There are English folk dancers – that is Americans versed in the art of English folk dancing – making a ruckus next to Plymouth Rock.
KAYLIAH: This assemblage that you see here is a group of dancers from Pinewoods English Week. This is an English Dance Camp that’s happening right now, and this is a collection of Morris dancers and longsword dancers from all over the country.
I’d wandered over from Plymouth Rock to see where all the jingling and thumping was coming from and I started chatting with Kayliah Kleevan, who was taking a breather as her comrades put on a romping, stomping performance in Pilgrim Memorial State Park. Or as she put it:
KAYLIAH: …we’ve got this motley assortment of dancers and musicians, we’re all kind of winging it and having a fabulous time mystifying the local population.
As the dancers weave in and out in intricate formations, waving kerchiefs and clanging swords, it occurs to me that this display of old-fashioned Englishness within shouting of distance of Plymouth Rock, THE proto-American icon, has to be some cosmic joke, though I confess I can’t quite figure out the punchline.
I don’t know if what Kayliah says next fits the bill, but it certainly makes us both laugh.
CHARLES: Are you enjoying Plymouth? WOMAN: Very much so. As always, in awe of the majesty of Plymouth Rock… CHARLES: Is that sarcasm? WOMAN: A little bit. But just a little bit.
Feeling embarrassed for the Rock – it was right over there, it could hear us – I try to mount a defense.
CHARLES: It’s had a rough go of things. KAYLIAH: It’s so tiny. CHARLES: To be fair we split in half, put back together. We weren’t kind to it. KAYLIAH: I get that. It was a surprise, let’s just say, the first time I saw it. There’s nothing like it.
This is Iconography, and I’m Charles Gustine your guide on this tour of icons real and imagined.
And so, we arrive at last at Plymouth Rock…
Ever since we explored the New England coast with English colonist John Smith and followed Squanto, before he helped the Pilgrims through their first New England winter, on his zig-zagging journey away from and back to his home, Patuxet (soon to be Plymouth Bay Colony), our tour has been leading up to this moment. We’ve followed the Pilgrims on their storied journey across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, and witnessed it become so storied that we just went ahead and did it again, built another Mayflower, and sailed it across the ocean.
Now the nautical adventure is over; a Pilgrim foot stretches out towards land; it hovers over Plymouth Rock.
This is one of the most iconic moments in the story of America. If you’ve studied American history, it’s certainly a moment you’ve been asked to think about at some point in your life – so I’m curious what exactly you’ve pictured. And if you have actually seen Plymouth Rock in person, I wonder if you can recall what you imagined the rock looked like before you did. What size is that rock in your imagination? Where is the boat in relation to the rock? How is the first Pilgrim off the boat getting from sea to rock without touching any other land?
Whatever you imagine or imagined Plymouth Rock to be, it probably doesn’t end up looking like the rock that’s actually enshrined in Plymouth. If you’re a bit startled by how much it’s not quite what you’re expecting, well don’t worry, you’re not alone.
MATT VILLAMAINO: One of the things that we hear a lot, when people come in, they lean on the railing, they look at the rock, they pause… "Really… That's it? I thought it would be so much bigger." We hear that a lot.
The we in question are the staff at Pilgrim Memorial State Park, which is where I meet up with Matt Villamaino. Matt is the Interpretive Coordinator for the park when it’s in season, which it decidedly is not when we meet up on a nicer-than-expected but still winter-in-Massachusetts January day. Matt has kindly offered to make a short trek down to the rock on a weekend out-of-season to speak with me about the history of this icon – I find out exactly how short a trek, just a half mile away, not long after when we abandon the outdoors and make for his place because well…
MATT: So do you want to hang out here for a bit? I mean it’s not too bad out…
CHARLES: No but I was an idiot, and I forgot my windscreen. So we’re probably picking up a lot of wind… it has a little they call it a deadcat that sits on it, I forgot the deadcat, so even with this little breeze it’s probably going a little crazy.
MATT: I made the mistake of using that term with one of the other interpreters here, not realizing that she would have no clue what it was. And the look on her face was just…. And she knew I wouldn’t come with an actual dead cat, but it was a combination of horrible and puzzled…
Before Matt and I leave Plymouth Rock’s side, I want you to be able to visualize the scene of this conversation, probably not even among the top 500 weirdest exchanges the rock has borne witness too in spite of it being about dead cats.
MATT: So when you come to the park, for the listeners who haven't been there, it's inside a portico or a canopy that was built in 1920 for the 300th anniversary….
The ornate portico, which calls to mind a small Greek temple, sits across a seaside street from the base of Cole’s Hill, a not massive but still rather pronounced feature that looms over Plymouth Rock.
MATT: …and then jutting out on either side of it is land. So it's in a little bit of a cove and then the - for lack of a better term - shoreline, the edges of the cove is all rip rap.
CHARLES: What's riprap?
MATT: Riprap are the rocks that are the erosion control along the edge of the shore.
In the same cove, you would also ordinarily find the Mayflower II, the subject of the previous episode of Iconography, and also the subject of pretty much daily questions for Matt, one of which he answers diligently, even when he’s off duty.
VISITOR: Where is the boat by the way? MATT: The Mayflower is in Connecticut getting restored right now. VISITOR: Oh. MATT: Normally it’s right over there.
The portico that covers Plymouth Rock has also been getting some work done ahead of the big 2020 to-do commemorating the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth, though nothing as drastic as the major restoration the Mayflower is receiving in Mystic Seaport.
MATT: So in the portico here, they ripped out the old floor panels, they redid the floor panels, they repainted the railings. And the underneath the bars they redid the retaining walls to keep the sand in.
