Five Kernals of Corn

By Norma Q. Hare

Of The General Society of Mayflower Descendants

It was a good, gray day on November 15, 1620.  The “Mayflower” rode at anchor near the shore, while a group of eager men set sail out in a small boat to explore the desolate, barren land in which they’d come.  One of the first things they discovered near the beach was a deserted cornfield where the dry, broken stalks rustled in the sharp wind.   Nearby they saw several strange mounds.  Upon digging into one, they were amazed to find odd-looking yellow, red and blue Indian corn.  They took some with them to use for seed when they planted their crops in the spring.  They couldn’t know then how important that corn would prove to be in the colony’s future.

They weren’t prepared for that first dreadful winter, and there was much sickness.  Nearly half the colonists died before spring finally arrived.  Of those who survived, about half were children not yet sixteen years old; and only five married women remained. 

When Spring came, the men and boys planted 20 acres of Indian corn.  Six additional acres they planted with the seeds they’d brought from England—wheat, rye, barley and peas—and there were vegetable garden near the houses.

But to everyone’s dismay, the seeds they’d brought failed to produce, being unsuited to the growing conditions in New England.   The colonists worried whether they’d have enough food for the winter.  Grain crops were necessary for their survival; for they provided the bread and puddings that gave them the energy they needed to work and endure the harsh conditions in which they lived, and the nourishment the children needed for adequate growth. 

To supplement their store of grain, they leaned, with help from the Indians, to catch the fish, to shoot the fowl and deer, and to harvest the wild fruits and berries that the forest and sea provided.  They dried and preserved as much as they could in anticipation of another long winter with little grain. 

In late fail, despite their small core harvest, they felt confident and grateful for what they’d accomplished.  They decided to celebrate what they called Harvest Thanksgiving.  They were joined by 90 of their Indian friends who stayed for their days enjoying their hospitality.  This was an unexpected drain on their food supplies, but they believed that, by careful management, they would have enough to last until the next year. 

The ship “Fortune” arrived a few days later.  The happy Pilgrims expected to welcome members of their families and friends who had been left behind.  They also believed the ship would bring food and other provisions they needed.  They were distressed to learn, however, that it brought 35 colonists instead.  Most of them were young men who brought no tools, bedding, or food, possessing little more than what they wore.  There was nothing for the Pilgrims to do but to share their meager clothing, their homes and their precious food with the strangers.  The sailors aboard the “Fortune”, took, needed food for the long voyage back to England, so again the Pilgrims shared what they had. 

As the months passed, every colonist knew daily hunger.  They lived on half rations for six months.  During the summer they were thin and weak, and they staggered as they went about their work.  They might have perished had they not been able to obtain some grain from the English fishing villages along the coast of Maine.  Their harvest that fall was very meager because they were still unfamiliar with growing this strange corn.  Some that did mature was stolen, but primarily they were simply too weak to tend it properly.  It was then that they abandoned their communal methods and apportioned land to each man to plant and farm as he wished.

While the year before had been very bad, the Staving Time came upon the little colony the Spring of 1623.  Tradition tells us the each person received only FIVE KERNELS OF PARCHED CORN a day.  Governor Bradford wrote that they had neither bread not corn to two or three months together, and that their entire diet consisted of only fish and water. 

To add to their misery, the early summer weather was hot and dry, and the corn began to wither.  In desperation they went one day to the top of the hill to pray to God for relief.  That night a soft rain began to fall, and the drought was broken.  At harvest, every field produced an abundance of corn, with enough for everyone.  After nearly three years, the famine was over.

During harvest season each year, it is customary for Mayflower Society members to remember the desperate privation and famine our ancestors endured during those first difficult years.  Let these FIVE KERNELS OF CORN—the Indian corn that at first prospered—be a symbol to remind us of their bold, courageous dream.  Let them also remind us of the legacy of our Pilgrim forefathers:  the freedom to worship as we choose, a government by consent of the governed with just and equal laws, a recognition of the necessity for individual ownership and enterprise, the willingness and courage to fight for one’s beliefs, and everlasting trust in God.