Benjamin Franklin and the American Turkey | Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely

from Gastronomica 6:4

More than three hundred years ago, in January 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born in a two-room dwelling across from the Old South Meeting House in Boston.1 He was the fifteenth of seventeen children that his father, Josiah, had by two wives. Six years later, Josiah, an immigrant from England’s Northamptonshire, moved his brood to the corner of Union and Hanover Streets (near the building that is now the Union Oyster House) into lodging that wasn’t much grander than Franklin’s birthplace had been. True, by that time some of the older Franklin children had moved into homes of their own. But, as the youngest son of the family would later write in his Autobiography, “I remember thirteen sitting at one time at [my father’s] table.”2 The frugality that Franklin preached all his life was surely learned at home.

Along with the habit of thrift, Franklin’s celebrated belief in self-improvement was acquired early; his formal education was scant, and his apprenticeship as a printer, almost accidental. Yet his father, who made his living as a candle and soap maker, brought respected visitors to the family table, as we know from the Autobiography. He would “start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children … and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table.”3

The story of how Franklin became one of our most revered statesmen is a prototypically American one, the circumstances of his humble upbringing not the least of it. And yet, in those early years of the eighteenth century in the British colony of Boston, Franklin, like his father before him, considered himself a subject of the royal crown. In fact, until the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, when Franklin was seventy years old, he was, quite literally, an Englishman. Only gradually and reluctantly (but then ardently), through a lifetime of experiences both public and private, did Franklin see that breaking with Britain was necessary; only then did he become “American,” the Founding Father we know today.

Like all heroes, however, Franklin is misunderstood, and the details of his life are often distorted and caricatured. Mention his name in connection with the American turkey, for example, and many people are bound to utter what they believe to be an unequivocal fact—that he wished it had been named our national bird instead of the bald eagle. And yet the real sentiment behind the regret that he once expressed is more complex, not nearly as straightforward as a simple lament or, in some versions, a full-fledged campaign. Indeed, much needs to be clarified about both Franklin and the turkey, these distinctly American icons who, as we shall see, are linked in a way far more dramatic than a debate about a patriotic symbol.

When the Spaniards entered what is now southeastern Mexico in the early sixteenth century, they found large birds that they compared to peafowl. Columbus may well have seen these birds himself on his fourth voyage, in 1502, when he discovered several islands off the coast of Honduras. He gave the easternmost of those islands the name Guanaja—virtually the same as guanajo, the word for turkey in Cuba today—and the natives greeted him with food that included gallinas de la tierra, another term that came to be used for turkey in New Spain.4

Precisely what these large birds were is difficult to determine today, but contemporary accounts described their superior flavor, as well as their plumage and dewlaps, all characteristics of the turkey. In 1517 in the Yucatán, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba saw and ate what must have been turkeys. Two years later, Cortés described birds that without question were the common American turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs and an important part of their diet and domestic economy.

Turkeys. From Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (1579). Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, ms. med. palat. 220, f. 209 recto. reproduced from sabine eiche, Presenting the Turkey (Florence: centro di, 2004), p.13.

Bernardino de Sahagún, a sixteenth-century missionary to the Aztecs of New Spain, had this to report, based on his personal observations of turkey behavior, including the bird’s mating habits:

The native hens and cocks are called totollin. These are well-known domestic birds having a round tail, and feathers in the wings but they do not fly. They are very good to eat, having the best meat of all the birds. They eat corn as mash when small, also cooked, ground pigweed, and other plants. They lay eggs and hatch poults. They are of various colors, some white, others red, others black, and others brown. The males are called huexólotl and have a large dewlap, a large breast and a large neck which has red tubercles. The head is blue, especially when angry, se sejunto [joined in the sexual act]. It has a fleshy appendage which hangs above the bill. It puffs up, swells or shrinks. Those people who dislike others, give them to eat or drink that bit of soft flesh above the bill, so that they may not get an erection. …

The female fowl is smaller than the cock, stands lower, and has tubercles on the head and throat. She submits to the cock, lays eggs, sits upon them and hatches the poults. Her flesh is very savory and fat. She is corpulent. She puts her poults under her wings and feeds her little ones worms and other things which she finds. The eggs which she conceives first thicken and develop a membrane and while inside grow a tender shell. Afterwards the hen lays them, and after the eggs are laid the shell hardens.5

By 1511 the Spaniards were already bringing some of these birds back to Spain where, despite the alleged anti-aphrodisiac effects of eating their flesh, they were a sensation—tender, delicious (lacking the stringy toughness of the peacock and the fishy flavor of the swan), easily bred and raised, a status symbol. Quickly domesticated in continental Europe, the turkey soon reached England, where the bird’s English name first appeared in print in 1541, when Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, trying to limit his gluttonous higher clergy to only one of the “greatest fishes or fowles” per dish, listed the “turkey-cock.”6

