Today, Plymouth Rock is perhaps a third of its original size. Beginning during the American Revolution, the top of the granite boulder was chopped off and then installed in various locations around town as a monument to liberty, getting exponentially more fractured in the process. Peggy Baker, director of Plymouth's Pilgrim Hall Museum, tells me that pieces were chipped off for souvenirs, or removed to serve as either official gifts or to put in the cornerstones of town halls that sprouted across the American West. The bottom half was trimmed to fit under a granite canopy in 1867. The two halves were reunited at the waterfront in 1880.
Somewhere near here, the Pilgrims held that seminal banquet, but the observance to which we pay homage today traces its roots more directly to the mid 19th century. It was originally an autumn tradition founded by New Englanders, which spread as they fanned out across the nation. It had little link to the actual Pilgrims until 1841, when Alexander Young published a book of early Plymouth writing, including what Young dubbed an account of "The First Thanksgiving" — Pilgrim Edward Winslow's brief report of a 1621 harvest feast.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday only in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared a "day of thanksgiving, praise, and prayer" during the Civil War. It was meant to be a solemn event, thanking the "Divine Majesty" for his help and guidance during the war. The occasion began to be reshaped into the Hallmark occasion we know today in the late 19th century, in a similar spirit to and at the same time as the Statue of Liberty was being erected in New York Harbor. The Pilgrims were thus transformed from small-minded, hypocritical religious fanatics into role models of a new paradigm. No wonder so many wanted to emigrate to America.
A cow's low mooing greets me at "New Plimoth," a recreation of the original Pilgrim town at Plimoth Plantation, which has been bringing "history to life in a fun and interactive setting" just three miles southeast of downtown Plymouth for six decades. The advantage of simulations and re-enactments as awesomely vivid, detailed, and historically accurate as this is what you learn from direct experience. For example, one thing Plimoth Plantation teaches that you don't learn from history books: the Plymouth of 1627 smelled a lot like cow shit.
Scrappy gray wooden houses stand cheek by jowl along a dirt road. A fort at the top of the hill looks down over the village and out to the water beyond — just like at the original Plymouth. Chickens run loose. A bearded man in a leather vest and yellow pantaloons guides a shaggy black heifer along a lane. Another fellow climbs up to the peak of a roof and mends its thatch.
It's like stepping back into a small 17th century English colonial outpost, albeit one overrun by elementary-school anthropologists from the future rattling off questions at the inhabitants. I wander in one door and find two old-timey gents who kindly invite me to warm myself by their fire. I ask a Pilgrim who identifies himself as Edward Winslow — a stand-in for the Winslow whose description of that landmark 17th-century meal turned into Thanksgiving — about, well, Thanksgiving.