Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five Kernels of Corn for Thanksgiving

NOTE: This post was updated within hours of originally being published.  Please see

When the Mayflower landed at what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod, it was already late in the autumn.  On 15 November 1620, a few days after landfall, an expedition led by Myles Standish discovered a buried cache of corn at a place they assumed was abandoned. The Englishmen took most of the corn.  Later in 1621 when the colonists made their first contact with the Wampanoag people, they were reminded of the theft of corn.  There was an exchange of gifts, and a peace treaty was established.
Although the corn was stolen, it sustained the colonists over the first winter in the New World.  Each was given only a few kernels as a ration.  Other food was hunted and gathered, without much luck.  In the winter of 1620 the English colonists suffered the "Great Sickness" and 50 out of the 102 passengers died.

This same corn was used as seed when the Wampanoag man named Squanto helped them plant their first crops in 1621.   This crop thrived and gave hope to the new colony.  There was much to celebrate in the first autumn feast.   Many descendants of the Mayflower passengers still tell the tale of the corn, and pass on the story of how it was rationed to the survivors that first winter.  Every Thanksgiving they put a few kernels on each plate to remember their ancestors.

In the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder this tradition was explained, with a scene showing Laura and Mary carefully chewing three kernels before eating their dinner. The Ingalls family originated in Lynn, Massachusetts, and passed on the tradition even as they migrated westward.   Lately I have seen this poem on the internet, and it was passed around at one of the New Hampshire Mayflower Society luncheons one November a few years ago.    I don't know the author.
Five Kernels

The first winter in Plymouth was very cold
And hunger abounded as the year unrolled.
Some days each only had five kernels of corn.
Their lives were becoming sad and forlorn. 

But then spring came and their harvest grew.
The pilgrims began to thrive and their spirits did too.
But they never forgot the bleak times after they did abate
So on Thanksgiving they'd put five kernels on each plate.

The first kernel reminded them of the autumn beauty.
The second one of the freedom that they held dearly.
The third reminded of their love and care for each other
And the fourth was for dear friends like the Indian brother.

The fifth kernel reminded of God's love and care for all.
So as you prepare and celebrate Thanksgiving this fall,
Remember to put five little kernels on each dinner plate
To honor the pilgrims and give thanks for our good fate.

If you would like to continue this tradition, don't use popcorn kernels (you'll break your teeth!).  You can purchase dried roasted sweet corn in bags at your local market.  If you have trouble finding this corn locally you can purchase it on Amazon or The Great American Spice Company on the internet.  Be careful because you if you order from Amazon you need to buy 12 bags (an entire case).  What would the Pilgrims have thought!   Place the kernels on each plate along with a copy of the poem, or a short version of the story of the Mayflower passengers first winter.


Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. This is just precious! A great tradition to help us remember to give thanks, even in hard times.

  2. As a Rice descendant, Steve is cousin to LIW. I am jealous. They put out candy corn at the luncheon and I was expecting them to mention it. We brought them home for Anthony. He loves candy corn.

  3. I think I'll introduce this tradition to my family this year! Thanks for posting it!

  4. Thanks everyone for your comments. If you continue this tradtion with your family, I hope you will read the update to this post at this link I think it is still a fun tradtion, but everyone should know the REAL STORY! PS Midge, I never heard of the candy corn, but it is much easier to find than the parched corn!

  5. As I said on the Challenge post, even if the tradition is based on a myth, it's still a great tradition. To be honest, I've never heard of it before now so I'm glad you brought it to my attention.

    Thanks again Heather for all your contributions to the Challenge!

  6. So happy you reposited. With Myles Standish being our ancestor, it will be very appropriate to try it out this thanksgiving. Just perhaps it will be become a new tradition, we'll see.