The Adventures of Plymouth Rock

Written by guest blogger Matt Villamaino, Interpreter, Pilgrim Memorial State Park, Plymouth

Best known as the landing site of the Pilgrims, world-famous Plymouth Rock is located on the waterfront in Plymouth, inside Pilgrim Memorial State Park, near where Mayflower II is normally anchored. Unassuming to look at, there is more to the Rock than appears.

Legend has it in 1620, as the Mayflower Pilgrims approached the shore, they pulled their boat up to the Rock, got off the boat, onto the Rock, then off the Rock and onto the beach. The Pilgrims do not mention the Rock in any of their writings, and it is not until 1741 that the Rock is connected to the Pilgrims. In 1741, as plans were being made to build a new wharf over it, 95-year-old Thomas Faunce came down to the beach to say farewell to the Rock and told the story of the Pilgrims stepping out onto it. Deacon Ephraim Spooner retold the story in 1769 on the first Forefather’s Day and a legend was born.

Visitors will commonly ask if this is the original spot of the Rock. The answer is yes, though it has been moved quite a bit over the years. The Rock would first have been moved in 1749 when the wharf that prompted Elder Faunce to tell the story of the Rock was built. The workmen raised the Rock to the top of the wharf so as not to bury it. 

In 1774, animated by the spirit of the impeding Revolution, the residents of Plymouth decided to “consecrate the Rock… on the altar of liberty” by moving it to Town Square. However, “…in attempting to mount it on the carriage it split asunder, without any violence.” The lower piece of the Rock was left on the wharf, while the upper part was brought up to Town Square and placed next to the liberty pole. The break we see today is not from this move, rather it is from weathering along a fault line that started later in the 19th century. The rest of the Rock is hidden beneath the sand.  

Early in the 19th century, the Rock was neglected to some extent, as witness by Edward Kendall in 1807. “The place assigned to this venerable stone, is no other than end of a wall, in which, along with vulgar stones, it props up an embankment…” At some point, the practice of taking pieces as souvenirs had begun so, desiring to protect it more, on July 4, 1834, the Rock was moved again, this time to the front of Pilgrim Hall Museum. Built by the Pilgrim Society, the Museum had opened in 1834 for both meetings and as a repository for Pilgrim relics, and today is the oldest, continuously-open public museum in the United States. 

Meanwhile, on the wharf where the lower part of the Plymouth Rock remained, the Pilgrim Society began work on a canopy over the Rock. Designed by Hammatt Billings, the cornerstone was laid in 1859, but the Civil War delayed construction, so it was not finished until 1867.  Interestingly, the lower part of the Rock did not fit into it, so it had to be trimmed to fit. These pieces were apparently used as souvenirs and to supply the demand for a “piece of the Rock” elsewhere. In 1880, the upper half of the Rock was brought to the waterfront and reunited with its lower half under the new canopy. The numbers we see on the rock today were carved in at this time.

As Plymouth prepared for the 1920, 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, the tercentenary commission decided to remove the wharf that Plymouth Rock stood upon and build a new canopy over it. Before construction could begin, the rock had to be moved out of the way, and when it was lifted, it split into three pieces; the top two and the piece below the sand. Many people who visit Plymouth Rock today swear that the existing canopy was not there when they had previously visited, but it was completed in 1921. 

Want to learn more about Plymouth Rock? Ask the staff at Pilgrim Memorial State Park or attend one of the Park programs. Want to be able to touch a piece of Plymouth rock? Visit Pilgrim Hall Museum! Plymouth Rock may be perceived as underwhelming, but each year an estimated million visitors come by to look at it. Did the Pilgrims actually step on it? We will never know, but it has stood as a symbol of the Pilgrims arrival for many years.