Most Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving—about 9 in 10, according to a 2021 poll—eat turkey with their holiday meal, perhaps alongside other favorite dishes such as mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. But if you’ve ever wondered why so many of us eat turkey on Thanksgiving, the answer is a bit more complicated than you may think. 

First Thanksgiving: No Turkey on the Table?

There’s no solid evidence that turkey was on the menu in late 1621, when the Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Colony sat down with indigenous Wampanoag people for what we now recognize as the first Thanksgiving celebration.

According to a contemporary account of that event by colonist Edward Winslow, the settlers and Native Americans dined on venison, fish and shellfish as well as corn and other vegetables. While “fowl” may have been served, that may well have referred to seasonal waterfowl like duck or geese, rather than turkey. 

Turkeys were plentiful in the region when the Pilgrims arrived, however. Estimates put the total number of wild turkeys in North America at more than 10 million before European settlement began. In his history of Plymouth Plantation, written more than 20 years later, the colony’s longtime governor William Bradford referred to a “great store of Wild Turkies” around the time of that famous meal in 1621.  

Elan Abrell, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in animal studies at Wesleyan University, points out that Spanish explorers brought wild turkeys from Mexico and Central America to Europe in the 1500s. 

“They were probably more often being eaten by wealthier people [than the Pilgrims], but it's quite possible the Pilgrims knew what turkeys were already,” Abrell says. “I can't imagine a reason why they wouldn't have hunted them, because turkeys are relatively easy to hunt and feed more people than smaller birds.” 

By 1789, when George Washington declared a day of national thanksgiving—a one-off, not a recurring holiday—Americans were eating quite a bit of turkey. “I don't know that I would say it was a staple, but it was certainly being hunted and eaten by the 19th century,” Abrell says. “It was almost extinct in the wild by that time.” 

'Mother of Thanksgiving' Popularizes Turkey

But like most of the Thanksgiving traditions we know today, turkey didn’t become widely synonymous with that November holiday until the mid-19th century. This was largely thanks to the efforts of the writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who became known as the “mother of Thanksgiving.” 

In her 1827 novel Northwood, Hale included an entire chapter on Thanksgiving celebrations in her native New England and other regions. She also used her platform as editor of the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book to sway both politicians and the public toward the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday.

By 1854, thanks in large part to Hale’s work, more than 30 states and U.S. territories had an annual commemoration of Thanksgiving. President Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1863, declaring the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday. 

Turkey was a key part of Hale’s Thanksgiving vision. She drew on Bradford’s text—which was stolen by the British during the Revolutionary War but resurfaced in 1854—in order to build up the mythology surrounding the 1621 meal.

Though Bradford’s text didn’t specifically link turkey with the feast shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, Hale made turkey into the center of her ideal Thanksgiving meal, along with a lot of other stuff. “Her descriptions of Thanksgiving sound like massive buffets, with every kind of animal you could imagine,” Abrell says. 

Today's Turkey Varieties

Farmers had already begun to domesticate wild turkeys for food in the 18th and 19th centuries, but a huge shift occurred in the 20th century with the rise of a newly industrialized agricultural sector.

“The trend in industrializing poultry in general as far as meat is concerned was to select for larger and larger breast size and animals that would grow to maturity super quickly, and produce more meat faster,” Abrell says.

Today’s most common domesticated breed of turkey, the Broad-Breasted White, is recognizable by its meaty build and white feathers (which leave no unsightly dark spots on the skin when plucked). 

In 2022, more than 210 million turkeys were raised on some 2,500 farms across the United States, according to the National Turkey Federation. Many of those turkeys will be on the table at Thanksgiving, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans consume more than 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day each year. (Meanwhile, the U.S. population of wild turkeys has rebounded thanks to conservation efforts, and the birds now freely roam suburban regions of New England.) 

“The turkey became the symbolic food that it is now through this combination of cultural advocacy and technological innovations that made shipping frozen large animals across the country possible,” Abrell says. 

“If we didn't have that technology, [turkey] would still be a much more regional cuisine. There were also economic and ecological factors that made turkey such a sensible animal from the perspective of hunters, as well as people who were looking for easier effort to put into feeding more people. It was all those things coming together, more than a founding idea that this is always what the Thanksgiving meal looked like.”