PLYMOUTH, Mass. (WHTM) — On Dec. 21, 1620, the Pilgrims departed the Mayflower, rowed ashore at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, and began new lives in the New World.

This tale grew into the story we know today, which could best be described as a mix of verifiable facts, facts that (for whatever reason) get left out, and outright mythmaking.

First, some facts. The settlers on the Mayflower weren’t all Pilgrims. About 50 non-Pilgrim passengers were included to help pay for the passage. The Pilgrims called the additional passengers “settlers” or “strangers.” They called themselves “saints” — which gives you a hint about how the Pilgrims tended to rub people the wrong way back in England. (We’ll just keep referring to them collectively as Pilgrims for the rest of this article.)

The Mayflower took 66 days to cross the Atlantic ocean. By all accounts, it was a miserable voyage, with a lot of stormy weather, overcrowding, and disease. The original plan was to reach Virginia, which had been colonized by the English starting in 1607. (Specifically, they were heading for “Northern Virginia” which back then reached up to New York.)

In November 1620, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod. But their attempts to head south were stymied by shallow seas and rough water. They decided to find a place to anchor, and so it came to pass they made their first Landing in the New World.

It wasn’t Plymouth.

The Mayflower dropped anchor on Nov. 11, 1620, in the sheltered harbor of what’s now Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the very, very northern tip of Cape Cod. (While there they signed the Mayflower Compact — but that’s another story.)

The Provincetown location provided a safe anchorage, but that part of Cape Cod was (and is) predominantly sand dunes — not the best place to try to set up an agricultural community.

The Mayflower stayed at Provincetown-to-be for five weeks, while expeditions in the ship’s 30-foot shallop (a small boat) explored Cape Cod, pilfered some Native American food caches, and skirmished with some members of the Wampanoag tribe. (Nobody got hurt…this time.) Eventually, they settled on Plymouth, or Plimouth as it was spelled then, as a place to establish their settlement.

Mayflower sailed across the bay and dropped anchor at Plimouth on Dec. 16. Or Dec. 18. There seems to be some disagreement about this. On Dec. 21, 1620, the Pilgrims finally disembarked from the Mayflower and climbed ashore on Plymouth Rock.


Speaking as someone who’s had some experience with getting in and out of small boats, I doubt this story. It seems much more likely that they would row the boat up to a beach, a couple of burly sailors would hop out and drag it further ashore to steady it, unload the passengers at the bow, then shove the boat back into the water to go pick up the next load of Pilgrims. You may get your feet damp, but it’s better than slipping on a wet boulder, falling into the drink, then getting squashed when a wave slams both you and the boat against the rock.

Besides, Plymouth Rock doesn’t become part of the Pilgrim story until 1741, over 120 years after the fact. That was when 94-year-old Thomas Faunce made the claim that some of the original Mayflower Pilgrims told him that was where they landed.

Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. Unless some long-lost document gets unlost, we’ll never know for sure. The rock is smaller than it used to be; souvenir hunters chipped away as much as two-thirds of it before it was enclosed for its protection. It’s always possible it was once large enough to serve as a makeshift pier.

(Plymouth Rock is actually kind of interesting even if the history is hearsay. It’s what’s known to geologists as a “glacial erratic,” a rock picked up by glaciers during the ice age, carried along miles and miles, then left behind when the glaciers receded.)

Between 1741 and 1920, Plymouth Rock moved around a lot. It was dragged to the town square in 1774. (It broke in half when they tried to move it. The top was moved, and the bottom was left in place.) It was then put into a museum for a while, reunited with its lower half in 1880, and exhibited on the town wharf under an elaborate canopy. (That was when the date “1620” was carved on it.) The Victorian-era monument was replaced by the current structure, a Doric-style portico in the 1920s.

To this day it still draws crowds, people coming to learn — or perhaps unlearn — history.