The Plymouth myth is rock-solid

Sun Journal

Settlers: In fact, the Pilgrims landed first at Provincetown -- and the rock's place in history is highly questionable, scholars say.

November 25, 1999|By Linda White | Linda White,SUN STAFF

So there you are on the television show "Jeopardy."

You have a comfortable lead and Alex is reading the Final Jeopardy answer: "The place where the Pilgrims first set foot in America after their long voyage on the Mayflower." What a stroke of luck! This one's a slam dunk. Confidently, you write down your question. "What is Plymouth Rock?"

And you watch all your winnings go down the drain. Because your answer is wrong. The actual spot where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World is Provincetown, Mass.

The story of how the Pilgrims left Europe to seek religious freedom in the New World is known by every schoolchild. Called Separatists in England, these religious dissidents fled to Holland to be allowed to worship as they pleased.

But life in Holland proved hard, and when the Separatists noticed that their children were acting more Dutch than English, they decided to emigrate again -- this time to America.

Two ships were to make the treacherous Atlantic voyage, but the Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy and had to be abandoned.

The now-overcrowded Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England, on Sept. 6, 1620. The delays caused by the Speedwell had thrown the journey into autumn, a time of westerly gales in the Atlantic. Foul weather dragged out the crossing, and water, firewood and food were all depleted. Scurvy appeared among the passengers.

Finally, at daybreak on Nov. 9, land was sighted. After 64 days at sea, wrote passenger William Bradford in a considerable understatement, "they were not a little joyful."

There was little doubt that the land was Cape Cod, but to make sure, Captain Christopher Jones tacked up and down the cape for more than 48 hours. On the morning of Nov. 11, the ship put down anchor inside the curving tip of Cape Cod, in what would become Provincetown harbor.

Before sending a landing party ashore, the 41 adult men of the Mayflower committed to paper their collective resolve to join together as one body, subject to a government chosen by common consent. This simple document, later known as the Mayflower Compact, became the foundation of self-government in America. On the monument erected hundreds of years later, the Mayflower principles are recognized as creating "on the bleak and barren edge of a vast wilderness a state without a king or a noble, a church without a bishop or a priest."

A landing party of 16 or 17 men went ashore to gather firewood and scout the land. From the top of a hill they could see across the cape to the sea on its other side. This hill was almost certainly High Pole Hill, the present site of the monument built to honor them.

Due to the shortage of water on the oversea voyage, laundry had not been done on the Mayflower for quite some time. On Nov. 13, the record of that day's landing party states that the men were accompanied by "our women to wash, as they had great need."

Later exploring parties located a small freshwater spring and ears of corn that had been buried by the local Indians. The Pilgrims took all the corn they could carry for use as seed -- they paid for it a year later, with interest. The site is still known as Corn Hill.

But it soon became apparent that the tip of the cape was not an ideal spot for a settlement. The sandy soil was not well suited to agriculture and the November cold on the unprotected spit of land was bitter.

Perhaps most important, there was insufficient fresh water -- a problem Provincetown continues to grapple with. Ironically, the place that saw the first washday in America does not allow a commercial laundromat to operate within the town.

On Dec. 6, a small boatload of men left the Mayflower and crossed the bay in search of a more hospitable place to settle. They spent their first night not on the mainland where Plymouth is now, but across its harbor on Clark's Island.

An exploration of the area satisfied the men that this more sheltered land would support their colony, and on Dec. 16 the Mayflower delivered her passengers to their new home, which became the Plymouth colony.

Whether the large boulder known as Plymouth Rock played any part in that landing remains questionable. The few surviving records from this period do not mention it.

An incident that occurred in 1741 seems to be the nucleus of the legend. Hearing that a wharf was planned to be built over the rock in Plymouth harbor, Elder Thomas Faunce, a 95-year-old Mayflower descendant, asked to be carried in his chair down to the harbor. As recorded in the "History of Plymouth" (1832), he pointed out the rock and told those assembled that he had been assured by his father that this was the very rock that "had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival and which should be perpetuated to posterity."

The rock was spared. The wharf was built without covering it.

"Without Faunce, you don't have anything," says James Baker, a historian for Plimoth Plantation, the modern recreation of the Pilgrim village.

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