Plymouth Rock surprisingly small, but looms large as controversial symbol

Plymouth Rock bears the date the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Mass., but it is uncertain what role itplayed in their landing. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
Plymouth Rock bears the date the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Mass., but it is uncertain what role itplayed in their landing. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com

PLYMOUTH, MASS. — The park service guy is used to the expressions of surprise when visitors get their first look at Plymouth Rock.

He sees the looks all day, every day.

“How many people think it’s smaller than what they thought?” Matt Villamaino, the visitor services supervisor, asks with a sly grin, already knowing the answer.

“Does anybody know what the locals call it? A lot of the locals call it the Plymouth Pebble.”

It may be the nation’s most underwhelming landmark.

Plymouth Rock bears the date the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Mass., but it is uncertain what role itplayed in their landing. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
Plymouth Rock bears the date the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Mass., but it is uncertain what role itplayed in their landing. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

Expectations are enhanced by the grand portico with towering granite columns that houses it. You approach, peer inside and … wait, is that it?

The letdown stems largely from being taught the story of the Pilgrims landing on the Mayflower in grade school. They didn’t show us a picture. So in my imagination, it was Gibraltar. Now that’s a rock.

This one, well, it would make a decent doorstop.

Tough to separate fact from legend

Matt Villamaino, of the park service at Pilgrim Memorial State Park, tells how Plymouth Rock has been moved and gotten smaller over the years. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
Matt Villamaino, of the park service at Pilgrim Memorial State Park, tells how Plymouth Rock has been moved and gotten smaller over the years. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

That’s when the questions start: Did the pilgrims really step on the rock to come ashore? Did they tie the ship to it?

How did they even notice it when they were offshore?

Villamaino points out that members of the Plimoth Plantation reenactment settlement tried to re-create a landing using a similar rock.

“They tried tying up to a rock. It didn’t work out very well,” he says.

Like so much in history, Plymouth Rock and the story of the first Europeans that formed the New England Colony here is clouded by mythology, exaggeration and misinformation.

This site wasn’t even the first landing of the Mayflower. That occurred at what is now Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, and the Pilgrims spent a month exploring that area before continuing on to Plymouth Harbor.

Even the nearby Pilgrim Hall Museum doesn’t push the story of the rock as set in stone. It didn’t appear in writings about the times until a century later.

As to whether the inauspicious slab of granite inscribed with 1620, the year of the Pilgrims’ arrival, figured in their landing, Villamaino says, “Is it possible? Absolutely. If there was a rock, was it this one? I think so. But the legend of the rock, I think, it doesn’t really matter.

“The real importance of the rock is as a symbol. People have to decide for themselves what Plymouth rock means to them.”

Native American don’t revere Plymouth Rock

Plymouth Rock is unquestionably a touchstone, and a powerful one. It attracts about 1 million visitors a year to the shore of a modest town that otherwise gives no indication of being the site of anything significant.

And while the founding of the colony that was spawned there is a revered part of history to many Americans, to others it is not.

That was definitively stated by civil rights leader Malcolm X in a 1964 speech:  “Our forefathers weren’t the Pilgrims. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.”

Most directly affected were the Native Americans who already resided there and are depicted as aiding the European settlers and joining in a joyous feast of what is considered the first Thanksgiving.

On the hill overlooking the portico that shields the rock stands a statue of Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe who aided the Pilgrims and fostered a peaceful coexistence between them and his tribe through his lifetime.

The relationship soured as more Europeans arrived, occupying more land and pushing the indigenous people out of the area. Massasoit’s son, Metacomet, also known as Philip, was killed leading King Philip’s War against the English settlers in 1675-76.

Descendants of the Wampanoag and other tribes, often in excess of a thousand, have gathered on Cole Hill around the statue of Massasoit on Thanksgiving every year since 1970 for what they regard as the National Day of Mourning.

To them, Plymouth Rock is symbolic of the suffering of native people throughout North America that began with the arrival of Europeans and continues today.

A plaque explaining that viewpoint is affixed to another rock on Cole Hill.

Visiting Plymouth is a reminder that much of our history is complicated and can’t be understood from a singular perspective.

What is clear is that fascination with the rock transcends its lack of stature. That is expected to intensify in 2020 for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing.

Time takes toll on Plymouth Rock

When we stopped in Plymouth on the way to Cape Cod in 2017, the Mayflower II was not on display at the wharf adjacent to the rock. The 60-year-old replica of the ship that brought the Pilgrims from England has been in Mystic, Conn., undergoing an extensive overhaul to be completed in 2019, in time for the anniversary observance.

Meanwhile, Plymouth Rock has undergone its own alterations through time.

“The rock was bigger,” Villamaino says. “Over the years since the Pilgrims got here this is about a third of the rock that they would have seen. Souvenir hunters have taken their toll.”

In 1774, two years before the American revolution, the rock was hauled by oxen to the center of town. In the process, it split in half, “like a bagel,” Villamaino says.

Only the top portion was moved. A large chunk of it is now displayed at the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

The rest of it was returned to the waterfront in 1880, and that is what is visible. It rests on about six tons of the original rock that is buried in the sand.

“The real importance of the rock doesn’t matter how big it is,” Villamaino says. “Our goal … is to get people looking at the rock not just as a rock, but looking at it symbolically.”

It’s fitting, then, that the rock, like the legend, has changed over time.

Rather than looking at it as a disappointment, it can be viewed as a reminder that the reality of history usually isn’t what is popularly portrayed.

More eye-catching than Plymouth Rock is the Plymouth Rock lobster near the wharf. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
More eye-catching than Plymouth Rock is the Plymouth Rock lobster near the wharf. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
About craigslegz 39 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis

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