The settlement of the Puritans—later to be known as “Pilgrims”—at Plymouth in 1620 looms large in the development of New England and the United States. Unfortunately, virtually all the historic sites relating to the earliest period of the settlement have lost their original character and convey little impression of the colony. One exception is Cole’s Hill, which is still the dominant landmark of Plymouth Harbor. The view from the hill of land and harbor and sea conveys a vivid impression of the scene that greeted the Mayflower’s weary passengers.
The hill rises up from the shores of Plymouth Bay near the foot of Leyden Street, principal thoroughfare of the original settlement. It was the traditional burial place of the Plymouth colonists, Pilgrims, and others, who died during the “starving time,” the tragic first winter of 1620-21. The dead were reportedly buried at night, and their graves disguised to prevent the Indians from learning the dangerously weakened state of the survivors. In later years, the colonists occasionally mounted cannons on the hill to ward off possible attack from the sea.
In an early assignment of land tracts, the hill became the site of the home of Deacon Samuel Fuller, the Mayflower Pilgrims’ “physition & chirurgeon.” It was named after the popular tavernkeeper who for many years after 1645 maintained his establishment on a spot overlooking the bay.
Historically, Cole’s Hill is perhaps not as significant as other points in Plymouth—Burial Hill, for example, where the colony’s first fort was erected, or Leyden Street, where the settlers built the first houses. Unfortunately, the historical character and integrity of these locations have been diminished or wholly obliterated with the passage of time and the growth of the city. Burial Hill, filled with the graves and monuments of many generations, is encroached upon by the present town. Cole’s Hill, however, is today relatively open and affords a sweeping view of the bay into which the Mayflower sailed and the shore on which its passengers landed.
Cole’s Hill is maintained by the Pilgrim Society as a public park. On its top stands the memorial to the Mayflower Pilgrims, erected by the General Society of Mayflower
Descendants. In a crypt beneath the monument are bones uncovered during excavations in the 18th and 19th centuries; because no burials were made on the hill after 1637, perhaps some are the unfortunates who braved the terrors of the ocean passage only to die in the first months of the colony’s existence. Also located on the hill is the statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief whose friendship shielded the struggling colony from Indian attack in its early years.
At the foot of Cole’s Hill is Plymouth Rock, legendary landing site of the Pilgrims and steppingstone to the New World. It has rested in several places over the years, and has been venerated for more than two centuries, first by the people of Plymouth and later by the Nation. Whether or not the Pilgrims actually landed on the rock, it has deep meaning for most Americans. Cole’s Hill, the nearby rock, and the curving shores of Plymouth Bay memorably evoke the time more than three centuries past when Englishmen came to the shores of New England to stay.
Cole’s Hill was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Sitting atop the hill is a large statue of Massasoit and a sarcophogaus containing the remains of Pilgrims who succumbed during the first winter in 1620-21.
Jonathan of Bone Stories gives a brief introduction to the history of the early pilgrims from atop Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts: