When Boston Was In the Wild West

THE American seaboard no sooner became the frontier of Europe than it became the happy hunting ground of the same varieties of adventurous spirits and of human driftwood that were to follow the frontier for two and a half centuries. Nor was the wild west ever to be wilder or more picturesque then when one of its outposts was at Richmond; when Manhattan Island was a rowdy camp of Indian traders; when honest pioneers and unruly spirits squatted on the shores of Boston Bay; when the earliest of a long line of frontier "bad men" caroused at Merrymount and the Pilgrim Fathers turned vigilantes to drive him out.

To see the American in the making and understand how he was made, watch the frontier. Always it has been the great Americanization school. First it made Europeans into colonials, then colonials into Americans, and next Easterners into Westerners, provincials into nationalists.

It was that first American frontier which tempted to a career of globe trotting the yet rather unadventurous, home-staying English. In the wake of the Mayflower, fishermen and traders set up stations at Nantasket or Hull, at Gloucester and up at Dover and Portsmouth.

Weston's ill-chosen colony had no more than abandoned its huts at Wessagusett in Weymouth than a very different lot of tenants moved in, and their leader was Robert Gorges, son of Sir Ferdinand Gorges, the active spirit in the New England Council, which had obtained a royal grant to everything from the Delaware to the St Lawrence. But one New England Winter sufficed to congeal the ardor of a gentleman adventurer and young courtier like Robert, and again Wessagusett was deserted.

John Bull is among the least gregarious of animals. The Frenchman, when he came to America, preferred to build his house where he could hear his neighbor's fiddle, and the Canadian French still dwell side by side on long, narrow strips of farms that stretch back from the St Lawrence. The Englishman, on the contrary, prided himself on the breadth of his colonial estate, where he might boast that he could not see from his door the smoke of another man's chimney.

It is amazing to contemplate several English families pitching their homes miles apart on the wilderness shore of Boston Bay, with only Indians for neighbors. Those widely scattered people, off shoots of the Wessagusett and Plymouth colonies, were the first settlers of Greater Boston, where they had been living five and six years when the Puritans came to found their colony.

An English thatched roof, where the Mystic flows into Boston harbor and near by Bunker Hill in Charlestown, sheltered Thomas Walford, blacksmith, and his family. Across the river in Chelsea, Samuel Maverick, with his family, held forth like a baron of the marches.

Over on the opposite shore of the harbor, three treeless hill tops thrust themselves into view as they arose from hollows and swamps and blueberry patches. On the sunny slope of one of them, the famous Beacon Hill of Boston, the Rev William Blackstone, a graduate of Cambridge University, kept bachelor's hall and led a life of lettered ease.

Perhaps that reverend gentleman and scholar could see from his door one other English roof. Down on Thompson's Island, David Thompson, fishmonger of London, pursued his business until his untimely death, after which his widow, with her infant son, is believed to have carried on in insular solitude.

On the mainland that fronted the home of the widow Thompson there dwelt a man who was the scandal of all the scattered members of his race; one who did not walk in the straight and narrow way, but chose rather the primrose path of dalliance. This was the self-styled "Thomas Morton of Clifford's Inn, Gent," the "Abbot of Misrule" at Merrymount, in the present city of Quincy.

Capt Wollaston had planted a colony there, but most of his people were indentured servants. These he was selling off in lots to Virginia, when Morton stirred up a mutiny among the bondmen and placed himself at their head.

The pious soul of Gov Bradford of Plymouth presently was horrified by the spectacle of the merrymakers of Merrymount "drinking and dancing around a maypole and frisking together like so many fairies or furies." The fairies were "lassies in beaver coats," as Morton playfully termed the red nymphs who joined his crew in their revels.

How bad a man this pioneer bad man of the American frontier really was it is not easy to decide from the flattering portrait that he drew of himself or from the all-black picture that was painted by his dour censors in Plymouth. He appears to have been a lover of the beauty of New England nature, whose birds and flowers and scenery were first depicted by his pen.

Yet he was something other than a bootlegger of joy in a Puritan land. He was also a bootlegger of liquor and firearms among the Indians, a traffic that put in jeopardy the lives of all his white neighbors.

Although the Pilgrims had no lawful authority over Merrymount, they sent Capt Standish to break up the colony and to repel from their doors this invasion of the world, the flesh and the devil. The Abbot of Misrule scorned him as "Captain Shrimp," but he succumbed to the mailed fist of the generalissimo of Plymouth. And the first undesirable alien to be deported from New England was Thomas Morton of Clifford's Inn, Gent.

Those Englishmen living in many a lonely place on the rim of Boston Harbor were a sign that the colonization of America by the English was no longer an experiment. The Pilgrims had made a path through the waters to the New England shore. The Atlantic was becoming a safe and busy ferry.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 31, 1927, p. 14