15 January 2014

A short history of Plymouth Rock

John O'Neill (jjron)
Recently, vandals painted the renowned Plymouth Rock with one word: “LIES.” A symbol of the Pilgrims landing in 1620, Plymouth Rock was once part of a much larger rock formation, but it was broken, and over time, chipped away by collectors and treasure hunters. Located on the shoreline within Pilgrim Memorial State Park, what’s left of Plymouth Rock is now surrounded by a fence and viewed from a platform above. To look at this artifact nestled in the sand leaves one unimpressed by its supposed historic significance. After all, it’s a rock. And it’s not a geologically impressive one either.

Plymouth Rock through the Ages

Let's use a timeline, one of the great tools for genealogy, to backfill the history of Plymouth Rock.
  • 1620: The Mayflower lands in Plymouth Harbor.
  • 1623: Thomas Faunce’s father John arrives in Plymouth Colony onboard the Anne.
  • 1647: Thomas Faunce is born in Plymouth Colony.
  • 1715: A “great rock” is mentioned in the town boundary records.
  • 1741: Plans begin for building a wharf at Plymouth Harbor. Thomas Faunce, a 94-year-old church elder, identifies a large rock as the place where the Pilgrims disembarked, claiming his father and some original Mayflower passengers told him so. Despite his claim, a solid-fill wharf is built, with just part of the rock showing.
  • 1774: The rock breaks in two when patriotic efforts were made to relocate it to the town square, next to the Liberty Pole. The lower half is left behind at the wharf.
  • 1834: The rock is moved from the town square to Pilgrim Hall, built 10 years earlier. During its travels, the rock breaks in two again.
  • 1859-1867: The Pilgrim Society builds a Victorian canopy over the lower half of the rock left at the wharf.
  • 1880: The upper half of the rock is taken from Pilgrim Hall and reattached to the lower half. The date 1620 is inscribed on the rock.
  • 1920: The rock is placed at sea level and a Doric portico is built over it in honor of the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims.
Perhaps the vandals were pointing out the flaws of historic recollection and national remembrance, of turning a historic moment into a tangible object. After all, no contemporary account mentions a rock on which the Pilgrims stepped foot. Although just hearsay, the rock landing could have been an oral tradition within the Faunce family. Or perhaps Faunce was making an analogy between Plymouth Rock and the Bible verse: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). It could be an old man was trying to instill upon the younger generations the veneration he had for the Pilgrims and their achievements, in a time when the founding fathers’ beliefs and traditions were being washed away. 

Whatever the vandals were trying to say, their act reminds us how important it is to understand our history—and its embellishments.