Cracking Plymouth Rock: Cold Stone Facts Behind the American Myth

Plymouth Rock today.

It’s no Statue of Liberty on a New York Harbor pedestal or precious Constitution under low lights in Washington, but it’s the most ancient American relic.

Or is it?

Excalibur, the magic stone from which King Arthur pulled a sword according to British myth.,

Legend claims it’s the first bit of land that the first foot of the first of the permanent settlers touched when their rowboat hit the shoreline. It’s an American version of Britain’s national creation myth of King Arthur pulling a magic sword from a stone, but the Brits haven’t a clue where that stone is now. Ours is a tactile symbol imbued with sacred association and for the truly orthodox, earthly evidence of some higher plan by the universal Creator.

It’s also just a really big rock.

Plymouth Rock to be exact.

If that boulder could talk, it couldn’t identify the face of who first stepped on it (they didn’t kiss it like Ireland’s Blarney Stone after all), but it couldn’t forget getting torn from the earth, cracked into two, lugged up a hill, cleansed of its soil, reunited as one, chipped, spat up, posing for paintings, raised on display and lowered to sea level.

The Mayflower – moments before the Rock is encountered.

The Pilgrims who came to the new land on the Mayflower had no time to spin mythology about the beacons of light from heaven that led them or rocks they stepped on or recipes for pumpkin pie. More than half were dead within months of arrival. The rest were hell-bent on surviving.

A contemporary interpretation depicts the Rock as a literal touchstone.

Letters, legal and religious documents, and the journal of Pilgrim father William Bradford document the voyage, the land itself and the first Thanksgiving they held there in 1621. No one mentions a rock. Not for a year, a decade – or even more than a century.

Not even connected to a alternative tale, this painting had Pilgrim Father paused against the Rock to give thanks to God.

New shiploads of Pilgrims swelled Plymouth Plantation within the next few decades.  And once it was clear they’d all survive, grandkids of the first ones to hit the ground were swelling with what seems like entitlement, carrying a bit of a chip on their shoulder towards the newer arrivals.

Over time, as Yankee seaport trade expanded and banks rose to make wealthier merchants and Harvard was founded to improve their minds, proof of one’s Mayflower descent became a social and business stepping-stone. It was as if they assumed they’d genetically inherited the courage, piety and strength the Pilgrims were romanticized as having.

Nothing threatened status quo more than change and nothing better stood up to it than evoking their legendary ancestors. So even though some 150 years had passed since the Pilgrims first stepped onto the land, someone suddenly remembered that they actually first stepped onto a rock.

Edward Percy Moran had all the Pilgrims passing over the Rock.

Right at that moment, in 1769, the Massachusetts colony was enraged over the price of tea. The British Parliament had imposed a ton of taxes on the colonists with the Townshend Revenue Act but even after they reversed most, they kept the one on tea. The Pilgrims had left England to escape religious oppression; now the  English were financially oppressing their descendants.

Whatever spark it was that provoked him, 34 year old Deacon Ephraim Spooner gathered six other “respectable” men to support his idea of starting an “Old Colony Club,” to sponsor an annual “Forefather’s Day,” every December 21, commemorating the day the Pilgrims landed.  And then, he told a boulder of a tale. Spooner claimed to remember exactly what happened when he was but a tot of six years old, back in 1741. More precisely, he remembered what a 95 year old man had remembered.

When he heard that a commercial wharf was going to be built on the spot where the Pilgrims landed,  the enraged very senior citizen Elder Thomas Faunce determined to rouse the town by moving their emotions.

In 1877, Henry Bacon did the best job in mythologizing Mary Chilton’s toes as the first to touch the Rock.

The grave of old Tom Faunce.

Old Tom Faunce knew his Plymouth. His father, John Faunce, wasn’t a “first-comer” but damned near close, arriving on the Anne three years after the Pilgrims.  The old boy was still the town know-it-all,  still working as the town’s official record keeper. Faunce might have been doddering but he wasn’t dodgy. Word went out for townspeople to head down to the shoreline. A crowd was waiting by the time an open buggy deposited the Elder there and he shuffled atop of one large rock and began his tale. Another version has him wheeled to the beachfront in a rolling chair.

When he too was but a tot, some of the most famous Mayflower Pilgrims, including John Alden, Giles Hopkins, Francis Cooke and Mary Allerton had told him that this was the rock, the very spot across which they’d all walked into history.  And then, he even tossed them a little extra insider scoop on one sassy Pilgrim lass.

In this 19th century print, Mary Chilton leads the way.,

Faunce remembered that when she turned three-quarters of a century, ye olde Mary Chilton came back to the spot where, she giggled, she had been the first whose toes touched the touchstone.