Yes, the sand wants to leave. Also, the rock, literally held together by staples and mortar, wants to fall to pieces…
As much as everyone would like it to appear otherwise, Plymouth Rock’s coastal perch is anything but natural, and it hasn’t been for centuries. Left to its own devices, this Rock would become rocks. But the Rock hasn’t been left to its own devices in a very long time. It is probably the least left-alone rock in the history of rocks.
And that history of human interference is written all over the face of the Rock. On the side that faces away from Plymouth Harbor and towards onlookers, it bears a pronounced scar, a slash of filling that runs from bottom left to top right. Look closely and you can even see a big staple in there. And that’s not even mentioning the “1620” which has been chiseled in to the stone, which I probably don’t need to point out isn’t an original feature of the rock formation.
The backside of Plymouth Rock, the side that looks out on the water, is even more startling – it calls to mind a cavity-riddled tooth that’s been treated with an obvious plastic filling.
Most people don’t see that side of Plymouth Rock, and very few get a chance to see what’s beneath the sand, which conceals the most obvious scar of all – the place where the part of Plymouth Rock that’s embedded in the earth is completely and irrevocably separated from the top part which has been removed, paraded around during a decades-spanning tour of downtown Plymouth, and then placed back on top of the lower piece like a hat. On the rare occasions when the sandy bottom around the Rock is removed, the poor thing looks like a prized sculpture that’s been snapped in half by a clumsy child who smushed the halves back together and said “This is fine, I won’t get in trouble.”
This all may sound like a merciless roast of Plymouth Rock, but I need you to understand that I am paying a dear, dear friend a sincere compliment. I wouldn’t have this icon any other way. I’ve frankly been unable to wrap my mind around the prevailing sentiment that visiting the Rock is a dull, two-minutes-at-best experience. “There it is. Hmm. Click (Photo sound). Check.”
There’s so much detail there, so much history written in every scar. Plymouth Rock wears its centuries of fan-induced trauma like a badge of honor. By square footage, Plymouth Rock may not be as large as we imagine it to be, but every inch of the rockface we have tells us a story, and interestingly, pretty much none of those stories are about Mayflower passengers. Even if you do subscribe to the notion that the Pilgrims made landfall precisely on Plymouth Rock (and many very learned people don’t), that run-in with the 1620 landing party would be by far one of the least obtrusive human interactions our Rock has faced.
And the fact that the reason we value it so much that we’ve practically destroyed it – the first steps of the Pilgrims – probably never happened doesn’t make the scars any less profound. It makes them more profound. It speaks to our need for icons, our grasping, desperate hunger for a physical portal to those pasts that we value.
When I look at Plymouth Rock, I wade into the fractures and fillings, tracing the lines back to tragicomic stories of Mayflower passenger admirers who gravitated to this spot and, like meteors pulled in to a planet, broke off chunks and formed craters.
Maybe the reason Plymouth Rock is so frequently seen as underwhelming is because all those stories about how we’ve affected the Rock aren’t well known enough. People love telling stories about cool scars! Maybe if we all knew more of Plymouth Rock’s scar stories, visitors would be appropriately whelmed.
Matt Villamaino certainly thinks so:
MATT: What I want people to do is to look at it as not just a rock but look at it as a symbol and think about what it means to them.When we look at the TripAdvisor reviews for the park and for the rock we can very easily tell who's talked to an interpreter and sometimes which staff member they've talked to by how they phrase what they say. Somebody says “oh just a rock, don't bother…” They probably didn't talk to one of us.If they went to one of our talks and if they go so far as to mention the symbolism in their review, I'm like "We've done our job." And that's what I really want to get across is that, did they step on it? Maybe, maybe not… Is it the most impressive looking rock in the world? I mean it's a rock. But it doesn't matter, and you have to look beyond that.
So let’s look beyond that. The rock is inscribed with the year 1620, but that’s just one year among many that have reshaped its legacy. So how about you, me, and Matt put on a little history pageant, and witness some of Plymouth Rock’s most significant years.
The Prologue: August 1st, 1921
I hope you won’t accuse me of laziness, but I’m actually outsourcing the prologue for our Plymouth Rock pageant, because a pretty damn interesting one has already been written and I want you to experience it firsthand.
“I, the rock of Plymouth, speak to you Americans.”
So begins The Prologue to "The Pilgrim spirit; a pageant in celebration of the tercentenary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December 21, 1620" - that's the full name. It’s August 1st, 1921, a warm Sunday night, and we’re settling in on Cole’s Hill for a scripted song-and-dance spectacle performed by a cast of 1,400. Yes, one thousand four hundred people in the cast.
This is the sixth performance of The Pilgrim Spirit - word has spread by now that this pageant is big. Like so big that the President, Warren G Harding is here tonight too, eager to see if the pageant lives up to that hype. In the New York Times on July 17th, the play’s author George P. Baker marveled:
“During the rehearsals the town of Plymouth presented the extraordinary spectacle of practically an entire community giving itself over heart and soul to a single purpose. The spirit in which these players, all of whom are amateurs, entered into this pageant, is one of self-dedication almost sacramental in its intensity. I feel sure that any visitor to Plymouth could hardly fail to be struck by the complete absorption of the population in the work at hand.”
Now here we are in Plymouth, and yep, this is something to behold. The population of the town of Plymouth is around 13,000 people in 1921; the three other participating towns, Marshfield, Kingston, and Duxbury adds up to about 5,500, so at some point tonight we’ll see nearly 10% of those towns’ entire population bring the history of their municipality to life. And that’s just the people in costume. That doesn’t account for the thousands who made those costumes, the props, everything that’s going to make this performance of the pageant possible, all 24 scenes, from the opening tableaux of Vikings and Frenchmen exploring the New England coast all the way to the final song, “The Return of the Pilgrims,” with lyrics by the renowned New England poet Robert Frost.
But it all begins with the rock.
