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What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving?

Life in the New World

The first few winters in the New World were far from easy for the settlers. At Plymouth colony, countless lives were lost from sickness and starvation during the bitter winter upon their first settling in America.

You may have heard of the poem “Five Kernels of Corn” by Hezekiah Butterworth. In it, he recalls the days prior to the picturesque Thanksgiving feast–the days of rationing, of want, of bitter cold and harsh circumstances. “There were left but for rations Five Kernels of Corn.” Yet still the poem ends with “The Nation gives thanks for Five Kernels of Corn!” Butterworth wrote to commemorate the pilgrims’ blessings and to remind us never to forget what the Lord has brought us out of. (Read the whole poem below.)

The First Thanksgiving

In the Autumn of 1621, however, there was plenty. What did the pilgrims do but immediately give thanks to God? They shared with one another and with the Indians. Our only eyewitness account of this first Thanksgiving meal is from a letter by colonist Edward Winslow. Winslow writes:

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted and they went our and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestwed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodnesse of God, we are so farre from want,  that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.

They feasted for three days! Turkey was not the main item, either, but deer and fowl. Winslow recognized it was only by the goodness of God that they were so far from want.

Five Kernels of Corn

By Hezekiah Butterworth

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 haste 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,
And ye still have left you Five Kernels of Corn.
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 though 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!

Most likely, you have much more than five kernels of corn. Look around at all the Lord has given you and be thankful.