There are many explanations and a great deal of confusion about the name turkey. Some references claim that it came from the bird’s “turk-turk” call; others trace the word’s derivation to the Hebrew word tukki, meaning peacock. More likely, in some parts of Europe the exotic creature was thought to have come from the East, through that vague region called Turkey. To make matters even more confusing, before it arrived in England, the name turkey already was being used there to mean guinea fowl from West Africa, which had been brought to Britain by the Romans. In any case, eventually the guinea fowl’s name was usurped by the larger newcomer.7

The French term coq d’Inde (dinde or dindon for short) is another name that comes from the bird’s supposed eastern origins. In fact, by 1612 the turkey was known in India,8 where its Hindi name is peru, same as the country, while the Turkish equivalent is—what else?—hindi. One German word for turkey is calecutischer Hahn (Calcutta hen); the common German term in use today is Truthahn, referring to the turkey’s puffed throat.

As for the binomial nomenclature Meleagris gallopavo, bestowed by Linnaeus in 1758, it is wrong in both of its parts. The word Meleagris comes from the Greek for “guinea fowl,” while gallopavo, from the Latin, means “peacock.” The turkey is not closely related to either species, except for the fact that all three are members of the great avian family in the sky.

Despite all these exotic appellations, the turkey’s pedigree is impeccably American. This big bird is, without question, a new-world creature. Although its genes are similar to those of the pheasant, the pheasant is an old-world bird that was brought to America in the nineteenth century. The ocellated turkey (M. ocellata) of the Yucatán and southeastern Mexico is a different species, never domesticated, which whistles rather than gobbles and whose iridescent green eye spots on the tail reveal a closer kinship to the peacock on another branch of the family tree.9

James McArdell after Benjamin Wilson, B. Franklin of Philadelphia, L.L.D.F.R.S. (1761 or later). Courtesy of Roger Genser, The Prints and the Pauper, Santa Monica, California.

Ironically, in the American settlements turkey was, for a while, a European import. The Jamestown colony was supplied with turkeys from England in 1607 or very soon thereafter, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony began importing them in 1629.10 It’s truly odd to think of the colonists eating turkeys that had been born and raised abroad, but in fact they did, in addition to the wild ones they hunted.

That woodland quarry was probably included in the meal eaten on the first thanksgiving of 1621, but the idea of its having been the meal’s centerpiece is, as most of us now realize, based largely on myth. The one and only eyewitness account of that harvest feast, written by Edward Winslow in a letter to a friend in England, mentions “fowl” but not turkey specifically, along with five deer brought by the Native Americans.11 It’s also true that the Puritans forbade the celebration of the traditional English autumn holidays either for religious reasons or for the drunkenness they seemed to invite. Only gradually did Thanksgiving come to be observed as a private family feast, and the holiday we celebrate today is largely a nineteenth-century construct.12

During the course of the eighteenth century, the growth in human population in the colonies forced wild turkeys west, until, by 1776, they were nearly extinct from settled areas of coastal New England.13 Small colonial farms began in time to raise domesticated turkeys descended from European stock. Eventually, larger farms got established, and turkey drovers brought thousands of birds to market in spring and fall, when the weather was temperate. One observer of the route from southern New Hampshire down the Londonderry Turnpike toward Boston described the birds’ roosting behavior: “When the shades of evening had reached a certain degree of density, suddenly the whole drove with one accord rose from the road and sought a perch in the neighboring trees. The drover was prepared for such a halt and drew up his wagon beside the road, where he passed the night.”14 For a special occasion, Josiah Franklin and his family, in the heart of Boston, might have eaten a turkey from such a drove. Later, in Philadelphia, the table of Ben Franklin and his wife would have been supplied by the many turkey farms of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.15

Once Franklin had retired from his printing business at the age of forty-two, with sufficient income assured by his partnership with his foreman, David Hall, he became ever more involved in his scientific inquiries. Every American schoolchild is taught about his famous experiment involving a kite and a key during a nighttime thunderstorm. But not many learn about his experiments with electricity and a turkey.

The idea of electricity began to intrigue Franklin on a visit to Boston in 1743 when he encountered a Scotsman named Dr. Archibald Spencer, who performed tricks with static electricity. Later, when Spencer brought his road show to Philadelphia, Franklin met him again. Wanting to understand how electrical phenomena worked, and anticipating applications far beyond parlor tricks, Franklin began to experiment on his own, using ordinary household objects such as a saltcellar and a vinegar cruet.

