Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a talk by Dr. Paul Jehle of the Plymouth Rock Foundation. Boy, was I shocked to find out just how little I knew about the Pilgrims’ landing in America. Jehle’s little book, Plymouth in the Words of Her Founders: A Visitor’s Guide to America’s Hometown, provides an impressive amount of evidence on the Pilgrim colony.
The Separatists known as “Pilgrims” (Puritans who felt they had to separate from the corrupt Church of England) had first gone to Leyden, Holland to escape. But after a time there (even today Holland isn’t known for its morality), they concluded they needed to get still further away from Europe’s corruption. On July 22, 1620, they left in a ship named the Speedwell for Southampton, England to re-provision and to join with another ship, the Mayflower, and its complement. Altogether there were about 120 passengers and an unknown number of crew. Estimates put the crew members at 25. Together the two ships sailed for America.
They didn’t get far.
On August 13, a leak in the Speedwell forced them back to Dartmouth, England. Thinking they had the problem fixed, they set sail again on August 23, only for the Speedwell to begin leaking yet again. This time they abandoned the ship, selling it, and cramming everyone onto the Mayflower. Once again they set sail, this time on September 6. Their voyage did not see its end of troubles. First, a crewman took sick and died; then the main beam cracked and was buttressed by a large screw. On November 9, they arrived off Cape Cod and after a bit of wandering laid anchor at modern day Provincetown on November 11.
The Pilgrims were not alone on the Mayflower. A number of non-Pilgrim adventurers and explorers had come along, referred to by the Puritans as “Strangers.” Sitting on the Mayflower, they grew concerned that their more holy brethren might try to become the moral police and control them. Some threatened to leave the colony. To their surprise, the Pilgrims agreed that whatever directions the colony should to, it needed to be done with all in agreement. They laid out a form of governance known as the “Mayflower Compact,” the first document of self-government in the New World.
They didn’t dare go ashore yet with the full party: they didn’t know the land, but from the stories brought back from the Jamestown settlers, knew that there were natives known as Indians about. For just under a month, using a small boat, they explored. Once the party was attacked by Nauset Indians, but no one was killed. Snowfall made vision from the small boat (the shallop) or the Mayflower difficult. Finally they put the shallop into Clark’s Island during a “gale.” On Saturday, December 9, they fixed their vessel, but their was no time to explore further before the Sabbath, whereupon they held the first Pilgrim church service in the New World at . . . Pulpit Rock on Clark Island.
Jehle notes that “Pulpit Rock preceded Plymouth Rock in the landing of the Pilgrims,” or, that faith in God came before the actions of man. Reporting back they had found a place to land, on Monday December 11 the full complement of Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth Rock—a relatively small rock compared to Pulpit Rock. By the way, a change in the calendar in 1752 made the date of the landing December 21. According to Jehle, much of our knowledge of Plymouth Rock comes from the testimony of Thomas Faunce, who at 95 years old made a trip to the town as Plymouth was building a waterfront. He related that as a child, he had been told by his father and others that indeed, this was the place they came ashore.
Now are you ready for the kicker? In 1774—just one year before the American Revolution started in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts—Plymouth residents attached a pulley to Plymouth Rock to move by oxen to the town center to encourage men to join the militia to fight for independence. As they attempted to dislodge Plymouth Rock, it split in two. One might say it was an eerie harbinger of America’s separation from England just two years later.
But it gets better.
On the Fourth of July, 1834, the townspeople again tried to move the half of Plymouth Rock that was in the town square to the front of Pilgrim Hall, a public museum constructed in 1824. Was this a “warning” from Plymouth Rock that America was yet to be divided again in 1861?