The following post is by Ed Redmond, a cartographic reference specialist in the Geography & Map Division.
According to lore, the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts. The location owes its name to the English port of Plymouth where the settlers, also referred to as Pilgrims, began their transatlantic voyage. The Mayflower set sail in September 1620 and arrived near Cape Cod, Massachusetts in December 1620. After a successful harvest, the Pilgrims held a special feast in 1621 which has, over the years, come to be recognized as the first Thanksgiving.
So where, actually, was the first Thanksgiving held? Did they actually land on Plymouth Rock? Inquiring minds want to know! Unfortunately, the Pilgrims were not active on social media so we cannot confirm exactly where they landed. According to oral tradition, however, Plymouth Rock was the site where the Pilgrims first set foot on land.
The story of the Pilgrims coming ashore at Plymouth Rock was first described in 1771 and, in 1774, a team attempted to move the actual rock from the shoreline to the Plymouth town square. Before it could be removed from the beach, it accidentally broke in two. “The Mother Rock” remained in place at the beach and the other piece of rock was moved to the town square. In 1880, the two pieces were reunited back on the beach 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 a national icon and crept into America’s historical consciousness through the imaginative creation of authors, painters, and political officials. Other than the rock and its associations, there is little real evidence of the actual landing on Plymouth Rock. By looking at maps of Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and Plymouth, however, we can attempt to glean a bit more.
One of the earliest maps of New England in the Library’s collections was published by the noted Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) in 1630, only ten years after the Pilgrims arrived in North America! More importantly the map includes the place name “Niew Pleimouth” on Cape Cod.
A second map of New England, published in 1677 by John Foster and shown below, is generally recognized as the first map to be printed in North America. Although the place name “Plymouth” is not shown on the map, the town of “Sandwich” on Cape Cod is shown. The two locales (Plymouth and Sandwich) are separated by fifteen miles.
“Plymouth Rock” started appearing on maps in the late 19th century. In 1882, for example, a commercial publisher produced a panoramic map of Plymouth, which shows the location of Plymouth Rock on Water Street, seen in the detail below. Plymouth Rock also appears on a large scale fire insurance map of the city of Plymouth published in 1891 by the Sanborn Map Company.
While the actual landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock remains somewhat spurious, the rock itself has been well documented by historians and cartographers over the last three centuries and is enshrined in American memory. And perhaps, as we celebrate 397 years after that first Thanksgiving, between overindulgence of food, family, friends, and football, additional information will continue come to light! A Mappy Thanksgiving to All!