native inhabitants reminds us of this fact and of the crucial role that Native Americans played in England’s attempts to construct a national identity through its colonial endeavors. The English were determined to differentiate their methods from those of their Catholic rivals, especially the Spanish, who were portrayed in early exploratory accounts as using violence and coercion. Morton’s repeated assertions about the humanity and civility of his Native American neighbors, therefore, had considerable appeal for English readers who hoped that their nation could achieve its colonial ambitions without using undue force. By implying that the Plymouth colonists have squandered the goodwill of the native inhabitants, Morton casts doubt on the likelihood of their achieving one of England’s most publicly articulated colonial objectives—the peaceful cohabitation with, and eventual conversion of, native populations.

Even when he is not attacking the Plymouth colonists explicitly, Morton attempts to undermine their credibility by indirect means. For instance, he intends his audience to read his sympathetic portrait of the native people against his equally unflattering portrayal of the Puritans. In contrast to the “precise separatists,” as he calls them, Morton shows how the Indians adhere to a natural religion supported by the virtues of hospitality to strangers and respect for authority. Instead of striving for personal wealth, they prefer to enjoy and share nature’s bounty. This core of common humanity Morton shares with them and finds supported by his own Anglicanism, with its traditional celebration of saints’ days, like that upon which Morton set up the infamous maypole. He asserts that the Puritans, in contrast, condemn natural pleasure, are inhospitable, respect neither king nor church tradition, and live only for what they consider the “spirit” but  Morton considers private gain. Morton hopes, thereby, to convince English readers that he is better equipped to serve their national interests than are his rivals. Although he did not succeed, he produced an important and entertaining counter-narrative to the prevailing Puritan version.

Kenneth Alan Hovey
University of Texas at San Antonio

Thomas Scanlan
Ohio University

In the Heath Anthology New English Canaan
      Chapter VIII: " HREF="../../timeline/1637.html">1637)
      Chapter XV: "Of a great Monster supposed to be at Ma-re-Mount; and the preparation made to destroy it." (1637)
      Chapter XVI: "How the 9. worthies put mine Host of Ma-re-Mount into the inchaunted Castle at Plimmouth, and terrified him with the Monster Briareus." (1637)
      Chapter XVI: "Of their acknowledgment of the Creation, and immortality of the Soule." (1637)
      from Book I: "Containing the originall of the Natives, their manners & Customes, with their tractable nature and love towards the English" (1637)
      from Book III: "Containing a description of the People that are planted there, what remarkable Accidents have happened there . . . , what Tenents they hould, together with the practise of their Church." (1637)
      from Chapter I: "Of a great League made with the Plimmouth Planters after their arrivall, by the Sachem of those Territories." (1637)
      from Chapter IV: "Of their Houses and Habitations" (1637)
      from Chapter V: "Of a Massacre made upon the Salvages at Wessaguscus" (1637)
      from Chapter VI: "Of the Indians apparrell" (1637)
      from Chapter VII: "Of Thomas Mortons entertainement at Plimmouth, and castinge away upon an Island." (1637)
      from Chapter XIV: "Of the Revells of New Canaan." (1637)
      from Chapter XX: "That the Savages live a contented life." (1637)

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Manners and Customs of the Indians (of New England), 1637
The complete text of Morton's book provided by Fordham University's Modern History SourceBook.

American Authors
Brief biography and links.

Description of the Indians in New England
An excerpt from The New English Canaan (1637).

Secondary Sources

Charles Francis Adams, "Introduction" to New English Canaan, 1883 Donald F. Connors, Thomas Morton, 1969