With Thanksgiving coming up, I thought back on when I read Nathaniel Philbrick‘s book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. I have to agree with him that the Rock is the most disappointing piece of American tourism I have encountered. I saw it on a road trip I made back in 1971 and it was truly underwhelming. Now that I read the story behind that hunk of Dedham granodiorite glacial erratic, it makes more sense that I felt that way.
It was pretty much legend right from the start that said that the rock at the foot of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts was the one where the Pilgrims landed in 1620. There were plans to build a wharf at the Pilgrim’s landing site in 1741, and a Thomas Faunce (94 years old and the town record keeper) identified the rock that his father said was the first solid land the Pilgrims set foot upon.
Philbrick’s book is also a good read to find out what that first Thanksgiving was really like and why the Pilgrims never called themselves pilgrims.
Actually, the Pilgrims first landed near the site of modern Provincetown in November 1620 and then moved on to Plymouth).
Napoleon Bonaparte said that “History is a set of lies agreed upon” and that’s pretty much true with this historical location.
That initial settlement was built on nearby Leyden Street leading up toward Burial Hill. In 1774, they decided to move the rock and in transporting it in a wagon, it fell off and split into two. They left the bottom half behind at the wharf and relocated the top to the town’s meeting-house.
Over the years, they built a structure to house Plymouth Rock (well, part of it) and eventually added a gate to stop souvenir hunters who had been hacking off parts of it. The upper portion of the rock was also brought back to the wharf and the date “1620” was carved into the rock.
In 1920, the rock was relocated again and the waterfront rebuilt with a waterfront promenade behind a low seawall, in such a way that when the rock was returned to its original site, it would be at water level so that you could see the tide-washed rock.
Parts of the Rock were taken, bought and sold over the years and about one-third of the top portion remains. Today there are pieces in Pilgrim Hall Museum as well as in the Patent Building in the Smithsonian.
With all that, it doesn’t mean the rock is unimportant though. Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchman traveling throughout the United States, wrote in 1835:
“This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. Does this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.”
Other Books by Philbrick