Though turkey has become the traditional main course at Thanksgiving dinners, it is not known with certainty whether it was served at the “First Thanksgiving.” There are only two primary sources for the pilgrim feast of 1621. Both brief excerpts can be read at pilgrimhall.org.
In a letter by colonist Edward Winslow, he mentions both fowl and deer at the feast. In the other source, Governor Bradford, speaking more generally about harvest time says, “And besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys.”
Though some historians speculate that deer, duck and geese were the principle meat items on the menu, it is reasonable to assume that turkey was on the table as well. But it was not until the 1860s that the turkey became an American Thanksgiving tradition (attributed largely to the marketing campaigns of the poultry industry).
In regard to how the turkey got its name, scholar Sue Ellen Thompson writes:
“Some say the turkey was named by the late sixteenth century European explorers, who confused it with the European turkey cock, a completely different bird. Others claim that the word comes from the Hebrew tukki, meaning ‘big bird,’ which is what the doctor on Columbus’ ship shouted when he saw one for the first time” (Sue Ellen Thompson, Holiday Symbols).
Though turkeys were native to North America, they “were already a familiar sight to the English; turkeys had been taken to England by way of Spain by the mid-1500s and had become an instant hit as a celebratory food, particularly on the Christmas table” (Kathleen Curtin, Giving Thanks).
It has been rumored that Ben Franklin preferred a turkey to a bald eagle as our national emblem. You can read more about this on our July 4th page about the bald eagle. Franklin did in fact say, though somewhat satirically, that the turkey was “a much more respectable bird, and a true original native of America… a bird of courage.”
Indeed, wild turkeys are impressive creatures. They can fly 55 miles per hour and run 30 miles per hour. However, domesticated turkeys can neither fly nor run. In fact, nowadays their breasts are so large they can hardly walk!
Back to main Thanksgiving Symbols page.
We welcome your questions and feedback. If you are seeking information on thanksgiving symbols that is not found on our website, please contact us.
This content has a copyright © 2011 by Angie Mosteller. Please cite the source if you use this material: http://www.celebratingholidays.com/?page_id=4203.