Plymouth Rock, inscribed with 1620, the year of the Pilgrims' landing in the Mayflower
|NRHP Reference #||70000680|
|Added to NRHP||July 1, 1970|
Plymouth Rock is the traditional site of disembarkation of William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620. It is an important symbol in American history. There are no contemporaneous references to the Pilgrims' landing on a rock at Plymouth, and it is not referred to in Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (1620–21) or in Bradford's journal Of Plymouth Plantation (1620–47). The first known written reference to the rock's existence is in 1715, when it is described in the town boundary records as "a great rock." The first written reference to Pilgrims landing on a rock is found 121 years after they landed, in 1741. A rock traditionally identified as Plymouth Rock, weighing an estimated 20,000 pounds (9,100 kg) in its original form, has long been memorialized on the shore of Plymouth Harbor in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
History of Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock is geologically classified as a Dedham Granite granodiorite boulder and a glacial erratic. It had lain at the foot of Cole's Hill from generation to generation until the century after the Pilgrims' landing in 1620. In 1741, the residents of Plymouth began plans to build a wharf at the Pilgrims' landing site. A 94 year-old elder of the church named Thomas Faunce, then living three miles from the spot, declared that he knew the precise boulder on which the Mayflower pilgrims first stepped when disembarking. The standard story is recounted in the 1897 book The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers:
The real Plymouth Rock was a boulder about fifteen feet long and three feet wide which lay with its point to the east, thus forming a convenient pier for boats to land during certain hours of tide. This rock is authenticated as the pilgrims' landing place by the testimony of Elder Faunce who in 1741 at the age of ninety-five was carried in a chair to the rock, that he might pass down to posterity the testimony of pilgrims whom he had personally known on this important matter.
Faunce's father had arrived at the colony aboard the Anne in 1623, more than two years after the Mayflower landing, and Elder Faunce himself was born in 1647. But Faunce insisted that his father and several of the original Mayflower passengers had identified the precise rock to him when he was a youth. He was brought to the shore in a chair in 1741, in the presence of most of the town, and he reportedly began weeping at what he was sure would be his last sight of the rock, which he identified. The rock was not moved from the shore until 1774.
There have been doubts hinted about the accuracy of Faunce's identification, in view of his age and the dates of the landing and his birth, but there is no doubt that he grew up in Plymouth at a time when many of the original passengers were still there. The Pilgrims first landed, however, near the site of modern Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod in November 1620 before moving to Plymouth. The rock is located about 650 feet (200 m) from where it is generally accepted that the initial settlement was built, on nearby Leyden Street leading up toward Burial Hill.
The one thing the Pilgrims certainly did not do was step ashore on Plymouth Rock. Quite apart from the consideration that it may have stood well above the high-water mark in 1620, no prudent mariner would try to bring a ship alongside a boulder on a heaving December sea when a sheltered inlet beckoned from near by.— Bill Bryson, Made in America
Col. Theophilus Cotton (son of Josiah Cotton, a Plymouth magistrate) and the townspeople of Plymouth decided to move the rock in 1774. It was split into two parts, with the bottom portion left behind at the wharf and the top portion relocated to the town's meeting house.
Captain William Coit wrote in the Pennsylvania Journal of November 29, 1775 that he brought captive British sailors ashore "upon the same rock our ancestors first trod."
The upper portion of the rock was relocated from Plymouth's meetinghouse to Pilgrim Hall in 1834. In 1859, the Pilgrim Society began building a Victorian canopy designed by Hammett Billings at the wharf over the lower portion of the rock, which was completed in 1867. The top of the rock was moved from Pilgrim Hall back to its original wharf location in 1880 and rejoined to the lower portion, and the date "1620" was carved into it.
In 1920, the rock was temporarily relocated so that the old wharves could be removed and the waterfront re-landscaped to a design by noted landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, with a waterfront promenade behind a low seawall in such a way that, when the rock was returned to its original site, it would be at water level. The care of the rock was turned over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a new very sober Roman Doric portico was constructed, designed by McKim, Mead and White for viewing the tide-washed rock protected by gratings.
During the rock's many journeys throughout the town of Plymouth, numerous pieces were taken, bought, and sold. Today approximately 1⁄3 of the top portion remains. It is estimated that the original Rock weighed 20,000 lb (9,100 kg). Some documents indicate that tourists or souvenir hunters chipped it down, although no pieces have been noticeably removed since 1880. Today there are pieces in Pilgrim Hall Museum, as well as in the Patent Building in the Smithsonian. In 1835, French author Alexis De Tocqueville wrote:
This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. Does this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.
A 40-pound (18 kg) piece of the Rock is set on a pedestal in the cloister of historic Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, New York. The church was formed by a merger of Plymouth Church and Church of the Pilgrims and was originally pastored by Henry Ward Beecher, father of author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Cole Porter makes a comic allusion to Plymouth Rock in the title song of the 1934 musical Anything Goes, imagining that, if Puritans were to object to "shocking" modern mores, instead "of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them." Malcolm X repeated the imagery in a speech on black nationalism: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us."
Plymouth Rock has figured prominently in American Indian politics in the United States, particularly as a symbol of wars starting with King Philip's War (1675-78), known as the First Indian War. It has been ceremoniously buried twice by Indian rights activists, once in 1970 and again in 1995, as part of National Day of Mourning protests.
Today, Plymouth Rock is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as part of Pilgrim Memorial State Park. From the end of May to Thanksgiving Day, Pilgrim Memorial is staffed by park interpreters who inform visitors of the history of Plymouth Rock and answer questions.
- National Park Service (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- "Plymouth Rock". Pilgrim Hall Museum. 2005-05-18. Retrieved 2012-02-16.
- Francis Russell (October 1962). "The Pilgrims And The Rock". . 13 (6).
- Parr, James L. (2009). Dedham: Historic and Heroic Tales From Shiretown. The History Press. ISBN 978-1-59629-750-0.
- James Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth (2nd ed., 1835, Boston) pp. 29–30; John D. Seelye, Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (1998, Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press) p. 34; S.H. Gay, "When Did the Pilgrim Fathers Land at Plymouth?" Atlantic Monthly, November 1882, pp. 616–617.
- Edward Arber (ed), The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1606–1623, (London, Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1897), p. 429.
- John D. Seelye, Memory's nation: the place of Plymouth Rock, (UNC Press, 1998) https://books.google.com/books?id=ByS-oCs6nnAC&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Bill Bryson (1998). Made In America. Black Swan. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-552-99805-5.
- Monroe, James; Wicander, Reed (19 July 2011). The Changing Earth: Exploring Geology and Evolution. Cengage Learning. p. 100. ISBN 1-133-71551-6.
- Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America: in relation to political institutions, (E. Walker, 1850) pg.31 
- Bell, Charles W. (July 25, 1998). "Rock-Solid Church's 12M". New York Daily News.
- "OAAU Founding Rally – Malcolm X". Panafricanperspective.com. Retrieved 2012-02-16.
- "Native People bury racist rock". Hartford-hwp.com. Retrieved 2012-02-16.
- Arner, Robert, “Plymouth Rock Revisited: The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers”, Journal of American Culture 6, no. 4, Winter 1983, pp. 25–35.
- Davis, Samuel, “Notes on Plymouth”, Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, vol. 3, 2nd ser., 1815.
- McPhee, John, “Travels of the Rock”, The New Yorker, February 26, 1990, pp. 108–117.
- Russell, Francis, “The Pilgrims and the Rock”, American Heritage 13, no. 6, October 1962, pp. 48–55.
- Seelye, John, Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock, Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998
- U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Plymouth Rock
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