The stage notes read… ahem…
As the Pageant begins, there is a fanfare of trumpets passing to a hymn-like chord. From the canopied rock a rich, powerful voice speaks. The speaker is unseen.
As a voice intones that first line – “I the rock of Plymouth, speak to you Americans” – a beam of light encircles the new canopy that covers Plymouth Rock down at the waterline, a light so focused and so brilliant that it far exceeds any electrical marvel the crowd around us has ever seen. The work of engineer Munroe R. Pevear, the lighting gets its own dedicated page in the programs we’re holding… the New Republic will write of Pevear that he has “extended the potential boundaries of the pageant, of the entire open-air drama and even, by implication, of the indoor theatre.”
Which is another way of saying adequate outdoor stage lighting was basically brought into existence so that the Jazz Age could throw Plymouth Rock an appropriately grandiose anniversary bash.
A hush falls around you as everyone follows the magnificent light down to the rock, as the hymn-like chord resonates and the Rock continues its oration.
Here I rested in the ooze/ From ages primordial/ Men came and went: Norseman, / Seamen of England, voyagers of France, Dutch adventurers;/ Over and round me / The Indians worked, played, lived.
I was a rock of millions along the shore, / Waiting, - for what? / Came pestilence, sweeping the Indians from the land. / Not one remaining here at Patuxet, Accomack, / Cap St. Louis, New England, as the Indian, the French, / Prince Charles of England, called this spot.
Around me the cleared fields waiting,/ The bay swarming with fish/ The woods full of game, all waiting./ I, too, waiting, for what?
In England, growing, the spirit of man,/ Freed by his Bible, read in his home,/ Studied with passion.
Out of the Church of England – a Puritan./ Out of the Puritan, Separatists, of London,/ Of Scrooby, of Sturton, of England,/ Seeking freedom of thought, of living by truth.
Out of the Seperatists, driven from England,/ The Pilgrim.
England, stern mother, refuses him.
Holland, the foster mother, he leaves, still searching his freedom,/ Sails westward, and comes to me, - / By chance, by choice, who knows?
To me the Pilgrims come, on me they stand,/ As one by one they land.Here they will work out their salvation.
For this I have been waiting, waiting.Of me, the rock in the ooze, they have made a cornerstone of the Republic.
This is an awfully generous series of thoughts for us to ascribe to this slab of granite, considering all we’ve put it through. As we’ll see in the scenes to come, the rock of Plymouth might have rather a different monologue for us if we were ever to ask it how it felt. But first, a moment of absolute peace and tranquility.
SCENE 1: December, 1620
Suddenly the ground is damp and bitterly cold, saturated from a recent storm and thawing from an overnight freeze, though the morning is bright and brisk and clear. Oh right, the harsh spotlight is gone, replaced by the soft light of dawn. The Rock’s deep voice goes silent. We are alone here, you, me, and Matt, in the same spot on the hill, looking down towards the rock and the natural harbor – no portico down there anymore.
The landscape in front of us doesn’t look like any image of Plymouth Rock in 1620 you’ve probably seen before. Most of the famous paintings of Plymouth Harbor in December 1620 feature a craggy shoreline, rough and rocky, a “stern and rock-bound coast” as it’s called in a famous 1825 poem about the landing by British poet Felica Hemans. Those paintings have sudden inclines and little cliffs; one of the most iconic images, by English painter Charles Lucy, has a big mountain in the distance, which… is not, nor has it ever been, a thing in Plymouth or neighboring Duxbury.
Even unmolested and in its full glory, Plymouth Rock isn’t that big; this isn’t the Rock of Gibraltar, a hulking, climbable beast. But it is much larger than the rock of our present, about as long as a stretch limousine, and it certainly does stand out because this is not a rocky area at all, Plymouth Rock notwithstanding. It’s a sandy beach, marshy near the brook immediately to the south. So how did this stone monolith get here?
Matt chimes in:
MATT: So it is a glacial erratic. It came down here during the last ice age as the glacier came south. We think that Plymouth Rock came from somewhere in the Boston Harbor area. The formation is the Dedham formation. It would have been to the northwest of here because the glacier was coming southeast. It picked up that rock and dropped it off here.
It’s not unique as a glacial erratic. There’s glacial erratic all over New England. It’s essentially granite although if we want to get a little bit more specific on it some geologists classify it as grandodiorite. Because there’s not quite enough quartz in it for it to fully be granite.
There’s one other thing that stands out about this area, making it a potential beacon for any refugees who might happen to be out in Cape Cod wandering around looking for a home. The shoreline around us is wild, but it’s not too wild; significantly, this spot has definitely been cleared and harvested and lived in within the last few years, though the people who made this spot home aren’t here anymore. For more on why they’re not here, listen to the Iconography episode on Squanto.
And what about the new arrivals, the pious folk from across the sea? They’re not here yet. But they’re close. Look out past the rock, into the harbor and then turn your head to the north a bit, to the left… see that little island out there? It’s not too far, you can make it out really easily from here, no need to squint. Out there, you have a landing party that’s made land… though just barely and definitely not for the final time.As they wake, they’re getting their first clear look at Clark’s Island, which will be named for Mayflower first mate John Clarke, the man who saved their asses last night and landed their little boat in the middle of a fierce winter storm. The small exploratory party, which also includes military Captain Miles Standish, current governor of the colony wherever it may be John Carver, soon-to-be governor William Bradford, and Mayflower crew member Robert Coppin, greet this cool Saturday morning with the realization that a lot has broken their way.
- First, the nasty storm that split the mast of their boat in three has subsided after a freezing, miserable night.
