Early Chesapeake Settlers Meal of Thanksgiving: Boar, Turkey, Deer and Bald Eagle?
Rod Cofield, executive director of Historic London Town and Gardens briefed me a few years ago about what “meals of thanksgiving” (a generic term) might have been like in the early colonial era. While many associate the historical kickoff of Thanksgiving with a 1621 truce between Pilgrims and Indians in the Plymouth and Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, Cofield said that there is a slightly different history of this fall ritual.
Cofield said that Thanks Giving meals were celebrated as early as the 1550s for things including surviving the crossing of the Atlantic or a good harvest. There are records of Thanksg Giving meals in Florida, Virginia and in the Chesapeake Bay area.
While Thanksgiving is widely considered a secular holiday, in the colonial era, religion probably played a bigger role in the meal.
Cofield talked about an early settlement in the Chesapeake Bay area that had a tobacco blight that was destroying an essential crop. Community leaders called for a day of prayer and fasting, hoping that God would answer their call for help.
“Things got better and it seemed to work so then they had a day of ‘Giving Thanks’ to thank God for listening to their prayers,” Cofield said.
Cofield said that it might have been more of a meal than a feast. People wouldn’t have taken the day off from work, but may have taken a pause in their usual work schedule to sit down together for something special—maybe a meal of wild turkey or boar, deer or even bald eagle. After eating, they’d have gone right back to their chores around the farm or in the field.
And yes, you read that right. Our national bird (since 1782), the majestic Bald Eagle, might have been on the menu. Of course that was before it was put on the Endangered Species List (1967 to 2007), or before the there was even a national United States governmental body to make such distinctions.
Benjamin Franklin wouldn’t have minded eating that eagle. In 1784, he wrote a letter to his daughter protesting the choice of the eagle as the national bird — preferring instead the turkey.
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Turkeys would defend a property from Red Coats? Say what? And we eat them on Thanksgiving? No wonder the president pardons a few each year!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.