Thomas Morton of Quincy and Morton Street

Most people know Morton Street as part of the Metro Parkways system that directs drivers from Jamaica Plain toward Dorchester, Milton, and Quincy. Yet it was an early street in Forest Hills, where noted thinker, Margaret Fuller, lived. It started below the present courthouse and proceeds behind it to the circle at the end of the Casey Overpass and gets swallowed up in the newer parkway.

Though Morton Street may well be named for the Mortons who owned property in the area in 1871, the street could also be named for Thomas Morton, possibly a distant relative, whose richer deeds are highlighted on a plaque in Quincy.

Thomas Morton is one of the true characters of our colonial history. A lawyer from the west of England, he came to New England in 1622 (just two years after Plymouth was founded) with Thomas Weston to establish Weymouth and stayed three months, as the settlement failed. He was so delighted with the area that in 1625 he sailed back with Capt. Wollaston to bring another group to found a settlement north of Plymouth. Though Wollaston went off to Virginia, Morton induced a group to remain in the area, to which they merrily gave the captain’s name.

After their first deadly winter, the Plymouth pilgrims, under the leadership of their second governor, William Bradford, had gotten settled and had ideas for their expansion in the future. Perhaps the fact that Morton was not a Separatist but a member of the Established Church of England was enough to get Plymouth angry. From a section of Bradford’s Plimoth Plantation (other than his often-read account of the First Thanksgiving) comes the following concerning events in the spring of 1627:

“Morton became the Lord of Misrule. After he and his men got some goods and got much (profit) by trading with the Indians, they spent it as vainly in quaffing and drinking both wine and strong water in excess. They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies or Furies rather, as if they had anew revived and celebrated the Roman goddess Flora or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians.”

Bradford further reports that Morton composed sundry rhymes and verses which were attached to this idle maypole. The Plymouth pilgrims would have nothing to do with this old English custom reestablished on the highest point in Wollaston, which the Anglican Morton and his company dubbed as Merrymount, still marked near the start of Quincy Shore Drive.

Just as Bradford’s work survives, so does Morton’s New England Canaan, a satirical view of life in New England, full of humor and spirit. Morton gets to tell his side and brings a different light to the colonial story.

Here are his accounts of the doings at Merrymount: “A goodly pine tree 80 feet long was reared up with a pair of buck’s horns nailed on somewhat near to the top of it, where it stood as a fair seamark for directions how to find the way to mine host of Merrymount. There was likewise merry song made, which was sung with a chorus, every man bearing his part. They performed in a dance, hand in hand about the maypole, while one of the company sang and filled out the good liquor like Ganymede.”

Morton not only sold liquor to the Native Americans; he dealt also in firearms to further his trade. There both the Old Colony of Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston (the former swallowed up by the latter in 1692) drew the line. In June 1628 the English settlements banded together under the command of Capt. Myles Standish (whom Morton called Capt. Shrimp). Easily overpowered, Morton and his merry men were conveyed to Plymouth and deported to England.

Yet Morton loved New England and returned the next year to deal in furs. The rougher Governor Endecott (his statue is in the Fenway by the MFA) of Massachusetts Bay cut down the maypole, denounced the activities, but at least offered Morton a place in the official fur trade. The independent reveler refused, was arrested, saw his house at Merrymount burned, and was again deported.

An Anglican overwhelmed in the Puritan Commonwealth in England, the merry host sat down to write his New England Canaan, quickly realizing that any other anti-Puritan effort was in vain.

Hailed as a martyr and a Puritan victim, Morton returned to Massachusetts in 1643-practicing complete abstinence from drink, to Plymouth’s amazement. He was soon involved in litigation for his Merrymount property and landed in a Boston jail, but was finally released. He made his way to the distant part of Massachusetts at that time, Maine, and in York in 1647, a broken-spirited man, a liberal-minded, though over-exuberant and non-provident, lover of New England had been dealt with—but at what cost?

Small wonder that Hawthorne chose Morton for inclusion in his storybook on colonial history, Twice-Tom Tales or that Morton is the subject of the opera Merrymount by this modern American composer, Howard Hanson.

by Walter H. Marx

Originally published in the November 29, 1991 edition of the Jamaica Plain Gazette. Used with permission.

S. E. Morison, The Story of the Old Colony, 1957
C. F. Adams, Three Episodes in Mass History, 1892
S. E. Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony, 1930