Two More Days – and Five Kernels of Corn

Rob’s birthday was yesterday, and he had requested that Gator (our resident chef) prepare some lasagna. There were extras, since I don’t eat that type (the type with meat), so the extra pan of lasagna will be consumed tonight, and the “supper” focus will be turned toward the preparation of Thanksgiving desserts (my favorite part of any meal).

Tonight, the sugar cream pie, pumpkin cheesecake, and pumpkin spice cake will be prepared.

I am so very blessed that God has given us the gift of so much food with which to feed our children — that we are not facing a period of famine and near-starvation that the pilgrims faced (with so much faith!)

Five Kernels of Corn
April, 1622

‘Twas the year of the famine in Plymouth of old,
The ice and the snow from the thatched roofs had rolled;
Through the warm purple skies steered the geese o’er the seas,
And the woodpeckers tapped in the clocks of the trees;
And the boughs on the slopes to the south winds lay bare,
and dreaming of summer, the buds swelled in the air.
The pale Pilgrims welcomed each reddening morn;
There were left but for rations Five Kernels of Corn.
Five Kernels of Corn!
Five Kernels of Corn!
But to Bradford a feast were Five Kernels of Corn!

“Five Kernels of Corn! Five Kernels of Corn!
Ye people, be glad for Five Kernels of Corn!”
So Bradford cried out on bleak Burial Hill,
And the thin women stood in their doors, white and still.
“Lo, the harbor of Plymouth rolls bright in the Spring,
The maples grow red, and the wood robins sing,
The west wind is blowing, and fading the snow,
And the pleasant pines sing, and arbutuses blow.
Five Kernels of Corn!
Five Kernels of Corn!
To each one be given Five Kernels of Corn!”

O Bradford of Austerfield hast on thy way,
The west winds are blowing o’er Provincetown Bay,
The white avens bloom, but the pine domes are chill,
And new graves have furrowed Precisioners’ Hill!
“Give thanks, all ye people, the warm skies have come,
The hilltops are sunny, and green grows the holm,
And the trumpets of winds, and the white March is gone,
Five Kernels of Corn!
Five Kernels of Corn!
Ye have for Thanksgiving Five Kernels of Corn!

“The raven’s gift eat and be humble and pray,
A new light is breaking and Truth leads your way;
One taper a thousand shall kindle; rejoice
That to you has been given the wilderness voice!”
O Bradford of Austerfield, daring the wave,
And safe through the sounding blasts leading the brave,
Of deeds such as thine was the free nation born,
And the festal world sings the “Five Kernels of Corn.”
Five Kernels of Corn!
Five Kernels of Corn!
The nation gives thanks for Five Kernels of Corn!
To the Thanksgiving Feast bring Five Kernels of Corn!

About “Five Kernels of Corn”

The author of this poem, Hezekiah Butterworth, was an American patriot schoolteacher from Boston who was actively involved in the American Revolution. He was a prolific writer and a deeply committed Christian.

This article, written by Susan E. Roser, (and also having appeared in The Mayflower Quarterly) explains:

“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.”

This Thanksgiving, we will be placing five kernels of corn next to each person’s plate, to remind them of the great sacrifices the settlers of this nation made; of their tremendous faith, and of the providence of God; to remind them to be thankful for everything…even if all they have is a mere five kernels of corn; and that God indeed answers fervent prayer.

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