We hold our turkeys in very high regard here at Iron Oak Farm. Our Tom presents himself in a stoic, almost regal display. Turkeys are proud deliberate birds, gentle and beautiful. It’s no wonder that this amazing creature has made history time and again.
With “Turkey Day” only a couple weeks away I thought it would be fun to move through history and visit a few places where the turkey has been noted by royalty, presidents and American tradition.
First stop on our history tour, The Aztecs
Some of the first noted references to the turkey being held in cultural traditions begins as far back as the Aztecs.
“Centuries before Christopher Columbus reached the New World, the Aztecs had domesticated a wild game bird that we call the turkey, but they called huexolotl. The turkey was so important to the Aztecs as a source of food that the Indians regarded the bird as a god. There were two religious festivals a year in the turkey’s honor.” From the article A Short History of the Turkey by Andrew G. Gardener, Colonial Williamsburg
1511 Moving through history, we see that the turkey gains popularity across the world.
King Ferdinand Declares “that every Spanish ship returning from the New World should bring back ten turkeys, “half males, and the other half females.”” A Short History of the Turkey by Andrew G. Gardner
1621 The First Thanksgiving: Moving forward about a hundred years we come to the very first Thanksgiving where the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians share in a harvest celebration that lasted 3 days. While it is possible that turkey was served in this celebration, it’s not historically noted.
Kathleen Wall a historian who was quoted in the Smothsonian article What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving by Megan Gambino writes about some of the possible food items that the first settlers might have enjoyed with the Wampanoag. “The first Thanksgiving,” there would be slimmer pickings. “Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there,” says Kathleen Wall. “These are absolutes.”
The tradition of “stuffing” does date back to that first Thanksgiving. The article goes on to say that The Pilgrims stuffed birds with chunks of onion and herbs. ““There is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts,””
1784 Benjamin Franklin compares the Bald Eagle to the Wild Turkey as the national emblem in a letter to his daughter:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” PBS.org
1789 George Washington declares that Thanksgiving be a National Holiday.
1827-1857 Sarah Josephine Hale works for 30 years to traditionalize Thanksgiving.
The tradition of the turkey and the side dishes that we know today were made tradition by Sarah Josephina Hale, in the same way Clement Moore traditionalized the image of Santa Claus in his poem The Night Before Christmas.
I see Sarah Hale as a sort of Martha Stewart of her time. She created traditional turkey, pumpkin pie and potato recipes and encouraged the American Housewife to make these dishes for their families.
1863 Abraham Lincoln Declares the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day
1939 Roosevelt tries to change the date of Thanksgiving.
After a unpopular attempt to move Thanksgiving back a week to help retailers during the Depression era make more of the Christmas season, Franklin Roosevelt signs Thanksgiving Day as the 4th Thursday in November into law.
1989 George Bush begins the tradition of the yearly Turkey Pardon at the Whitehouse, where 1 or 2 turkeys meant for slaughter are pardoned and sent to live out the rest of their natural lives on a farm.
More reading on the History of the Turkey: