flock of turkeys is shown at a Minnesota poultry farm.
It is an amusing (and apparently apocryphal) piece of Thanksgiving
lore that Ben Franklin believed the turkey ought to adorn the presidential
In reality, he was complaining in a letter to his daughter that
the eagle chosen for the seal looked more like a turkey. Which,
he admitted, he didn't much mind.
"For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more
respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America,"
he remarked, according to the Franklin
Institute. "He is besides, though a little vain & 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."
In that assessment, Franklin would have found sympathizers among
ancient Americans, who regarded the bird with even more respect
than the eccentric founding father. Long before turkeys wound up
on Thanksgiving dinner tables (or Ben Franklin's personal presidential
seal doodles), they were afforded a place of honor in Mayan and
Nowadays, they're America's waddling every-bird, fit
mostly for rapid over-consumption while trying to avoid talking
politics with Uncle Steve and bizarre
displays of presidential whimsy at the White House.
Here's the story of how turkeys got to where they are now.
Tigre Complex showing structures containing turkey bones (circled).
The turkeys we eat today were first domesticated as far back
as 2,000 years ago, according to a 2012 study
in the journal PLOS One. Deep within the massive stone Jaguar Paw
Temple at the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador in Guatemala, scientists
have found the bones of seven members of the species Meleagris gallopavo,
i.e., the not-so-humble domestic turkey.
El Mirador is hundreds of miles from turkeys' natural range
in central Mexico, according to Science,
a sign that the birds were being traded across long-distance exchange
networks. And their presence at Jaguar Paw Temple indicates that
the creatures were involved in religious practice perhaps
sacrificed in rituals, perhaps eaten as part of a sacred meal. Ocellated
turkeys a close relative of our bird adorned Mayan
manuscripts and temple walls and may have been the dedicated meal
of priests and the aristocracy.
In Mexico, according to food historian Andrew
F. Smith, turkeys were given as tribute to the Aztec emperor
and beheaded for offerings by merchants giving thanks for safe travels.
The turkey was deified as Chalchiuhtotolin, the "jeweled bird,"
a god of plague and purification.
Meanwhile, in what's now the American Southwest, turkeys
were domesticated for ritual uses feather blankets, prayer
sticks, even ritual interment, archaeologist Camilla
Speller of the University of York told Smithsonian
As Franklin rightly said, the turkey is an American creature,
of only two domesticated birds native to the New World. But
it is not purely American. Like Ernest Hemingway, the bird had to
take a detour through Europe before it was embraced by Americans
and got its modern name.
When Spanish explorers departed from their first visit to the
court of Moctezuma in the 16th century, they brought hordes of gold
and a flock of about 1,500 turkeys back with them, according to
In those turbulent times of early globalization, Europeans were
ecstatic for exotic imports from the "new" world, but
apparently only vaguely concerned with where exactly the new foods
came from. Perhaps the unusual American birds reminded them of guinea
hens, which had once been imported from Africa through Turkey. Or
perhaps they were just in the habit of calling anything foreign
"Turkish," since so many of their imports came from the
Either way, the name "turkey coq," and eventually
just "turkey" stuck, writes NPR's
Robert Krulwich. Before long, the foreign fowl was a staple
of European barnyards and Shakespearean plays ("Here he comes,
swelling like a turkey-cock," a character in Henry V announces
was those European-ized birds that wound up getting imported back
to North America along with European settlers. As wild American
turkeys were hunted nearly to extinction, the domesticated imports
became an important source of food for colonists, Smith writes in
on turkey history.
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving, and Meleagris gallopavo's
dubious place of honor at the center of our dining room table. That
tradition has less to do with a 17th century moment of gratitude
than a 19th century political maneuver and an ambitious magazine
editor named Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale, an early advocate of Thanksgiving celebrations, persuaded
Abraham Lincoln to make it a national holiday in 1863 to restore
"peace, harmony, tranquility and union" to a country torn
apart by the Civil War, according to the Boston
Globe. And because a holiday isn't a holiday until gluttony
is involved, she proposed what she deemed an appropriately American
menu for the occasion: homemade pumpkin pie, easily made gravy,
and turkey a meat that was both familiar and affordable for
19th century cooks. It may not have resembled the meal that was
actually consumed at Plymouth Colony in 1621 (they ate deer), but
it was respectable, wholesome, unpretentious food not like
that sauce-drenched frippery aristocrats dined on in Britain and
Ben Franklin would probably approve.