“Is that the real Plymouth Rock?”

Plymouth Rock (Photo: John O’Neill, image via Wikipedia)

On a recent trip to Plymouth, The Five-Year-Old was unimpressed by Plymouth Rock.  “Mommyo, is that the real Plymouth Rock? It looks real, but only realish.”

Turns out Plymouth Rock has a great deal of traditional weight behind it, but little else. History tells us that the Pilgrims actually landed at Provincetown in Cape Cod in November 1620, and only moved to Plymouth Harbor some weeks later. That alone makes it extremely unlikely that Plymouth Rock is literally the first rock the Pilgrims stepped on when they landed in the New World. Adding insult to injury, as the sign at the Plymouth Rock monument points out, contemporary accounts of the landing say nothing about a rock at Plymouth. Plymouth Rock makes its first appearance in historical accounts of the landing in 1741, some 121 years after the fact.

On the other hand, Plymouth was the Pilgrim’s first permanent settlement in New England. And that is the key point.

Quote from Rose T. Briggs on the significance of the Plymouth Rock, taken from the sign at the monument itself. (Photo: Shala Howell)

When Plymouth’s town leaders decided to build a wharf at the original Pilgrim landing site in 1741, it was only natural that they would consult 94-year-old Thomas Faunce about its location. Although Faunce was not himself a Pilgrim, he was descended from one. Just as importantly, he had served as the town’s record-keeper for most of his adult life and was expected to know these sorts of things.

In fact, Faunce did have something to say on the subject. He led the town leaders to a rock that his father had told him was the first solid ground the Pilgrims had set foot on. I suppose we’ll never know whether Faunce neglected to add the qualifying phrase in Plymouth when he identified the original landing site or whether the town fathers chose to overlook it (Plymouth Rock was a mere 650 feet from town, making it a far more practical spot for the historic Plymouth wharf than the actual landing site in Provincetown would have been).

The Plymouth Rock canopy as it appeared between 1880 (when the upper half of the rock was moved in) and 1920 (when it was replaced with the canopy we see today). (Image via Wikipedia)

However convenient the rock’s original location may have seemed in 1741, by 1774 it was deemed too far from town. So Col. Theophilus Cotton split the rock in two, leaving the bottom half at the wharf and taking the top part to the town’s meetinghouse. The top half of Plymouth Rock rested at the town meetinghouse until 1834, when it was relocated to Pilgrim Hall.

In 1859, the Pilgrim Society decided it would be best to build some sort of canopy over the part of Plymouth Rock that remained at the wharf. The canopy was completed in 1867.

In 1880, the town of Plymouth returned the top half of the rock to the wharf, cementing the two halves of the rock back together and carving the date 1620 into it. (That’s why you can see a join in the rock today.)

When the Plymouth waterfront was redesigned in 1920, the architects moved Plymouth Rock to sea level and replaced the edifice over the rock with the current portico.

The Five-Year-Old: “That rock seems really small, Mommyo.”

That’s because it is. The original Plymouth Rock is thought to have weighed 20,000 pounds. According to the sign at the Plymouth Rock monument, what we see today is a mere third of the original rock. Looting accounts for much of the loss. According to Wikipedia, by 1880 one-third of the top half of Plymouth Rock had been chipped away and sold for souvenirs. Most of the looting happened on the rock’s various trips back and forth through town en route to its current resting place.

Can’t make it to the wharf? You can find other pieces of the rock in Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in New York City’s Brooklyn Heights, and in the Old Patent Building at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C (more commonly known as the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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