Out Of Small Beginnings


During the winter of 1623, the Pilgrims subsisted for a time on a daily ration of five kernels of parched corn. The tradition of placing five kernels of corn at each plate first started at Plymouth on Forefather’s Day, December 22nd, 1820.

“The ballad [Five Kernels Of Corn] tells the tale of the time when corn was scanty and the hunger great. I will give you my own version of this old story, for I can not produce the rhymes of those vanished years.”—Hezekiah Butterworth.

Five Kernels of Corn!

(A Thanksgiving Tradition.)

“Out of small beginnings great things have been produced, as one small candle may light a thousand.”—Governor Bradford.


‘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!

—Hezekiah Butterworth, In Old New England: The Romance of a Colonial Fireside (1895).

This statement we suppose to be traditional. It is, however, so well authenticated, as to have been revived at the memorable celebration of 1820 (when Mr. Webster gave the oration), by putting in each plate, at the dinner-table, five kernels of parched corn, which is understood to have been the share to each individual in 1623. At all events, the anecdote conveys no very exaggerated notion of the true state of things at the time. Governor Bradford writes, in one place, “By the time our corn is planted, our victuals are spent, not knowing at night where to have a bit in the morning;” and he says, again, when a few of their dearest old friends had just arrived in the colony, “the best dish we could present them with, is a lobster, or a piece of fish, without bread, or any thing else but a cup of fair spring-water.” The best of them lived for months mostly on clams and ground-nuts.—Robert Walsh, “Thacher’s History of Plymouth”, American Quarterly Review Vol. XIX (1836).

Courtesy of Democratic Thinker.