His experiments advanced after he was able to utilize the miraculous new Leyden jar from Holland. Invented by Pieter van Musschenbroek in 1745 and named for the Dutch university where he taught, the Leyden jar is essentially a glass partly filled with water into which a metal wire is introduced through a hole. The open end of the wire is brought into contact with a device that discharges static electricity. This early capacitor had the remarkable ability to hold and store electricity. Soon after its invention, an Englishman named William Watson improved the jar by lining it with foil and sent an electrical shock clear across the River Thames. In France, Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet, “electrician” to King Louis XV, gave a demonstration before the court that combined science with showmanship. He sent an electric current through 180 guardsmen holding hands, making them all jump simultaneously. Another display by Nollet involved 700 Carthusian monks who formed a human chain one kilometer long to make an electrical circuit. In their long, white robes, they leapt in unison.

Franklin himself performed many experiments with Leyden jars, during which he coined the now-familiar words positive, negative, battery, charge, condenser, and conductor—clear, plain words to describe electricity’s elusive nature. He also conceived of the single-fluid theory, which became the foundation of modern electrostatics. Despite these efforts, Franklin had not yet found a practical application for electricity, and in one of a series of letters to his friend Peter Collinson, a fellow scientist in London, he wrote with self-deprecating humor that “if there is no other use discovered of electricity, this, however, is something considerable, that it may help to make a vain man humble.”16

Nearly two years later, on April 29, 1749, Franklin again wrote to his London friend, this time of his plans to experiment on a turkey:

Chagrined a little that we have hitherto been able to discover nothing in this way of use to mankind, and the hot weather coming on, when electrical experiments are not so agreeable, it is proposed to put an end to them for this season somewhat humorously in a party of pleasure on the banks of the Schuylkill. … Spirits, at the same time, are to be fired by a spark sent from side to side through the river, without any other conductor than the water; an experiment which we some time since performed, to the amazement of many. A turkey is to be killed for our dinners by the electrical shock; and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle: when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, France and Germany, are to be drank in electrified bumpers [tumblers], under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery.17

The following February, Franklin wrote again to Collinson, announcing his decidedly mixed results. “Please to acquaint [William Watson] that we made several experiments on fowls this winter,” he began, proceeding to describe precisely how strong a shock had killed a chicken. “But the turkeys,” he continued, “though thrown into violent convulsions, and then lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour.” Using several Leyden jars together, he finally managed to killed a turkey “of about 10 lb. wt. and suppose they would have killed a much larger. I conceit that the birds killed in this manner eat uncommonly tender.”18

From Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity: Made at Philadelphia in America (London: Printed for David Henry, 1769). Courtesy of Williams College Chapin Library of Rare Books

The next winter Franklin very nearly electrocuted himself. On December 25, 1750, he wrote to his brother John in Boston:

I have lately made an experiment in electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a turkey by the shock from two large glass [Leyden] jars, containing as much electrical fire as forty common phials, I inadvertently took the whole through my own arms and body, by receiving the fire from the united top wires with one hand, while the other held a chain connected with the outsides of both jars. The company present (whose talking to me, and to one another, I suppose occasioned my inattention to what I was about) say that the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a pistol; yet, my senses being instantly gone, I neither saw the one nor heard the other; nor did I feel the stroke on my hand. … I then felt what I know not well how to describe; a universal blow throughout my whole body from head to foot which seemed within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick shaking of my body which gradually remitting, my senses as gradually returned.19

Collinson reported to the Royal Society of London on Franklin’s findings about electricity, including those derived from his turkey experiments, and in 1751 published the series of letters as a small book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity. The French translation that followed stirred great excitement on the other side of the English Channel. The French had a special affinity for Franklin, and they experimented with electricity on their own. It did not escape their notice that Franklin had accidentally discovered a tenderizing technique, one still used by the meat industry today, whereby an electrical current helps an animal’s muscles to relax and modifies the effects of rigor mortis.

With characteristic interest in gastronomy, but discouraged by Franklin,20 the French continued to explore electrocution as a method for tenderizing meat quickly, especially the flesh of larger animals. In 1804 Grimod de la Reynière, in his Almanach des gourmands, devoted several pages to the topic and paid homage “au père de l’Electricité, docteur Franklin.” In his discussion Grimod, who often played the rogue, mentions a “magnifique machine” of a Monsieur Beyer that could kill an elephant. A turkey is only a “jeu” (joke) for this machine, Grimod declares. He invites those who wish to bring all the other members of their poultry yard “en vie” to see them disposed of in a “clin-d’oeil” (twinkling of an eye).21

In 1752, during a nighttime thunderstorm in a vacant field near Philadelphia, Franklin succeeded in carrying out his famous kite experiment to prove that lightning and electricity were one and the same. The discovery brought Franklin honors here and abroad, and he was celebrated as a philosopher-scientist as well as a statesman.

