News / USA

US Thanksgiving Turkey Hails from Mexico

The Thanksgiving turkey has made a circular journey, from its origins in Mexico to Europe and back to North America. (Alison Klein/VOA)
The Thanksgiving turkey has made a circular journey, from its origins in Mexico to Europe and back to North America. (Alison Klein/VOA)

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday and roast turkey is the definitive centerpiece of the holiday feast.

But the domesticated turkey is not an American invention.

It's Mexican.

The bird was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, what is now Mexico, at around 800 B.C., says Julie Long, a turkey researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"The Mesoamericans had turkey meat all the time," she says.

Enter the Spanish

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, "They discovered these domesticated turkeys, which were a lot better than the birds they were eating in Europe," Long says.

The Spanish were used to eating birds like peacocks, pretty to look at, but not much meat on them.

US Thanksgiving Turkey Is Mexican Immigrant
US Thanksgiving Turkey Is Mexican Immigranti
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X


"Those are just sort of scrawny little birds," she says. "And, of course, chickens at that time were scrawny little birds."

Compared to a nice, meaty turkey, it was no contest.

Turkey conquers Europe

Along with corn, peppers and tomatoes, the Spanish took turkeys back to Europe with them.

Over the next 100 years, turkeys spread from Spain to Holland and all the way up to England, where goose was the traditional English Christmas feast until turkey came to town.

"To the English at the time, they thought they tasted better than a goose," Long says. "So at Christmas you would actually be doing very well if you got a turkey as opposed to a goose."

Back to the Americas

From 17th-century England, turkeys made their way back to the Americas. English settlers brought the birds and other livestock with them to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

A decade or so earlier, when the Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth, they found the woods were already full of wild turkeys, distant cousins of the birds domesticated in Mesoamerica.

Pilgrim writings "refer to turkeys as being ‘fat and sweet,’" says Kathleen Wall, a colonial food expert at the Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She says the birds also made for easy hunting.

"You can go out at twilight and the turkeys roost in trees and you can shoot them off their roost. They sit still while you shoot at them," Wall says.

Wild turkeys decline

Fat, sweet and easy to shoot, it didn't take long before colonists like Gov. William Bradford started writing about the wild turkey's decline.

"One of the things he mentions in the 1640s is how things that were so abundant in 1620 and in 1630 are suddenly disappearing," Wall says.

By the late 1640s, it was a good idea to raise domesticated turkeys because the wild birds were getting harder to find.

Their populations continued to decline as America moved west, hitting a low point in the 1930s.

Recovery

Conservation efforts in the late 20th century started bringing the wild turkey back. Wall says there are enough of them today that occasional attacks on suburbanites are reported.

One turkey that repeatedly attacked a Massachusetts postman had to be forcibly relocated.

As for the original Mexican wild turkey - the great-great grandfather of today's Thanksgiving bird - the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Long says it's probably extinct.

"There are some turkeys that are down there that exist on preserves," she says. "But nobody knows for sure whether those are the original wild birds."

But its descendents live on at the heart of the American Thanksgiving celebration.

 

 

 

You May Like

UN: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jay Brodell from: Cota Rica
November 21, 2012 8:40 PM
Well before the Spanish arrival the turkey was domesticated and provided food for the natives of the Southwest U.S. So maybe they came from Mexico into what is now the U.,S. or maybe they traveled south.

They are plenty of turkey bones at Mesa Verde in the Four Corner region.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid