Pilgrim Lore - Plymouth Rock



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Plymouth RockThe famous "Plymouth Rock" is located on the waterfront in downtown Plymouth, near where Mayflower II is anchored today. However, this illustrious boulder has had many adventures. In 1774, Plymouth was animated by the spirit of the impending Revolution and it was resolved, as James Thatcher relates, to "consecrate the rock...on the altar of liberty"; to associate the symbol of the Forefathers and the community with the new cause and legitimize what was a contentious issue in the town. The Rock was lifted from its bed and "...in attempting to mount it on the carriage it split asunder, without any violence. As no one had observed a flaw, the circumstance occasioned some surprise. It is not strange that some of the patriots of the day should be disposed to indulge a little in superstition, when in favor of their good cause. The separation of the rock was construed to be ominous of a division of the British Empire."

The upper piece of the Rock was moved by teams of oxen up to the Town Square near the Town House, where a Liberty Pole had been set up. However, after the crisis was over, the Rock was neglected to some extent, as was witnessed by Edward Kendall in 1807: "The place assigned to this venerable stone, is no other than the end of a wall, in which, along with vulgar stones, it props up an embankment..." near an elm tree in the Town Square. The practice of taking pieces as souvenirs had also begun, so on July 4, 1834 (after James Thatcher's 1832 History of the Town of Plymouth had heightened interest in the town's history), the Rock was moved again.

In 1819, a number of Plymoutheans decided to form a historical society in honor of the Pilgrims, in anticipation of the approaching bicentennial of the arrival at Plymouth. The Pilgrim Society was incorporated the following year "for the purpose of procuring in the town of Plymouth a suitable lot or piece of ground for the erection of a monument to perpetuate the memory of the virtues, the enterprise and unparalleled sufferings of their ancestors who first settled in that ancient town, and for the erection of a suitable building for the accommodation of the meetings of said association". The construction of the building was soon begun, and in 1824 Pilgrim Hall was opened both for meetings and as a repository for Pilgrim relics. It was the logical place to remove the Rock to, and a decorative iron fence was erected to receive it. It was on the 1834 journey that Plymouth Rock may have acquired it's famous crack, by falling off of it's conveyance in front of the Court House. This was not seen as ominous, however. Even in its new cage, the Rock was chipped at until the Town put a stop to the practice, as Thoreau noted in his diary in 1851.

The laying of the cornerstones of a new Plymouth Rock canopy and Forefathers' Monument occurred on August 2, 1859. Both were designed by Hammett Billings of Boston. "The committee decided on the following plan for the celebration: The laying of the cornerstone of the canopy by the Masonic order; a procession; the laying of the cornerstone of the National Monument with Masonic ceremonies; a dinner provided by J.B.Smith of Boston in a tent, capable of holding twenty-five hundred persons,...fireworks and a ball in the evening in Davis Hall." The parade included over thirty groups of militia units, bands, Masonic and Templar lodges, historical societies, fire departments, and "...six groups on flats representing the Landing, Indians, advance of civilization, the thirty-three states, different nations, and the marine interests of Plymouth."

The canopy was finished in 1867, and contained not only the lower portion of the Rock, but a number of bones found on Cole's Hill when a sewer was being laid in 1854. These were identified by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes as the remains of white persons, and presumed to be those Pilgrims who had died the First Winter. They were buried, according to a tradition preserved by Elder Faunce, in secret near the first Common house on Leyden Street. After the completion of the canopy, the Pilgrim Society purchased a number of houses (characterized by a reporter as "...unsightly buildings that encumber this space...") on Cole's Hill overlooking the Rock, which were torn down to provide a suitable backdrop to the structure.

In order to get the lower portion of the Rock to fit in its new home, it was necessary to cut off several pieces, which were apparently used as souvenirs and to supply the demand for "a piece of the rock" elsewhere.

The upper half was then removed to a fenced enclosure in front of Pilgrim Hall on July 4, 1834, and reunited to its other part on September 27, 1880. The upper half was put under the canopy and "1620," (which had been previously painted on) was carved into it.

The Rock was moved once when the Billings canopy was demolished before the 1920-21 Tercentenary celebration. Both sections of the Rock were lifted from their bed and removed to make way for construction of a new memorial structure. The strain on the boulder caused it to break apart once again, and further pieces had to be removed in order to reunite the sections before it was lowered to the new water level position it remains at today. The present canopy, designed by McKim, Mead and White and built by Roy B. Beattie of Fall River, was donated by the National Society of Colonial Dames in 1921.