Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Bird No One Wanted to Claim: A History of Turkeys

Blogger: Amber Schamel Christian Historical Fiction author

Today marks exactly three weeks until Thanksgiving. As we gather around the table to give thanks to God and remember our many blessings,  the most prominent item on your table is probably a large bird, roasted to moist, golden perfection. But have you ever paused to think about the history behind the bird, how it made it to our Thanksgiving table, and what else might have been there instead?

Let’s begin our exploration with Christopher Columbus. When the first adventurers and merchants began “discovering” the New World, they noticed a strange, wild fowl that was native to this continent. No one knows for sure how the creatures came to be known as the Turkey, but it is suspected that the word was referring to the actual country of Turkey. But how does a bird in North America get stuck with the name of a country on the other side of the world?

Some historians believe that it came from the early Turks who would sell exotic wild fowl, such as Guineas from West Africa, to Europe. Apparently, they became known for their strange birds, so when the English spotted the wild bird in the New World, it was easy for them to refer to it as the Turkey Cock. Which was then shortened to Turkey.

The Turks however, don’t claim the bird either. They have no such birds native to their country. Their name for it is…get this…Hindi. They figured the bird must be Indian. The French also picked that up and called it Poulet d’Inde or chicken from India. Other languages have called it the Peru or the Dutch chicken. In truth, the poor turkey doesn’t have its own name, even scientifically. Its binomial nomenclature, Meleagris gallopavo is basically a mixture of the Latin words for rooster and peacock, with a nod at a mythical story of a goddess turning mourners into guineas. Apparently, nobody knew what it was or what to call it, so they just pegged a name on the poor bird.

At any rate, the turkey ended up becoming a permanent part of survival in the New World. Most of us know why it is associated with Thanksgiving. It was one of the animals they could hunt and eat in this new land, and one that was at least somewhat like the domestic chickens they were accustomed to. I wonder how long it took them to get used to the gamey taste of wild fowl and deer.

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash
Another interesting tidbit that usually comes up during this time of year is that Benjamin Franklin preferred the Turkey to the Bald Eagle as our National Bird. While the idea of having an eagle on our dinner table while the Turkey adorns the President’s lectern is a humorous picture, this tale isn’t exactly true.

In a letter from Benjamin Franklin to his daughter, he does express his disappointment that the bald eagle was chosen to represent the country. He considered the bird to be of bad moral character, too lazy to catch his own food, bullying others out of theirs instead. He criticized the eagle design saying it looked more like a turkey, and in his rant, went on to say that he believed the turkey would have been a worthier choice given that it is a native of the country, brave, and respectable. He did admit, however that it is a little ‘silly and vain’. Still an amusing story, but a far cry from proposing it as the seal of the United States.

There you are. Some turkey trivia for your holiday gathering. 

Now, I’d love to hear your turkey stories! From thanksgiving fiascos, to fond memories, to hunting them out of the woods yourself…share your turkey and we’ll have an early Thanksgiving dinner. 😉


Amber Schamel writes riveting stories that bring HIStory to life. She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".  Her title, Dawn of Liberty, was awarded the 2017 CSPA Book of the Year award in Historical Fiction. She lives in Colorado and spends half her time volunteering in the Ozarks. Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!


  1. Thank you for the tidbits about turkeys and the usual meat for Thanksgiving dinner. I always enjoy baking a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner along with all the other dishes like old fashioned cranberry salad, sweet potatoes, noodles, etc with pumpkin and pecan pies.

    1. You're making me hungry, Marilyn! ;)
      Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. They really are remarkable birds. My turkey story is probably not that remarkable to those used to encountering them. I was raised in town and have only lived out in the country the past 15 years. The first time I saw wild turkeys in person I was very impressed with their size and that they can fly! I have heard they’re very intelligent and difficult to hunt. One day driving down the road, a whole line of them was crossing single file, holding up traffic on both sides. The funny part was, they were crossing right in front of the Rod and Gun club, as though they knew they were safe despite all the hunters congregated.
    Fun post! Thank you for the trivia.

    1. Hahaha, that is hilarious, Kathleen! I bet they crossed in front of the gun club just to spite all those hunters. ;)

      My brothers hunt turkey and they can be tough! I'm gonna be honest, when it comes to a Thanksgiving day turkey, store bought is better than wild. About the only thing good on a wild turkey is the breast and maybe the legs. Not tender and falling off the bone like we usually imagine a good Thanksgiving dinner.

  3. THANK YOU for writing about something to do with Thanksgiving! I was appalled yesterday when the store I work in put up its' Christmas candy display!!!! I have a love/hate affair with turkeys, my brother raised one at my parents' house and my family lived in a trailer in the back of the property. That tom chased me across the back yard more than once!!!!