- Second, fears that the party had left themselves vulnerable to an attack from native tribes have turned out to be unfounded - in daylight, without driving gales, it’s a relief to see that they are on a small island, not the mainland. They weren’t being paranoid here, they’d had a dustup with a small group of Wampanoag Indians two days ago on the other side of Cape Cod Bay, at what would come to be known as First Encounter Beach.
- And third, and most blessed of all - they can now see that they are where they meant to be. Their month-long on-and-off search of the coast of Cape Cod for a permanent refuge, a chance to vacate the very cramped, increasingly fetid Mayflower, may finally be at an end. Robert Coppin had been leading the group to a good harbor he’d encountered during a previous trip to New England with Captain John Smith – yes, that John Smith. In the storm, he’d worried he had missed his mark, but the morning light has revealed that same harbor. Plymouth. The group will take their Sabbath’s Day rest on their little island tomorrow, and then make for the mainland on Monday.
This is a good time to remind ourselves, as we turn our attention away from Clark’s Island and back to the beach at the base of our hill, and the big rock in the middle of that beach, that whatever happens here in two mornings, wherever the first foot falls, it won’t be a “first” anything, really. These explorers have already landed multiple times on the Provincetown side of Cape Cod; Coppin had been to Plymouth Harbor already, as had other Europeans; even if they hadn’t, there had already been people on this shore living their lives for centuries. I said this at the beginning of the Plymouth series - even if there is a grand Pilgrim-foot-to-Plymouth-Rock moment, it’s not like the moon landing.
Which hasn’t stopped us from debating what happens next for centuries. This is where the Pilgrims themselves cease to be very helpful; in the same 1622 pamphlet written by Edward Winslow, known as Mourt’s Relation, that gives us deep insight into the First Encounter skirmish and the stormy journey to Clark’s Island, we get this about the party’s arrival at Plymouth.
“On Monday they sounded the harbor and found it fit for shipping; and marched into the land, and found diverse cornfields, and little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fit for situation; at least it was the best they could find, and the season, and their present necessity, made them glad to accept of it.”
Kind of an anticlimax. And no mention of the rock, and I’ll save you some time, it doesn’t come up when they bring the Mayflower into Plymouth Harbor either.
MATT: Yeah they don't mention it at all. If they stepped on it, I wouldn't anticipate that they do. The analogy that I like to use is if you're house-hunting do you write down in your journal where you parked your car?
I would not.
MATT: The only circumstance I would see them actually writing it down is if when they pulled up to the rock it damaged the boat to the point where they had to fix it.
Aha, but the boat was already damaged from the storm!
MATT: That's one of the reasons why I'm skeptical that they actually stepped on the rock because you don't want to break your boat especially since you've already had to do some repair work to it.
My personal theory is that as they were coming in they used it as a landmark. So they sighted on it. And then as they got in closer they veered left or right, probably left because at that point they could see the marshy area that's going to be indicative of Town Brook coming in.
That seems sensible. So if the Pilgrims never write about the Rock, and logic tells us they probably would have avoided it, how did it end up in a shrine?
Time for a scene change.
Scene 2: 1741
There’s an old man – I’m talking “thankful for every day he wakes up” old – being carried down past us towards Plymouth Rock.
Don’t worry, this isn’t some colonial period thing that people in 1741 think is normal. There’s a crowd gathering down at the beach because they think this is pretty weird too.
They probably all know who this guy is. Elder Thomas Faunce has been around for 95 freaking years, he’s been the town clerk, the church deacon, and even if he wasn’t older than everyone and a well-known member of the community, it’s still not that large of a community, much much larger then it was in the 1620s but still about as many people as you’d have in a moderately sized high school.
And a solid chunk of that community is now gathered down on the beach, a group that runs the gamut from salty old sea dogs to shopkeepers to a cute six year old boy. (Take note of that boy. He’s going to be important.)
They all wait for the slow procession of Elder Faunce, curious to hear why the frail nonagenarian has asked to be brought three miles from his house to the beach with the large rock.
Finally, the procession comes to an end and Thomas Faunce begins speaking to a rapt audience that strains to hear him over the seabirds and waves. We’re a little too far away to hear what Elder Faunce is saying from up here on the hill, but Matt knows the gist of what’s going on here. This is the day “large beach rock” becomes Plymouth Rock. Sort of.
MATT: So the basic evolution of the story of the Rock is that in 1741 there is plans to build a wharf down on the beach there and cover Plymouth Rock.
That’s going to make the salty old sea dogs real happy, but Elder Faunce is devastated.
MATT: Faunce comes down so that he can say goodbye to the rock. And people are wondering “why are you wanting to say goodbye to a rock”. And he’s like "This is where our forefathers took their first steps."
That’s how Thatcher writes it.
Here specifically, is how Dr. James Thatcher writes it in his 1832 “History of the Town of Plymouth.”
“About the year 1741, it was represented to Elder Faunce that a wharf was to be erected over the rock, which impressed his mind with deep concern, and excited a strong desire to take a last farewell of the cherished object. A chair was procured and the venerable man conveyed to the shore, where a number of the inhabitants were assembled to witness the patriarch’s benediction. Having pointed out the rock directly under Cole’s Hill, which his father had assured him was that, which had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival, and which should be perpetuated to posterity, he bedewed it with his tears and bid to it an everlasting adieu…
These facts were testified to the late venerable Deacon Spooner, who was then a boy and was present on this interesting occasion.”
Remember the little six year old cherub I pointed out – that’s Deacon Ephraim Spooner. Well, he’s not a Deacon yet. He’s six…
Someday, that little boy – listening in 1741 to a story about 1620 from a man who was born in 1647 – will relay the events of this day to James Thatcher who will enshrine it in writing, finally, in 1832.
So are you starting to get the feeling I have when I think about this scene? Oral traditions can be extremely accurate, but it has always struck me that the entire legacy of Plymouth Rock as the landing place of the Pilgrims is predicated on a hilariously long game of telephone that involves young children waiting until they become old men to whisper the message into someone else’s ear.
