- 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
The winter of 1620 was a mild one—the settlers suffered more from damp than cold—but it began with a cruelly frigid spell. When on December 6 the shallop set off across Cape Cod Bay with eighteen men, it was so cold in the open boat that two of them fainted before they reached what is now Wellfleet Harbor. “It frose so hard,” Bradford wrote, “ye sprea of ye sea lighting on their coats, they were as if they had been glased.” Ten Saints went along, among them William Bradford and Edward Winslow. The others included Captain Jones, first mate John Clarke, Standish, and Coppin as pilot.
They sailed south past Corn Hill and swung around a sandy point into Wellfleet Harbor. Landing, they spent an uneasy night on the beach behind a “barricado” of logs and branches, for Indians had been seen in the distance. Next day they roamed the woods, found another burial ground, and returned to build a second barricado farther up the beach; that night was troubled by one “hideous & great crie.”
In the morning while some of the party were eating breakfast around the fire and others had begun to carry their gear to the shallop, a band of thirty to fifty Indians suddenly attacked, lacing the barricado with arrows. Standish was one of the first to fire back at the yelping, painted figures. “Woach! Woach! Ha! Ha! Hach! Woach!” Bradford recorded their war cry. The thundering blunderbusses frightened off the attackers.
There was a sprinkling of sunshine when the shallop pushed off across the bay, but within two hours a snow squall blew up, whipping the glaucous water to foam. Before long, the rudder broke, leaving two men to steer as best they could with oars. The brief afternoon was fading as Coppin made out the encouragingly familiar outline of the thin sandspit that almost surrounded the harbor of Plymouth. The crew pressed on more sail. The mast strained, then finally broke in three pieces. Somehow they managed to cut it away without capsizing, and the wild sea bore them along. The closer the land loomed, the less familiar it looked to Coppin. As they neared the narrow channel at the tip of the spit, he lost his nerve, crying out that his eyes had never seen the place before. The day was saved by a lusty seaman who stuck to his oar and “bade those which rowed, if they were men, about with her, or else they were all cast away.”
In the growing darkness they managed to get under the lee of a wooded shore. Remembering the “Woach! Woach!” of the night before, they stuck to the shallop until the cold grew so unbearable that Mate Clarke and several of the boldest finally landed and kindled a fire. The others soon followed. Next morning they found they were on an island—known ever after as Clark’s Island—which lay about three miles northeast of Plymouth Rock. The cold spell had broken and the day, a Saturday, was fair. They prepared to keep the Sabbath.
Bradford gives an unembroidered account of the legend-embroidered landing of December 11, supposedly on Plymouth Rock: On Munday they sounded ye harbor and found it fitt for shipping; and marched into ye land, & found diverse cornfields, & little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fitt for situation. At least it was ye best they could find, and ye season, & their presente necessitie, made them glad to accepte of it. So they returned to their shippe again with this news to ye rest of their people, which did much comforte their harts.
Nothing about any landing on any rock. On December 15, the Mayflower weighed anchor and sailed across the bay. After some difficulties with an adverse wind, she slipped between the sandspits and dropped anchor beyond Clark’s Island. On December 18 a landing party under Captain Jones went ashore to explore the country further and to determine on a place of settlement. Where they landed is unknown, but it was probably just within the mouth of the Town Brook.
By Christmas Day (which they did not celebrate, regarding it as a wanton papist holiday), the newcomers were shuttling back and forth between the ship and the shore, and had begun to construct the first mud-and-wattle shelters of what would be the town of Plymouth. The misery of that winter with its alternations of rain and snow left half the company in their graves before the belated New World spring arrived. Years of hunger, frustration, and tragedy were to follow until the survivors could be certain that the Plymouth colony would endure. Such carking years gave the settlers little time or desire to concern themselves with the past when the present still snuffled like a wolf at the door. To have landed and to have endured was enough. Who landed where was of interest to almost no one.
As each early communal settlement gives way to gradations of wealth, the more firmly established inhabitants have the leisure to turn to genealogy and the rediscovery of the past. By the middle of the eighteenth century Plymouth’s Old Colony was long since absorbed by Massachusetts, and Plymouth itself had become no more than a quiet county seat. Families like the Winslows and the Bradfords had managed to achieve assured wealth on their outlying estates, but history had moved on to Boston. Not for a century and a hall did the descendants of Plymouth’s settlers begin to cast a retrospective eye on their ancestors.