The town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, is gearing up to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, which docked on the shores of the New World in December 1620. But on Monday, residents awoke to find that several monuments associated with the Pilgrims’ arrival—most notably Plymouth Rock—had been vandalized overnight.
According to Johnny Diaz of the New York Times, a still-unidentified vandal (or group of vandals) spray painted the letters “MOF” and the numbers 508 in red across the rock, which, according to legend, marks the spot where the Pilgrims disembarked before establishing Plymouth Colony, the first colonial settlement in New England. The culprits also defaced the Pilgrim Maiden Statue, which honors the women who settled Plymouth; the National Monument to the Forefathers; a bench that pays tribute to the daughters of the colonists who arrived in Plymouth in 1623; and four artworks in the shape of scallop shells.
“The defacement of these symbols of Plymouth’s history, or any public property for that matter, is unfathomable and unconscionable,” wrote town manager Melissa G. Arrighi in a Monday Facebook post. “The Town of Plymouth Police are actively seeking those responsible and will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”
Plymouth Public Works crews quickly set about cleaning the graffiti, reports Katie Mettler for the Washington Post, and by Monday evening, Arrighi had taken to Twitter to praise the team’s efforts as “remarkable.”
Arrighi tells the Times that some spots required chemical treatment because red paint had seeped into the stone, but by and large, she says, the markers “look good right now.”
Authorities have yet to identify the culprits, but as Rich Harbert reports for Wicked Local, Plymouth resident Kevin Depathy has launched a fundraising campaign in hopes of raising enough reward money to encourage those with information to come forward. As of Thursday afternoon, the GoFundMe campaign had raised $1,425 toward its stated goal of $2,000.
This is far from the first time Plymouth Rock has been vandalized. In 2014, after vandals spray painted the word “lies” onto the historic monument, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation told the Boston Globe’s Jacqueline Tempera that “this kind of thing happens two to five times a year.” Still, this week’s defacement marks a departure from the past in both its scale and timing.
The vandals’ motives—and whether the graffiti is linked to the upcoming anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival—remain unclear. But as the Associated Press points out, previous political demonstrations at Plymouth Rock have emphasized the Pilgrims’ mistreatment of and encroachment on the indigenous people who occupied the area long before the colony’s establishment. Every Thanksgiving, members of United American Indians of New England gather near Plymouth Rock to commemorate a National Day of Mourning for the “genocide of millions of native people, the theft of native lands and the relentless assault on native culture.”
We are saddened and sickened by the recent vandalism in our historic town. This is just one of our historic monuments that was hit. We will begin clean up as soon as possible and the police are investigating. pic.twitter.com/kQeTxO7sor— Melissa Arrighi (@MelissaArrighi) February 17, 2020
Plymouth Rock, located in Pilgrim Memorial State Park on the shore of Plymouth Harbor, is one of the nation’s most iconic landmarks. It is said to be the place where William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, first stepped onto land in 1620—though the two surviving firsthand accounts of the colony’s foundation do not mention the boulder. (And, in truth, the Pilgrims spent a month exploring Cape Cod before deciding to settle in Plymouth.)
“It wasn’t until 1741, when a wharf was to be built over it, that 94-year-old Thomas Faunce, a town record keeper and the son of a pilgrim who arrived in Plymouth in 1623, reported the rock’s significance,” wrote Megan Gambino for Smithsonian magazine in 2011. “Ever since, Plymouth Rock has been an object of reverence, as a symbol of the founding of a new nation.”
During a recent gathering of Smithsonian Institution scholars, Kenneth Cohen of the National Museum of American History posited that the historical elevation of Plymouth rock stemmed from the “Sublime” aesthetic movement, which emerged in the mid-18th century and sought to stir the strongest possible emotion through art.
Attaching symbolic importance to this single boulder, he added, fuels a mythology that narrows the broader context of the Pilgrims’ arrival.
“It encapsulates Euro-American historical memory that this lone rock, not the shoreline, not the fields, and above all not the people who already lived there, are what they made the focus,” Cohen explained. “To combat the myth, we’ve got to push our visitors so they can look up over the top, and see all the sand, the fields, and above all, the Native peoples who have been busting this myth for centuries already.”
No one can deny that Plymouth Rock has become a fixture of the public consciousness; its defacement certainly prompted strong reactions among locals.
“Outrage. It was disappointment. It was disgust,” Arrighi tells the Times. “The level of disrespect and not caring about public property and the historic community, it’s shocking.”