Perhaps the most enduring and visible legend in the Mayflower story is the landing on Plymouth Rock.

The arrival of the Pilgrims to New England is described as a singular event, where the durable, determined passengers first set foot on the solid rock of Plymouth in a near-ceremonial moment. The event was depicted as such in numerous 19th Century paintings, and more than one million visitors view the rock every year in Plymouth today. The rock has become a national symbol with larger than life significance.

Did this event really happen as the legend tells us? An objective review of the historical evidence tells us that it is unlikely. Here are some facts to consider.

The story of Plymouth Rock as the legend tells it did not appear in until 1741, well over a century after the arrival of the Pilgrims. In that year, 95-year-old Thomas Faunce asked to be taken to Plymouth Harbor to view a certain rock on the beach. He was carried to the site on a chair and identified the rock to a small group of onlookers as the spot “which had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival.”

He had been told this by his father, who was not an eyewitness or participant in the event as he arrived in Plymouth on the Anne in 1623. Thus, Faunce’s story was third-hand at best.

In 1744, the Chilton family history picks up the story and indicates that it was 13-year-old Mary Chilton who was the first one out of the boat setting foot on Plymouth Rock, as depicted in the adjacent 1877 painting by Henry Bacon. There is no historical evidence of this either.

William Bradford and Edward Winslow, who wrote first-hand accounts of the Mayflower landing and the establishment of Plymouth Colony, make no mention of a landing on a rock. Neither does Nathanial Morton, Secretary of the Colony’s General Court, in the first published history of the Colony in 1669. Moreover, the circumstances and chronology of the Plymouth arrival cast further doubt on the Plymouth Rock legend.

When the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth soil on or about December 10, 1620, the Mayflower was not present. It was still anchored in the future Provincetown Harbor. It was the third exploratory expedition sailing in the Mayflower’s shallop that arrived first, fresh from the “First Encounter” that occurred on the beach in Nauset, the on December 8. This exploratory party was a virtual “who’s who” of future colony leaders and luminaries, and included the two aforementioned first-hand historians, William Bradford and Edward Winslow.

After leaving the shores of Nauset, the explorers headed for what the Mayflower’s pilot, Robert Coppin called “Thievish Harbor,” a place that turned out to be Plymouth. The party spent its first night on an island in Plymouth Harbor. The first to set foot on land there was John Clark, a member of the Mayflower’s crew. From that day on, the island has been called Clark’s Island, and there is no mention of a rock in any of the accounts.

In the following days, the party explored the Plymouth area and determined that it would be a good place for the Pilgrim’s new home. Again, no mention of a rock. The explorers returned to the Mayflower with the good news, and after a brief weather delay, the Mayflower embarked for Plymouth, arriving on or about December 18.

The disembarking of the passengers of the Mayflower was a gradual process lasting several months. Most continued to reside on board while suitable shelters were constructed on land, a process that took several months. It is believed that the last of the passengers came ashore in March of 1621. While it is possible that one or more Pilgrims stepped on a rock when landing, no one at the time mentioned it.

The hazy and glowing legend of the Mayflower story as it came down to us over 400 years contains numerous inaccuracies in the form of additions, omissions, and distortions.

Some of these, such as the marginalization of the Native Americans, are harmful to our understanding of the events. The Plymouth Rock legend is not. Rather, it is a condensation of a broad range of events into a single moment, or symbol, one that has endured to capture the spirit of the Mayflower voyage.

Understanding that, we can still gaze on the rock in Plymouth Harbor and conjure up the hardship, perseverance, and ultimate triumph of those 102 souls that made this most consequential journey in 1620.

Ron Petersen is chairman of Orleans Historical Commission. Plymouth 400: The Nauset Connection appears monthly.