In doing primary research on the Pilgrims, I discovered there are no contemporary references to the Pilgrims landing on what is now known at Plymouth Rock. Neither William Bradford’s description of the Pilgrims coming ashore in Plymouth for the first time in 1620 nor the 1622 book called Mourt’s Relation mention any rocks in their accounts. The first written mention of a rock was made in 1715 when it was described in town boundary records as “a great rock.”
The Landing of the Pilgrims, by Henry Bacon, 1877.
Perhaps its identity was transmitted from father to son, because in 1741 Elder Thomas Faunce documented his claim that Plymouth Rock was the landing place of the Pilgrims. He was 95 years old at the time and had to be carried in a chair to the site. The Rock was under the bank of Cole’s Hill, and he assured those present that his father had pointed the Rock out and told him of its importance. Faunce’s father had arrived in the Plymouth colony aboard the ship Anne in 1623 two, years after the Mayflower landing, and Elder Faunce was born in 1647 when many of the Mayflower Pilgrims were still living, so his assertion made a strong impression.
Colonel Theophilus Cotton and the residents of Plymouth decided to move the rock in 1774. In their attempt to relocate it, the Rock split into two parts. The bottom portion was left behind. The top portion was first displayed at the town’s meeting house, then in 1834 moved to Pilgrim Hall (1824), the oldest public museum in the United States in continuous operation.
In the meantime, the Pilgrim Society had a Victorian canopy built over the lower portion of the Rock. It was designed by artist and architect Hammett Billings, who did the original drawings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and completed in 1867. The top of the rock was moved from Pilgrim Hall to rejoin the lower portion in 1880, and at that time the date 1620 was carved into it.
In 1920, the rock was moved yet again so old wharves could be removed and the Plymouth waterfront re-landscaped. The rock was then returned to its original site and placed at water level, so it was tide washed. The original canopy was removed and an imposing Roman Doric portico constructed, designed by McKim, Mead and White, architects for among other buildings, the campus of Columbia University.
It is not surprising that during its many journeys, numerous pieces of the rock were taken, bought and sold. There are pieces in Pilgrim Hall Museum, as well as in the Patent Building in the Smithsonian and a 40-pound piece is set on a pedestal in the cloister of the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Tourist and souvenir hunters chipped away at it in its early days on display. The original rock weighed some 20,000 pounds but only one-third of the top portion is on display under the canopy.
“We have come to this Rock, to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labours; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration for their piety; and our attachment to those principles of civil and religious liberty, which they encountered the dangers of the ocean, the storms of heaven, the violence of savages, disease, exile, and famine, to enjoy and establish.” Daniel Webster, 1820 (the same Daniel Webster that debated the devil at what is called Jabez Corner in Plymouth, in the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet).
Over the centuries, Plymouth Rock has become a national icon and crept into America’s historical consciousness through the imagination of authors, painters, and, yes, politicians, To some it is a symbol of white oppression. I tend to agree with Daniel Webster, especially based on the relationship of the Pilgrims with the local Native Americans. I’ll have more to say on that at a later date.