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The Pilgrims and The Rock

May 2024
18min read

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

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.

That mixed company of forty-one “Saints” and sixty-one “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.

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.

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.

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.

A tercentenary pageant, The Pilgrim Spirit , written by Harvard’s professor of drama, George Pierce Baker, was performed the next summer. At this climax of the celebration the presidential yacht Mayflower , with President Harding aboard, steamed into Plymouth Harbor accompanied by four battleships and six destroyers. On landing Harding spoke as he usually did, with empty resonance. The Grecian temple was finally dedicated the following November on a wild day of rain and wind.


After three centuries the legend of Plymouth Rock has become so fixed in the American consciousness that the Rock itself takes on the magical aura of a Blarney Stone or a Stone of Scone. When some prankster in 1937 daubed the Rock with red paint, the news flashed across the country. It seemed a national desecration. At once Harvard University and the Communist Party of Massachusetts publicly disclaimed any connection with such lurid lithography. I remember from my Harvard days a story Professor Howard Mumford Jones told of an old Negro janitor from the University of Texas who made a sightseeing bus tour of the United States. When he reached Plymouth, he sent back a postcard of Plymouth Rock on which he had written: “Here is where our forefathers landed.” So we had felt in the Tileston School, even though most of us in that fifth-grade room were—like myself—members of what Boston’s Mayor James Michael Curley liked to call the “newer races.” I suppose it was the somewhat ponderous piety of the legend, plus childhood recollections of The Landing of the Pilgrims framed on a schoolroom wall, that inspired Dorothy Parker’s remark in the brittle twenties that it would have been better if, instead of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims.

Yet, if the landing on Plymouth Rock is a myth, it is no more a myth than that the Stone of Scone once served as Jacob’s pillow, no more recent a myth than Blarney’s gift of eloquence. And behind the myth is a profound truth. In a sense the old Texas janitor was right. Each of us has made his symbolic approach to Plymouth Rock; each is here because someone took a step forward and felt a sustaining firmness underfoot, whether the landing took place from the Mayflower , from an Irish “coffin ship,” on Ellis Island, or from the last jet at Logan or LaGuardia.


I sense the tenacity of that feeling whenever I visit Plymouth on a bright summer’s day. The approaches to the Grecian temple are traffic-blocked. Forty assimilative years have given the white columns a certain minimum of harmony with their nonclassical surroundings. Cars with license plates from every state in the Union are parked for a mile along Water Street. The Mayflower II , brave in new paint at her dock, sets off the striated blue of the harbor and the yellow streak of sandspit that almost encompasses it. To the right on the horizon are the bluffs of Manomet, and to the left a single white house breaks the dense greenery of dark’s Island. The crowds are twenty deep around Plymouth Rock. Two college boys in Pilgrim costume alternate in giving talks on the Rock’s history, then pass around their wide-brimmed pot hats. Their talks are at least eighty-five per cent accurate. Across the road a goateed photographer, also dressed as a Pilgrim, is waiting to snap the tourists. They in turn may focus their own cameras on him for twenty-five cents a pose. As I wedge my way to the iron guardrail under the pediment and stand looking down at Plymouth Rock in its pit, I feel a homely affection for that familiar, battered granite lump, and I sense a comradeship with those strangers in their summer clothes who have gathered with me to stare at it.

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