- Historic Sites
The Pilgrims And The Rock
Did the Fathers in 1620 really land on that famous slab of granite? Through the haze of myth that surround it, a profound truth may be dimly seen
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
That mixed company of forty-one “Saints” and sixtyone “Strangers”∗ had already spent a month ashore, across the bay, before the Plymouth landing. Sixty-five days out of Plymouth, England, the Mayflower made her landfall on the outer edge of Cape Cod near the bluffs of Truro, then headed southward, but turned back fearfully at the sinister turbulence of the Chatham shoals. Next morning, Saturday, November 11, 1620,∗ Captain Christopher Jones rounded the tip of Cape Cod and dropped anchor in what would become known as Provincetown Harbor.
∗ Saints and Strangers: The leaders of the Mayflower group were religious dissenters who called themselves “Saints,” and excluded those who did not follow their strict rules of conduct and thought. They caused much trouble at the Plymouth settlement by imposing their views upon the majority, the “Strangers,” who sought economic opportunity rather than religious salvation in the New World.
∗ The dates given in this article are Old Style, ten days behind the New-Style, Gregorian calendar adopted by Great Britain in 1752.
A small advance party of armed men landed to look for supplies of wood and water, marched several uneventful miles and returned with a boatload of juniper branches to fumigate the Mayflower from the foulness of the voyage. This was the first landing of the Pilgrims in the New World. Prayers confined the company to the ship on the Sabbath, prayers and the Mayflower Compact—a practical document, whatever its later democratic symbolism, drawn up by the Saints at the time to meet the disgruntled challenge of the Strangers. On Monday morning the women were put ashore under guard to wash great bundles of dirty clothes and bedding. Meanwhile the men set to repairing the longboat, or shallop, which had been stored on the upper deck and was much damaged by the buffetings of the voyage; it would be needed for exploring the coast.
The dune-edged landscape in the fading aftermath of autumn offered “a wether-beaten face, and ye whole countrie full of woods & thickets represented a wild & savage heiw.” Yet, Saints and Strangers together knew they must find a place to settle before the winter caught them. When after several days the shallop was still not ready, Captain My les Standish led a party of twenty, including sixteen volunteers armed with musket and corselet, down the beach on the first of a series of “Discoveries,” as they chose to call their explorations. They had marched about a mile when they saw five or six Indians with a dog in the distance. At sight of the whites the Indians whistled to the dog and darted into the woods. Standish and his men with ignorant valor dashed after them. Fortunately the Indians had not prepared an ambush.
The Englishmen spent a night on the sands shivering with cold and tormented by lack of water. The next morning they lost themselves in a tangle of thickets, but managed to regain the beach; following Indian footprints, they discovered a spring and later came across the heaped mounds of an Indian burial ground. On their way back they found more mounds at the base of a hill, and digging into one newly made, uncovered a large basket filled with some bushels of seed corn plus several dozen red, yellow, and blue ears. The hill they called Corn Hill. The ears they carried back with them, reaching the ship at the end of the third day.
Not for another ten days was the shallop ready, and by that time the first snow had fallen. Twenty-four Pilgrims and nine of the Mayflower crew left on the second “Discovery.” Heavy seas soon forced the shallop back. Rather than return, however, the Pilgrims waded ashore in the waist-deep water and huddled overnight in driving snow. In the morning they managed to shoot a few geese. On reaching Corn Hill they dug the rest of the corn from the now-frozen ground with their swords and cutlasses and sent it back by the shallop. Wandering as far as Nauset, they came upon conical Indian huts, opened several nearby graves, and removed “sundrie of the prettiest things” that had been buried with the Indian dead. In one they found the body of a yellow-haired man—possibly a Frenchman who had died in captivity. On their return the whole company debated about making a settlement at Corn Hill. They decided against it because of the shallow harbor and the lack of water.
The third “Discovery” was to bring the initial landing at Plymouth. Although to the Mayflower passengers the land around Massachusetts Bay seemed ominously strange, it was to mariners no terra incognita . As early as 1602 Cape Cod had been named by Bartholomew Gosnold, who commanded the first recorded landing of Englishmen in New England. Samuel de Champlain mapped Plymouth Harbor three years later, as did the Dutchman Adrian Block in 1614. Captain John Smith had ranged the New England coast that same year; his map called the harbor Accomack, a name subsequently altered by Charles I to Plymouth. One of the Mayflower mates, Robert Coppin, who had been with Smith, persuaded the Mayflower company that everything needed for settlement was there—a deep harbor, fresh water, cleared fields, and natural fortifications.