The veneration of rocks connected to religion and political history is well known, from the bits chipped off the pillar of Symeon the Stylite to the pounded chunks of the Berlin Wall. Plymouth Rock is no exception.
At some point in the past (most likely a lot further than seven thousand years) a retreating glacier dropped a boulder weighing at least a dozen tons. The rock was made of igneous granite, the same type as the Rosetta Stone.
In mid-December, 1620, an exploratory party of the English Separatists that became known as the Pilgrims landed in what is now known as Plymouth Harbor, and, on discovering it to be a well-defended area with land cleared already (by indigenous people who had succumbed to the English import of smallpox) decided to settle there. They had already landed, further north in what became known as Provincetown, but had been attacked and were freezing their asses off as well. Although there was already another colony of English speaking people in the Americas, the Pilgrim colony in Plymouth was the first established by people seeking religious freedom, and so this landing took on a more sacred and patriotical patina over the years.
No one really knows if the Plymouth Rock as it now exists was the first bit of land in the harbour the pilgrims set foot on, but-- the story goes-- in 1740 the old town recorder of Plymouth, Thomas Faunce, at age 95 learned that a wharf was to be built where the Mayflower first landed, which would cover the rock. He was a bit upset and asked to be carried down to it, upon which he started crying, telling of how his father had told him that his father had told him this was the rock that was first trod upon by the emerging Pilgrims, and that he had taken his own children and grandchildren yearly to the rock to remind them of their heritage. He cried a bit more about this, and so, when the wharf was built, it didn't cover the rock.
In 1774, townsfolk in the fervour of anticipated liberation decided to move the rock to the town meeting house. On first try of placing it on a carriage, the rock smashed the transport to bits and broke in two. The bottom half of the rock was left by the wharf, and the top half taken away. Over the next century, bits of the rock were chipped off and passed to town halls and museums of the young nation. The top half of the rock was shifted to the town square, and then, in 1880 back to (poorly) match its other half, with the date 1620 chiselled into it to mark the year the rock was graced by the footprints of the Pilgrims, and an iron fenced tomb-like portico built around it. On the tricentenary, the memorial was rebuilt on a grander but more sedate scale, and again fenced off to keep out both souvenir chippers as well as the weeping descendents of Thomas Faunce.
There are memorials across the cities of America that show off their piece of the Plymouth Rock. The 200 pound rock in the Smithsonian collection was originally used as a doorstop. Bits of the rock show up on Ebay now and then, but if you are interested in one, perhaps you'd also like to purchase one of my pieces of the Berlin Wall as well?