I suspect that most Americans are convinced turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving. However, the accounts of this three-day event held in 1621 do not specifically mention turkeys as being among the fowl eaten. This has not stopped us from believing that turkey is the traditional dish served at Thanksgiving. This year alone some 46 million turkeys will find their way to our tables on this popular holiday.
During the past 400 years, historians have gone to great lengths to learn what game mammals and birds were actually eaten by the 93 Native Americans (members of the Wampanoag tribe) and 50 Pilgrims that attended the event. After tireless hours of research, they found that the writings of just two men, William Bradford and Edward Winslow, provide the only firsthand accounts of the festivities. William Bradford recorded the event his journal titled Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow documented the event in a publication name Mourt’s Relative and a letter to a friend in London. The documents tell us Wampanoag hunters brought five deer to the gathering and that four Pilgrims were sent out “fowling.” In one day of hunting, the hunters harvested enough fowl to feed the group for a week.
In trying to reconstruct the menu of the first Thanksgiving, it would be helpful to know exactly when the celebration was held. All we know is it took place sometime between September and November. This is important because it would affect what species of ducks and geese were present at the time of the holiday. For example, if it was held in September before the fall waterfowl migration was in full swing, the duck most likely to be taken would be the black duck, which often nests in the estuaries along the coast. However, later in the fall (from the middle of October onward) the birds shot might have included migrants such as mergansers and sea ducks, as well as snow and Canada geese.
Another problem we face trying to reconstruct the menu of the first Thanksgiving is not knowing what birds were these Pilgrim leaders referring to when they used the term fowl. Winslow mentioned that he ate ducks and geese during the three-day event. However, were he and Bradford referring strictly to ducks, geese, and swans? If not, the term probably included turkeys, pigeons, grouse, and others. I think this was probably the case.
We know turkeys were abundant in the lands surrounding the Plymouth Plantation. These large birds were already being harvested by the colonists by the time of the first Thanksgiving.
Another large bird not mentioned is the ruffed grouse. If the fowling party trekked inland from Plymouth, they would have probably found ruffed grouse. At this time in our history grouse were easy to bag since they had little fear of man. Consequently, they were called fool’s hens.
The heath hen is another large bird that was readily available to the Pilgrims. Some experts suggest that it was on the first Thanksgiving menu. This belief stems from the fact that this close relative to the prairie chicken inhabited scrubby coastal habitats from Virginia to New Hampshire and Maine.
Sadly, the Heath was so heavily hunted by early Americans to the point that by 1870 it was extirpated from its mainland range. The last known heath hens were restricted to an island named Martha Vineyard. This population dwindled to the point that the last known heath hen was a male named Booming Ben.” This bird was last seen in March 1932.
Both mourning doves and passenger pigeons should have also been abundant in the Plymouth Plantation. However, the larger and more gregarious passenger pigeon was the bird most often hunted. It is likely passenger pigeons were also served at the first Thanksgiving. At the time passenger pigeon, meat was often mixed with other meats and then baked and served as a puff pastry.
The fate of the passenger pigeon is well known. The bird that was once considered the most abundant bird in the word disappeared when the last member of its species died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1929.
Some experts have gone so far as to suggest the bald eagle was served at the First Thanksgiving. My research uncovered only two references to support this claim. I think the belief is based on reports that the Native Americans and the Pilgrims supposedly ate bald eagles. While I am not familiar with the died of the Wampanoags, I do know that many Native American tribes strictly prohibit the consumption of bald eagles. In fact, they consider this large, stately bird sacred.
I am not sure we will ever know exactly what was served at the first Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I am in the camp that believes that turkey likely served at the first Thanksgiving. I also think it is possible that the menu might have even included two birds (heath hen and passenger pigeon) that are now extinct. Meanwhile, this year, as this debate rages on, I will be among the 88 million Americans that will be dining on turkey or the fourth Thursday in November.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at email@example.com.