By Casey Asher

When I was growing up, my family had a tradition on Thanksgiving Day, one we probably picked up during our brief time living in New England. We’d gather with our family and friends around the long table set with our fine china - a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The table would be filled with all kinds of the traditional dishes, but our plates bare, except for five individual kernels of corn. These little kernels were barely enough to make a bite, but they were representative. They were instructive.

My dad has always been a huge student of history. It's from him I acquired my passion for the past. This little tradition was born out of his desire to use history to teach us a lesson about having a right perspective on thankfulness.

Cue the back in time music!

Our culture remembers Thanksgiving as originating from the feast held by the Pilgrim families who had traveled from Europe to escape religious persecution. Most people have a quaint image in their mind of a gathering of black-clad Puritans greeting natives in fringed buckskin, bearing a turkey for the feast. That image not only lacks accuracy (for example, the Pilgrims were actually Separatists and quite colorful in their attire), it also lacks context. That feast was a mere interlude in a series of horrific hardships.

William Bradford records in his account “Of Plymouth Plantation” that of the 102 original colonists, over half died the first winter of disease. “…being infected with the scurvy and other diseases…” he wrote, “there died sometimes two or three of a day, in the aforesaid time, that of one hundred and odd persons, scarce fifty remained.” In that number were several children who lost both parents. Between those who died and those who were temporarily incapacitated by the disease, as few as six healthy settlers remained to work in the fields and take care of the sick.

Through a series of Providential occurrences, the Pilgrims' relations with the local Wampanoag natives improved, and their summer planting led to a bountiful harvest. This led to what we know as the “First Thanksgiving,” wherein the surviving colonists invited the Wampanoag people to celebrate with them the blessing of their survival. Chief Massasoit brought ninety of his warriors, and together they feasted, played games, and “exercised their arms” (militia musket firing drills). Edward Winslow writes in his account of the event that “although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty." Indeed, as he alludes to, it would not always be so plentiful.

Shortly after this feast, a second boat full of settlers arrived. To the dismay of those in Plymouth, they arrived without any supplies or provisions for the coming winter. Additional ships arrived with more mouths to feed through 1622. Winslow recorded in his memoir that by May 1622, “our store of victuals was wholly spent, having lived long before with a bare and short allowance: The reason was, that supply of men before mentioned, which came so unprovided, not landing so much as a barrel of bread or meal for their whole company...”

Up until this point, the Pilgrims had been using a communal farming strategy, sharing in the farm work, and distributing the crop amongst the community. However, some of the newly arrived settlers, particularly the young, single men, were reluctant to take part in laboring for the gain of other people’s families. Bradford attributes the great lack of food and supplies in the following winter to this misguided communal strategy: “Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.” They realized the error of this strategy too late.

That winter, they starved. The fowl having flown south, the hunting was scarce. But with the little game they could harvest, and the fish in the surrounding streams, they managed to survive on a starvation diet.

And therein begins the tale of the five kernels of corn. Legend holds that five kernels of corn was all that each colonist was given each day during the low point of this season. That legend is now thought by modern historians to have been invented in later years, but it represents the very severe suffering they endured. It is a parable that speaks of their perseverance and faith in God through it all.

The following year, Governor Bradford instituted a policy of individual property rights, dividing the land into plots for each family to farm and sustain themselves. The colony suddenly flourished, and by the fall of 1623, Bradford declared the first official day of Thanksgiving, very similar in appearance to the one held two years prior, out of thanks for God’s sustaining hand through the previous year’s starvation.

These were the circumstances under which our Pilgrim Fathers gave thanks. I believe that’s at the root of the lesson my dad was trying to teach us with this tradition of the five kernels of corn. Thanksgiving is not only for the times of plenty. God has blessed us in many ways we don’t even understand, and no matter our circumstances we still have more than we will ever deserve from a just and holy God. We should be thankful in times of plenty, and in times of poverty. Even in the face of future trials, and even after or during such trials. Give thanks to God!

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!

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

Casey Asher is a pilot, reserve military officer, and self-admitted history nut - passionate about God, his family, and his country. He lives in Millbrook with his wife and four children. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to