Plymouth Rock: A "History Mystery"
A rock, enshrined in a portico, sits on Plymouth’s waterfront. The story says that the rock marks the landing point of the Pilgrims. Millions have traveled to see this rock. And millions have asked “Is this REALLY where the Pilgrims landed?”
The honest answer is “Maybe.”
In the world of history, there are documented facts, there are legends, and there is the vast territory in between called “oral tradition.” It is in this great middle-ground that the story of Plymouth Rock falls.
“Oral tradition” can provide significant information about the past. It must be approached very cautiously, however! Remember the old game of “Telephone”?
Oral traditions, experience proves, inevitably mutate over time. This requires us to scrutinize them very carefully. How long is the gap in time between when the event happened and when it was recorded (the longer the time, the greater opportunity for change)? How dependable are the sources of the story? How specific are the details?
One documented fact – there are no 17th century references to the Pilgrims landing on a rock.
We have two accounts of the 1620 arrival at Plymouth: William Bradford’s history (written between 1630 and 1646) and an almost identical account in the book known as Mourt’s Relation (1622). Bradford placed absolutely no significance on the “first footfall.” And, why should he? This was not the first landing on New England soil – the Pilgrims had earlier stepped onto the Cape and then onto Clark’s Island in Plymouth Harbor.
Not until some 120 years after the landing did the story of “The Rock” first surface. James Thacher wrote in 1835 that a wharf was about to be built over Plymouth Rock as it sat on the shoreline in 1741. This greatly agitated 95-year-old Thomas Faunce, who had been in the habit of taking his children and grandchildren to the Rock and telling them the story as his father had told it to him – that this Rock had “received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival.” Faunce had himself carried from his home, three miles away, down to the shore so that he could pay his last respects to the Rock. A young boy named Ephraim Spooner (thereafter a highly respectable Deacon of the Church and Justice on the Court of Common Pleas) witnessed the event and later described it to James Thacher.
So we have a series of dates: 1620 landing, 1741 when Faunce told the story, another date sometime between 1784 (when Thacher settled in Plymouth) and 1818 (when Spooner died) when Spooner told the story to Thacher, and 1835 when Thacher published the story.
The longest time span, between 1620 and 1741, is easily bridged. Faunce’s father John arrived in Plymouth in 1623 on the Anne. By about 1633, he married Patience Morton; Thomas was born about 1647, the 5 th of their eight children. Not only did Faunce’s parents know almost all of the Pilgrims, he himself would have met many of them. And, when Faunce told the story in 1741, although elderly, he was neither at death’s door nor mentally incapacitated. He lived until 1746 and served, until his death, as Ruling Elder of the Plymouth Church.
During the next “gap,” between 1741 and 1784/1818, Plymouth Rock was very active indeed! As tempers flared throughout the American colonies in the early 1770s, Plymoutheans of the “Patriot persuasion” turned to Plymouth Rock as a symbol of independence. After all, 150 years earlier, their Pilgrim ancestors had geographically and religiously separated from England – political separation seemed the final, logical and correct step! Accordingly, in 1774, Theophilus Cotton assembled the local Sons of Liberty to move the Rock from the waterfront up to Town Square, to sit beneath the Liberty Pole. The first step was to raise the Rock and mount it onto a wheeled carriage. The Rock split in two! The entire top half separated from the base. The Sons of Liberty merrily proclaimed this was an omen favoring their cause and proceeded, using 20 yoke of oxen, to haul the top half of the Rock to Town Square. The bottom half remained embedded in the waterfront in its original position, described by James Thacher as “a few inches above the surface of the earth, at the head of the wharf.”
The Rock’s “Patriotic” connections were recorded in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1775. The Declaration of Independence had not yet been proclaimed but hostilities had broken out between the Colonies and England. A colonial ship, captained by William Coit, intercepted two ships sailing to supply the British forces in Boston and brought them into Plymouth harbor. The Journal reported that “Captain Coit (a humorous genius) made the prisoners land upon the same rock our ancestors first trod when they landed in America, where they gave three cheers, and wished success to American arms.”
While the base of the Rock remained on the waterfront, the top half kept on moving. By 1834, Pilgrim Hall Museum had been built and it seemed a more fitting place for the Rock top to rest. Accordingly, on the 4th of July, a hometown parade brought the Rock down Main/Court Street to the front of the Hall. Local lore says that, during the parade, the Rock was tipped out of its cart, breaking once again and with more pieces being lost. The following year, the Rock was enclosed in an iron fence for additional protection from souvenir-seeking visitors.
Meanwhile, the lower part of the Rock remained embedded in a wharf on Plymouth’s waterfront. The Pilgrim Society, over time, bought the wharf and covered the Rock base with a Classical-inspired canopy.
In 1880, the Society reunited the top half of the Rock (then in front of Pilgrim Hall) with the lower half on the waterfront. This “fitting together” may have resulted in further loss to the Rock. It was at this time that “1620” was engraved on the Rock.
Forty years later, in preparation for the Tercentenary celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, the entire waterfront of Plymouth was redesigned. The care of Plymouth Rock was turned over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the existing McKim, Mead & White portico was built.
The original question, however, remains unanswered. Is this REALLY where the Pilgrims landed? When the ship’s boat pulled near to shore, did the Pilgrims perhaps use the Rock as a stepping stone, avoiding the cold December water? Or was, perhaps, the helmsman of that small boat directed to “Aim for that rock”? Or did the Pilgrims pay any heed to the rock at all? Unless another primary source is found, we can only conjecture.
What we can declare, however, is that this Rock – located on Plymouth’s shore near the foot of “First Street” – marks the spot where something significant happened. We may never know if here the first footfall happened. We do know that here the first settlement began. And, after all, the importance of Plymouth is not that the Pilgrims landed here, it is that the Pilgrims stayed here. Here they built their homes, here they created their Colony, here New England began.
NOTE: If you are fascinated by Plymouth Rock, you can not only go to Plymouth’s waterfront and see the Rock, you can visit Pilgrim Hall and “interact” with a piece of the Rock! Pilgrim Hall has on display in the Main Hall a good-sized piece of granite, broken off during the Rock’s wanderings about town, which we invite our visitors to touch.
Bibliography of sources used:
Peggy Baker was the Director and Librarian for the Pilgrim Society and Pilgrim Hall Museum. Please visit them at 75 Court St., Plymouth or online at www.pilgrimhall.org.
[This article was published in The Compact, v. 30. iss. 3 [Fall 2009]: 1, 4-5.]
Researched and created by Peggy Baker
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Page updated 2 July 2010