The History of Having Turkey at Thanksgiving

The History of Having Turkey at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday, celebrated with feasting, gratitude, and time spent with loved ones. And at the center of the Thanksgiving table, there’s usually a large, roasted turkey. But have you ever wondered why turkey has become the iconic Thanksgiving dish? To understand the history of having turkey at Thanksgiving, we need to explore its origins, cultural influences, and how it became a symbol of this cherished holiday.

Native American Influence

Thanksgiving has its roots in the early 17th century when a group of English Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. These European settlers, also known as the Pilgrims, arrived in North America in 1620 seeking religious freedom. They faced a harsh and challenging environment and relied on the knowledge and assistance of the local Native Americans, particularly the Wampanoag tribe, to survive.

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The first Thanksgiving celebration, often considered the precursor of the modern holiday, took place in 1621 when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared a meal together. The exact menu of this feast is not well-documented, but it likely included a variety of wild game, fish, and local vegetables. While it’s uncertain whether turkey was part of the menu, it’s believed that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag would have hunted wild turkeys in the region, making it a possible inclusion.

Colonial Influence

As the years passed and Thanksgiving became a more established holiday, it started to take on a more colonial and Christian significance. Thanksgiving was celebrated in various forms, with different colonies and communities adopting their own traditions and menus. Roasted meats, such as turkey, duck, and goose, were popular choices for these early Thanksgiving feasts due to their availability and suitability for large gatherings.

The first official Thanksgiving proclamation came from the Continental Congress in 1777, during the American Revolution. The choice of foods for Thanksgiving continued to vary by region and personal preference, but roasted turkey was becoming increasingly common in many parts of the United States.

Sarah Josepha Hale

The 19th century saw the rise of the turkey as a prominent symbol of Thanksgiving, thanks in part to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was a prominent writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” She is best known for her campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Hale was the editor of the popular women’s magazine, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” and she used her platform to promote the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday. In her editorials and articles, she emphasized the importance of family gatherings and feasting on turkey as a central part of the celebration.

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Hale’s persistent advocacy paid off when President Abraham Lincoln heeded her call and officially declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Her vision of a unified, American Thanksgiving celebration with turkey as the centerpiece began to take root in the collective consciousness.

Industrialization and Turkey Farms

As the United States underwent industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, turkey became more accessible to the general population. Advances in transportation, refrigeration, and farming practices made it easier to raise, transport, and prepare turkeys on a large scale. This made turkey a practical and affordable choice for Thanksgiving feasts.

Turkey farming and breeding also evolved during this time. Farmers began to selectively breed turkeys to produce larger birds with more white meat. The white meat of turkeys became especially popular for its mild flavor and ability to feed a crowd.

The Influence of Advertising

In the mid-20th century, the turkey’s status as the Thanksgiving centerpiece was further cemented by advertising and pop culture. Companies and marketers began to associate turkey with Thanksgiving through their campaigns. The iconic image of a perfectly roasted turkey, golden brown and garnished with herbs, became a symbol of abundance and celebration.

Television also played a role in popularizing turkey as a Thanksgiving tradition. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began in 1924, featured a giant turkey balloon, and the parade itself became an annual Thanksgiving tradition for many families.

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In the 1950s, television sitcoms like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” showcased traditional Thanksgiving dinners with roast turkey, reinforcing the idea of turkey as an essential part of the holiday. These cultural references created a lasting connection between turkey and Thanksgiving in the minds of many Americans.

Modern Traditions

Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated in diverse ways across the United States, but the roasted turkey remains the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals. It is often served with a variety of side dishes, including stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and vegetables. Many families have their own unique recipes and variations for preparing the turkey, making it a cherished and highly anticipated part of the holiday.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in alternative Thanksgiving dishes to accommodate dietary preferences and restrictions. Vegetarian and vegan options have gained popularity, with plant-based roasts and stuffed vegetables becoming common alternatives to traditional turkey. However, the turkey’s enduring presence on the Thanksgiving table is a testament to its historical significance and cultural importance.


The tradition of having turkey at Thanksgiving has a rich history that spans centuries. From its possible inclusion in the first Thanksgiving meal shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans to its popularization by Sarah Josepha Hale and its cementing in the American consciousness through advertising and pop culture, turkey has become the symbol of abundance, togetherness, and gratitude that Thanksgiving represents.

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While Thanksgiving has evolved over time to include a wide variety of dishes to accommodate diverse tastes and dietary preferences, the turkey continues to hold a special place in the hearts and on the tables of Americans during this cherished holiday. Its history is a reflection of the evolving cultural and culinary landscape of the United States, and it serves as a reminder of the enduring traditions that bring families and communities together to give thanks and celebrate their blessings.

So, as you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast and savor that delicious slice of turkey, remember the centuries of history and tradition that have made it an integral part of this special day.

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