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. A huge granite rock was mentioned as something marking the site where the Pilgrims would land, but not that they would land ON it.
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.