Morton, Thomas (d.1646) (DNB00)
|←Morton, Robert||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39
Morton, Thomas (d.1646)
|Morton, Thomas (1564-1659)→|
MORTON, THOMAS (d. 1646), author of 'New English Canaan,' was an attorney of Clifford's Inn, London, who appears to have practised chiefly in the west of England (Young, Chronicles of Massachusetts, p. 321). He was a man of good education and an able lawyer, but he bore an evil reputation, ill-used his wife, and was even suspected of having murdered his partner (Mass. Hist. Coll. 3rd ser. viii. 323). The allusions in his book show that he was passionately fond of field sports and travelled much. In June 1622 he landed at New England with Thomas Weston's company, and remained for about three months, taking a survey of the country, with which he was delighted. In 1625, having bought a partnership in Captain Wollaston's venture, he again sailed for Massachusetts Bay. His leader fixed the plantation at 'Mount Wollaston' (now Braintree), on the shores of the bay. Wollaston soon left for Virginia with most of the servants, and Morton established himself in the summer of 1626 in control over the remainder at ' Mare-Mount' (Merry Mount), as he called the place. In the spring of 1627 he erected the maypole, and on May day, in company with the Indians, held high revel, greatly to the disgust of the Plymouth elders. The business methods which he pursued were, however, a more serious matter. In trading for furs with the Indians, he not only sold them guns and ammunition, but instructed them in their use. He was thus acting in violation of the law. When in 1625 the Plymouth people found their way into Maine, and first opened a trade with the Indians there, Morton was not slow in following them. In 1628 the Plymouth settlers established a permanent station on the Kennebec; yet in 1627, if not in 1626, Morton had forestalled them there, and hindered them of a season's furs. The Plymouth community ultimately resolved to suppress Merry Mount, which was rapidly developing into a nest of pirates. After endeavouring to reason with Morton, they sent Captain Miles Standish [q. v.] to arrest him. He was taken at Wessagusset (now Weymouth), but managed to escape in the night to Mount Wollaston, where, after offering some resistance, he was recaptured. He was sent back to England in 1628, in charge of Captain John Oldham (1600?-1636) [q. v.], with letters from Governor William Bradford [q. v.], addressed respectively to the council for New England and Sir Ferdinando Gorges [q. v.], requesting that he might be brought 'to his answer' (ib. 1st ser. iii. 62). In the meantime John Endecott [q. v.], as governor of the chartered new Massachusetts Company, had jurisdiction over Morton's establishment. He ordered the maypole to be cut down, and changed the name of the place to 'Mount Dagon.'
Morton managed to ingratiate himself with both Oldham and Gorges. Bradford's complaints were accordingly ignored. He also made himself useful to Isaac Allerton in his efforts to obtain a charter for the Plymouth colony. Allerton, when he returned to New England in August 1629, scandalised Plymouth by bringing Morton back with him, lodging him in his house, and for a while employing him as his secretary. Morton subsequently returned to Mount Wollaston, and encouraged the 'old planters' in their resistance to the new Massachusetts Company. He refused to sign articles which Endecott had drawn np for the better government and trade of the colony, and set his authority at defiance. There is reason to suppose that he was employed by Gorges to act as a spy, and was anticipating the arrival of John Oldham at the head of an expedition to be despatched by Gorges. He continued to deal with the Indians as he saw fit, though not in firearms. In August or September 1630 he was arrested, and after being set in the stocks was again banished to England, and his house was burned down. He had a long and tempestuous passage, and was nearly starved. For some time he was imprisoned in Exeter gaol, but by 1631 was at liberty, and busily engaged in Gorges's intrigues for the overthrow of the Massachusetts charter. A petition was presented to the privy council on 19 Dec. 1632 asking the lords to inquire into the methods through which the charter had been procured, and into the abuses which had been practised under it. The various allegations were based on the affidavits of Morton and two other witnesses. On 1 May 1634 he wrote to William Jeffreys, an 'old planter' at Wessagusset, triumphantly informing him that as a result a committee, with Laud at its head, had been appointed, which was to make Gorges governor-general of the colony (Mass. Hist. Coll. 2nd ser. vi. 428-30). In May 1635 Morton was appointed solicitor to the new organisation, and successfully prosecuted a 'suit at law for the repealing of the patent belonging to the Massachusetts Company.' In March 1636, while against the company, he seems to have been in the pay of George Cleaves, a man subsequently prominent in the early history of Maine (ib. 4th ser. vi. 127). In August 1637 Gorges wrote to Winthrop that Morton was 'wholely casheered from intermedlinge with anie our affaires hereafter' (ib. 4th ser. vii. 331) ; but in 1641, when Gorges, as 'lord of the province of Maine,' granted a municipal charter to the town of Acomenticus (now York), Morton's name appears as first of the three witnesses. The whole scheme failed for want of funds.
In the summer of 1643 Morton, starved out of England, reappeared once more at Plymouth, and endeavoured to pass himself off as a Commonwealth man who was commissioned by Alexander Rigby, M.P., to act in his behalf for a claim of territory in Maine. Not succeeding, he is said to have gone to Maine in June 1644. A warrant for his arrest was at once despatched. In August he was in Rhode Island, promising grants of land to all who professed loyalty to the new governor-general (Palfrey, Collections, ii. 147 n.) By 9 Sept. he was a prisoner at Boston. In November 1644 he was charged before the general court with libelling the colony before the privy council and in his book, and with promoting a quo warranto against it. His letter to Jeffreys was pro- duced in evidence. The proceedings failed for want of proof, and he was ordered to be imprisoned until fresh evidence was brought from England. In May 1645 he petitioned for his release. After enduring a cruel confinement for about a year, he was again called before the court, formally fined 100l., and set at liberty. He retired to Acomenticus, where he died in poverty in 1646 (Winthrop, History of New England, ed. Savage, ii. 192).
Morton is author of 'New English Canaan, or New Canaan containing an Abstract of New England. Composed in three Bookes,' 4to, Amsterdam, 1637. His description of the natural features of the country and his account of the Indians are of interest and value, and he throws an amusing side-light upon the social history of the pilgrim and puritan colonies. Though printed in Holland in 1637, the book was entered in the 'Stationers' Register 'in London on 18 Nov. 1633, in the name of Charles Greene as publisher, and at least one copy is known bearing Greene's imprint, but without a date. It has been reprinted by Force in vol. ii. of his American tracts, and by the Prince Society, with an introduction and notes, by C. F. Adams, jun., 4to, Boston, 1883. Morton's career is the subject of John Lothrop Motley's novels, 'Morton's Hope,' 1839, and ' Merry Mount,' 1849, and of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, ' The Maypole of Merry Mount.'
[Adams's Introduction referred to; Savage's Genealogical Diet. iii. 245; Winsor's Hist, of America, vol. iii. ; Nathaniel Morton's New England's Memorial ; A Few Observations on the Prince Society's Edition of the New English Canaan, reprinted from the Churchman, New York, 1883.]