Turkeys are a part of the traditional Thanksgiving Day meal and have been a part of Indigenous traditions even longer. Here are some facts about turkeys that tell a little bit about where they came from and how they became a prominent part of the harvest festival of Thanksgiving.
There are six subspecies of wild turkey native to North America.
The Eastern wild turkey is likely the kind that was encountered by the Europeans that landed on North America’s East Coast. This is one of the largest subspecies, ranging in the United States from Maine to the northern Florida and extending as far west as Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri.
The Osceola wild turkey is also referred to as the Florida wild turkey and is most commonly found on the Florida peninsula. It was named after the famous Seminole leader Osceola. They are the smallest subspecies of wild turkey, weighing about 16 to 18 pounds.
The Rio Grande wild turkey is found through Texas to Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and Utah and was later introduced to parts of California, and even a few northeastern states and Hawaii in the 1950s. Their legs are a bit longer than other species, likely to better adapt to its prairie habitat.
The Merriam’s wild turkey is found throughout the Rocky Mountains and the prairies of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota as well as parts of southern Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and The Navajo Nation. They were later introduced to Oregon. They live in ponderosa pine and mountainous regions. They were named after Clinton Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. These are the type of wild turkeys that are seen wandering the South Hill.
The Gould’s wild turkey is found in the central valleys and northern high-altitude regions of Mexico, into the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. It has the smallest population of all the subspecies because of overhunting and habitat loss and is now a protected species.
The Southern Mexican wild turkey is found only in Mexico, not in the United States or Canada. Archaeologists believe this subspecies of turkey was first domesticated by Indigenous people in at least 2,000 years ago in central Mesoamerica, and then in the southwest of the present-day U.S. in 200 BCE.
The domestic turkeys found in central Mexico were then brought to Europe, likely by Spanish colonizers, making it a popular farm animal and centerpiece of feasts for those that could afford it. By the 1620s, turkeys became so popular in Europe that they were then brought back to the East Coast by Pilgrim settlers to Massachusetts. These are likely the ancestors of most domestic turkeys eaten by Americans for Thanksgiving today.
Turkeys domesticated in the Southwest, also called the Pueblo domesticated turkey, went extinct because of European violence and spread of disease among Indigenous people in the region, although some of the genes of the Pueblo domesticated turkey live on in the Merriam’s wild turkey.
Prior to being prized for feasts by Europeans, turkeys were an important part of the culture of Indigenous people in North America.
Turkeys were prized by many tribes, not only as a source of eggs and meat, but for their beautiful feathers. Turkey feathers were used in many ceremonies and were often used in garments, like headgear, robes, blankets and cloaks. They were often depicted in drawings on ceramics.
The Navajo people consider the turkey one of their sacred birds.
In their creation story, the Turkey was found in the Yellow world, also called the Third World.
Although turkeys are an iconic part of Thanksgiving celebrations, the turkey has been a prominent part of cultural traditions for thousands of years.
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