New English Canaan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise separatists, that lived at new Plimmouth. They termed it an Idoll; yea, they called it the Calfe of Horeb, and stood at defiance with the place.”

Summary Overview

Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan is a promotional and political tract with multiple purposes. It is aimed at encouraging colonization in New England, but it simultaneously argues that the continuing presence of religious Separatist communities there is a detriment to the region’s development as an economic resource for England. In the first two parts of his book, Morton uses a combination of highly allusive descriptive narrative and poetry to demonstrate that New England is inhabited by American Indians who are simple, happy, and above all, humane, and that the land, rich in natural resources, is like the biblical Canaan promised to God’s chosen people, the Israelites. In the third part, Morton relies on dramatic incident and political satire to explain how his experiences with the Pilgrim and Puritan colonists have convinced him that these Separatist communities pose a threat to the long-term viability of the region as a source for increasing England’s wealth.

Defining Moment

In 1633, Thomas Morton, a lawyer and entrepreneur who had tried unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the New World, became engaged in a series of maneuvers to have the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company revoked. Between 1627 and 1628, Morton ran a profitable trading operation in New England before leaders of the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth had him arrested and deported. An attempt to restart his operations in 1629 was similarly thwarted by leaders of a Puritan sect that was moving into the region in greater numbers. New English Canaan grew out of Morton’s efforts to draft a legal brief to be submitted to the newly created Board of Lords Commissioners of Foreign Plantations, established in 1634 to oversee English settlements in all the American colonies.

Others besides Morton had complained to the council as well, so Morton’s arguments against the Pilgrims and Puritans who then dominated settlements in New England were corroborated. Morton had a close ally in Fernandino Gorges, chair of the Council for New England, the body established to help regulate English affairs in that part of the New World. At the same time, religious divisions in England were causing significant tensions between Royalists, who supported King Charles I and the Anglican Church, and the growing body of Englishmen with anti-Royalist and low-church sympathies. To win his case, Morton felt it necessary to demonstrate the value to England of establishing additional permanent colonies in a territory that could enrich the mother country in many ways. At the same time, he was keen on discrediting the Massachusetts Bay Company as a suitable entity for controlling colonization. He felt that colonists sponsored by the company were hindering engagement with Indian peoples and refraining from taking maximum advantage of the economic opportunities. These twin purposes lie at the heart New English Canaan, Morton’s tract aimed at promoting what he believed to be the right kind of colonization in New England.

Author Biography

Little is known about Thomas Morton’s early years. Scholars conjecture that he was born between 1576 and 1579 somewhere in Devon in the southwest of England. Evidence from Morton’s own writings suggests that his father was a soldier and the family was part of the minor gentry. They also reveal his education in the classics. By 1600, Morton was in London at Clifford’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court where young men studied law. Scattered references to Morton in legal documents and public records indicate that he practiced law for the next twenty years. In 1621, he married a widow, Alice Miller, but was soon involved in a venture that took him to the New World in 1624 as part of a colonizing expedition. Morton’s group, consisting of several freemen and dozens of indentured servants, established a trading post that they called Mount Wollaston, after the expedition’s commander, near present-day Quincy, Massachusetts.

Within two years, Wollaston departed for Virginia and Morton convinced a group of servants to join him as equals in overthrowing the settlement’s new leader. Under Morton’s leadership, the trading post became highly profitable, and in 1627, Morton changed its name to Ma-re Mount. Pilgrims living nearby in Plymouth found Morton’s activities an economic and moral threat. In 1628, a group from Plymouth led by Myles Standish arrested Morton on charges that he had sold guns to the Indians. The Pilgrim leaders had him deported to England.

Undaunted, Morton returned to New England in 1629, only to face a new challenge from a larger group of Puritans that had settled in Salem. In 1630, Morton was again arrested and sent back to England. For the next decade, he worked with influential nobles such as Fernandino Gorges to have the Massachusetts Bay Company’s charter revoked; the briefs he wrote in support of this action became the basis for his only book, New English Canaan.

Morton returned to New England for a third time in 1643 but was arrested the following year and held in prison for months before being released on condition that he would leave the Massachusetts area. He migrated north to modern-day Maine, where his patron Gorges had established a settlement. He died there around 1647.

