- 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
Carried along on the new tide of national feeling, the legend of the Rock spread throughout New England. Timothy Dwight, President of Yale, visited Plymouth in 1800, announcing with more emotion than accuracy: No New Engl…nder who is willing to indulge his native feelings, can stand upon the rock where our ancestors set the first foot after their arrival on the American shore, without experiencing emotions very different from those which arc excited by any common object of the same nature.
Two years later the Forefathers’ Day address was delivered by no less than John Quincy Adams. But the most imposing celebration came in 1820. For this twohundredth anniversary, John Watson, one of the few prewar celebrants still living near Plymouth, emerged from his Tory obscurity to organize the Pilgrim Society. A much less exclusive organization than the Old Colony Club, the society opened its membership to everyone with ten dollars “interested in perpetuating the fame of the Forefathers.” As an additional honor for the bicentennial Forefathers’ Day, a brightly uniformed independent company, the Standish Guards, was organized. Daniel Webster, then at the threshold of his career, appeared resplendcntly as the principal speaker. Wearing knee breeches, enveloped in a silk gown whose resemblance to a toga was not altogether accidental, and flanked by the Standish Guards, he spoke in front of the rock fragment in the Town Square. For two hours he held forth in ringing Ciceronian periods “full of the farina of thought and feeling,” according to a local newspaper, delving rather elaborately into all the symbolic meaning of Plymouth Rock. With this celebration the landing of the Pilgrims began to assume a national significance, a significance that Mrs. Hemans would confirm, strengthen, and expand in rhyme six years later.
Unfortunately, as Plymouth Rock increased in fame, it began to decrease in size under the hands of souvenir hunters. Plymouth shops were offering pieces the size of an egg for $i .50, guaranteed to “take a very fine polish.” De Tocqueville on his travels noted fragments of the relic in several towns. Finally, on July 4, 1834, what remained of the Rock’s upper section was taken from the Town Square and placed in front of the Doric portico of the recently erected Pilgrim Hall. Preceded by schoolchildren and followed by a model of the Mayflower , the Rock was carried on a decorated tipcart escorted by the Plymouth Band and the Standish Guards. As the procession was passing the courthouse a linchpin worked out of the cart and the Rock tumbled into the street, breaking into the two pieces so familiar in their cemented state. A year later this portion of the Rock was enclosed by a five-foot-high elliptical fence, the pickets of which were made up alternately of wrought-iron harpoons and boat hooks. The hammered granite base was studded with symbolic scallop shells, and the numerals 1620 were painted on the Rock. Meanwhile the stump on Hedge’s Wharf continued to bear the burden of passing wheels. Sometimes, when visitors asked to see it, a clerk would come out of Phineas Wells’ adjacent warehouse and brush it off.
In 1859 the Pilgrim Society bought the upper end of the wharf, tore down the warehouse, and laid the cornerstone of a “monumental canopy,” designed by Hammatt Billings, over the much-abused base. Its construction was interrupted by the Civil War and finally completed in 1867. Soon after its erection the intrepidity of souvenir hunters forced the addition of iron gates.
For casual visitors to Plymouth it was always a little perplexing to find two Plymouth Rocks, each in a separate enclosure. To end this confusion the Pilgrim Society in 1880 moved the upper section from its metal cage and united it with the stump under the Billings canopy. The Rock, as many noted, was still eight or ten feet above the high-tide mark, but at least it was all in one place. At this time the date, 1620, was carved into the stone to replace the painted numerals.
During the next forty years Plymouth Rock remained secure and unaltered under its baldachin. In 1883 the Pilgrim Society bought the rest of the wharf, leveled the remaining warehouses, and fitted the lower wharf end as a steamboat landing. Then, in 1920, amidst tremendous preparations for the three-hundredth anniversary of the Landing of the Pilgrims, the wharf was removed, the waterfront re-landscaped, and the canopy torn down.
The Tercentenary Celebration opened on Forefathers’ Day, 1920, with an issue of commemorative U.S. stamps. At Plymouth, Governor Calvin Coolidge, the Vice President-elect, made a short address in his appropriately old-fashioned style. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was the principal speaker. The following week two steam shovels dug around the Rock, which was then wrapped in lengths of chain and hoisted out of its bed. The three sections promptly came apart. They were set aside while the site was excavated down to sea level. A month later the base was replaced, some ten feet lower, and the more familiar upper segment cemented to it. With Plymouth Rock at last located where it could be lapped twice a day by the high tide, a white granite Grecian temple, designed by McKim, Mead and White, was raised over it.