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Five Kernels of Corn

by Susan E. Roser

[This article has also appeared in The Mayflower Quarterly and is sometimes read at our Annual Meeting & Fall Banquet.]

The tradition of placing five kernels of corn at each plate first started at Plymouth on Forefather’s Day, 22nd Dec. 1820 on the occasion of the Bi-Centennial of the Landing of the Pilgrims.  Hosting the occasion was the newly founded Pilgrim Society with guest speaker, Daniel Webster.

These tokens symbolize the period in 1623 known as the "starving time", but I would like to go back a little to show you that this starving time was by no means an isolated occurrence.

The first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 was a bountiful feast, but an inventory taken afterwards in preparation for winter proved that the Pilgrims had grossly overestimated their harvest.  The only way they could possibly get through the winter was to cut in half the already meager weekly rations.  To make matters worse, soon after in November, arrived the ship Fortune with 35 new settlers and absolutely no provisions – no food, bedding, cookware or warm clothing.

They struggled through the winter, but in May 1622, their food supply was completely gone and the harvest was four months away.  You may wonder why they did not hunt and fish for food; according to Edward Winslow, the number of fowl decreased during the warm months and the proper equipment and netting prohibited them from taking advantage of the abundance of cod in the area.

"And indeed," said Winslow, "had we not been in a place where divers sorts of shell fish may be taken with the hand, we must have perished."

In desperation, Winslow was sent 150 miles up the Maine coast to buy, beg or borrow whatever provisions the English ships there could spare.  Hearing the plight of this courageous little group, the captains were extremely generous; all who were asked gave what they could and not one would accept payment of any kind.  By the time Winslow returned, the settlers were literally starving.  The provisions were a godsend, but there were many mouths to feed and when rationed out, each person received only one quarter pound of bread a day.

The long awaited harvest of 1622 was a dismal failure.  The Pilgrims had not yet perfected the art of growing corn; they had been busy building the fort and their lack of food that summer left them too weak and weary to tend the fields properly.  It seemed that they now faced the prospect of another year with little food.

"Behold now, another providence of God: a ship comes into the harbour…"

This was the Discovery, from Virginia, on it's way home to England.  It had a cargo of what the settlers were in dire need – knives, beads and assorted trinkets to trade with the Indians.  Seeing how badly they needed the goods, the Captain cheated them miserably, but they considered the ship’s arrival a blessing – they could now trade with the Indians for food.

By early 1623, the shallop had finally been rudely outfitted as a fishing vessel.  It was continually at sea, coming ashore only long enough to unload the catch and change crews.  For months at a time the Pilgrims’ diet consisted of fish, clams, groundnuts and whatever deer or water fowl could be hunted.

"By the time our corn is planted," said Bradford, "our victuals are spent, not knowing at night where to have a bite in the morning, and have neither bread nor corn for 3 or 4 months together; yet bear our wants with cheerfulness and rest on Providence".

It was at this time, awaiting the harvest of 1623, that, according to Bradford, they lived four or five days at a time on a few grains of corn.

Again their hopes rested on a good fall harvest, but the harvest of 1623 was almost wiped out.  A six week drought began in June and the crops turned brown and were slowly withering away.  They turned to the only hope they had – intervention by God, and appointed a solemn day of humiliation and prayer.  They assembled one July morning under a hot, clear sky and for nine hours prayed.  Their prayers were answered the next morning, and for the next two weeks said Winslow, "distilled such softe, sweete and moderate showers…as it was hard to say whether our withered corne or drooping affections were most quickened and revived".

It turned out to be a double blessing from above, for that same month arrived the ships Anne and Little James with 60 new settlers and for a change – loaded with provisions.

The harvest that year of 1623 proved to be one of their best.  It also promised a new beginning for our Pilgrim ancestors, for they never again faced starvation.

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Last Updated:  October 19, 2005
Copyright © 2000-2009 by Susan E. Roser - All Rights Reserved