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History is about interpreting the past. History is not only about "what really happened in the past" but is also to put the past into context and give it meaning and force in modern life. Remembered, recovered and invented history is a complex intersection of truths, bias and hopes. Such is the story behind 'Plymouth Rock', America's least imposing and oldest monument that has hundreds of thousands who visit the site every year.
It is a fact that a group of English settlers known as the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom boarded their ship, 'Mayflower', crossed the Atlantic Ocean to establish a home in a new colony and arrived in what is now known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the year 1620. At Thanksgiving, many Americans think of the Pilgrims in black clothes landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts on 16 December 1620, but contrary to popular belief they actually arrived five weeks earlier at Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts on 11 November 1620. Failing to secure a proper settlement site at Provincetown, the colonists extended their search and the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor on 16 December. After choosing a site that was abandoned by Indigenous peoples, the first landing party arrived on 21 December and named it 'New Plymouth' since they departed from Plymouth, England.
According to tradition, the Pilgrims stepped upon 'Plymouth Rock' - a large Dedham granite boulder - when they arrived, but history offers a different story. It is possible that the rock was a convenient landmark, or the base for a makeshift pier to which the Mayflower's shallop was moored. The myth of the rock as the Pilgrims' landing place began in 1741 - over 120 years later - when word spread that the rock would be buried, possibly to prepare the shoreline for the construction of a wharf. As a result, Thomas Faunce, then a 95 year-old Elder in the First Church, was carried in a chair three miles from his home to point out the Rock and related that his father, who had known some of the original Pilgrims, had told him (erroneously) that the rock was the place where the first arrivals had made landfall. It is worth noting that Thomas Faunce's father - who had arrived just three years after the Mayflower aboard the ship Anne - died when he was a boy of eight years old. Although Faunce's designation of the rock had been questioned many times and despite the lack of reference to any rock in the accounts of the Pilgrim's arrival, the town nonetheless gave Plymouth Rock the official recognition. In 1820, speaking at the 200th anniversary of the landing, nationalist and statesman Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852) continued the legend by stating "Beneath us is the rock on which New England received the feet of the Pilgrims".
According to the Pilgrim Memorial State Park, "in 1774, at the start of the Revolution, the top half of the rock was moved. With revolutionary zeal and the help of 30 teams of oxen, the townspeople moved the top half to Town Square and displayed it as a monument to liberty. The top half was moved again, to Pilgrim Hall on Court Street, on the Fourth of July, 1834. The tide began to turn for Plymouth Rock in 1867 when the neglected bottom half was trimmed to fit within a new Gothic style granite canopy. Thirteen years later in 1880, the top half of the rock was brought down the hill from Pilgrim Hall and reunited with its base." During that same year, the date '1620' is carved on the surface, replacing painted numerals. In 1921, a new portico was built over Plymouth Rock to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing. It was designed by the world-famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White and the Guastavino Company and built in the Neo-Classical Revival style to suggest permanence, stability and strength. As shown in the photograph, the portico was erected with metal grates at sea level to let the tide wash over it. In 1970, Plymouth Rock and the portico were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. When the Pilgrims first saw Plymouth Rock, it was more than three times larger than what you see today. According to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Department of Conservation and Recreation, this simple glacial erratic boulder remains a powerful icon and is "a symbol for the potential the Pilgrims saw in America" and "has become a world famous symbol of the courage and faith of the men and women who founded the first New England colony". "Seen as solid, steadfast and everlasting", the Plymouth Rock "is a suitable icon for the birth of a nation".
As well, the commemoration of the Pilgrims' first landing place at Provincetown is not forgotten. It is remembered by the 'Pilgrim Monument': a solid granite tribute which stands 252 feet tall and is situated atop of a hill that provides one of the best views on Cape Cod. Construction of the monument was begun in 1907 with the cornerstone being laid by President Theodore Roosevelt and was completed and dedicated on 5 August 1910 by President William Taft. Later, in 1917, a marker was placed at the 'Pilgrims' First Landing Park' by members of the Research Club of Provincetown, an antiquarian minded group of Mayflower descendants which state "THAT NEAR THIS SPOT / THE PILGRIMS / FIRST TOUCHED FOOT ON AMERICAN SOIL".
On this day, 21 December 2021, we commemorate the 401st anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and recognize the real and implied history behind Plymouth Rock that continues to inspire all those who come and visit it as an important symbol in American history.
André M. Levesque