Keep Yer Distance, Pilgrim

Experiencing extreme social distancing at home on May Day, I was reminded of something I wrote as a journalist that was never published because I could not figure out how to make it topical. It was about the first American Maypole.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Morton, a relocated London barrister, planted it in 1627 on a hill aboveMassachusetts Bay. The festive 80-foot timber flying “a flagg of antlers” was, he wrote, “a faire sea mark for directions to finde the way” to his land, 20 miles from Salem and 30 miles from Plymouth.

Merry Mount, as he named the real estate development, was not popular with the distant neighbors. The problem with Merry Mount was what went on there:  dances with Indians. Morton invited the local Native residents, young women in particular, to join in “Revels and merriment after the old English custome.”

Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth consequently described Morton as “the Lord of Misrule.”  What Morton minimized as “harmless mirth made by younge men,” Bradford abhored as “the beastly practices of the madd Bacchinalians.”  Bradford described Morton’s poetry, affixed to the Maypole, as lascivious and scandalous. And example:

Lasses in beaver coats come away

Ye shall be welcome to us night and day.

Salem Puritans raided the place and chopped down the pole. Plymouth Pilgrims in a legal proceeding found Morton guilty of creating disturbances and trading guns for furs (a practice that would become the norm as the nation-state moved west). He was deported.

He sailed back from London. The Puritans jailed him, mortified him in the stocks, confiscated his land, burned down his house and again returned him. He waged a long legal challenge of the Bay Company charter and wrote “The New English Caanan,” which promoted New England and praised the Christian character of the Indians by contrast with the colonists, whom he called “those moles.”  

Again he sailed back, in 1643, and tried to repossess his land.  The Puritans this time held him in jail for a year without trial, then released him to take refuge in Maine, where he died two years later at age 68.

He was, in the words of Puritan leader John Winthrop, “old  and crazy.”

In my research I found that famous writers had already told the tale. Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1837 published “The Maypole of Merry Mount.” In this story the Puritans chop down the Maypole as usual, then haul away the merrymakers and tie them to serious poles: whipping posts. Puritan leader John Endicott says, “Now shall it be seen that the Lord hath sanctified this wilderness for his peculiar people.” 

Hawthorne adds a wedding ceremony on Merry Mount during which the bride suddenly renounces the merrymakers as people indulging in fantasy as opposed to the solemn reality of marriage. And Hawthorne concludes that the couple by their troth “subjected themselves to earth’s doom of care and sorrow and troubled joy and had no more a home at Merry Mount.”

The Puritan, statue in Springfield, Mass. nps photo

In this context, Bradford in old age lamented that the “sacred bonds and ties” of his colony had been unwound by the “subtle serpent.” Namely, Satan. 

William Carlos Williams tried his hand at the Morton tale in a short essay that reduces the theme to sex without marriage. “This in its simplicity the Puritans lacked spirit to explain,” he wrote. “As Morton laid his hands, roughly perhaps but lovingly, upon the flesh of his Indian consorts, so the Puritans laid theirs with malice, with envy, insanely. . . upon him.”

The insanity culminated in the Salem witch trials 65 years later. In “The Crucible,” playwright Arthur Miller added social contagion, a parable of McCarthyism, to the Salem story. 

Thus I ruminated journalistically on May Day as I sat in social distance from everybody — certainly from the immigrant workers in meat packing houses, the urban transit workers with inadequate protection, the forgotten aged in nursing homes, the poor living in close quarters, the homeless, the huddled masses. “Keeping one’s distance” goes way back as a polite term for discrimination, usually the separation of races, genders or classes of people. The distancing was legalized in American segregation. And every nationalist tyranny outlawed intermarriage. 

So, I thought, social distance is a term with a history that has nothing to do with the pandemic wars and everything to do with the Indian Wars. What would become continental genocide began with the Christian policing of Merry Mount.

One thought on “


Keep Yer Distance, Pilgrim

  1. Larry,
    Thanks for recounting this history. The Puritans may have relocated to avoid religious oppression, but you make clear that toleration was not something they considered a virtue.
    I hope you are doing well.

    Best, Jeff

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