There is nothing particularly impressive about Plymouth Rock. As far as famous rocks go, the seaside boulder on which the Pilgrims may have first set foot in the New World is notably underwhelming. It has not helped that this ten-ton glacial errant, an Ice Age deposit of granite on the morainal coastline of Cape Cod Bay, has been moved and abused, venerated and desecrated many times since the storied passengers of Mayflower set down roots here four hundred years ago, in December 1620. And yet it is precisely the Rock’s humble appearance that can still evoke the greatest awe. The pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth proved to be the moonshot of the seventeenth century—odds-breaking, death-defying, and ultimately world-shattering. The Rock remains the manifestation of the first step of these spiritual wanderers, not just from ship to shore but also heaven to earth. For the nation’s celestial origins, Plymouth Rock is our moonstone.

It took over a century for the Rock to be recognized for its historical relevance, after a Plymouth elder recalled a folktale of the landing. Its importance then grew alongside a burgeoning sense of the central role of the Pilgrims in our national story. In the War of Independence, the stone came to symbolize the endurance of the Pilgrims’ separatist faith crystallized in the cause of national liberty. In 1775, the people of Plymouth joined Colonel Theophilus Cotton to “consecrate the rock . . . to the shrine of liberty.” In attempting to move the stone from the shoreline, however, the townspeople split it in two, a portent of the coming Revolutionary break. Leaving one half behind in the sand, they relocated the other to “liberty pole square” by the Plymouth meetinghouse. On July 4, 1834, that part of the rock was moved again, this time to the front of Plymouth Hall. Other pieces went farther astray. Two chunks came to reside in Brooklyn, one at the abolitionist Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and the other at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Smaller fragments went the way of the souvenir hunters. Meanwhile the original seaside stone came to be buried in sand and port development.

Hammat Billings’s baldachin, which housed Plymouth Rock from 1867–1920.
The present portico over Plymouth Rock, built by McKim, Mead & White in 1920.

In 1867, an elegant Beaux-Arts baldachin designed by Hammatt Billings resurrected the beach half, which was soon rejoined by the other Plymouth rock of Plymouth Rock as “1620” was etched in the stone. Finally, in 1920, for the tercentenary of the Pilgrims’ landing, McKim, Mead & White designed the portico that stands over Plymouth Rock today. The understated design, built into an esplanade and replacing the Billings monument, invites viewers to look down onto the Rock, now again on the sandy beach. At spring tide, through iron grilles in the pavilion’s open foundation, the waters of the cold Atlantic can once again lap over the worn stone.

The treatment of Plymouth Rock has reflected the ebbs and flows of our own national conscience. In 1820, at the bicentennial of the Pilgrim landing, Daniel Webster proclaimed, “We have come to this Rock to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labors; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration for their piety; and our attachment to those principles of civil and religious liberty.” Pledging “upon the Rock of Plymouth,” he also called on Americans to “extirpate and destroy” the slave trade.

By 1835, Tocqueville came to observe how “this Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union. Does not 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 this stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation, its very dust is shared as a relic.”

The pilgrims John Alden and Mary Chilton landing at Plymouth.

This year’s quadricentenary of the Pilgrim landing has not been so felicitous for Plymouth or its Rock. The pandemic has destroyed the town’s tourist trade and canceled many festivities on what should have been its most eventful year. A million visitors a year usually come to Plymouth Rock. This year that number may be less than half. Chinese, British, and German tourists, all precluded from international travel, are otherwise particularly drawn to the attraction. As I am told, the Chinese come for the American history, the British for the English, and the Germans for the indigenous. In other years, faith-based visitors are also regulars here, making their own pilgrimage to a site of America’s Christian origins. This year, even at the height of tourist season, the glasses at the Pillory Pub are half empty, the John Alden curio shop is in want of the curious, and the on-street parking is abundant.

Beyond just the closures, the Pilgrims’ progress, like the American project itself, has been cast in doubt. For most of our history, the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving meal of 1621 has represented the Providence of America and the amity of its native peoples—after Samoset, Tisquantum (Squanto), and Massasoit’s tribe of Wampanoag saved the new arrivals from starvation. In giving thanks for their salvation, George Washington codified the Pilgrims’ holiday into civic religion.

Until recently, the story of this first Thanksgiving was central to our civic education, from elementary-school assemblies to Peanuts television specials. Now, a “National Day of Mourning,” a protest march against Thanksgiving first organized by Native American activists, can draw crowds larger than the Mayflower Society’s own Pilgrim Progress procession held in town the same day. The Plymouth Rock monument has also been the site of attacks and desecrations. So far this year, the Rock has been splattered and sprayed with paint on two separate occasions. Meanwhile, the Pilgrims have been castigated along with Christopher Columbus for the usurpation of native lands and the murder of native peoples. If children are now taught anything about the Pilgrims, the settlers are more than likely to be denounced as a colonizing force—one that never really originated Thanksgiving, never conveyed the spirit of liberty as represented in their “Mayflower Compact,” and never even landed at Plymouth Rock.