The old boy wrapped it up with heeding from heaven:

“And ye children of my blood, I charge you to remember how, year by year, while God lent me strength, I brought you here on Forefathers Day and set your feet upon the rock, and told you what mighty things the Fathers had done for you… then come ye forward, sons and grandsons and set your feet upon the rock once more in my sight, and never forget this day, you nor your children’s children, to the last generation.”

As Rock mythology evolved, Chilton was still number one – but along the way John Alden was said to be not far behind, second to touch the Rock.

Nobody questioned why an elderly Pilgrim woman was celebrating her 75th birthday on a rock, let alone the fact that she (born in 1607) had died in 1679 at age 71. That the Pilgrims had really first touched the ground in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod and not Plymouth seemed a technicality – they hadn’t stayed there.

What Spooner in 1769 said that Faunce in 1741 had said that Chilton had told him sometime before 1679 about what happened in 1620 proved so spellbinding that five years later townsfolk determined to dig it out of the ground and ensure its safekeeping.

Before it could be desecrated by the ocean which had lapped on it for centuries or the spiteful British, then being battled in the American Revolution, the holy stone was badly damaged by the very hands hoping to save it. In an attempt to tear it from the ground and take it away, Plymouth Rock was cracked.

The mortified townsfolk lugged the broken-off top part up Cole’s Hill and into town hall, and left the rest in the ground where one patriot, Captain William Coit had at least had the satisfaction of pulling captured British sailors ashore “upon the same rock our ancestors.”

A tourist postcard of Faith, the American goddess constructed at Plymouth

Soon enough, word  about who cracked Plymouth Rock got out and spread through Massachusetts, then New England, and eventually the entire newly independent United States.

And soon enough, there weren’t just two Plymouth Rocks, but thousands.

Locals, tourists, officials or anyone could just hit the beach with a chisel and take a piece of history.

According to Werner Sollors in Americans All,  even the town fathers joined in to chip away.

In seeking to visually actualize the faith that the Pilgrims must surely have felt  as they stepped ashore, the town of Plymouth built the statue “Faith” with her foot on a piece of real Rock.

Some Rock sits in Brooklyn.

Eventually, a piece was even smuggled out and carried in reverse of the Pilgrim’s progress, back to mean old England itself, where it was put on display in the town from which the Pilgrims had left.  As late as the 1950’s pebbles were floating around, someone sending a chip off the old block to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. There’s even a unprotected Rock chunk on public display in Brooklyn, at the Plymouth Congregational Church.

With amused Gallic existentialism Alex de Tocqueville analyzed the peculiarity in 1835:

“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. But what has become of the doorsteps of a thousand palaces? Who troubles himself about them? “

The Victorian pavillion.

Amid Rock fever, the town of Plymouth decided to make the cracked top piece a centerpiece for tourists and moved it in 1834 to Pilgrim Hall, alongside other displayed relics.

As for that other piece, still stuck in the mud near the wharf, Victorians thought it high time it was no longer left naked in public.

In 1859, work began on an enclosed, open-air pavilion. In the eight years it took to finish the monstrosity, the waterfront Rock was finally yanked out of its natural place, ready for display in 1867.

Without having to get their clothes wet to chisel a piece off, however, tourists now found the lower Rock easier to molest. So protective gates went up. Some 106 years after the Great Cracking, the two Plymouth Rocks were once again one, thanks to super-cement having been invented by 1880. For good measure, “1620” was carved into it.

The idealized 1921 Temple of the Rock.

In 1920, it got grander yet when architectural firm McKim, Mead and White enshrined it with the same white-columned look of its 1902 White House renovation and a promenade was paved and the waterfront redesigned by fancy landscaper Arthur Shurcliff.

The Plymouth Rock pavilion where the solid symbol sits at sea level.

With good reason, Native Americans gather there on Thanksgiving in mourning at this symbolic site which marked the beginning of the end of their indigenous culture. And with 2020 just around the corner, the Quad-centennial bandwagon will soon enough encircle the 20,000 pound grey lump. There’s tons of pennies thrown on it for good luck. And gum. Teenagers challenge one another to spit dead center on it. Black bars keep it caged, like a zoo animal. It’s not on a New York Harbor pedestal or under low lights in Washington. Nobody kisses it. Who did or didn’t stand on it in 1620 can’t be proven. Malcolm X gave voice to all Americans denied the rights or privileges granted those who happened to be Mayflower descendants by declaring, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

Unprotected from the elements and often drowned by being at sea level, everyone’s equally free to crack, demean, chip, and dismiss it by pen or in person.

It makes Plymouth Rock’s value as a symbol of democracy solid.

And it also offers a slight whiff of hopeful wonder.

What if the whole story is true?

Ye Olde Rock

Categories: History, Holidays, Myths

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