Thanksgiving arrives next week, and the iconic image that pops into most people’s minds during this holiday is a big, roasted turkey in the middle of the kitchen table. But how did these large birds become a classic representation of this holiday? We took some time to dive a little deeper and learn more about the history of turkeys in North America, how Thanksgiving became a holiday, and how turkeys ended up as the main attraction on this day.
Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) have always been native to the Americas. In fact, there is only one other species of turkey in the entire world: the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), which lives in Central America, and has beautiful plumage that more closely resembles a peacock than the wild turkeys we are familiar with.
Importance in Native American Culture
Before their popularity in modern Thanksgiving feasts, turkeys have been an important part of the food and cultural systems of Native Americans for thousands of years. There is archaeological evidence of wild turkeys being domesticated by certain indigenous groups as far back as 2,000 years ago. Not all native communities domesticated the birds since they were so abundant, but tribes in the American southeast, southwest, central Mexico, and Guatemala were especially known for their domestication of turkeys.
Beyond serving as a source of food, the rest of the turkey’s feathers and bones were used for tools, regalia, and art. The reverence of turkeys varied widely from tribe to tribe and has a complex and beautiful history in native culture. The Wampanoag tribe in the east used turkey feathers for cloaks, while the Tuscarora and Catawba in the south used plumage for headdresses. In other tribes, turkeys played a role in traditional stories. The Caddo have a prestigious Turkey Dance related to tribal songs of war, honor and pride. Even through generations of genocide, forced removal from their lands, and substantial portions of culture that have been lost forever, turkeys still carry importance in the lives and ceremonies of many tribes today.
Introduction of Turkeys to Europeans
Turkeys made their debut in European and Asian cuisine in the 1500s through Spanish trade routes. Many suspect that they received their name because these birds came to Europe by way of the country of Turkey. They were so popular with Europeans that the colonists even brought domesticated turkeys with them as they sailed to North America. To the colonists’ surprise, the large birds were already fairly abundant here.
The Founding of Thanksgiving
Despite popular legend, wild turkey was not served at the 1621 meal shared between the Wampanoag natives and the pilgrims. Instead, deer meat was provided by Wampanoag hunters.
The pilgrims had many seasonal “days of thanks” for a good fall harvest, and continued this tradition when they moved to North America, however there was not originally one common day that this was celebrated on.
In the mid-1800s, writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to make a single national holiday out of these common thanksgiving celebrations. Her goal was to bring the country together at a time when the Civil War was eminent. In 1863, Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving as a U.S. national holiday.
How Turkeys Became a Thanksgiving Icon
Turkeys became the meat of choice for Thanksgiving celebrations because they were easy to harvest and their size was enough to feed a large family. Many families even had domesticated turkeys that they raised on their farms specifically for the purpose of a holiday meal.
Unfortunately, their popularity soon became their downfall as wild turkeys were overharvested throughout the 1800s. Soon, they were no longer found in most states. The last turkey disappeared from Wisconsin in 1881.
Wildlife Success Story
Fortunately, nationwide efforts to revive turkey populations have been largely successful. In Wisconsin, wild turkeys were reintroduced by the Department of Natural Resources in 1976. Twenty-nine wild turkeys imported from Missouri were released in Vernon County. As they began to flourish, the new turkeys were trapped and relocated to other counties across the state. Now, tens of thousands of wild turkeys are harvested every year in Wisconsin. Click here for more details about hunting turkey in Wisconsin.
Whether you enjoy them for their meat, their beautiful plumage, or the fierce confidence they embody as they strut across the road, take a moment to give thanks that these magnificent birds are still around today!