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The Mighty Turkey: An American Historical Icon

turkey_0Thanksgiving is fast descending on the American landscape. At the end of November, millions of Americans, fueled by an unquenchable passion for gluttony-based nostalgia, will sharpen their carving knives and engage in the mass ritual slaughter of turkeys in the name of a national feast that puts any pyramid-topped, beating heart extirpating, ancient Aztec sun-god sacrifice to shame. Yes, it’s that time of year, the time when the North American turkey has its brief moment of glory before being felled in the name of Thanksgiving, a holiday during which Americans celebrate their excessive abundance by stuffing food into other foods in order to eat themselves sick. Freedom!

The turkey is the center of attention at Thanksgiving, and there’s good reason for that: the turkey has been, paradoxically, the most omnipresent and the most overlooked of American national icons. But the history of the mighty turkey is fascinating, and it deserves its status as the real American national bird.

North American Wild Turkey
North American Wild Turkey

To begin with, the turkey truly is an American bird. It’s the largest ground nesting bird native to the North American continent, and one that became an early symbol of the New World to the first European settlers. The National Wildlife Bulletin currently identifies five turkey subspecies in the Americas, and the prolific fowl were present in 39 continental states and the Canadian province of Ontario during the colonial era. As Andrew Gardner writes in his Short History of the Turkey, Native Americans viewed turkeys as deeply spiritual symbols prized for their tasty meat as well as for their impressive plumage. Some southwestern tribes even believed that turkeys ushered the dead into the spirit world — so they buried their deceased in elaborate turkey-feather robes.

The origins of the bird’s name isn’t entirely clear. Native peoples called it by a variety of terms, but its English name likely originated among British traders known as “Turkey Merchants,” who did business with the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) and developed a taste for the American bird after feasting on imported specimens in Spain and Portugal. While turkeys became a culinary and cultural sensation when merchants imported them to Europe, their status as truly American icons started as early as 1620, shortly after a group of English settlers en route to Virginia instead landed off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

These “Pilgrims” named their new colony “Plymouth” after the English port from which they departed. The Pilgrims were the most hard-line of Protestant separatists from the Church of England, and likely wouldn’t have survived their first year at Plymouth Plantation without the help of the local Wampanoag Indians, who taught the befuddled Brits how to grow maize. In 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest by holding a feast with the Wampanoag that eventually became the mythical inspiration for the “First Thanksgiving.” In an odd twist, there is little evidence that the turkey — which eventually became the core symbol of Thanksgiving — was even served at the Plymouth feast, let alone that its was the meal’s centerpiece. The only primary source witness account from the event, a letter by Edward Winslow, mentions a “fowl” but doesn’t name-drop the turkey.

The turkey’s transformation into the symbol of American Thanksgiving came via later embellishments of the “First Thanksgiving” story. In the meantime, the bird was championed by that most intellectually curious and gregariously bawdy of Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin. There is a well-known American myth that claims Franklin wanted the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, to be the country’s national bird, but the reality is more complex — and more interesting. As historian Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely notes in “Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey,” Americans began domesticating turkeys around the late eighteenth century, and Ben Franklin probably first ate not a wild bird, but one from Pennsylvania’s many farms.

Ever the inquisitive type, Franklin utilized turkeys in one of his earliest electrical experiments, in which he sent an electric charge across Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, which served as a conductor. Franklin planned to kill a turkey using the charge from this experiment, and he finally succeeded after several tries. After these experiments, he noted that the shock made the turkey ‘uncommonly tender.’ Old Ben had discovered a new method of meat tenderizing, and his discovery unleashed a wave of electrical tenderizing attempts in gastronomy-obsessed France.*

Franklin’s famous injunction that the turkey should be America’s national symbol, however, originated in a 1783 letter in which he lambasted an aristocracy-touting General George Washington. Franklin was on one of his many trips to France when he got wind of the newly formed Society of Cincinnati, a group of military officers under Washington who wanted to establish a “hereditary order of merit” — a mini aristocracy — whose membership was to be passed down to the eldest sons. The group chose an eagle for its symbol, and suggested that it also serve as the national symbol. Franklin, a man of generally humble origins — and a youngest son to boot — wrote an angry letter to his daughter criticizing the group’s aristocratic pretensions and its use of the eagle, which had long been an icon for European monarchies. In the letter, Franklin laid the verbal smackdown on the eagle while praising the turkey:

Others object to the bald eagle as looking too much like a dindon, or turkey. For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly….For in truth, the turkey is in com-parison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours….He is besides, though a little vain and 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.*

Contrary to myth, Franklin’s lobbying for the turkey as the national symbol appears to have ceased following the above letter, but by promoting the turkey as an “original native of America” that symbolized the common man in comparison to the eagle’s associations with European aristocracy and monarchy, Franklin gave the turkey an American cultural pedigree that it retains to this day.

A Christmas CarolThe turkey’s cultural clout continued to grow into the nineteenth century. In his definitive history The Turkey: An American Story, food historian Andrew Smith notes that in the mid-nineteenth century, domesticated turkeys were the best source of relatively inexpensive protein for average Americans. The bird’s popularity only increased following their prominence in English publications like Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic A Christmas Carol, which featured the turkey as the centerpiece of the Cratchit family meal. Dickens’ story was widely read in America, and the role the author gave to the turkey as a gift bestowed upon the poor Cratchits by the wealthy Scrooge gave the bird some serious middle-class respectability.

Thanks to Europeans’ embracing of the turkey as a festive holiday dish for all classes, the distinctively American bird gained a transatlantic reputation as the source of American food for commoners and bourgeoisie alike. Civilians even distributed thousands of turkeys to northern troops during the Civil War, and, following a claim by Godey’s editor Sarah Josepha Hale that the Pilgrims and Indians dined on turkey at the “First Thanksgiving,” the bird became the core symbol of that American holiday.*

Even in contemporary America, however, the turkey remains both a symbol of American bounty as well as a symbol of the country’s small “d” democratic virtues. Anthropologist and outdoor enthusiast John McDaniel, for example, praises the democratizing, “American nature” of wild turkey hunting. “Not only is the creature unique to the Americas, but the democratic nature of our nation has provided hunting opportunities to members of all socioeconomic classes,” McDaniel observes.* He also heaps plenty of praise on the turkey itself, complimenting it as among the finest, most clever, most elusive, most dignified, most hearty, and most beautiful of quarry.* Heck, the turkey is so tough that we named a hard liqour after it.

Americans should count themselves lucky to be associated with such a noble bird. This creature is far better than the miserable, inhumane, factory farm to suburban table existence that it is so often granted. Its time to stand up for the turkey, wild and domesticated, living and roasted alike. This iconic fowl has been a part of the American experience from day one, and Americans owe much of their livelihoods to its existence. So take some time off, Sam Eagle, and let the turkey have its day in the patriotic sun.

* See Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely, “Benjamin Franklin and the American Turkey,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 6 (Fall, 2006): 22-24.

* See Andrew F. Smith, The Turkey: An American Story (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

* See John McDaniel, The American Wild Turkey: Hunting Tactics and Techniques (New York: Lyons Press, 2000), 2, 6.


About Jarret Ruminski

Jarret Ruminski is an independent scholar who holds a PhD in American history from the University of Calgary. He specializes in the 19th century U.S. with emphasis on the Civil War and the American South. You can read more of his writing at his blog, That Devil History, where he discusses the intersection of American history and contemporary politics and popular culture. Connect with him on Twitter@TheDevilHistory

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