Plymouth Rock: Meaningless Pebble?

Plymouth Rock

Plymouth Rock c. 1895

Answer…No.  Is it the famed spot where the Pilgrims stepped off of the Mayflower? Almost certainly not. But it is something significant nonetheless.

I actually try to avoid the Rock nowadays. I enjoy strolling the waterfront in Plymouth, but I will bypass the Rock if I can. Thing is, I can’t stand hearing the same thing over and over again from disappointed visitors.

Many years ago, I used to give tours downtown. That was good fun. The Pilgrim story is more dramatic than most teachers make it out to be. In school we got the Mayflower Compact, Thanksgiving and that’s about it. There’s so very much more to the story. It’s all there: tragedy, drama, triumph, fear, betrayal. When I gave tours, I enjoyed spinning the whole yarn and telling parts of the tale that usually get ignored. And I think I was fairly good at it, if I do say so. Then we would get to the Rock. As visitors stepped up to the railing, I would take a breath and wait. And then they’d start:

“That’s it?”

“I have bigger rocks in my backyard.”

“I was expecting a cliff.”

“Don’t you think the Pilgrims were surprised to find that it already said 1620 on it?”

“Where’s Pocahontas?”

I didn’t mind the jokes. I really didn’t. There’s no two ways about it, Plymouth Rock is disappointing. But, after a while, the same lines just got…old. People would shake their heads and wonder what the fuss was about. I would tell the story, and some would see it a little differently, but not that many. It’s tough to get over the feeling, when you see it for the first time, that Plymouth Rock may be our most over-rated national landmark. And the cynicism with which people regarded it, while probably justified, just got tiresome for me. Now, years later, whenever I walk by the granite canopy, I still hear the same thing… “That’s it?” And I wince a little bit. Because there’s more to it than what you see. And most visitors don’t know it.

The Pilgrims never mentioned a Rock. At least not in any documents available to us today. Where they first stepped off in Plymouth doesn’t really matter…Provincetown owns that claim anyway. They stopped there first. And when they got to Plymouth Bay, the first place the exploring party washed ashore was Clark’s Island. Whether they stepped on this Rock or not is beside the point. I doubt they did. At least not on that big day of their arrival in December 1620.

The first person to assign any significance to Plymouth Rock was a church Elder, Thomas Faunce. In 1741, Faunce was in his 90s. At the time, there were plans to build a new wharf which would bury Plymouth Rock. This meant nothing to folks at the time. But old Faunce asked to be brought down to the shore so that he could say his farewells to the Rock. Probably more than a bit confused, friends procured a chair, carried the old man to the Rock and a small crowd gathered as he shed tears.

The Rock, Faunce told them, had been the first place the Pilgrims stepped when they arrived in Plymouth.  His father, who came not long after the first settlers and knew them, had told Faunce this story. Those who listened were moved. The wharf was still built, but the Rock was left in place, part of it protruding from the middle of wharf.

In 1776, when symbols of America’s founding were eagerly sought to lend inspiration to the Revolution, the residents of Plymouth turned to the Rock. They determined to lift it from the wharf and drag it to Town Square where it would become a rallying point. When this was attempted, the team of oxen pulled too hard, the boulder broke, and the larger part of it rolled back into place in the wharf. The crowd was horrified, unable to grasp what they had just done. Until Theophilus Cotton, colonel of the local militia, cleverly called out that it was a symbol of our break with England. Satisfied with this good omen, they dragged the smaller part of the Rock up to Town Square.

For several decades, souvenir hunters chipped away at the Rock–some taking rather large pieces. The Rock that Elder Faunce wept over was, it is estimated, about three times the size of the present Rock. After Pilgrim Hall was built in 1820, it was decided to display the Rock in an enclosed fence in front of the museum. Unfortunately, the Rock rolled off the cart as they were transporting it there and broke in half again. This time, they cemented it back together. The seam is still visible. Eventually, the Rock found its way back down to the waterfront where it sits today. Over the years its been the object of reverence, outrage, pranks and jokes.

Thing is, though, symbols are important. There is a marker over the grave of William Bradford, long time Governor of Plymouth Colony. An inscription on the stone reads, Qua patres difficillime adepti sunt nolite turpiter relinquere.  “What our fathers achieved with such difficulty, do not carelessly abandon.” The way I see it, this is just about the most important reason to study history. It provides perspective. Allows us to see that we owe things to people who, over centuries, sacrificed much so that we could have the things we enjoy today. Were we to forget them, we risk abandoning, bit by bit, the things they won for us. Alright, the Rock may not be all that impressive, but it is important. Doesn’t matter who did or didn’t step on it. It serves as a reminder of what they achieved.

One of the first people to tell the Rock’s story in print was Dr. James Thacher who wrote a history of the Town of Plymouth in 1832. His words about the Rock might sound like melodramatic bilge to the modern ear. “Standing on this rock, therefore, we may fancy a magic power ushering us into the presence of our fathers. The hallowed associations which cluster around that precious memorial, inspires sentiments of love of country, and a sacred reverence for its primitive institutions. In contemplation, we may hold communion with celestial spirits, and receive monitions from those who are at rest in their graves. Criminal, indeed, would be our case were we not to cherish…exalted privileges inherited from our pious ancestors, and resolve to transmit them unimpaired to our children.”

Sentimental nonsense? Yes, possibly.  But I’d rather hear that from someone looking at the Rock than, “That’s it?”

6 responses to “Plymouth Rock: Meaningless Pebble?

  • Jessie Richter

    i stinkin’ love your blog. it reminds me of walking around campus, listening to you tell stories about each building- and making every one of them sound fascinating! 🙂 thanks, pal.

    • Historicist

      Thanks so much, Jessie! That means a lot. You know, it makes me feel the same way too. That’s why I started it. I wanted to re-capture that sort of storytelling deal that I used to do. Glad it’s working.

  • Trina Helfrich

    I love stories like this. Ten years ago I joined a group called Boston by Foot and I loved taking tourists on tours in Boston…especially the kids. Grown ups would try and stump me with incorrect or off the mark legends (the Boston Massacre comes to mind). I loved telling the real stories. Great blog Patrick. I am looking forward to reading more!

  • historyunderreview

    This is wonderful! I love the way your blog is written: its like taking a US history book but ripping out all the boring nonsense and instead filling with snippets of cool facts! I very much enjoyed this article and will admit that I both had a nice chuckle and I learned something new.

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