The Pilgrims And The Rock


Above the rush of wind and water could be heard their hymns of praise as they sprang from the shallop onto the rock, the stern-faced men in wide-brimmed pot hats, the women modestly poised between this world and the next. So the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth seemed to generations of American schoolchildren nurtured on Felicia Hemans’ poem with its later visual embodiments in the paintings of Henry Sargent and Peter F. Rothermel. Even after World War I, when I attended the Tileston School in Mattapan, a small suburb of Boston, a steel engraving of Rothermel’s Landing of the Pilgrims still hung in the assembly hall. The men wore full-dress Pilgrim uniforms with flowing black capes; the women decorously kept their trailing voluminous skirts under control despite the near-tempest. Their eyes either rolled toward heaven or glanced meekly down at Mother Earth. Never did they stare at the profane space between. As soon as they stepped ashore they knelt in prayer, within a few feet of the landing rock, indifferent to any seventh wave. This upward fixation of the eyes gave a walruslike aspect to many of the males, particularly the bald elders. But at the Tileston School we never doubted the accuracy of the portrait.

In Miss Kelley’s fifth grade we still memorized Mrs. Hemans’ poem, declaiming separately and then in unison:

The breaking waves dashed high On a stern and rock-bound coast, And the woods, against a stormy sky, Their giant branches toss’d; And the heavy night hung dark The hills and waters o’er, When a band of exiles moor’d their bark On the wild New England shore.… Aye, call it holy ground, The soil where first they trod! They have left unstain’d what there they found— Freedom to worship God!

I wondered a little about the “stern and rock-bound coast,” for Plymouth was only forty miles away, and I knew that the shore there was flat and sandy. But that the Mayflower was not a bark, that the “soil where first they trod” was really where fourth they trod, were facts much too esoteric to have reached us. Mrs. Hemans’ insistent imagery became lodged permanently in our minds. Whatever I may have learned since, my immediate mental picture of the landing is still the Rothermel one.

When the pious and imaginative Mrs. Hemans wrote her Pilgrim poem in 1826 in Rhyllon, Wales, she knew almost myth that surrounds it, a profound truth may be dimly seen nothing about America. The Rhyllon grocer happened to deliver a few purchases to her wrapped in an old newspaper which somehow turned out to have been printed in Boston, Massachusetts. While she was unwrapping her groceries she noticed an account of the 1824 celebration of Forefathers’ Day in Plymouth. Until then she had never heard of the forefathers, but, inspired by the crumpled paragraphs, she sat down and composed her verses. Before her poem appeared, the landing of the Pilgrims was scarcely more than a local New England tradition. She expanded it across the English-speaking world, makinsr the landing a national myth.

The subsequent pervasiveness of the myth is the more curious in that from 1620 until 1769 almost no one in Plymouth paid any attention to it. Those obscure dissenters who disembarked from the Mayflower —they called themselves “Saints” and did not come to be known as Pilgrims until the nineteenth century—were too preoccupied by the harsh conditions of their arrival to see anything symbolic in their landing. Governor William Bradford in writing his history Of Plimouth Plantation ten years afterward never referred to the Mayflower by name but merely as “the Ship.” Nor does any contemporary account mention a landing on a rock. The first time Plymouth Rock’s existence is recorded is in 1715, when it is described in the town boundary records as “a great rock.”

Whether or not the Pilgrims actually landed on Plymouth Rock cannot be finally proved one way or the other. It is possible that they did, but much more likely that they did not. Certainly they must have noticed the ten-ton boulder as they approached land. That granite egg laid by the glacier was the most conspicuous object on the flat, curved shore line, a seamark for any helmsman. But even if it lay low enough in the water—and it seems more probable that it then stood above the hightide mark—it is hard to imagine the helmsman on that bleak, brawling December day taking the risk of battering his craft against it when the wide sheltering inlet of a brook lay only a hundred yards or so beyond. A spot just inside the mouth of the brook—later known as the Town Brook—became the first general landing place, and here a pier was soon built. Plymouth’s first street (now Leyden Street) was laid out along the brook’s north bank.