The Debunker: Where Did the Mayflower Land?

by Ken Jennings

When the Plymouth pilgrims sat down to their historic harvest feast in the fall of 1621, they had managed to survive a very tough first year in the New World, with the help of their Wampanoag neighbors. If they could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is here to talk turkey about all the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Did the Mayflower Land at Plymouth Rock?

As American symbols go, Plymouth Rock is such a potent one—right up there with the Liberty Bell and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—that tourists are inevitably disappointed when they visit it today at Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Memorial State Park. It’s just a lump of granite—and a surprisingly small one, since about two-thirds of the rock has been chipped off over the years. In the late 19th century, the date “1620” was carved in its surface, to vouch for its bona fide Plymouth Rock-ness. But did the pilgrims really land at Plymouth Rock? We’ll never be sure, but the historical evidence is so flaky that it seems very, very unlikely.

Plymouth Rock isn’t mentioned in the firsthand accounts of any of the Plymouth pilgrims. In fact, it first shows up in the historical record over two centuries (!) later, when a Plymouth doctor and writer named James Thacher decided to write the town’s history. Thacher was told by local jurist Ephraim Spooner that in 1741, when Spooner was a boy, a 95-year-old local church elder named Thomas Faunce had been carried down to the shore to bid farewell to the pilgrims’ landing place. Aha, you say. The elderly Mr. Faunce was a Mayflower pilgrim? Well, no. He heard the story from his father. His father, by the way, was not a Mayflower pilgrim either. He came on a later ship.

So it’s not impossible that an unbroken oral history went from some mystery pilgrim to Mr. Faunce Sr. to Thomas Faunce to Ephraim Spooner to James Thacher. But given the kind of exaggerations and inaccuracies that tend to accumulate in local folklore (particularly when 95-year-old men bragging about his proximity to Important Historical Events are involved) I don’t think there’s much chance that the first pilgrims actually stepped ashore on this specific rock. What’s more, even if they had, it wouldn’t have been their historic arrival in the New World. Before moving on to Plymouth, the Mayflower first anchored at the tip of Cape Cod, off what is today Provincetown. But there is no Provincetown Rock, probably because no old guy thought to make one up.

Quick Quiz:

At the 1964 founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, who told the crowd, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us”?

 

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.