MATT: The tricky thing when we talk about the details of the legend: so it's Thatcher that writes it down in the 1830s in his history of Plymouth, he heard a lot of it from Spooner but Spooner had passed away at that point.
People don’t talk about this a lot, but almost as much time passed between Thomas Faunce giving his benediction and James Thatcher reporting it – 91 years – as passed between the landing of the Pilgrims and Faunce saying the landing occurred at the rock – 121 years. And both of those gaps raise obvious issues.
MATT: Thatcher says that Faunce says that they actually stepped on the rock. Well it could be that Faunce said "oh they stepped right next to the rock." We don't know.
Thatcher writes that Faunce had heard it from his father. We don't know that for sure. That's a detail that could have been easily changed. The other thing is that Faunce was alive at the same time and knew some of the original Mayflower passengers so he could have also heard it directly from them. Well who is he hearing it from? Is he hearing it from somebody who might be just pulling the kid's leg, just be playing with the kid? Or is it somebody who's being truthful? There's a lot about that story that because of the evolution of how it's told, we just don't know the details.
To complicate this just one step further – and I promise, this is the last twist – if we take Thomas Faunce (via Spooner via Thatcher) at his word and trust that this all comes from Thomas’s father, well his father wasn’t there in 1620 either.
MATT: Faunce, his father had come over on either the Anne or the Fortune.
Those are ships that came over in 1623 and 1621 respectively, so Thomas’s father, John, while certainly a stalwart of the early colony, wasn’t a Mayflower passenger and would have heard the landing story secondhand. He would have then passed the story down to his son Thomas before his death at 53 in 1653. Thomas was about six when his father passed away. What I’m saying is, there are a lot of six-year olds involved in creating the legacy of Plymouth Rock.
And what’s wonderful about this wild hand-me-down story is it may all be true – these children may have saved a nugget of history! But there’s certainly grounds to approach that nugget with some reserved skepticism.
But that’s not really how things went down.
MATT: In the 19th century and even into the early 20th century when you get to the 300th anniversary, I think people honestly and truly believe that yes that legend is correct. They stepped on the rock. One hundred percent. I remember reading one newspaper article from around the three hundredth anniversary saying that the evidence is indisputable that they stepped on the rock…
And there's not too many historic items that I would use that term indisputable. I'm always hedging my bets a little bit.
Well, Dr. James Thatcher and historians of his age and later ages were not hedging their bets when it came to Plymouth Rock, which he calls “The Consecrated Rock.”
"The identical granite Rock, upon which the sea-wearied Pilgrims from the Mayflower first impressed their footsteps, has never been a subject of doubtful designation… Standing on this rock… we may fancy a magic power ushering us into the presence of our fathers. Where is the New Englander who would be willing to have that rock buried out of sight and forgotten?”
Ummm where is the New Englander who would bury that rock? They’re all around Thomas Faunce as he bids the rock adieu. They all want to build a wharf because wharves mean shipping and shipping means money. It’s not like the townspeople heard Thomas Faunce’s story and immediately cancelled the plans to industrialize the waterfront, ring-fenced Plymouth Rock, and began worshiping it.
MATT: The wharf is actually built. It's built just a few years later in 1749…
… that’s four years after Elder Faunce died quite elderly at 99. But something must have resonated because they didn’t destroy the rock either, they just left a big rock in the middle of the wharf.
MATT: And we can infer although we have no direct evidence that they raise the rock up so that it's not buried by the new wharf, so we know that Faunce's story is remembered several years later but it doesn't seem like it's a big thing.
Not yet. But it will be soon.
Scene 3: Forefathers’ Day, December 22nd, 1774
Okay, now, with tensions between the British and American colonists rising, Plymouth Rock is a big thing.
Also, literally, it is a big thing. Heavy.
Down the hill from us, on the wharf, twenty yoke of oxen – that’s forty big beefy boys in teams of two – are pulling on Plymouth Rock. Yes, this looks like a bad idea. Yes, it is a bad idea.
When Forefathers’ Day started five years ago, in 1769, it was an eminently genteel occasion, a chance for the members of the Old Colony Club (which was in fact a brand new Gentleman’s Club and not old at all) to honor the landing of their ancestors while avoiding, and I quote “the many disadvantages and inconveniences that arise from intermixing with the company at the taverns in this town.” Mind you, they celebrated that first Forefathers’ Day at a tavern, but it was at a tavern of their choosing, right around the corner here on Cole’s Hill actually, and they had a grand old time singing and gorging and thinking about the glory of their great great grandparents.
One speaker at the Old Colony Club that year was a lad named Ephraim Spooner, all grown up and a Deacon now, and he told the club members that he had been told as a young boy precisely where their Forefathers had landed. Right out there, on that rock in the wharf. And they all thought that was pretty neat.
To clarify, they are not the ones down there now, five years later, trying to tear the rock from the ground with teams of oxen. Actually, by this point, the Old Colony Club has already disbanded, torn asunder by differing opinions on escalating tensions with Mother England, but Forefathers’ Day has lived on, and Deacon Spooner’s story has gotten around and, well, the Rock’s time spent in relative peace and obscurity has officially come to and end.
Under the pretense of moving the Rock to the town square, The Sons of Liberty, led by Colonel Theophilus Cotton, have dug up under the rock and stuck large screws under it to raise it up, and now it’s up to the oxen to heave. They’re getting some traction, but it’s arduous sweaty work for all involved.
So, ummmm, why… do it? The rock seems perfectly happy where it is, embedded in the bustling wharf, and if it’s become important to the people as a symbol, all the more reason to let it be rather than risk damaging it.
Matt how about you field this one?
