Like many of the nation’s most revered historical events, Thanksgiving has accumulated a lore that often makes the lines between fact and fiction indecipherable. Of particular note is the purported landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in December 1620. Although historians have recognized its dubious foundations for some time (after all, the first assertion of this came well over 100 years later by someone only born in the 1640s), the rock has become ensconced in the popular imagination.
As time passes, the devotion to a story and veneration of associated artifacts accrue their own significance, even so far as eclipsing the question of authenticity. Plymouth Rock is no exception, and it and its fragments have received quasi-religious reverence in word and action over the last few centuries. In 1831, Congregationalist minister Enoch Sanford wrote that Plymouth Rock was “regarded with a kind of sacredness by multitudes who visit it” while a speech at a New England Society in the City of New York Forefathers Day celebration in 1854 admonished that “if any New England man has ceased to revere the Rock of Plymouth the sooner he disconnects himself with any New England Society the sooner he will cease to be an unworthy son of New England.” There’s no shortage of similar examples, and while we would stop short of a comparison to the Shroud of Turin, such rhetoric reveals Plymouth Rock as a kind of secular relic for many Americans.
And there’s an interesting New York chapter too. In 1844, a 50-lb. piece of the hallowed rock came to the Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, seemingly confirming a unification of its secular and religious roles. For more than fifty years its steward was Massachusetts-born, Harvard-educated, Puritan descendant, Rev. Richard Salter Storrs who came to Brooklyn to serve as the church’s pastor a year later, in 1845. He would later recall, in an 1897 letter about the fragment’s history, that the congregation had already installed it in the church’s tower by the time he arrived.
It would not remain there, however; in 1934, the Church of the Pilgrims merged with Plymouth Church to form Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. But it wasn’t until 1940, the 320th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, that Rev. J. Stanley Durkee received the stone on behalf of his congregation. So, while it may not be news to many Brooklynites, New Yorkers less enthused about making a journey to Plymouth itself will find a piece of Thanksgiving history right here in Brooklyn.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts