The Twisted History of Plymouth Rock
There's more to this story than you learned in school.
Plymouth Rock is a symbol we all recognize, its significance may be one of the first things we learned in primary school about the formation of the United States. The narrative is a romantic scene set in the year 1620 depicting William Bradford, Capt. Myles Standish and a handful of our forefathers from the Mayflower making shore at the granite boulder in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The problem with romantic scenes is that they are generally not true. Those same forefathers never referenced this rock in their logs or journals and the tale of their landing upon it was not once mentioned until 1741, a full century and twenty beyond their arrival.
“This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. Does this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.”
-Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835
The story begins with a construction project in the 1740s.
There was a plan to build a wharf and its course would take it directly over the rock. A near-centenarian church elder, Thomas Faunce raises the alarm just in time to prevent it. Faunce claims that his father, who arrived a few years after the Mayflower, told him the rock was the place the feet of the forefathers first touched the Massachusetts shore. No reason has ever been given for the elder keeping this story to himself for nearly a hundred years or why no other residents at the time shared this folk memory.
The story was cemented into the official narrative with the publication of James Thacher’s “History of the Town of Plymouth” in 1835.
“Standing on this rock, therefore, we may fancy a magic power ushering us into the presence of our fathers….The hallowed associations which cluster around that precious memorial, inspire us with sentiments of the love of our country, and a sacred reverence for its primitive institutions.”
Historians throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have challenged the veracity of the Faunce claim only to be hushed by those in control of the narrative. Academics and local bureaucrats like the story, it brings tourists and preservation dollars flowing into the town, dissenters need not apply.
The rock was approximately 30-40 ft in diameter at the time the Bradford party arrived. The remaining boulder is just 4-5 feet across, most of its bulk allegedly chipped away through the years and scattered about the Union.
The National Museum of American History has two pieces of Plymouth Rock in its collection. “The one that I like is painted with a little affidavit by Lewis Bradford, who is a descendent of William Bradford,” says Bird. “He paints on it the exact moment of time in which he chips it from the ‘Mother Rock.’” The label on the small, four-inch by two-inch rock reads, “Broken from the Mother Rock by Mr. Lewis Bradford on Tues. 28th of Dec. 1850 4 1/2 o’clock p.m.” The artifact was donated to the museum in 1911 by the family of Gustavus Vasa Fox, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Smithsonian Magazine)
Ships logs and historic maps give us an idea of the size and prominence of the rock in the past. It was described as a “massive boulder sitting alone on a sandy beach”, so large it “looked like a house” from offshore.
Something, the rock or an island, is even visible on Capt. John Smith’s 1616 map of New England. Right smack in the middle of Plymouth harbor.
Time Out…why is Plimouth (sic) on a map dated four years before the “founding” of the settlement? The story we’ve been told is that they named the place Plymouth because they departed from Plymouth, England.
Plymouth was originally named Accomack in Capt. Smith’s 1614 edition of “A Description of New England”, it was changed later by “the High Hopeful Charles, Prince of Great Britaine” to Plimouth (sic) in 1616 (see the inserted leaf in the cover of selected editions of Smith’s Description of New England shown above).
The Story of the Rock
In 1774 the town leaders decided to jack it up and haul it to the town square. The behemoth split in half, “like a bagel” (McPhee - Travels of the Rock, the New Yorker)
Undeterred, they hauled the top portion to Liberty Pole Square in order to “stir up lust for independence” among the citizenry. This split in the rock was seen as an omen, the severing of the colonies from the crown.
It remained in Liberty Pole Square until 1834 when they moved it again to Pilgrim Hall.
Pilgrim Hall is the oldest public museum in the US. The Pilgrim Society was established in 1820 and opened the doors of the museum in 1824. It has been in continuous operation ever since. The top portion of Plymouth Rock sat in front of the building from 1834 until it was rejoined to the lower portion under Billing’s Canopy in 1880. It was at this time they chiseled the “1620” into the top portion of the rock.
The Billings Canopy
sheltered the rock from 1867 until 1920, when it was summarily torn down and replaced with the Roman portico adorned with Doric columns we see today. The cornerstone was laid on August 2, 1859 and a time capsule of documents from the Pilgrim era was sealed in the foundation.
But that isn’t the only thing they put in this monument.
Plymouth has a strange tidbit in its history that I’ve not encountered before….there was no cemetery housing its dead until well into its existence. No one seemed to know where the original Pilgrims from the Mayflower were buried. There were no headstones, graves or records of where these founding families were laid to rest.
