Animal House in the Land of the Puritans: Thomas Morton

William Bradford
William Bradford

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I will be visiting Boston, Massachusetts in a couple of weeks.  In preparation for my visit, I am going to highlight a few early American writers, most of whom lived in New England.

If you paid attention when you were in school, you most likely learned about William Bradford, who was governor of the colony of Plymouth from 1621-1657.  Much of what we know about the early separatist settlers comes from his history On Plymouth Plantation.

As you can imagine, life was hard for these early settlers who were trying to form a religiously pure community untainted by the corrupt ways of the Church of England back home.  Not only did Bradford’s community have to battle against nature, hunger, disease, Native Americans and the like, but they also had to battle against other English settlers of a dissolute nature.

Thomas Morton
Thomas Morton

photo source

Thomas Morton was one of these settlers, a major thorn in the side of Governor Bradford. Thomas Morton was not part of Plymouth; he was neither a Separatist nor a Puritan.   He was the breed known as a “Cavalier,” someone loyal to the King and Church of England.  For Bradford, that amounted to almost the same thing as atheism.  Furthermore, according to Bradford’s account, Morton and his band were licentious drunks who partied too much.

Worse yet, Morton invited Indians to his celebrations. [Gasp!] It nearly drove Bradford into a apoplectic fit when he heard that on May Day, Morton’s band got together with Indians to celebrate.  They all gathered together to cavort around a maypole, a true sign of paganism for Bradford. The Governor wrote that  “They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices.”

In other words, Bradford considered Morton and his pals to be the Animal House of Puritan times.

The truly shocking thing about Thomas Morton, however–the unforgivable thing–is that he did not consider Native Americans to be savages.  In his book New England Canaan, Morton goes to great length to portray the Native Americans as more civilized than the fanatical Separatists of Plymouth Plantation.  Morton points out that the Indians display a reverence for God, a deep sense of hospitality, a natural modesty, a respect for old age, and a reverence for authority.

Morton believed the Separatist and Puritan English would be better off if they respected the ways of the Indians and formed true friendships with them, rather than treating them as Satan’s minions and an impediment to be overcome.

Unfortunately, there was no room for such radical beliefs in early New England.   Thomas Morton was arrested and exiled by the Plymouth authorities.   I wonder how our country would be different if Morton’s views had prevailed.

Thomas  Morton

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

9 thoughts on “Animal House in the Land of the Puritans: Thomas Morton”

  1. Very interesting. I don’t think I have heard of Thomas Morton. I agree with him the Native Americans sound like much nicer people. Which pilgrims participated in the first Thanksgiving with the Native Americans? It does not sound like it would have been Bradford.

    1. Bradford may well have participated in the first Thanksgiving. I believe early settlers all interacted with Native Americans regularly. That doesn’t mean they viewed them favorably. In many of the early writings, the Puritans justified any violence against Native Americans as doing God’s will against Satanic forces. Very convenient beliefs.

      1. To give an example of what I mean, Bradford wrote about the Pequot war. At one point, the Plymouth settlers surrounded an Indian fort so that nobody could get out. Then they set the fort on fire. It was populated mainly by women and children. Most of the people could not escape and were burned alive. He wrote, “It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in teh fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

      2. I think I am glad I haven’t read this guy’s writing. How horrendous. I do know in the West there was a saying ” The only good Indian is a dead Indian” so it was not just the New Englanders. Custer and all that too.

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