The great turkey debate verdict: inconclusive

Dear Editor:

Lest the poor turkey, already knocked out of the running as candidate for our national bird, find itself bespattered with the reciprocal salvos of flying inkpots, I hope I may offer a bit of clarification to the debate in last week’s American.

In their mid-century heyday, Morrison and Commager were well-respected historians, though their 1930 textbook on the growth of the republic has drawn more recent criticism for their perfunctory treatment of the American Indian. Although the original two-volume work is indeed out of print, an assiduous Google search on judicious keywords reveals a fair amount about its contents. One need not shell out $100-plus to Amazon for this information; it is readily available at no charge, if one knows how to look for it.

Bradford’s observation that the Pilgrims hunted turkeys is indeed in his account of the first two decades of Plimoth [sic] Plantation, without any explicit mention of turkeys in his brief account of the first Thanksgiving. Winslow’s account is lengthier, and includes the teaser that Bradford sent out four men to shoot unspecified fowl for the feast, from which expedition they returned, Winslow adds, with enough to feed the colony for a week. But did those fowl include turkeys? Winslow’s account gives us no conclusive evidence either way.

And what of Robert Krulwich? Faithful NPR listeners will know him to be a highly competent news reporter, but not a historian per se; his principal “hard” source for this story appears to be a fellow reporter named Andrew Baehrs, who has written two historical novels and a book on obsolete American dishes that were known to Mark Twain. (Krulwich appears also to have drawn some of his material from a Smithsonian Magazine piece debunking a number of cherished elements of our popular mythology, and taking a skeptical view of the turkey’s role in the original spread.)

While a certain amount of historiographic skill might be expected of this sort of writing, to call Baehrs a historian as most of us understand the term is rather a stretch. He is at best a secondary source, a compiler — all very well as such but hardly “the first draft of history.” Hence Krulwich must be regarded only as a tertiary source — that is, one who compiles material from other compilers. This does not automatically disqualify him (Suetonius’s highly entertaining “Lives of the Caesars” was likewise largely a tertiary compilation) but it argues in favor of the reader’s taking it with a generous grain of salt.

So where does this leave us? Given the relative lack of skittishness of this species (compared, say, to pheasants), it seems entirely plausible to me that Bradford’s four hunters might have brought back a few wild turkeys as part of their catch. But we just don’t know either way — which is why we are so ready to have recourse to myths that fill, most obligingly, the blank spots in our mapping of verifiable realities.

Nick Humez

Trenton and Painesville, Ohio

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