Document Analysis

These excerpts from New English Canaan illustrate Thomas Morton’s twofold purpose in writing the document: to make his fellow countrymen aware of the opportunities available in New England and to highlight his concern that activities by some religious groups settling there posed a serious threat to his efforts to make the colonies profitable parts of England’s growing commercial empire. Having spent considerable time in the New World, experiencing firsthand the country’s natural beauty, the amicability of the native population, and the behavior of the colonists at Plymouth, Morton was particularly well qualified to construct this combination of travel narrative, poetry, political commentary, and satire describing the new Promised Land that awaited the English if the government proved capable of controlling the spread of the wrong kind of colonies.

As a promotional tract advertising the natural riches of New England, New English Canaan is unusual in that it opens with a lengthy description of the native peoples of the region. Some in England and in the colonies saw the Indians as simple, uneducated people ripe for conversion to Christianity. Many English colonists felt that Indians were a nuisance requiring constant management and representing a significant potential threat. Virtually no one viewed them as part of an established civilization with its own unique and often sophisticated customs and mores. Without giving Morton too much credit for his views, it is worth noting that his commentary paints Indian tribes in a most favorable light. Convincing his readers that the Indians could be willing partners and amiable companions was no small task, especially since Morton’s audience likely remembered the Powhatan uprising that took place in Virginia in 1622, in which more than three hundred colonists were slaughtered.

To counter those fears, Morton makes the point that the Indian population in New England is not large and therefore poses little threat. A plague, possibly caused by diseases brought over to the American continent by Europeans exploring the region, had wiped out a sizable portion of the Indian population in New England. Attributing the ravages of the disease to the “hand of God” being laid “heavily” upon the Indians for their mistreatment of French traders who had preceded the English in the area, Morton uses a biblical reference to help readers understand the extent of the desolation he has seen: the land where Indians once lived in great numbers now reminds him of “a new found Golgatha.”

Morton’s account of the Indians’ behavior toward the French traders is almost the only criticism he has of them. His lengthy descriptions of their customs and personality traits are generally positive. It should be noted, however, that while some seem based on firsthand observations, others are either crafted from reports Morton had heard or invented from general speculations about the native population that were current in Morton’s day. For example, in a section not included in these excerpts, Morton explains—without a hint of satiric intent—why he believes the Indians in the New World are actually descendants of the Trojans who scattered from Latium (modern-day Italy) centuries earlier.

Morton is impressed by the adaptive nature of the Indians he has met. Hence, his lengthy discussion of the Indians’ manner of dress contains details about their use of animals native to the region for clothing and decoration. He is careful to make comparisons that his audience would understand, noting for example how the Indians wear their woven coats “like mantels [mantles] knit over their shoulders” and how the women’s garments trail behind them “like a great Ladies trane.” Even more notable is Morton’s emphasis on the Indians’ exceptional modesty. Upon reaching the age of puberty, a young man wears “a belt about his middell, and a broad peece of lether that goeth betweene his leggs” that is “tuckt up both before and behinde under that belt . . . to hide their secreats of nature, which by no meanes they will suffer to be seene.” The women are also modest in their manner of dress; Morton describes them as “being unwilling to be seene to discover their nakednesse.” Morton leaves nothing to his readers’ imagination in interpreting these customs: “Therein,” he says, these Indians “seeme to have as much modesty as civilized people, and deserve to be applauded for it.”

Morton’s inclusion of details about the Indians’ customs and personal characteristics are also important in establishing connections with his intended audience. As other writers had done before him, Morton emphasizes that Indians are born “of complexion white as our nation” and achieve their “tawny” color from being bathed in walnut leaves as infants. It is highly doubtful if Morton ever witnessed a childbirth or the strange ritual of bathing in walnut leaves, but the larger point of his argument is worth noting: in birth and in customs, these Indians are remarkably like their European cousins. In fact, Morton notes, these people are “well proportioned” and “as proper men and women for feature and limbes as can be found.” Unable to resist a subtle jibe at his Puritan neighbors, Morton says that “I never sawe a clunchfisted Salvadge amongst them all in my time.” Morton’s contemporary audience would have understood the use of the word “clunchfisted” as a description of one who was stingy and mean-spirited. The point Morton makes here is that the Indians—unlike his neighbors at Plymouth—are open and generous, not savages posing a threat to European settlement in New England.

These qualities would be important to anyone wishing to engage in trade in the New World. The abundant natural resources, described more fully in Part II of New English Canaan but hinted at in Morton’s discussion of the native peoples, were available for any Englishman who wished to set up a business in New England, at least from Morton’s perspective. In his view, one could count on the Indians as honest trading partners who would hunt game and treat skins to trade with the English for goods such as cooking utensils, decorative items, and perhaps an occasional weapon. On this last point Morton was at odds with his neighbors in Plymouth, who greatly feared an Indian population with access to guns and ammunition, which could be used not only to kill game but also to fight against colonists.

