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A classic Thanksgiving Day turkey ready for dinner.

History Of The Thanksgiving Turkey

Most people will associate the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock with Thanksgiving and eating turkeys at this time of year. However few will realize that the history of the Thanksgiving turkey is not so straightforward.

The Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock in 1640 aboard a ship, the Mayflower. Unfortunately there were tough times ahead and thanks to a lack of food 46 or the 102 pilgrims died within the first few months.

Thankfully by 1621 times had changed and the harvest of this year was a successful one where there was enough food for all. This led to a celebration between the pilgrims and the native Americans of the area who had helped the pilgrims greatly. The celebration was held over 3 days and although the precise date is not known it was thought to be between the end of September and November 11.


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Vintage 19th Century Thanksgiving Postcard.

Gobble, gobble.

While no one is totally sure if the pilgrims and Indians ate turkey at this first Thanksgiving it is possible that birds referred to as turkeys were served. Back in the 1600’s wild fowl were known as turkeys were commonly eaten and these could in fact be the turkeys that were first eaten. The next Thanksgiving did not occur until 1623 when there was a devastating drought which led the pilgrims to pray for rain. This prayer worked and as a result Governor Bradford decided to pay thanks and invite the pilgrims Indian friends once again.

It was not until 1676 that there was an official proclamation for Thanksgiving. The first date of this was June 29 and unfortunately Indians were no longer invited to take part in these celebrations. By 1777 thirteen colonies celebrated Thanksgiving together and there is evidence to suggest that turkey was on the menu as it was a bird that was in plentiful supply. In fact eating a turkey at Thanksgiving was so popular that by 1916 Thanksgiving was often referred to as ‘Turkey Day’.

This was a tradition that continued until 1947 when the National Turkey Federation decided to present the President of the time Harry Truman with a turkey. This turkey was given a pardon by the President and was spared being cooked and eaten. From this time onwards turkeys are presented to the President each year at Thanksgiving.


Modern Day Thanksgiving Turkey

Today Thanksgiving celebrations will often feature a turkey as the centerpiece of the dinner table. There are a multitude of recipes for this bird and most families will eat various other meats at this time. As times have changed people have adapted traditional recipes to reflect their own culture and heritage, so if you thought that every Thanksgiving turkey would be dressed and roasted, think again.