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 greatest accomplishment. 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 nearly 20 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. There have been numerous suggestions and recommendations on improving the waterfront area in time for the commemoration. 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

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

  • Monica Hall

    I am in Connecticut and only because I watched the movie I heard of this for the first time. I am sad about that but so excited to take my children to see it!

  • Christine

    I too did not hear about it until watching the movie. Its pretty sad that we are not made aware of many of history’s treasures. I’m glad that Kirk is making moves to enlighten us with his curiosity and continuing to be such a role model.

  • Mega Oceanus

    I am working with a committee planning the 125th Anniversary of the National Monument to the Forefathers. Loved your article and thank you for educating people about this monument. Our celebration begins on July 31st and ends on August 2, 2014. If you are interested in attending the event go to: http://www.plymrock.org
    Please help spread the word. This is one of the events leading up to our 400th Anniversary!

  • Teresa Jones

    I am so excited to hear about this! I am teaching 5th grade history and this will tie everything together for my students. I am looking forward to introducing this into their education like it is supposed to be done!

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