Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving? History of the Tradition

Published September 7, 2022
senior man bringing Thanksgiving turkey to the table

Does it feel like it isn't Thanksgiving if you don't have a roast turkey as the main dish at your holiday meal? Turkey is a Thanksgiving mainstay for sure; in fact so much so that some people call Thanksgiving "turkey day." But do you know how and why turkey came to be so closely associated with the holiday? The reason we gobble up turkey on Thanksgiving is far from simple. Its unrivaled place on the Thanksgiving table comes from statements and proclamation by some of the most important political figures of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A Thanksgiving Turkey History Timeline

The history of Thanksgiving actually starts before the "first Thanksgiving" of 1621. The National Parks Service reports that conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado shared a feast with the indigenous people in what is modern day Texas in the year 1541. Some species of wild turkey do live in Texas, but there's no evidence they were on the menu at this early celebration. There's a chance it was on the table at the famous Thanksgiving feast shared by Plymouth, Massachusetts settlers and indigenous people in 1621, however.

1621 - Turkey May Have Been a Side Dish at the First Thanksgiving

Although the first Thanksgiving meal included "wildfowl," according to Smithsonian Magazine, these were more likely other birds than turkeys. While it's possible turkey turned up at the first Thanksgiving, it was probably not the main course. Passenger pigeons, ducks, and other birds may have been the centerpiece of the meal, and they would have been stuffed with herbs and onions instead of bread. Other main courses might have included venison, eels, and shellfish. If turkey was there at all, it was more of a side dish.

1789 - Alexander Hamilton Supposedly Suggests Turkey as a Thanksgiving Food

The NPS reports that all 13 colonies held harvest celebrations in 1777, the year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, these may not have occurred on the same day, and there's no official record of the menu. In 1789, George Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation asking all citizens to give thanks together as a country on November 26. It may be because of this first official celebration and a remark supposedly made by Alexander Hamilton that turkey is the traditional food for Thanksgiving.

"No person should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day," Hamilton is supposed to have said after the 1789 national day of feasting. While there are no official written sources confirming this quote, it's widely assumed that Hamilton said it.

1827 - Sarah Josepha Hale Gives Turkey Pride of Place

Although America did not yet celebrate Thanksgiving with regularity in prior to the 1860s, writer Sarah Josepha Hale was committed to making this an official national holiday. In her 1827 novel Northwood: a Tale of New England, Hale spent a whole chapter detailing a Thanksgiving celebration and the menu involved.

"The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table," Hale wrote. "And well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing."

After the publication of her novel, Hale went on to champion Thanksgiving as a holiday, sending dozens of letters to politicians. She edited the periodical Lady's Magazine, later known as Godey's Lady's Book, for nearly 50 years, regularly writing about the importance of the Thanksgiving holiday and offering sample menus that included turkey. In 1863, she sent a letter to President Abraham Lincoln persuasively making the case for a national holiday.

1863 - Abraham Lincoln Makes Thanksgiving a National Holiday (With Turkey Standard)

Several decades later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday. A few years later, Congress made it official, and we've been celebrating ever since.

During the Civil War, aid societies sometimes put on Thanksgiving dinner celebrations for the troops, and the Library of Congress has records from menus, letters, and diaries to indicate that these feasts sometimes included roast turkey. Although not every family ate turkey, the decades before and after the official holiday proclamation are when turkey became a Thanksgiving tradition.

Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

man carving roasted Thanksgiving turkey

Historical records show that turkey gradually became the official Thanksgiving main course over a period of many years, but why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? What makes the particular bird the best choice for an autumn holiday meal? The reasons are varied and fascinating.

Turkey Was Easily Available and Affordable

At the time that Thanksgiving was being established as a holiday, Americans didn't have access to supermarkets and food shipped on refrigerated trucks. People couldn't go to the grocery store and heave a Butterball out of the freezer section, but they could head out in the woods and hunt a wild turkey. According to American Forests, wild turkeys live in 49 states, including Hawaii. The birds lived on many people's land, making them easy to come by.

When people started raising turkeys, fall was often a time they thinned the flock for winter. Turkey was probably cheaper at this time of year as farmers tried to get rid of unwanted turkeys.

A Single Turkey Will Feed a Crowd

The size of a wild turkey may be another reason why turkey is a traditional food for Thanksgiving. The holiday's roots are in coming together to feast and give thanks, and that often involves a big group. While a wild duck or a few pigeons might feed a small family, you need something bigger if you're inviting the neighbors. Wild turkeys can weigh up to 24 pounds.

People Brought the Turkey Tradition West

Wild turkeys were prevalent in New England and an important part of family meals. As people moved westward, they brought their family traditions along. It's likely these traditions included the Thanksgiving turkey.

46 Million Turkeys Eaten on Thanksgiving

Today, Americans eat almost 46 million turkeys (about 3 pounds per person) every Thanksgiving Day (and another 22 million at Christmas...no wonder turkeys need a Presidential pardon on Thanksgiving). That number is growing, according to the National Turkey Federation.

How many turkeys are eaten each year can vary with the size of the gatherings. When people get together with larger groups and share a single, larger turkey, the country may need fewer of them.

Make the Perfect Thanksgiving Day Turkey

Cooking a turkey is a big time commitment, often requiring half a day or more. Between bastings, it's fun to consider why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving and the important role of this meal in the history and culture of our country. At the very least, you can impress Thanksgiving dinner guests with a few facts about the turkey they are about to enjoy.

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Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving? History of the Tradition