- 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
Then in 1769 seven young men of Plymouth’s first families, disconcerted by “the many disadvantages and inconveniences that arise from intermixing with the company at the taverns in this town,” organized the Old Colony Club for genteel association, and voted to commemorate “the landing of our worthy ancestors.” They then decided to observe December 22, the New Style anniversary of the original landing, as Forefathers’ Day.∗ The club never consisted of more than thirteen members, and in that time of gathering crisis the Boston Massacre occurred in March, 1770, only three months after the club’s first meeting—the majority were to take the Tory side.
∗ The date was corrected to December 21 in 1849, changed hack in 1862, was seesawed back and forth several more times, and is now celebrated on the twenty-first.
The first Forefathers’ Day dinner of the Old Colony Club was held at Loyalist Thomas Southworth Howland’s tavern on Cole’s Hill and encompassed nine eopious courses. The day began with a salvo of cannon in front of the club rooms, followed by the raising of “an elegant silk flag with the inscription ‘Old Colony 1620.' ” It closed with the singing of John Dickinson’s popular ode “In Freedom We’re Born” by the boys of the grammar school, an evening of toasts, and a final cannon salvo.
Some time after the Forefathers’ Day celebration had become the talk of Plymouth, Deacon Ephraim Spooncr, churchman and prosperous hardware merchant, revealed to several members of the Old Colonv Club and to posterity the story oi” the ancestral landing on Plymouth Rock. Deacon Spooner had heard it in 1741 from the lips of ninety-five-year-old Thomas Faunce, an Elder of the First Church. Faunce in turn had been told about it by his father, John Faunce, who came over in the Ann in 1623 and who had presumably heard it first-hand. Although Spooner was only six years old at the time Faunce spoke, he had never forgotten, he said, the words and appearance of the venerable elder.
According to Deacon Spooner, plans had been made in 1741 to build a wharf on the waterfront that would cover a large rock at the base of Cole’s Hill. When Elder Faunce heard of this, he had himself carried in a chair three miles to the spot. There, before a large crowd of people, including the six-year-old Ephraim, he pointed out the threatened rock as the very one that his father had assured him had received the footsteps ol the lorefathers as they landed. The old man “bedewed it with his tears and bid to it an everlasting adieu.” Apparently the bedewing had less effect on the builders than it did on Ephraim, for they constructed their wharf as planned, leaving only a small hump of the rock above ground. No one thought more about that encumbering fragment, except for a few cursing carters as they were jolted over it, until the deacon made his revelation a generation later.
As the Revolution loomed up, the members of the Old Colony Club found themselves so divided politically that they disbanded. But the observance of Forefathers’ Day continued, and the legend of Plymouth Rock spread. Edward Winslow marked the rock’s site on a British survey map of Plymouth made in i 774. Eater that year, with the sides now drawn in the coming struggle, the Sons of Eiberty—described by the Winslows as the Sons of Eicentiousness —were the first to appropriate the rock’s burgeoning symbolism. Militia Colonel Thcophilus Cotton and a muster of Eiberty Boys appeared on the wharf on December 22 with a carriage and thirty yoke of oxen, prepared to take the rock away. They dug down and managed to elevate it from its bed with large screws, but as they attempted to move it onto the carriage it split in two. Some of the more patriotic present saw the split as symbolic of the division between England and the colonies— or so they said afterward. Colonel Cotton and his boys then let the bottom section drop back into its bed, where it remained a few inches above the earth. The top segment, weighing four or five tons, they carted to the Town Square and placed it ceremoniously beside a large elm used to support the newly-erected Eiberty Pole which flew their “Eiberty or Death” flag.
Forefathers’ Day was celebrated each year during the war, but then fell out of use and was not observed again until 1793. John Davis, a Plymouth lawyer, composed an ode for that occasion in which the Rock was for the first time celebrated in verse; the term “Pilgrim” was also used that day in a memorial sermon preached by the Reverend Chandler Robbins. Not for another fifty years would the Forefathers become generally known as Pilgrims, although the term did begin to show up often in the poems and songs written for successive anniversaries.
The name derives from a casual remark of Bradford’s in his history. Expressing the regret of the colonists at leaving the city of Lcyden in Holland, he wrote: “But they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie.” Even though Bradford’s manuscript was lost in the Revolution (it turned up in 1844 in the library of the Lord Bishop of London and was not returned to Boston until 1897), extracts from it had been copied down, and this unearthed sentence was undoubtedly the impulse that revived the term, just as it later encouraged Victorian illustrators to roll the Pilgrims’ eyes heavenward.