How Turkey Became the Bird of Choice for Thanksgiving

Tom Blank of Weird History Food looks at how the turkey became the bird of choice for Thanksgiving dinner, noting that it was most likely not present at the original feast. The members of the Wampanoag tribe brought five whole deers, while The Pilgrims provided fowl of some sort. While the meal lives on in infamy, it was not considered particularly special at the time.

The first Thanksgiving which took place sometime after the 1621 Harvest, was probably a pretty rowdy party. The settlers were joined for their 3-day Feast by about 90 people of the tribe who brought with them five whole deer as a gift for the colony’s governor. ….the first Thanksgiving was seemingly un-noteworthy to the pilgrims. Harvest feasts were common back in Europe and days of Thanksgiving were regularly held back in England.

In fact, Thanksgiving was not a national US holiday until writer Sarah Josepha Hail, who lived in New England where the holiday was celebrated, went on a campaign to bring Thanksgiving to all of the United States. President Abraham Lincoln approved the holiday in 1863.

She thought that nationalizing the Thanksgiving holiday around one shared special day would help create a national identity and thus keep the country together. So Hail actively campaigned for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hail reportedly she wrote…Abraham Lincoln. ….In 1863 Lincoln held the first ever National Thanksgiving while it was a little too late for a national unity, Hail was still dubbed the mother of Thanksgiving 

Turkey had since become a staple of American households, but the bird cemented its place on Thanksgiving after President Ulysses S. Grant served turkey for his Thanksgiving meal.

Traditionally, starting with Ulysses S Grant, US presidents would be gifted one of these many turkeys each and every Thanksgiving by the mid 1900s this gifting had turned into an all out ceremony wherein the president would accept the turkey and the turkey would in turn be taken to the White House kitchens to be eaten that very day.

A newer tradition is the pardoning of the turkey, which takes place right before Thanksgiving. It began with Ronald Reagan in 1982 (or George H.W. Bush in 1989) and has continued since.

Well there is some debate over exactly which president was the first to pardon a turkey. The trend didn’t truly start until 1982 when Ronald Reagan sent his presidential turkey to live out the rest of its life on a farm. Reagan continued this practice throughout the rest of his presidency but he kept it to a casual send off. …It wasn’t until 1989, under the presidency of George HW Bush, that the first ever official presidential pardon was handed down to a turkey. In the years since, every president has pardoned at least one turkey for the holiday.

Turkey for Thanksgiving
Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails. Lori can be found posting on Threads and sharing photos on Instagram.