MATT: The wharf and the other wharves, that's the fishing part of town. It's not the best smelling part of town.
MATT: And you have this important symbol, even though we're not a country yet it's still an important symbol in town here, so regionally it's very important. It's not the best place to visit, so they decide to just bring it up to town square and… as they’re lifting it up… it breaks in half top and bottom.
Yep, there go the oxen, pulling a much lighter than expected load away while the bottom half of the rock remains in the wharf. As I pointed out earlier, a lot of people think the crack you see when you look at Plymouth Rock today is the result of this blunder. But it’s not.
MATT: That is not the crack that happened in 1774. That comes later. We'll get to that. CHARLES: Poor rock. MATT: Yes this rock, it had, up until about 20000 or so years ago when the glacier picked it up, had a nice rock's life and then things started getting a little bit worse for it.
The most hilarious part of this whole incident is that, at least as reported by historians like James Thatcher, it’s not like the obvious destruction of this precious historical artifact caused any wailing or gnashing of teeth. In fact, no one was all that torn up about it, except for the Rock, which was in fact torn up. If you can believe it, apparently, they celebrate.
MATT: Thatcher says that some people saw that as a sign that what becomes the United States, the colonies, should split from England.
The part that stays in the wharf represents England being left behind, and the part they’ll take up to the town square to put next to the liberty pole represents America, free and on the move.
MATT: Again he's writing in the 1830s… Do people in 1774 actually believe that? I'm sure some might. But it's still really early for people to wanting to be fully separate. So I'm a little skeptical about that. That's one of those nice things that you can write years later as you're looking at it.
We’re looking at it now, watching as they realize what they’ve just done to the Rock, and it’s not like they’re dancing a jig. To be fair, they’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of them getting the Rock – well half of it anyway – up the hill. The other half remains behind, almost even with the wharf around it, looking like a wharf designer’s mistake.
One rock is now two. From now on, for the next 104 years, the appropriate response to “Let’s go see Plymouth Rock!” will be “Which one?” And it’s only going to get worse.
Scene 4: July 4, 1834
There’s a commotion coming up behind us, from the town center towards Cole’s Hill. For the first time, I think we can turn away from the waterfront; there’s not much to see here, looking down at the wharf.
You might not be able to make out the Rock down there; horse-carts and people clomp right over it – it’s just become a weird imperfection in the wharf. It’s by the grocers. If we were to go down there and ask him to see it, the grocer would sweep off the rock and slyly say he was “brushing off the cornerstone of the nation” while inviting us to chisel off a chunk if we wanted.
Instead let’s turn and face the commotion head on. There’s a parade coming our way. At the head of procession are a bunch of schoolchildren, and then some wagons, one drawn by six boys with a little Mayflower on it – cute – and then, behind it in another wagon… is that the upper half of the Rock? It looks… smaller then it did sixty years ago… Considerably smaller. What happened?
MATT: People start chipping away at it. So the Rock's life gets even harder.
And it’s not like this was some illicit, thrill-seeking thing people did in the dark of night either.
MATT: The 200th anniversary –-
That’s in 1820 -
MATT: - the town chipped off pieces of the Rock and sent them to historical societies all over the country. So there may be a piece of Plymouth Rock closer to listeners than they think. Those would have been fairly small pieces. The Smithsonian has a fairly large piece. There are pieces of it all over the world either sent out or taken as souvenirs, and the town would actually charge people.
I think this is a little insane to us today – Plymouth Rock is large but it’s not exactly an unlimited resource – and it had actually dawned on the people of Plymouth that, yes, this was actually a little insane to be encouraging this.
MATT: They say "hey you know maybe we should do something more to protect it from people chipping away at it." So they pick it up, they put it in a wagon, they move it to the front lawn of the Pilgrim Hall Museum.
Located less than a quarter mile from the town square, the grand Pilgrim Hall has been operating for ten years now, since 1824. It will go on to be the longest continuously run public museum in the United States. It seems a pretty fitting home for the Rock. Hence the 4th of July parade across town.
Now I have to confess, I didn’t bring us here to revel with 19th century schoolchildren. We’re here because I’m expecting tragedy to strike at any moment. I’m waiting for another mishap, another crack – the crack, that one that you see when you look at the Rock today. Matt bursts my bubble.
MATT: There is a story that during that parade or during that move, something happened with the wagon and it fell out and it broke and that's the cause of the crack that we see there today. And I really wish that was true. CHARLES: Oh is it not true? MATT: I have found no contemporary evidence saying it's true. Newspaper reporters in the 19th century are no different than newspaper reporters today except they write with a whole lot more style. And if somebody drops Plymouth Rock and breaks the symbol of the country, I can't see it not being written down in 1834. That's what you're going to lead with, that's going to sell papers! "NEGLIGENCE CAUSES PLYMOUTH ROCK TO BE BROKEN.” That's gonna make me a lot of money as the newspaper owner. So it's either the greatest cover-up ever or it didn't happen. And I'm inclined to believe that it didn't happen.
Perhaps most damning of all, James Thatcher dedicates a page to the Rock’s 1834 move to Pilgrim Hall in his 1835 2nd edition of his “History of the Town of Plymouth,” and he doesn’t mention any incident at all. Instead, he spends most of his time lavishing praise on the ornate 41-foot perimeter fence that Pilgrim Hall erects around the Rock in June 1835.
"The heads of the perpendicular bars are harpoons and boat-hooks alternately. The base of the railing is studded with emblems of marine shells, placed alternatively reversed, having a striking effect. The upper part of the railing is encircled with a wreath of iron castings in imitation of heraldry curtains, fringed with festoons; of these there are forty-one; bearing the names in bass-relief of the forty-one puritan fathers who signed the memorable compact while in the cabin of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, in 1620. This valuable and interesting acquisition reflects honor on all who have taken an interest in the undertaking. The castings are executed in the most improved style of art. This appropriate memorial will last for ages."
