Everyone who has been through an American public school knows the story of Plymouth Rock, the legendary first piece of dry land the Pilgrims stepped on after their long and arduous Mayflower journey across the Atlantic. As the place where our first English immigrants encountered and stood on the area that would become part of New England, the rock is a famous artifact on its own. You can even see it today in Plymouth, as it is a major tourist attraction for the town. But, the Mayflower landed in 1620. After 396 years, how can we be sure that the rock on display in Plymouth is the actual one upon which the Pilgrims first stood?
Here’s what you need to know about the history of Plymouth Rock.
If you’ve ever seen Plymouth Rock, you know it’s much smaller than you imagined before you visited it. Most first time visitors have a “That’s it?” reaction to first viewing the rock. While the rock has had pieces chipped off of it over the centuries by souvenir seekers, and was broken in half and cemented back together at one point, it was never a large rock in the first place. If you are expecting something large and dramatic at Plymouth, be prepared to be underwhelmed. There are far more intriguing and beautiful historic sites in town; still, a visit to Plymouth means a look at the famous rock will naturally be a “must do” on your list of activities.
It’s easy to imagine the supposed birthstone of America to be a giant, when, in fact, it is barely even a small boulder. It is really just a large rock. But, when you take its history into consideration, it is amazing the rock is there for visitors to view today at all.
First of all, none of the Mayflower passengers made any written reference to stepping on a particular rock upon landing on American shores. In fact, the Pilgrims’ first landing place in the New World wasn’t Plymouth at all, but the tip of Cape Cod, where they stayed anchored in the harbor while doing a few land expeditions for a month before sailing to Plymouth.
It was over a century later, in 1741, that a boulder weighing ten tons located in Plymouth Harbor was announced as the location where the first Pilgrim feet stood in America. The person who made this announcement was Thomas Faunce, who was 94 years old at the time. Faunce’s father came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, in 1623. Faunce claimed his father told him some of the original Mayflower passengers showed him the boulder and promised it was the exact spot where they landed. A wharf was going to be built over the boulder, and Faunce, who had grown up hearing the story of the boulder from his father, wanted to take a last look at it. Friends and neighbors carried him by chair the three miles from his house to the boulder, and he cried when he saw it.
It isn’t known whether this is accurate oral history, something Faunce made up, something his aging mind convinced him was true, or a re-telling of a tall tale made up by his father or one of the actual original Pilgrims. Because the identification of the boulder was supposedly made by original Pilgrims, it leans toward truth, but the fact is that no one knows for sure if Plymouth Rock is really the original location of the first Pilgrim steps in the New World.
Those who heard Fauce’s tale certainly believed it, and Plymouth Rock became a popular and revered local monument. By the time of the American Revolution thirty years later, it became mythologized by the most enthusiastic patriots in town. The townspeople tried to move the boulder from the harbor to a “liberty pole” they built in front of the town’s meetinghouse. In trying to move it, they broke it in half; the bottom half was left in the harbor along the shoreline in its original location, while the top portion was moved into town.
On the 58th anniversary of American independence on July 4, 1834, the rock was moved again, a few blocks away to the front of the Pilgrim Hall Museum. Just like the first time it was moved, it broke, falling off the cart it was being transported on and breaking in half. Souvenir seekers almost immediately set upon the half in the street with hammers and chisels to get a piece of early American history.
In the 1860’s, the portion of the rock that was left in the harbor was given attention, with a canopy being built to cover it. The rock had to be chiseled to a smaller size to fit the new monument, however. Several years later, it was revealed that a 400 pound piece of the shoreline rock that was carved off to fit the canopy monument was being used as a doorstep on a historic house in town. A piece of it was donated to the Pilgrim Hall Museum in the 1980’s, and visitors are encouraged to touch it.
In 1880, the top half of the rock that had sat in town for over a century was returned to its bottom half in the harbor and cemented back together. The date of the Pilgrims’ arrival, 1620, was carved into the stone, which replaced numbers that had previously been painted on it.
In 1920, which was the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims, the current location of Plymouth Rock was established, with a Romanesque temple over it in town. Because of all the moves, breaks, whittling, and chipping from souvenir seekers, the rock that graces this monument is only about a third, or possibly half, of the size of the original, and only a third of that is visible, with the rest being under the sand at the bottom of the monument. That is why the rock you see today looks so small. Yet, it remains one of New England’s most popular attractions, with over a million visitors each year to this enduring piece of Americana.