Dr. Patricia Moseley Stanford

Five Kernels of Corn

One of the first things the Pilgrims discovered in their exploration of Cape Cod was a deserted cornfield near the beach. Nearby they saw several strange mounds. Upon digging into one, they were amazed to find unfamiliar yellow, red and blue Indian corn, which they took and later repaid. When spring came, the surviving men and boys planted the Indian corn with the help of Squanto.

In the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims had a good harvest of Indian corn. However, the garden seeds they had brought with them did not reproduce well in the New England climate. With the foods they had grown and preserved, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate what they called Harvest Thanksgiving. They invited their Indian friends to join them, and much to their surprise about 90 Indians came and stayed for three days.

A few days after the Harvest Thanksgiving, the ship Fortune arrived bringing 35 colonists from England. Most of the new arrivals did not have much more than the clothing on their backs. The sailors aboard Fortune also needed food for the voyage back to England, which was an unexpected drain on their food supplies.

As the food supplies dwindled, every colonist knew daily hunger. They lived on half rations for six months. During the summer, many of the men and boys were too weak and thin to do the heavy labor of raising crops. It was not a good growing season. The harvest in 1622 was slim, and some of the crops that matured were stolen by the Indians. The Starving Time came upon the colony in the spring of 1623. Tradition tells us that each person received only five kernels of parched corn a day. When the corn supply was exhausted, they had neither bread nor corn for two or three months, and their entire diet consisted of fish and water.

For the descendants of Mayflower passengers, the five kernels of corn are symbols of the Pilgrims' willingness to fight great hardships for their beliefs, and most importantly, of their greatest legacy--a government by consent of the people with just and equal laws.