Morton’s philosophy of open-handedness with his Indian partners extended to his dealings with fellow colonists at Mount Wollaston, where he had settled in 1625. By 1627, Morton had become leader of the colony, which he ran on egalitarian principles very different from those of the original leaders at Mount Wollaston or the settlers at Plymouth. The hostility of Pilgrim leaders toward Morton’s group built gradually but reached its breaking point in the spring of 1627, when Morton organized a festival to celebrate the renaming of his settlement. The event became the catalyst for a series of hostile actions taken by the Pilgrims to shut down Morton’s operations and deport him.

The revels at Ma-re Mount, described with little fanfare in New English Canaan, constitute the dramatic center of Morton’s text. The incident reveals much about Morton’s character and about the Pilgrims with whom he had so much trouble. In straightforward narrative prose, Morton explains how, on “the festivall day of Philip and Jacob,” a feast day traditionally celebrated by the Anglican Church on May 1, he and his company set up a maypole and reenacted some of traditional festivities. Curious Indians were present to see what the settlers were doing, and Morton made certain everyone in attendance enjoyed freshly brewed beer.

The casual mention of the redesignation of the colony as “Ma-re Mount” glosses over the name’s many implied meanings, and Morton remains circumspect about any correct interpretation. “Ma-re” sounds as if it is derived from mer, the French word for sea, making “Hill by the Sea” an appropriate description of the outpost. In William Bradford’s account of his run-in with Morton, the term is altered to “Merriemount,” not merely an alternate spelling but a description of the licentious activities that Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, believed were taking place at Morton’s community. Although Bradford’s account was not published when Morton wrote New English Canaan, Morton was obviously aware of what his adversary thought of the Ma-re Mount community because he makes a satiric reference to Bradford’s term when he complains that the “precise separatists” wanted to turn his “merry mount” into a “woefull mount.” A third possibility suggested by the spelling is that the term refers to specific sexual activity—something Bradford and his contemporaries at Plymouth believed was happening with abandon among colonists and Indian women at Morton’s settlement

Similarly, Morton’s deadpan description of the erection of the maypole is charged with sexual and political meaning. According to his account “the inhabitants” of the newly renamed village of Ma-re Mount decided to commemorate the occasion “in a solemne manner, with Revels and merriment after the old English custome” of setting up a maypole. This medieval tradition was widely practiced in southern England, where each year on or near May 1, villagers would erect and decorate the stripped trunk of a tall tree in the village square. The tree was the focal point of community activities such as dancing and singing, intended often to celebrate the arrival of spring and a new year for planting. Viewed in this light, the maypole can be seen as a fertility symbol with sexual overtones that would have been anathema to Morton’s neighbors at Plymouth. The staghorn decoration that Morton placed on top of his maypole only increased the offensiveness of this symbol.

Furthermore, as if to flaunt his disdain for his neighbors, Morton notes that the maypole is to remain permanently erected at Ma-re Mount. Literally, it is to serve as a beacon for travelers to locate the settlement. Metaphorically, it represents the values Morton stands for: openness, revelry, and a welcoming spirit. Unlike the Pilgrims, who viewed outsiders with suspicion, Morton sees himself as an old-style English “hoste” to those who would visit his settlement. In contrast to his openness and joviality, he portrays his dour neighbors as greedy, hypocritical, and self-righteous bumblers whose activities threatened the potential for commerce with local tribes.

Many of Morton’s jibes at the Pilgrims and the Puritans who followed them to America seem intended to evoke laughter. He dubs the diminutive Pilgrim Captain Myles Standish “Captain Shrimp,” and his inept band of soldiers “the Nine Worthies,” a reference to the great figures from classical, Jewish, and Christian myth and history whose heroic actions were celebrated in the Middle Ages. Other Separatist leaders are given similarly ridiculous sobriquets, and Morton seems to delight in describing their ineptitude in colonial management.

Near the close of his book, however, Morton constructs a list of indictments against the religious reformists who had settled in New England. Specifically playing to the sentiments of William Laud, recently appointed archbishop of Canterbury and head of the new commission on the colonies, Morton explains how this “Church of the Separatists” differs from the Church of England in several important and dangerous ways. Governed by men who often have little formal education, any of the “Pastors, Elders and Deacons” can preach to the congregation. Furthermore, these church officials often take precedence over civil authorities in settling matters that, in his view, should be decided outside the purview of church governance.

