Forefathers Monument in Plymouth, an Overlooked Colossus

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

[Update 2014: In the years since I wrote this article there has, happily, been a resurgence in interest in the Forefathers Monument. And there have been steadfast proponents advocating its preservation for decades. But the strange phenomenon I discussed here remains true…so very many residents of the area are completely unaware that this colossal achievement exists. Sadly, it’s a pattern all too common with historic sites, but this may be, literally, the largest example of that phenomenon.]

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 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.

The case of the Standish monument would be easier to remedy as the entire hill is owned by the Commonwealth and trees could certainly be cut back to improve visibility. This is not the case with the Forefather’s monument which sits on a relatively small state-owned parcel and is otherwise surrounded by private property. So, it seems likely that the monument will remain an obscure colossus.

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

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

  • Tom Hill

    I know this may be sacrilegious in some folks eyes but instead of going to the cost of moving the monument why don’t you just cut a few trees so it can be visible. I’m not saying clear cut but at least around the monument so that you could see it. Trees are renewable resource the reason you can’t see the monument is because they grow back!

  • Karen Browne Pilgrim

    When I was a little girl is the 1950’s traveling to the Cape for vacation with my family, I can remember seeing the monument from route 3. We visited Plymouth about 10 years ago. We had to follow signs to get to the monument because of all the tall trees blocking its view. It truly IS a beautiful monument!

  • Brandi Colton

    I’m gonna start saving for the anniversary. I want my children and grandchildren to see this.

  • Torch

    Our tour bus driver (Boston to Cape Cod) took us to the Monument as an unplanned event. I had lived in Massachusetts between 82 to 93 and had no idea such a magnificent piece of our history was there.

  • Clara

    Thank you for this! I plan on visiting soon!!!

  • Ceretta Bridges

    My children’s high school takes a trip from Oklahoma to Plymouth to see this monument every year. (Senior Trip) Its a hidden gem.

  • Pete Davison

    We got there yesterday Oct 11, 2017, we were in awe and felt honored to personally see this with our own eyes. The messages of faith and courage are inspiring, encourage folks to make the trip, we came via RV from Northern California what a privilege.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve lived in Mass all my life, been time Plymouth many times . I saw this for the first time today! It was awesome, how can it be so hidden?

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