The evidence at Plymouth suggests a more nuanced understanding. In Europe, the Pilgrims had drifted around as the backwash of the Reformation. Since taxation also meant supporting the ministers to a false faith, the Pilgrims’ separatist beliefs put them at odds with the monarch and the inseparable church of England. “The king is a mortal man, and not God,” declared the Puritan Thomas Helwys in his challenge to King James I, and “therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects.” Like others, Helwys was imprisoned and died for his beliefs. From England to Amsterdam, and then to Leiden, the Pilgrims attempted to resettle. In Holland, they found the labors unforgiving and the temptations undermining. Here was a faith that knew more what it stood against than for. A group of Pilgrims struck a deal with the London Company to resettle their families around what became New York. They eventually hired Mayflower, a reconfigured merchant ship, for the late fall passage. Their decision to leave the land of Rembrandt—who was then a student just a block from their Leiden church—for lands unknown was propelled by a desperation for religious liberty. “England hath seen her best days,” Thomas Hooker, the Puritan founder of Connecticut, later preached, “and now evil days are befalling us: God is packing up his gospel.”

Plimoth Plantation today.

“Founding a colony was just about the most foolish thing a congregation or any other group of Europeans could do.” So writes John G. Turner in They Knew They Were Pilgrims, his new history of Plymouth.1 What powered these early settlers, especially through the misery of their first winter, was their separatist conviction. “They knew they were pilgrims . . . and quieted their spirits,” explained Plymouth’s Governor William Bradford. Blown off course, and after exploring the area of what became Provincetown (where there is now another Pilgrim monument), the settlers arrived in the protected natural harbor of Plymouth Bay. Regardless of where they took their first actual steps, the Pilgrims “walked into a disaster,” Turner writes. “The poor nutrition during the crossing left their health fragile, and they lacked sufficient food for the months ahead. Exposure to bitter-cold weather and wading in water did not help matters.” Barely half of Mayflower’s passengers survived the crossing and the first winter. “The living were scarce able to bury the dead,” Bradford wrote the next fall.

Just down the road from Plymouth Rock, Plimoth Plantation recreates some of these privations. In the 1940s, the museum’s founder, a gentleman archaeologist named Henry (Harry) Hornblower II, announced that “we had by-passed the era of putting a fence and canopy above a rock or some artifacts in a glass case . . . my idea was to create a living museum.” He tore down his family’s estate and converted it into a life-size diorama of the Pilgrims’ first village. Later on, the staff in period costume began to take on period roles. Now as soon as you set foot out of the reconstructed fort and walk down the village road, the Plantation offers its visitors an immersive experience. This year as you come upon Governor Bradford reading English law in his home with Mistress Winslow, the face masks are the only concessions to our present moment.

Yet even this quaint settlement does not fully convey the true extremis of the Pilgrims’ first year, as husbands lost wives and mothers lost children. The Plantation’s research and reconstruction of historic Patuxet, an equally fascinating section of the living museum, goes further in explaining how these privations were overcome. Then as now, a disease had reduced the population passing through Plymouth. An “extraordinary plague,” Samoset informed the new arrivals, had recently killed the people who had lived there. The Pilgrims arrived in the land of the Wampanoag just as the weakened tribe faced off against the neighboring and untouched Narragansetts. By the 1620s, Europeans were no strangers to American Indians. Traders had been sailing the New England waters for a century. What was new was the arrival of European families. In the early years, the Pilgrim and native populations gave thanks together for their mutual support. Twice as many Wampanoags as Pilgrims joined the first Thanksgiving dinner. Recent excavations have also suggested that the two peoples chose to live and trade next to each other.

This summer, after completing a three-year rebuilding at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport, Mayflower II, a faithful 1956 replica of the Pilgrims’ faith-conveying ship, returned to Plymouth under her own sail power. Plimoth Plantation is once again scheduling tours of the ship, tied up within sight of Plymouth Rock. Four hundred years after the original landing, the craft speaks to the hardships, endurance, and desperation of the settlers who have defined America in myth and memory. Entering the open hold of this tiny replica vessel, where 102 passengers would have endured the Atlantic passage together, reveals much about the death and disease they encountered that first winter in Cape Cod Bay.

The Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, completed in 1889.

Just up the hill from Plymouth Rock, now buried among the trees and residential development, the Monument to the Forefathers offers a final statement on the combination of forces that came to the Pilgrims’ salvation. Hammatt Billings began designing this eight-story-tall granite carving in the 1850s. His brother, Joseph, working with local carvers, completed it in 1889. The monumental site, which now also includes scalloped fragments from Billings’s original Plymouth Rock pavilion, might appear grandiloquent did it not commemorate such an extraordinary event. In addition to relief images from Pilgrim history, the monument is buttressed by the personifications of Morality, Law, Education, and Liberty. Rising above them, facing England to the east, is the colossus of Faith. “Erected by a grateful people,” reads the front inscription, “in remembrance of their labors, sacrifices and sufferings for the cause of civil and religious liberty.” Stone by stone, the monument recalls the Providence of Plymouth Rock. Through sacrifices and sufferings, its blessings continue to land on the country the Pilgrims helped define.

1 They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, by John G. Turner; Yale University Press, 464 pages, $30.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 3, on page 31
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