Ignoring for now the fact that the Plymouth “Thanksgiving” in 1621 was almost certainly not the original or first Thanksgiving, let’s discuss turkeys in New England.
When Marc Forgione stated that the original Thanksgiving was actually a harvest festival and did not include turkey, I was surprised and didn’t believe it. Bobby Flay demonstrated major surprise. Forgione was right about the harvest festival, but not about turkey, in my opinion.
First, I knew what foods were generally available in New England in the 17th century. Most were indigenous and some were brought in by the settlers.
Major plant foods in the area that had made their way to New England by that time were the well-known Indian triumvirate of corn, squash and beans. Potatoes, which originated in South America, had not made it this far yet. Wild berries of various types were plentiful, as was all manner of seafood, shellfish and fish, and animals such as deer, rabbit, turkey, duck, goose and other birds.
Back in those days wild birds were generally called “waterfowl” or “fowl.” Waterfowl referred,
of course, to water birds like ducks and geese (both no doubt on the Thanksgiving menu). Fowl usually referred to turkeys. So, just because the exact term, “turkey” or “turkie” is not found in specific reference to that 1621 meal (actually three days of meals) in no way is proof that turkey was not served. It is almost certain that it was on the menu.
If you know anything about hunting, you will know that hunting turkey is a lot easier than duck or goose, especially if using longer range bullets versus bird shot. Turkeys don’t tend to fly very well and are easier targets from a distance.
In other words, turkey was on the menu in all likelihood. We can’t ever know for sure, but a blanket statement such as Forgione made is simply incorrect.
William Bradford, for many years the governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote “Of Plymouth Colony.” A significant quote follows regarding what the colonists gathered for preparation for winter:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their house and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned by true reports.”
And from Edward Winslow’s “Mourt’s Relation.” He was a three time governor of Plymouth Colony
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor
sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
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