I originally blogged about the Thanksgiving Five Kernels of Corn in 2011, but since that time I’ve learned a lot about this quaint tradition. I decided to repost a new update on this myth.
For generations New Englanders, and some Mayflower families that moved south and west, practiced a quaint little tradition at their Thanksgiving table. Each place setting was given five kernels of parched corn, often along with a card that had this little poem, or a similar one:
The first winter in Plymouth was very cold
And hunger abounded as the 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 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.
Families that follow this tradition don’t use popcorn (you would break your teeth), but they purchase roasted sweet corn (one brand name is "Corn Nuts") . You can make this yourself or search for it online or in your local market. Or open up a can of corn and count out the kernels onto the plates. This tradition was passed on for many, many years, and is mentioned in books, such as the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (which makes sense because I have Ingalls ancestors from Lynn, Massachusetts, just like the author).
It’s very true that the Mayflower passengers suffered greatly during their first winter here in 1620 until the spring of 1621. Half of their company, fifty out of 102 passengers died of sickness and exposure. It is also true that the following spring they planted a crop with help from several native members of the Wampanoag nation, which was followed by a successful first harvest. They celebrated a traditional English “Harvest Home” celebration that fall, just like they always did at home in Europe, and were joined by many members of the local Wampanoag tribe.
You can learn more about how the myth of the Five Kernels started in a pamphlet published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in the 1950s. Jim Baker, a former research at the Plimoth Plantation Museum, wrote this in 1998.
"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 they 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 kernels 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 kernels of corn, and the following rhyme is recited:
Five kernels of corn in a row
One for the blackbird, one for the crow,
One for the cutworm and two to grow. 8"
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
There are many myths surrounding the Pilgrims. Plymouth Rock is definitely a myth. Who would land a boat on a rock? But now it is a National Historic Site. Myles Standish did not court Priscilla Mullins, but Longfellow's poem is one of the most famous he ever wrote. Although the myth of the Five Kernels was debunked in the 1950s, many families continue this tradition. Americans love to count their blessings at Thanksgiving, and this little story and poem is part of that custom. I know that we still do it at our Thanksgiving table, but I usually follow up with “Here’s what really happened” 30 second explanation. Perhaps it is time for someone to write up a new, more accurate poem?
My original blog post “Five Kernels of Corn for Thanksgiving” from 20 November 2011 is at this link: http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/11/five-kernels-of-corn-for-thanksgiving.html
Within a few hours of publishing this post I had volumes of email and comments that made me publish a second update at this link:
Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "The Five Kernels of Corn Myth at Thanksgiving", Nutfield Genealogy, posted November 18, 2016, (http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-five-kernels-of-corn-myth-at.html: accessed [access date]).