The story gets weirder, with the histories compiled in the 1800s telling us that “the grave of the only Pilgrim whose resting-place is known (he’s speaking of Governor William Bradford) is worthy of a more deserving memorial than the modest and inconspicuous shaft with which some of his descendants have marked on the alleged spot.”
The oldest headstone on the town’s Burial Hill is dated to 1681 and is that of Edward Gray. No graves for Brewster and his wife, John Carver and his wife, William Bradford, Samuel Fuller, Stephen Hopkins, Francis Eaton, Peter Brown and ALL who died in Plymouth prior to 1681. No graves within the confines of the present town. The author of the History of the Town of Plymouth (1885) says,
Cellars have been dug, wells have been sunk, water and gas pipe trenches have been excavated, almost every spot has been turned over and explored and not a white man’s bone has ever been found, except on Cole’s & Burial Hill. If deliberate and methodical searches had been instituted, like those which have characterized the explorations of Pompeii and Troy, they could not have been more thorough or better calculated to reveal, if ever such had existed, the forgotten burial places of the Pilgrims.
Town records reveal that Burial Hill was ordained as such in the year 1711. Cole’s Hill was named after Mr. Cole who lived on the lot until 1725, this name Cole’s Hill first appears sometime after 1700.
It became known as Cole’s Hill Burial Ground when workmen digging a trench for water works on May 23, 1855 unearthed the partial remains of 5 skeletons “five rods south and two rods north” of the foot of Middle Street.
The author of the book, William T. Davis, who was a town Selectman at the time, took possession of these remains. He then placed them in a lead-lined box within a brick vault on Burial’s Hill. But wait, there’s more.
The Two Skulls
He sent two of the skulls unearthed to be examined by Dr. John C. Warren and Professor Oliver Wendell Holmes. They declared the skulls to be members of the Caucasian race. This excited the author, for he was certain he was in possession of the bones of the lost Pilgrims.
At some point the lead-lined box was moved from the brick vault on Burial’s Hill to a brick vault in the Billing’s Canopy over Plymouth Rock.
Two additional skeletons were unearthed in 1883. The author also took charge of these remains. The first one was found on October 8, 1883. This body was also placed into a lead lined box and deposited into a brick vault on the spot of the original burial. The other body was left in the ground. He had a granite tablet erected at the site that read:
On this hill the Pilgrims who died the first winter were buried. This tablet marks the spot where lies the body of one found Oct. 8th 1883. The body of another was found on the 27th of the following month (11-27-1883) lies 8 feet NW of the Westerly Corner of this Stone. Erected 1884.
The Removal of the Billing’s Canopy
In preparation for the 300 year anniversary of the Mayflower landing it was decided to completely overhaul the waterfront, dismantle the Billing’s Canopy and move Plymouth Rock back into the water. It was during the removal that these “forgotten bones” were rediscovered.
The rock was broken again when it was moved. The project excavated out over 14,000 cubic yards of earth to create what we see today as the wharf and waterfront of Plymouth.
What happened to the old canopy?
It was thrown into the harbor, dumped as rubbish into the bay. The bodies were moved to Pilgrim Hall and then into a sarcophagus on Cole Hill, were they remain today. During construction of the breakwater in the harbor during the late 1960s pieces of the old canopy were discovered by the contractor. These pieces were sited at the entrance to an industrial park on private property. The only parts of the original canopy visible today can be found flanking the Forefathers Monument. The scalloped shells from the top of the old canopy are now arranged around the walkways approaching the statue. (Patrick Browne, Historical Digression is the only source I could verify of this info.)
Want another bizarre coincidence? These two descendants of Elder Brewster are related to none other than Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia, whose murder I just covered.
Pilgrim Memorial State Park
The waterfront project in the 1920s to celebrate the tricentennial gave us the canopy we see today. It was designed by the McKim, Mead & White, the designers of Penn Station & Madison Square Gardens, as well as the personal architects of the Vanderbilt family.
The park is owned and operated by the State of Massachusetts. Curiously, it is not a national landmark. In 1968 Senator Ted Kennedy introduced a bill to include the rock in a national park with the Forefather’s Monument.
The voters of Plymouth heartily agreed and a referendum was passed to pass control of Plymouth Rock to the National Park Service.
It never entered the National Park Service and was handed off to the State of Massachusetts.
Fast Forward to 2020
Right before the quadricentennial of the Mayflower, and coincidentally the eve of the pandemic, the rock was vandalized along with 7 other historic sites in Plymouth. Red spray paint was used to write 508 MOF. A 17 year old unnamed minor was arrested and charged with 11 counts of vandalism.
Bibliography for further study:
Old Plymouth: a guide to its localities and objects of interest
by Avery & Doten, publishers 1878