Well…. About that…
Scene 5: September 27, 1880
There’s grunting behind us at the waterfront and the sound of rock sliding over rock. Reunited and it feels so good.
But no one’s here to experience how good it feels. There’s no parade, no procession, no speech. It’s just workmen down there, placing the top half of Plymouth Rock back on top of the bottom half. Or what’s left of both halves after a century of fending off souvenir seekers.
The bottom half of the rock, the part that never left the wharf, looks better cared for at least. It’s no longer under the care of a proud grocer, but instead has been enclosed within a portico, protected by a tall wrought-iron fence on all four sides.
This isn’t the portico we know from our time, the 16-column neo-classical number; this is version 1.0, finished in 1867, a tall, four column monument that hugs the Rock tightly. Actually, maybe a little too tightly; it seems like something really odd has happened to the bottom piece.
MATT: So if you're able to see the lower part of the rock, it's actually rectangular and granite does not naturally come in rectangles and it doesn't usually accidentally happen in rectangles either, it has to be something that's intentional.
The bottom part of the rock didn't actually fit in the original portico. Now you might say well they could make the portico bigger! That is not what they did… They actually cut the rock to make it fit into the portico.
And those big fragments they cut off Plymouth Rock to make it fit, they ended up all over the place – a chunk inside the Pilgrim Hall Museum, another at the Smithsonian, another ended up in the Forefathers’ Monument elsewhere in Plymouth.
Every time we change scenes, the Rock gets smaller but its global footprint gets larger and larger, as its constituent parts make their way around the country and around the world. Still, it feels like this can only be sustainable for so long.
Scene 6: November 1989
Okay, we’ve seen a lot of weird stuff during our pageant through time, but this is probably the most surreal tableaux of them all. The wharf is gone, replaced in 1920 by the verdant waterside park where we started this episode. Down the hill from us, on the other side of Water Street, a bunch of people are down in the cage of Portico version 2.0, the modern 16 column one; they’re knee deep in water surrounding the Rock.
They fight back the tides like gladiators in an arena while, at street level, spectators look down on them and cheer them on; passersby and tourists and reporters and schoolchildren clamor around the railing. And at the center of it all, hunched over the rock in the cage, there’s a twelve-year-old boy pointing a flashlight into the big crack in the back of Plymouth Rock, helping out his father, a man in his forties with both of his arms shoved up inside the Rock.
This is the crack we established, with Matt’s help, probably didn’t happen during the cross-town parade in 1834, as is frequently stated.
MATT: Now it probably didn't help things. The multiple moves. The people chipping away at it. It's later on I think when it finally does fully split. I think it's when they pick it up to demolish the wharf that it fully breaks.
That’s in 1920, in the lead-up to the tercentenary with the pageant that had a cast of 1,400. That’s when mortar and large brass staples were applied to help keep the now thoroughly broken rock from collapsing in on itself.
We know that that break is on a natural fault line and we can kind of see it in pictures through the years. Weathering, water getting in, freezing, especially once it's not on the beach, so rainwater getting in, freezing and expanding, probably made it bigger.
Over the past 100 years, we’ve all been much kinder to Plymouth Rock – we certainly break off large chunks less frequently – but it is still a rock that spends much of its time in freezing water, and our centuries of overeager interaction with the rock combined with its own proclivity for erosion have left it immensely fragile.
Which is why a search has been undertaken for a mason – yes the same person you’d bring in to fix your concrete patio. The mortar and whatever else that’s been holding Plymouth Rock together since the break in 1920 has been deteriorating, and so, with the low bid of $1’s payment and a wealth of preservationist knowledge, Paul Chouqette has stepped into the cage to try to keep Plymouth Rock together as one rock for at least a few more decades.
He’s the man with his arms crammed inside the back cavity of the rock – a cavity he created by meticulously draining out every bit of the old mortar that was holding the rock together.
At one point someone in the crowd above him asks him, “Are you ready for the Liberty Bell?”
“If you give me a shot at it I’ll try,” Choquette replies. “This rock is already eighty percent gone. Even if we can preserve ten per cent of it, we should preserve it. What matters is what it means.”
This exchange is reported a few months later by one of the assembled journalists, John McPhee, in an in-depth profile of Plymouth Rock in the February 29, 1990 issue of The New Yorker.
It doesn’t escape McPhee’s notice that an icon that spends most of its time hearing how small, disappointing, and boring it is is suddenly the subject of intense fascination, admiration, and even a little trepidation about its well-being once it’s laid out on the operating table.
McPhee ends his piece observing:
“They were surprised, all of them, to find so much activity in a place that ordinarily has the aspect of a tomb. I remember particularly a young man from Florida and his companion, a woman from California, who clambered down the riprap to the harbor shore, the better to peer into the cage. He was exuberant. ‘What luck! What luck!’ he kept saying. ‘What luck to find all this going on! My girlfriend wanted to stop here. I didn’t. We argued in the car. She insisted that we come. And I said to her ‘It’s a rock! Nothing ever happens to it.’’
After witnessing six scenes from the history of Plymouth Rock, we know that’s certainly not true – though the Rock probably wishes it were true. I suppose we’ll never know. It is after all a rock, silent and stoic – it has a great poker face.
But still we hold out hope. Let’s fade out on this scene as McPhee watches Paul Choquette and his team wade around in the cage, trying to hold Plymouth Rock together.
“As they moved about, long microphone booms followed them, sparring over their heads. They were entertaining not only children now but ABC, NBC, CNN, and CBS. One mic was kept in a fixed position close to the top of the rock, not to miss a syllable if the rock had something to say.”
