Plymouth Rock is one of America’s most visited historic sites, but this famous chunk of bedrock wasn’t always the shrine it is today. The first settler made no mention of it in historical accounts about the famous landing on December 21, 1620. In fact, before going ashore to the mainland, they took refuge that first night at Clark’s Island, just across from the harbor.
Focus on the Rock as a historic site was first documented by James Thatcher in his History of Plymouth (1832). Thatcher writes that when the town announced plans in 1741 to erect a wharf in Plymouth Harbor, Elder Thomas Faunce, 95, a Mayflower descendant and third ruling elder of the Plymouth Church, identified the rock as the very one the forefathers had set foot upon their arrival. The wharf was built without covering the rock.
As revolution against mother England became inevitable, Plymouth Rock drew more public attention in 1774 when members of the Old Colony Club, who had established ‘Forefather’s Day’ found themselves so divided politically that they disbanded. The observance of Forefathers’ Day that year took place without them and the legend of Plymouth Rock spread.
Edward Winslow, however, had marked the rock’s location on a British survey map of Plymouth made in 1774. Later that year, with the sides now drawn in the coming struggle, the Sons of Liberty (called by Winslow the “Sons of Licentiousness”) were the first to appropriate the rock’s burgeoning symbolism. Militia Colonel Theophilus Cotton and a band of Liberty Boys appeared on the wharf on December 22 with a carriage and thirty yokes of oxen, prepared to take the rock away. They dug down and managed to elevate it from its bed with large screws, but as the attempted to move it onto the carriage it split in two. Some of the more patriotic present saw the split as symbolic of the division between England and the colonies – or so they said afterward. Colonel Cotton and his boys then let the bottom section drop back into its bed, where it remained a few inches above the earth. The top segment, weighing four or five tons, was carted to the Town Square and placed ceremoniously beside a large elm used to support the newly erected Liberty Pole which flew their “Liberty or Death” flag.
In 1834, the rock fragment was removed from Town Square to Pilgrim Hall. Preservation of Plymouth Rock was one of the main goals of the Pilgrim Society, founded in 1820 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing. America’s new shrine was enclosed in an iron fence.
In 1880, the two parts of the rock were joined and the entire rock was moved back to the harbor to be placed under the shelter of a monumental Victorian canopy. The date “1620” was carved into the rock at this time. Here the rock rested until 1920.
During Plymouth’s Tercentenary Celebration, the rock was again moved while waterfront renovations took place. During the summer of 1921, it lay in an empty lot on the waterfront awaiting its new resting place under a portico donated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. The redesign of the waterfront was planned so that when the Rock was placed on the edge of the shore, the high tide would surround it and it would appear as historians of the day thought it did in 1620. Plymouth Rock was dedicated November 29, 1921. The Rock and its surrounding grounds were donated by the Pilgrim Society to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.