Nature writer Henry David Thoreau was offered a memento but declined. Others delighted in the offer. The rock turned into paperweights, cornerstones, at least one door step, filling for a concrete floor, family heirlooms. Finally, guards were posted.
"You've got thrifty Yankees. If you got some damn fool tourist who wants to give you $1.50 for it, you take it," says Peggy Baker, director of Plymouth's Pilgrim Hall Museum. The museum displays its own slab.
The top part of the rock was finally enclosed in an iron fence and eventually reunited with the boulder's bottom at the shore beneath a granite canopy. For the 300th anniversary of the landing, the National Society of Colonial Dames of America erected a Parthenon-style portico over the rock.
In the last several decades, its legend has been increasingly eclipsed by the story--also a mixture of fact and fancy--of the Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors.
"Now where does the rock come in? It doesn't," says Mayflower descendant Jim Baker, a Plymouth historian and husband of the museum director. (Actually, American Indians have poured paint or dumped sand on it during Thanksgiving protests starting in the 1960s, after which it was cleaned up.)
What remains of the rock is estimated to weigh about six tons. High tides still slosh over it, exposing it to more natural damage on top of centuries of a nation's hard love.
But the rock is still tended like a beloved, if out-of-step, great-grandparent. It is periodically waterproofed, its cracks mortared.
It's still a buttress for local tourism in what is promoted as America's hometown. (Never mind that English people settled 13 years earlier down in Jamestown, in the Virginia colony.)
You can visit the rock for free at any hour, even if more profitable attractions await just down Water Street, like whale watching and a reenacted pirate adventure. If you really do like history, the role-playing characters at Plimouth Plantation (which uses the old spelling) will interact with you.
The rock says and does nothing, yet an estimated 800,000 people a year still come from the far ends of this super-sized nation, and beyond, to take a look.
Many are disappointed. "I should have known it was just a rock," griped college administrator Peter Dolce, a visitor from Nashville.
Yet, many return again and again, even in the kind of weather that killed dozens of Pilgrims the first winter. "It's just something you always do; you just come here," said Evan Mazetis, another in the group of teenagers stopping by the beach in winter.
The Pilgrims chose this spot for its protected harbor and flat, safe shoreline. Given a choice, they would probably have avoided Plymouth Rock as a hazard to their wooden boats, Seelye suggests.
But the legend and its followers endure. Ruth B. Walker, 83, a Plymouth native who acts as a state-park interpreter of the rock, says the Pilgrims probably stepped on it to keep their feet dry in that cold, wet winter.
"It would have made good sense," she says. That's argument enough for many New Englanders--and many other Americans.