In this blog post we are going to talk about the history of Plymouth Rock, the mythological stepping stone upon which the Pilgrims first stepped when they landed in the New World. To learn more about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the Indigenous Wampanoag People check out Plymouth Unboxed or Thanksgiving Unboxed downloadable lesson.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about the Mayflower pilgrims landing in New England, I picture them stepping out of their ship and onto on a big rock, looking around and surveying the new world. But, like most mythologies, thats not exactly how it happened. In fact, there was no such thing as Plymouth Rock until 1741! Despite Pilgrims never writing about the rock, it has become a huge part of the mythology surrounding the arrival of the Mayflower and the early beginnings of America. Let’s break the myth down and learn about how and why Plymouth Rock came to be such an important part of the story.
Print of the Pilgrims Arriving at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Print by Currier and Ives, 1876. Collection of the Library of Congress
Plymouth Rock is made from Dedham granite, that geologically speaking is over 600 million years old. It’s located in Plymouth Bay (well part of the Rock is – we’ll get to that later), which is located farther inland than the actual landing place of the Pilgrims, which was on Cape Cod. Its estimated that in 1620 the large slab weighed between 40-200 tons!
The Pilgrims never mentioned the rock in any of their writings, and it doesn’t seem to have really been that important until about 1741, 121 years AFTER the Pilgrims came to New England. When the city of Plymouth made plans to build a wharf which would have covered a big slab in its harbor, a 91-year old man named Thomas Faunce came forward to say that this was the landing space of the Pilgrims and it should not be covered. He was the son of a man who had come over on a ship two or three years after the Mayflower, when many of the Mayflower passengers were still alive, so his story was given great credence, as he insisted that the first Pilgrims had told this to his father. While the Wharf was still built, the stone was left uncovered and became the focal point of many a Pilgrim legend. Because the Pilgrims actually landed first on Cape Cod, currently many historians believe that the Plymouth Rock ascent never actually happened, or at least not as much of a powerful symbol. Regardless, its continues to be revered as a symbol of American fortitude and determination, and many attempts have been made to preserve and protect it.
Plymouth Rock Today
Remember how I said that only PART of Plymouth Rock was located in Plymouth, Massachusetts? Yep, there are pieces of Plymouth Rock all over the United States! Some damage was done by handsy tourists who wanted to bring a piece of American mythology home with them, but most of the damage was done in attempts to move and protect the rock itself. And this rock has been moved ALOT.
The first time the rock was moved was in 1774, in an attempt to move it from the Wharf to the town meeting house, but it cracked in half, which the highly superstitious citizens saw as an omen of the impending separation of the colonies from Great Britain. The bottom half of the rock was left at the Wharf, and the top half brought to the town square. The top portion was moved again in 1864 to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, where it developed even more cracks.
During this time period, citizens, tourists, and of course the weather chipped away at the Wharf stone, and it became necessary to protect it from further damage. A stone canopy, designed by Boston architect Hammett Billings, was completed in 1867 protecting the rock from further damage. It was then that the top half was reunited with the bottom and the iconic ‘1620’ was engraved into it. By 1921, the Wharf was redesigned, and the rock had a new home under a portico designed by McKim, Mead, and White, prominent New York City architects, and could now be viewed at sea level.
But alas, all of the pieces of Plymouth Rock could not be reunited, and there are pieces of it in The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, The Pilgrim Hall Museum, and The Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York, not to mention numerous private collections around the globe.
A few picture books about Plymouth Rock:
Plymouth Rocks!: The Stone-Cold Truth by Jane Yolen
Who’s That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? by Jean Fritz
For more resources check out our blog post from November of 2023 for resources on Indigenous Voices & Traditions, the true story of the first Thanksgiving, and other teaching and learning resources.