Plymouth Rock

The political history collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History contains two pieces of Plymouth Rock, where—according to legend—the Pilgrims landed in 1620. The first piece of Plymouth Rock in the collection is 4”x2” and was chipped from the rock in 1830 by a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. Lewis Bradford marked the piece with a label that reads, “Broken from the Mother Rock by Mr. Lewis Bradford on Tues. 28th of Dec. 1850 4 ½ o’clock p.m.” This piece of rock found its way into the hands of Gustavus Vasa Fox, a New England antiquarian, diplomat, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It was donated to the Smithsonian by the Fox family in 1911.

The second piece of Plymouth Rock weighs in at 100 pounds. In the 1920s, the Plymouth Antiquarian Society inherited a 400-pound piece of the “Mother rock” when it purchased the Sandwich Street Harlow House and discovered the rock being used as a doorstep. The society broke the doorstep in three pieces and, in 1984, offered a piece to the Smithsonian. In 1985, museum officials traveled to Plymouth, Mass., to accept the gift.

History of Plymouth Rock

The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor in 1620, after first stopping near today's Provincetown. According to oral tradition, Plymouth Rock was the site where William Bradford and other Pilgrims first set foot on land. Bradford was the governor of Plymouth Colony for 30 years and is credited with establishing what we now call Thanksgiving.

The story of the Pilgrims coming ashore at Plymouth Rock is not mentioned in contemporary accounts of the landing, but was first described in 1771. In 1774, a team attempted to move the rock from shore and place it next to Plymouth’s liberty pole in the town square. Before it could be removed from the beach, it accidentally broke in two. “The Mother Rock” remained in place and the other piece of rock was moved into town. In 1880 the two pieces were reunited back on the shore and cemented together—but not before a number of pieces had been broken off for souvenirs or other purposes.

Over the years, Plymouth Rock has achieved the status of national icon and crept into America’s historical consciousness through the imaginative creation of authors, painters, and political officials.

The chipped piece taken from the “Mother Rock” by Bradford’s descendent will be featured in a forthcoming book about museum relics entitled, The Triumphal Souvenir, by curator William Lawrence Bird.