In 1741, Thomas Faunce of Plymouth, Mass., had grave concerns 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. Then he wept at the prospect that the new wharf would cover the rock, losing it forever.
Thomas Faunce had served as town clerk, and he was old enough 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, several of the first settlers had pointed out the rock to him, and he always remembered it.
His grandmother even admonished him to never forget that first fateful step the Pilgrims made in America.
Of course, the Pilgraims first landed in Provincetown, but they indeed chose to call Plymouth home.
Many questions arose over the years about Faunce’s designation of the rock. The Pilgrims landed multiple times at Plymouth, and the early accounts of their arrival contain no reference to any rock. Plus, how could anyone know for certain that Thomas Faunce remembered correctly what people had told him as a child?
Nevertheless, the Pilgrim journey in America had to start somewhere and the town gave Plymouth Rock the official designation. Thomas Faunce was wrong in assuming that it would be lost, but over the years the rock has traveled 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. So they hauled the rock up from the shore to the town square, where they erected a Liberty Pole. There they used it as a stage to deliver speeches.
In the process, they split the rock nearly in half. It was later dropped and broken again while being carted to a Pilgrim Hall museum.
In 1859, an architect named Hammatt Billings designed an elaborate Victorian canopy for the rock. The Pilgrim Society had it built at the wharf and in 1880 rejoined its two parts. A stonecutter chiseled 1620 into its top.
The elaborate canopy fell out of fashion by 1920, when Plymouth celebrated the tercentenary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The town tore down the old wharves, created a waterfront promenade and moved the rock down to the water. McKim, Mead and White designed a simpler Doric portico to protect the rock.
Over the years, the rock has lost a great deal of weight. It’s estimated that souvenir hunters chipped or broke off as much as two-thirds of the rock. Yet Thomas 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.
Image of Plymouth Waterfront: By Linear77 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34890560
This story about Thomas Faunce was updated in 2019. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read about the 300th anniversary celebration of the Town of Plymouth here.