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Nature & Science

The Real History Of The Thanksgiving Turkey

Image Source: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

It is traditionally believed that the first Thanksgiving turkey was served in America in 1621 and became the main dish on Thanksgiving tables every year afterward. Approximately 46 million turkeys are served each year on Thanksgiving, based on the findings of the National Turkey Federation ( However, historians say that it is highly unlikely that the turkey made an appearance at the first Thanksgiving meal. They point out that it is far more likely the meats served at that dinner included duck, goose, and venison. So when did the turkey become the star of Thanksgiving, and where did it come from?

The turkey has a rather confusing history when it comes to the popular American holiday. Even the name “turkey” has a muddled background. The bird has been called by various names in different parts of the world. In North America, where they are found in a number of regions, the turkey (genus Meleagris) is a domesticated wild bird. There are two popular theories as to why the North American fowl is called a turkey.

The first theory involves a bird that was originally discovered in Africa, called a Guinea fowl. The Guinea fowl looks similar to the turkey. This bird was imported to Europe and 1619 and became known there as the turkey cock, since it was first brought to Turkey by African traders.

The wild bird that has been domesticated in North America is believed to have been brought by the English settlers in the 17th century. The name turkey cock was shortened to turkey, and it remains so today.

Another theory states that the bird was introduced to North America by Middle Eastern traders and bore the name “turkey” based on its Turkish origins. Still another theory holds that the turkey was imported to Europe in 1519 from Spain, where the bird became a dish served among the aristocracy. In 1541 it was introduced in England and brought by settlers in North America sometime in the 17th century.

As you can see, there are numerous ideas as to how the turkey found its way to the American Thanksgiving dinner table. The more you look into its background for clarification, the more twists and turns you’ll find.

One would assume that in the country of Turkey, the turkey would be called a turkey (fun, right?), but surprisingly, that isn’t the case. In Turkey, the bird is called a hindi, which translated means “bird from India.” The Indian theme carries over to the bird’s name in a number of other languages as well including Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian. In France, it is called dinde, which is a shortened form of coq d’inde, which also translates to include India. And in yet another ironic twist, in India, the foul is called a turki!

In Vietnam, it is called a Western chicken. In Chinese, it’s known and represented as a fire chicken. Malaysians call it a Dutch chicken. The list of names for the turkey goes on and on.

One constant fact is that the turkey as it is known today first made its appearance in the mid-1500s. When William Shakespeare wrote Henry V around 1597, he mentioned the turkey cock in the play.

So, with such a jumbled and storied past, how did the turkey become the popular American holiday tradition it is today? The most likely explanation is related to an excerpt from the published journals of colonist William Bradford, who wrote that during the Fall season of 1621 the Pilgrims haunted wild turkeys.

Bradford’s journals were lost for over a century, then rediscovered and published in 1856. In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving and prayer, but it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln announced that the last Thursday in November would be proclaimed “a day of Thanksgiving.”

Then in 1870, Congress declared the last Thursday of November a national holiday. The turkey soon became the popular choice for this holiday meal because its size meant that it could feed an entire family. It wasn’t a commonly served meat like chicken, beef, or pork, which made it feel like more of a special dish. There was also the fact that most people found the bird to be quite delicious, which they still do today.

Image Source: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

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