Many would agree, there is no Thanksgiving without the staple turkey dinner. Although the Wild Turkey has quite an interesting origin story, it doesn’t start with the Pilgrims.
Native Americans throughout the Southwestern U.S. and Mesoamerica were responsible for the domestication of the Wild Turkey. Archeological evidence from Ancient Mayan sites shows turkeys being kept for their feathers and their bones carved into tools. Turkey scat recovered from these sites contains evidence of turkeys with corn-fed diets, additional evidence of their domestication.
Today there are five known subspecies of Wild Turkey, or Meleagris gallopavo, found across North America. However, the genetic origins of our modern-day domestic turkey eaten at Thanksgiving come from an unknown Yucatan subspecies. This 6th subspecies was very likely domesticated by the Maya and similar human groups. Although, this missing subspecies is not to be confused with a separate, distinct species of turkey known as M. ocellata that is still alive and occurs in the Yucatan area today. The current working hypothesis suggests that the domestic turkey must have spread across trade routes since Mayan domestication and continued to be cultivated as food by Native in most of North America prior to European arrival.
While deeply important in many Native cultures as a staple food, turkeys were not necessarily given their due respect in the beginning by Europeans. It still remains scientifically inconclusive if turkey was actually the fowl eaten by the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. Even that famous myth about Benjamin Franklin and the Wild Turkey is likely untrue. While Benjamin Franklin did sit on several committees that discussed which symbolic bird should be chosen for the U.S. seal, it wasn’t until several years later, in letters to a family member, that he suggested the turkey as an alternative to the Bald Eagle. He was probably more just a passive turkey fan rather than a full-fledge turkey advocate.
As settlers moved across North America, there were no limits or hunting restrictions for wild game, including the turkey. This eventually led to steep population declines in many species (most notably the Bison), with Wild Turkeys seeing some of their lowest numbers as we emerged into the 1900s. Wild Turkeys thrive in woodland habitats and forest edges. As trees were felled to support emerging western homesteaders, the turkey (as many other species did) began to decline.
World War II and the Depression-era saw an increase in wildlife restoration efforts for the Wild Turkey. Limits were put on the number of turkeys that could be hunted in most states. Famous early 1900s conservationist Aldo Leopold’s land ethic work influenced even these restoration efforts. Thankfully, Wild Turkeys are now abundant with steady populations and a managed hunting season. You can even see an occasional few birds roaming around Wyandotte County Lake Park near the Mr. & Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library.
For more information on the origin of the Wild Turkey, check out some of these titles available in the KCKPL library system: