Plymouth rock is an imposter.
No way was this the first terra firma the Pilgrims planted foot upon in the “New World” – that was some vanished swath of sand in Provincetown Harbor.
Yet the rock, sitting within a portico like a forlorn baby circus bear in a cage, cemented together, carved with “1620” like a bad tattoo — looms in the American imagination. Even when Provincetown built a monument to try to remind the world that the Pilgrims came here first, that little silly chunk of faulty Dedham granite could not be displaced.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, roaming the United States pondering this young democratic expression, mused about our weird fascination:
“This Rock has become an object of veneration … 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.”
We know the first person stricken by the rock’s aura was Thomas Faunce. Elder Faunce was 94 or 95 years old by 1741. When word reached him of plans to erect a wharf and cover the rock where family lore told him the first white arrivals had come, the old man became agitated. He gathered family, townspeople. He couldn’t walk anymore so was carried to the performance, where according to one account, “he bedewed the rock with his tears and bid to it an everlasting adieu.”
As revolutionary fervor built 30 years later, the Sons of Liberty seized on the rock as a symbol, pulling together a team of oxen to drag it to what they called Liberty Pole Square in the town center.
There was a fault line in the granite. It split in two.
Undaunted, the Sons of Liberty took the split as a divine symbol that the colonies were meant to break away from England. They hauled the top part up the hill, leaving the bottom on the waterfront.
Come 1775, a “privateer” named William Coit captured two British ships laden with geese, cattle and hogs meant to feed British troops in Boston. Coit forced his prisoners to land on Plymouth rock, and offer up three cheers for the Americans.
After independence, the piece dragged to the town square was dragged yet again, placed in front of what is known as Pilgrim Hall. This time an axle snapped, the rock tumbled, and once again broke into pieces.
Yet it became more popular, people chipping souvenirs to carry across the country. Pilgrim Hall stalwarts built an iron fence, then bought and cleared the old wharf that had infringed on the rock’s solitude. By 1880, the top part was picked up yet again, dragged down to the harbor for a stony reunion.
Cement mashed the pieces together. Perhaps to distract from this minor detail, the infamous date, 1620, was chiseled onto the face.
Yet Plymouth rock still didn’t rest. In 1920 it was moved yet again. The state commissioned one more portico to protect it — paid for by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.
We agree with de Toqueville. This vagabond rock is proof “that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man.” Because if our collective imagination can turn this paltry slug of granite and cement into an object worth venerating, then we humans can do pretty much anything.