Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five Kernels of Corn- An Update

This morning I posted a story about the old "Five Kernels of Corn" tradition at this link  or you can scroll down to my previous post if you are at my home page.  This story is an old tradition in New England of serving five kernels of corn before the Thanksgiving dinner to remember the suffering of the Mayflower passengers during the winter of 1620-1, when half of their company died of deprivation and sickness.

Apparently, just like Plymouth Rock and Longfellow's poem "The Courtship of Myles Standish", this is another myth made famous sometime after the American Revolution.  American History mixed with sentimental ancestor devotion mixed with mythology has produced many tales about the first years of the Plymouth Colony.   I had posted a link to my blog post on the Facebook group "General Society of Mayflower Descendants".  Within a few hours, my Mayflower cousin Ginny Mucciaccio related to me how the story of the Five Kernels was brought up at yesterday's Compact Day luncheon of the Massachusetts Mayflower Society.   Governor Gilmore asked Jim Baker, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Assistants, and Richard Pickering, their guest speaker and former Plimoth Plantation staff member, to explain the story.  Both declined since it was a myth.

Jim Baker sent this excerpt from a pamphlet published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in the 1950s.  It debunks the myth and explains the history of how it came to become popular.  It is interesting to read how a myth is started, and why it becomes popular.   I know this tradition will be repeated all over Thanksgiving tables this Thursday, and although it is a fun tradition, it is equally important to know the real story.

"After the corn planting in the spring of 1623, the scant supply remaining until the following harvest, when pooled and divided, permitted a ration, according to tradition, of only five kernals of corn per day per person. Nevertheless, still other demands arose and even this slender supply became exausted before the next harvest. Thus came about the memorable ‘starving time’. The suffering became intense. Strong men fell exhausted at their work. However, it is recorded that not one succombed [sic]. Their great faith, and indomnible will to survive, carried them through to the next harvest, and the well-earned years of plenty ahead."

From Jim Baker:

However, this never happened. There is no mention of the supposed division in any of the contemporary sources, nor is there any reason to believe that the colonial leaders would actually issue a daily corn ration of five kernals, which was not enough to be of any nutritional benefit. Instead, they simply ran out at the end of the spring season in April when the planted what they had put aside as seed. As J. A. Goodwin (1888) observed concerning the tradition, "the story rests on no foundation, and is opposed to common-sense." 1

Similarly, the effect of the suffering may be exaggerated. Bradford simply notes they were very badly supplied and lacked corn entirely for two or three months, being reduced to living on water, fish, shellfish, ground nuts and a few water fowl, and "now and then a deer." 2 As this was a healthy if highly unsatisfactory diet to the colonists, no one died or "succombed." Winslow does mention that he had seen "... some seasons at noon I have seen men stagger by reason of faintness for want of food", yet he does not give a specific date for this. As he then continues "...yet ere night, by the good providence and blessing of God, we have enjoyed such plenty as though the windows of heaven had been opened unto us.", 3 the use of the phrase may be more a general comment that a specific description.

Just as Plymouth Rock came to symbolize the heroic and providential nature of the Mayflower voyage, some icon was required to celebrate the Plymouth colonists’ courageous perseverance through their suffering and deprivation. The five kernals were adopted to point this moral at some point after the American Revolution. Their appearance is first recorded at the 1820 Forefathers’ Day dinner when the five symbolic parched corns was placed on each plate to remind the diners of "the time in 1623, when that was the proportion allowed to each individual on account of scarcity." 4

The story was related by subsequent writers such as Frances Baylies (1866) 5 and Joseph Banvard (1851)6 , but after the Bradford manuscript had been found and published and no evidence for the tradition was discovered, the Five Kernals myth gradually faded from public memory, and is seldom referred to today.
Another reference to five kernals of corn occurs in quite a different context. The Harlow Old Fort House (ca. 1677) Museum in Plymouth has been holding an annual juvenile pageant called "The Corn Planting" each May since before 1928. 7 A group of costumed school children enact a short re-enactment of the planting of corn by Squanto and the colonists which is witnessed by other students from local schools.

As part of this tradition, the hills of corn are each supplied with five kernals of corn, and the following rhyme is recited:
Five kernals of corn in a row
One for the blackbird, one for the crow,
One for the cutworm and two to grow. 8
JWB 12/14/98

1. Godwin, John A. The Pilgrim Republic. Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1888, p. 242.
2. Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. S.E. Morison, ed. NY: Knopf, 1970, p. 123
3. Winslow, Edward. "Good Newes from New England" in Alexander Young. Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1844, pp. 354-554. Thacher, James. History of Plymouth. Boston: Marsh, Capon & Lyon, 1832, p. 248.

5. Frances Baylies. An Historical Memoir of the Colony of New Plymouth Boston: Wiggin & Lunt 1866, p. 121
6. Joseph Banvard. Plymouth and the Pilgrims, Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1851, p. 136
7. Barker, Amy H. A History of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society
. Plymouth: Plymouth Antiquarian Society, 1959.
8. Plimoth Colony Cook Book . Sally Erath, ed. Plymouth: Plymouth: Antiquarian Society, 1981, p. 41

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. I knew that story was a bit "Hallmarky." The idea of trying to sustain on 5 kernels of corn a day, is ridiculous. And honestly, they could have found other sources of food elsewhere, if farming wasn't good. Heck, they probably learned a hell load more after the help from the Natives.

    If there's one thing I'll take from this holiday, or even this myth; the colonists were strangers from another land, but they lived with the help of the Natives. Without their "neighbors" they would've been screwed for good. I try to remember my good neighbors, and the people who helped me. That's what I can be thankful for...yeah might as well thank God for bringing those people into my life.

    This blog post was a good read. Definitely glad that I didn't blindly believe that Kernel story. I have a bad tendency to not research beforehand.

    1. Well, the myth was based on history, it just got a little twisted over the years. Yes, it is "Hallmarky" and I think a lot of families still practice this. Just know that there is a true story, and that is just as good as fiction. The Plymouth Rock is still a National Park, even though no one would really ever land a boat on a rock!