In 1741, Thomas Faunce of Plymouth, Massachusetts was concerned about the town’s plans to construct a new wharf. It would, he feared, mar the very spot where the Pilgrims first set foot in America.
So at age 94, the old man was carted down to the shoreline, carried in a chair. He pointed to the very rock the Pilgrims had first set foot on, and wept at the prospect that the rock was soon to be covered over by the wharf and lost forever.
Faunce, who had served as town clerk, was of the right age to know what he was talking about. His father had arrived just three years after the Mayflower aboard the ship Anne. As a child, Faunce said, the rock had been pointed out to him by several of the first settlers, and he had always remembered it – admonished by his grandmother to never forget that first fateful step that the Pilgrims made in America.
Of course, the first landing was actually Provincetown, but it was indeed Plymouth that the Pilgrims chose to call home.
Faunce’s designation of the rock has been questioned many times. There were multiple efforts at landing around Plymouth, there is no reference to any rock in the early accounts of the Pilgrim’s arrival and how could anyone be certain that Faunce’s recollection was even accurate as to what he was told as a child?
Nevertheless, the Pilgrim journey in America had to start somewhere and the town gave Plymouth Rock the official designation. Faunce was wrong in assuming that it would be lost, but over the years the rock has travelled a rough road. After he pointed it out, the townspeople elevated the rock to signify its status.
In 1774, some rebellious souls decided the rock would make the perfect platform for agitating against British rule, and they hauled the rock up from the shore to the town square where a Liberty Pole was constructed. There it was used as a stage to deliver speeches.
In the process, they split the rock nearly in half. It was later dropped again while being carted to a Pilgrim Hall museum and again broken.
In 1880, the two parts were rejoined and the rock returned to its home on the water, surrounded by wharves. 1620 was chiseled into its top. And in 1920, the tercentenary of the arrival of the Pilgrims, the rock was again spruced up and given a new portico.
Over the years, the rock has lost a great deal of weight. It’s estimated that half to as much as two-thirds of the rock are missing, taken by souvenir hunters who chipped off pieces or lost to breakage. Yet Faunce’s rock still survives, nearly 400 hundred years after the Pilgrims first stepped foot on it (or not).
This biography of the rock assembled from History of the Town of Plymouth by James Thacher and Pilgrim Hall Museum.