Forefathers Monument in Plymouth, an Overlooked Colossus

You would think such a colossal monument would be impossible to miss. But think again.

Plymouth, Massachusetts boasts the largest, free-standing, granite monument in the world. A beautiful work which will, I guarantee, take your breath the moment it comes into view. Unfortunately, the monument is now virtually hidden and I am always surprised by how few in this region even know that it exists. Yes, the tour buses go up that hill, park, and the tourists pour out to snap pictures. It is ironic. I’d bet that more people from Wisconsin and Iowa and Kentucky see the monument each year than people from the South Shore of Massachusetts.

The National Monument to the Forefathers, dedicated to the settlers most commonly known as “Pilgrims,” was built through the efforts of the Pilgrim Society. When the organization was founded in 1820, the construction of such a monument was one of their primary goals. The cornerstone was laid in 1859 and the 81 foot tall monument was completed in 1889. It features a central figure, 36 feet tall, representing Faith, with four seated statues surrounding her representing Education, Law, Morality and Freedom. There are a number of smaller figures shown in relief around the base representing various other virtues as well as depictions of the Pilgrims and their journey.

The monument was designed by artist and architect Hammatt Billings (1818-1874) of Milton, Massachusetts. He created some beautiful buildings and monuments including the old Boston Museum (now gone), the original monumental canopy over Plymouth Rock (which I think was far more handsome than the one there now), Concord’s Civil War monument, and a number of fine Victorian mansions across New England. He also created a number of illustrations for books and magazines…the cover of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, for instance, might just be his most viewed work…but not exactly one that anyone really stops to think about.

The Forefathers Monument is generally cited as his best work. And it is stunning. It sits atop a hill almost a mile from the Plymouth waterfront. And here’s the rub…At the time, the location made sense, I’m sure. The landscape of Plymouth (virtually all of New England for that matter) was practically treeless. Sitting atop a decent sized hill and towering to 81 feet, the monument must have been visible for miles around. Another key advantage of its location: the old railroad line into downtown Plymouth (now gone) ran very near the base of that hill. I’m sure the tourists coming down from Boston in the late 19th century had an absolutely grand view of the Forefathers Monument. What a majestic welcome for visitors to Plymouth!

Today, trees have grown up everywhere. Beautiful vistas used to abound along the South Shore. Now trees grow like massive weeds. Before anyone gets offended, I’m not suggesting we clear cut our landscape again. But a little strategic protection of visibility and views in certain places is seriously wanting.

The Forefathers Monument is virtually invisible due to the growth of trees (not to mention the addition of many buildings downtown). There are very, very few points in Plymouth from which you can actually catch a glimpse of it. If you actually know where it is and you drive to it, the monument is not visible until you are almost on top of it. And I promise you, when you see it for the first time, it is a surreal sort of shock. Everyone I’ve ever brought says something to the effect of, “How can something so huge be so hidden?!”

The same thing is happening to the Myles Standish Monument in Duxbury. It was once prominent from any point along Plymouth Bay. But over the past 15 years I’ve watched the pines grow taller and taller until, from some vantage points, only Myles’s hat is visible. This is not what the creators of these monuments envisioned.

Plymouth’s 400 anniversary is coming up in 2020. I have read a bit about some proposals to make improvements to the Plymouth waterfront in time for the anniversary. One idea that was suggested and never gained traction was the notion of moving the Forefathers Monument down to a place near the water’s edge. Clearly, this undertaking would be unfeasible. Cost aside, there would be no place to put the monument and its scale would be utterly out of context down on the waterfront.

…However, just from a theoretical perspective, it’s an intriguing image to ponder…”Faith” towering over the Plymouth piers, like a modern-day Colossus of Rhodes.

[Sources: James W. Baker, A Guide to Historic Plymouth, (2008), p. 114; Alfred Stevens Burbank, Guide to Historic Plymouth, (1900), p. 7-11.]

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

38 responses to “Forefathers Monument in Plymouth, an Overlooked Colossus

  • Anonymous

    Amen! Absolute best history of this monument, Outside of visiting I’m sure. GOD BLESS AMERICA

  • Rosalind Squire

    Oh what a amazing monument…all of America should know about this. I did not learn of this in school how did the text books miss this? We must open our mouths as Christians as fight to continue the cause of Freedom, it is not Free.

  • Brigitte

    The movie Monumental features this monument along with our real neglected history. A must see movie.

  • Cheryl Dvorak

    My parents paid a lot of money for my education yet I hear about this historical treasure from another passenger on my bus. I just ordered Kirk Cameron’s movie Monumental from the Cleveland Public Library and am anxious to view this DVD. Mr. or Ms. Secretary of Education — why is this not in our American history books? I’m in my 60′s and just hearing about this for the first time but as they say better late than never.

    Cheryl/Cleveland Ohio

  • Anonymous

    It all makes sense really, Faith should be huge in our lives but so hard to find these days-in our government and in ourselves. Sharon\Norfolk

  • Anna-Marie Lockard

    What a remarkable monument. So very sad that it was not included in any of our history books. I am a college professor and I teach history! Yet, I have never learned of this outstanding monument. God bless America and may we all return to its fundamental values or morality and justice.
    Dr. Ann Lockard

  • cherilyn Hostetler

    this is amazing, can I buy a poster with this monument on it?
    Cherilyn –

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  • Karen Dempsey

    Yes, if it wasn’t for Kirk Cameron’s “Monumental” video we would not have heard of this monument. Now our kids and grandkids all want to go and visit.

  • Gary Souza

    When I saw it for the first time last year after viewing the monumental video I had shivers throughout my body. To think that it wasn’t an integral part of our education here in MA, and surly it could have been one of the numerous field trips we went on is astonishing to me. Since learning of this, my thirst for more knowledge on this and all related subjects is in exhaustible.

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