Morton goes on to enumerate twelve “unwarrantable Tenents” that make this “Church of the Separatists” a threat to the Crown and Parliament. Each of his indictments points out essential differences between the religious and political beliefs and practices of these colonists and ones officially sanctioned by the Anglican Church. For example, the Puritans allow “the Magistrate’s office absolutely (and not the Ministers)” to approve marriages. They view marriage rings as symbols of the Roman Catholic Church and of the devil. Citing what Archbishop Laud would have viewed as a particularly distasteful and sacrilegious offense, Morton claims that these Separatists consider “the booke of Common prayer” an idol and those that use it “Idolaters.” Morton further accuses these low-church communities of withholding Communion from anyone who has not specifically professed to be a member of their group.

A number of Morton’s other accusations charge these Separatists of using religion to their financial advantage. For example, he says that they believe “Gods children onley, who are themselves,” are entitled to claim dominion—and ownership—over “Gods creatures,” a convenient justification for appropriating others’ possessions. Similarly, when “they get the goods of one, that is without, into their hands,” they feel justified in keeping these spoils because those “without” (that is, not members of the Separatist church) have no right to these goods. Finally, Morton notes that in these practices, the Separatists “differ from us,” as they do in another important practice, their “manner of praying.” They “winke [close their eyes] when they pray,” which Morton interprets as an indication of their assurance in their salvation. Morton’s implication might be that those who believe they are God’s chosen ones, and therefore are justified in any action, pose an imminent danger to the good order of English society.

Essential Themes

The overriding theme of Morton’s New English Canaan is that, like the land of Canaan for the Israelites, the New World was a promised land for English people willing to venture there. His rhapsodic descriptions of the natural surroundings and detailed, admiring portraits of the native population provide the evidence for his claims. Morton’s portrayal of America as a new Eden, however, stands in sharp contrast to that of religious Separatists who viewed the land as a dark wilderness that must be conquered and the indigenous peoples as savages who must be converted or expelled. These diametrically opposed visions competed for dominance in the English imagination for a brief time, however; the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a republican government in England in 1649, followed by the six-year Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, weighed the scales in favor of Morton’s enemies. The Puritans’ view of America came to dominate the narrative of the country’s history: In politics, literature, and ideology, the notion of “the wilderness” and “the frontier” that stood as a barrier to civilization became ingrained in the colonial American psyche.

For more than two centuries, it was these concepts, not Morton’s, that dominated Americans’ sense of national identity. New English Canaan, printed only once in Morton’s lifetime and not again for more than two hundred years, became a curiosity. Not until the twentieth century did scholars begin to take note of the compelling alternative vision Morton presents in his narrative. For modern readers, New English Canaan is a strong statement of the kind of civilization that might have flourished in America, had colonists followed Morton’s principles of engagement and trade rather than the Puritans’ view of suspicion and exploitation of the land and its peoples.

Bibliography
  • Burnham, Michelle. “Inflation: Thomas Morton and Trading-Post Pastoral.” Folded Selves: Colonial New England Writing in the World System. Hanover: Dartmouth College P, 2007. 72–94. Print.
  • ---. “Land, Labor, and Colonial Economics in Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan.Early American Literature 41.3 (2006): 405–28. Print.
  • Cohen, Matt. “Morton’s Maypole and the Indians: Publishing in Early New England.” Book History 5 (2002): 1–18. Print.
  • Colacurcio, Michael J. “A Costly Canaan: Morton and the Margins of American Literature.” Godly Letters: The Literature of the American Puritans. South Bend: Notre Dame UP, 2006. 3–33. Print.
  • Heath, William. “Thomas Morton: From Merry Old England to New England.” Journal of American Studies 41.1 (2007): 135–68. Print.
  • Round, Philip H. By Nature and by Custom Cursed: Transatlantic Civil Discourse and New England Cultural Production, 1620–1660. Hanover: UP of New England, 1999. Print.
  • Shea, Daniel B. “‘Our Professed Old Adversary’: Thomas Morton and the Naming of New England.” Early American Literature 23.1 (1988): 52–69. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Anderson, Douglas. William Bradford’s Books: Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.
  • Cohen, Matt. The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.
  • Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. 1983. New York: Hill, 2003. Print.
  • Griffin, Edward M. “Dancing around the Maypole, Ripping up the Flag: The Merry Mount Caper and Issues in American History and Art.” Renascence 57.3 (2006): 177–202. Print.
  • Klein, Sabine. “Shires and Sachems: Languages of Political Theory in Dutch and English Narratives of Contact.” Early American Literature 43.3 (2008): 535–55. Print.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians & English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000. Print.

Categories: History Content