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Utah State History

How turkeys trotted onto your Thanksgiving table and all over Utah

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Nov 15th, 2018 @ 5:13pm



Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Turkeys are usually near the forefront of the discussion when you think about Thanksgiving. The bird has been a holiday feast staple for decades.

In fact, millions of turkeys are expected to be consumed again this year for the holiday.

That’s the case in Utah, too. The turkey on the table may come frozen from a store or it might come from the thousands of wild turkeys now roaming around the state.

But have you ever wondered when did turkey become a Thanksgiving tradition?

When turkey became a holiday staple

Turkeys likely weren’t on the menu during the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and they definitely weren’t on the menu at Utah’s first Thanksgiving in Aug. 1848, but they’re now associated with the holiday perhaps more than anything else on the table.

In a report of the holiday posted on historyofmassachusetts.org, Rebecca Brooks wrote that turkey became associated with the holiday until the 1840s when the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book published a recipe from her interpretation of the first Thanksgiving feast. It’s unclear if turkeys were a part of that famous first feast because Ed Winslow, one of two people to write about the feast, only mentioned that fowl and deer were consumed along with corn and grains, according to the Smithsonian.

Author Charles Dickens also popularized turkey as a holiday food around the same time as Godey’s Lady’s Book, according to History.com.

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, but turkey consumption took off the mid-20th century. History.com notes that turkey breeding and farming became a huge industry in the 1940s when millions of turkeys were being bred and sold to markets.

The University of Illinois says about 46 million turkeys are consumed in the U.S. each Thanksgiving.

Turkeys in Utah

Utahns had beef on the table of their first Thanksgiving feast. It’s possible it’s because there are no records of wild turkeys around the time Mormon pioneers settled in Utah or from previous explorers documenting turkeys lived on the land.

That could also mean there were so few turkeys that none were recorded or because there were turkeys in the eastern portion of the U.S. that pioneers didn't bother to record them, said Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources.

That’s not to say turkeys weren’t indigenous to Utah. Archaeological evidence, such as pictographs, petroglyphs and objects created from turkey bones and feathers are proof that turkeys did exist before at some point, in the state, according to Robinson.

"We're pretty certain Native Americans lived with turkeys here in the state of Utah, but what happened in that (Anglo-Saxon) settlement isn't as known," he said. "At that same time, as you roll into the (1900s), turkeys were really struggling throughout the range. They were really close to extinction."

Turkey populations were close to 30,000 in the world around the turn of the 20th century, according to Robinson.

While there were turkey farms in the state, Utah wildlife officials attempted to bring back wild turkeys in the 1920s but that came to no avail. As turkey populations grew again in the 1940s, populations in Utah remains low to none. Robinson said officials tried again in the 1950s and successfully reintroduced the bird to Utah.

Wild turkeys walking around in the Utah wilderness. (Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife)

Wild turkey populations in the state exploded in the late 1980s as turkeys truly adapted to the state, he added.

The Division of Wildlife Resources now estimates there are about 25,000 wild turkeys in Utah. Most of the turkeys are found in southern Utah, especially in Beaver, Garfield, Iron and Millard counties. They can also be found in northern Utah.

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