I get that. On more than one occasion, I’ve been that guy holding a microphone over Plymouth Rock, ostensibly collecting ambient harbor noise but really waiting for something else.
Every scar on and in Plymouth Rock tells a story, but I spend a lot of time wondering what it would sound like if the Rock could tell its story on its own terms. I highly doubt its story would be “I was just waiting for you the American people to give my humble rock’s life meaning,” which is the monologue that was written for it for the Pilgrim Spirit pageant in 1921. But that prologue has left me pondering what Plymouth Rock would actually have to say after all we’ve done to it.
In all the times I have visited it, I never did pick up anything on mic. But here’s what I hear when I’m communing with Plymouth Rock.
There is a fanfare of trumpets passing to a hymn-like chord. From the canopied rock a rich, powerful voice speaks.
I, the rock of Plymouth, didn’t ask for any of this.
Here I rested in the ooze, from ages primordial, men came and went over and round me, and that was fine. It was nice.
Now, I’m kept in a cage like a dangerous animal, and it’s not because I’m dangerous but because you are: you love your history so much that you’re willing to destroy its future if it means you can be nearer to it today. Maybe not you specifically; maybe you could resist temptation. But my wounds are proof enough that I need this cage.
And why? Because out of England the Pilgrims came and on me they stood? You’re probably wondering if I can clear that up and say definitively if I was where they first trod; I would be the ultimate authority… But I can’t really help you. I’m sorry. Being splintered into thousands of fragments and carried all over the world can really do a number on your sense of self. If someone did step on me in 1620, the part of me where they stepped is probably in someone’s prized family necklace in Wyoming. I’m a bit… scattered.
Maybe you think I hate Thomas Faunce for bedewing me with his tears and ending my millennia of peace, but… actually… it’s more complicated than that. I’m more complicated than that. I don’t hate what I’ve become. I actually think the old man did me a kindness. By paying me a visit before the Plymouth wharf was built, he spared me the fate of so many other rocks – the quarry, the anonymous purgatory in the foundation of a bank, the demolition. Instead, I was dealt a much more interesting hand.
I’m anchored in one place and also I’m everywhere; I’ve lost track of all the places I am.
I am so large in your mind that I disappoint you when you meet me. Which is weird because you never see most of me, just the part you chiseled 1620 into.
I am so historic that I’ve become mythic, and I’m so mythic that, no matter my actual history, I am historic. According to you, I matter. You say I’m not just a rock; I’m the cornerstone of a republic. If that’s the case, your cornerstone is being held together by a staple and some artfully applied mortar. In the end, I am just a rock. I hope that’s okay.
Now my fate is tied to yours. I’ve been here since long before you arrived, and I’ll be here long after you’re gone, but only because of how much you care. If I were left alone, the mortar inside me would rot and I would crumble; but you won’t let me. Once you broke off pieces without compunction; now you work tirelessly to keep the pieces together.
You all love me so much it hurts. But it hurts less because you really do seem to love me.
Like I said, every scar tells a story. I dare you to find another icon that’s more complicated, complex, and multi-faceted – multi-faceted in a very literal sense. Every piece of Plymouth Rock out there has facets upon facets upon facets… And you thought Plymouth Rock might be boring.
I, the host of Iconography, speak to you listeners… (Laughs)
I can’t keep that up. I hope you’ve enjoyed this miniseries on the icons of Plymouth, Massachusetts. I write, edit, and produce Iconography myself, which gives me a lot of room to stretch and try out new things, and I’ve tried a lot of new things as I’ve used the magic of podcasting to bring you to Plymouth (and back in time to 1620) – if you’ve enjoyed our time together in Plymouth Bay Colony, I have a favor to ask. Tell me about it on iTunes or the podcast provider of your choice. I love to hear about your interactions with Iconography, and your ratings and reviews help other listeners find the show so they can join our tour before we head to our next destination.
But before, we pack up and leave Plymouth, I’ll have one more bonus interview episode for you guys coming up on what this all means for the upcoming Plymouth 400 commemoration. That’ll be with Plymouth 400 Communications Director Brian Logan, who I’ve thanked many times on the podcast already for turning me on to pretty much everyone who’s appeared on the podcast this season, including this episode’s guest, Matt Villamaino.
Speaking of thank yous, thanks to Carol Zall for script editing and feedback, and to our two voice actors this episode, both of them founders members of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-based collective of smart, idea-driven podcasts, which Iconography is also a member of!Wade Roush was the good Doctor James Thatcher, and is the host of Soonish, a podcast about what the world of tomorrow will look like. Would you believe that his latest episode “The Art That Launched a Thousand Rockets” is about two futurist artists whose work defined the iconography of space travel, and one of those artists, Chesley Bonestell, actually designed the portico that sits over Plymouth Rock? Well it’s true! And no, we didn’t plan this.
The rock of Plymouth was, I’m sorry to say, not actual footage of the rock speaking to me, but instead was the voice of Tamar Avishai, host of The Lonely Palette, the podcast that returns art history to the masses. Tamar’s latest episode is about Rembrandt van Rijn, who was growing up in Leiden, Amsterdam during the same period that the Pilgrims were living in the city. 1620 can always feel very very far away until you see a Rembrandt painting, and you realize how vivid, how recent, how modern 1620 actually was – I was reminded of that listening to Tamar talk about Rembrandt’s work. Once again, we didn’t plan this. We’re just that good of a collective.
You can check out Soonish at soonishpodcast.org. You can check out The Lonely Palette at thelonelypalette.com. Or you can listen to both those podcasts, and all the podcasts in the collective, at hubspokeaudio.org – that includes the newest addition to the Hub & Spoke fold, the incredible podcast The Constant, which I’ll tell you more about at the end of the upcoming bonus episode of the podcast.