Years later, in 1778, Franklin appeared before King Louis XVI at Versailles to mark the Franco-American Alliance, which he had secured in a brilliant diplomatic coup. As usual he was conscious of the image he projected. He dressed in a plain brown suit, his bald head wigless. A female French admirer observed, “I should have taken him for a big farmer, so great was his contrast with the other diplomats, who were all powdered, in full dress, and splashed all over with gold and ribbons.”22 When he was allowed to watch Marie Antoinette at the gambling table, she, alone among Frenchwomen, was not enthralled with this American original who, she was told, had been a printer’s foreman. Such a man could not have gone far in Europe, she remarked with a condescension not lost either on Franklin or on her subjects.23 The French Revolution occurred within the decade.

In 1783, when Franklin was in Passy, just outside Paris, his daughter Sally Bache in Philadelphia sent him newspaper clippings that led to his remarks on the turkey versus the eagle. The news concerned the Society of the Cincinnati, a group of officers under General George Washington who were establishing a hereditary order of merit, a veritable aristocracy, in which membership would be passed down to eldest sons. Franklin, the youngest son of youngest sons for five generations running, was furious. He wrote back at length to ridicule the plan, along with the proposed emblems and ribbons on the Cincinnatus uniform, which derived from the French fondness for flourish and affectation. Franklin’s celebrated letter to his daughter went on to scorn the group’s choice of the eagle as a symbol for its badge and, from there, the young country’s choice of the eagle as a national symbol. For although the bald eagle is a native American bird, the design mimicked the emblems of many European monarchies:

Others object to the bald eagle as looking too much like a dindon, or turkey. For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. … For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours. … He is besides, though a little vain and 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.24

These are Franklin’s words, but did he genuinely regret that the bald eagle had not been chosen over the turkey as the national bird? The sober historian must be skeptical. After all, eight years earlier, in 1776, he himself had served on the committee with Jefferson and Adams when the turkey was not chosen, and at other instances Franklin used the eagle rather than the turkey as an emblem.25 No other evidence in the vast Franklin archive mentions his support of the turkey as national bird. A more comprehensive explanation for his statement may be seen in the context of the Cincinnati. Knowing that his long letter to his daughter would be published, he seized the opportunity to present a cautionary tale to the young American democracy about the dangers of aristocracy.

Franklin and the turkey were both “true original natives of America,” to use his words, and he defended his farmyard not in a resplendent coat but in a plain brown one. The common man had to be included in American life, he believed, and his ordinary middle-class values were essential to the success of this new country. To that end he was willing to seem a bit silly.

Since Franklin’s time, the turkey has met other turns of fate. By 1920 the wild bird had been entirely wiped out from nearly half its original range, eighteen of thirty-nine states.26 After World War II, conservation laws helped bring back the species, as did enlightened wildlife management and cooperation from hunters. By now the wild turkey has been restored to most of its original range and habitat. We may even see the bird in our own backyards.

Meanwhile, the wild turkey’s domesticated successor has suffered a less happy fate. Overbred for the Thanksgiving table, with a breast so large that it can’t fly, it can barely walk and can’t lay eggs or mate at all—reproduction is by artificial insemination. This bird lives its whole life crowded in huge barns constantly lighted to induce it to eat continually an unvaried diet of corn mash laced with antibiotics. The Broad Breasted White is the only breed mass-produced in the United States. After slaughter at an immature twelve to fourteen weeks, injections of saline solution and oil give the bird additional weight but very little flavor.27 No wonder the meat tastes bland and dry.

This year, in celebration of Franklin’s three hundredth birthday, some of our misconceptions about his life have been corrected. We need now to focus on that other American icon so that we can be truly thankful for the turkey on our holiday table.


1. The date was January 6 by the Julian calendar, to become January 17 with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the middle of the eighteenth century. The street’s name was changed from Fort Street, or Meeting House Way, to Milk Street two years after Franklin’s birth, as Franklin impersonator Bill Meikle has brought to my attention. Milk Street is now called Washington Street.

2. J.A. Leo Lemay, ed., Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 572.

3. Ibid., 575.

4. A.W. Schorger, The Wild Turkey (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 4ff.

5. Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de la cosas de Nueva España, vol. 3 (c. 1750; repr., Mexico, 1938); cited in Schorger, Wild Turkey, 14. Thanks to Ellen Messer for helping me with this passage.

6. John Leland, Joannis Lelandi antiquarii: De rebusa Britannicis collecteanea, vol. vi (London, 1700); cited in Schorger, Wild Turkey, 468.

7. C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain (London: Constable, 1973), 128–129.

8. W.H. Thackston, trans. and ed., The Jahangirnama (Oxford: 1999); cited in Sabine Eiche, Presenting the Turkey (Florence: Centro Di, 2004), 26.

9. James G. Dickson, ed. The Wild Turkey: Biology & Management (Mechanicsburg, pa: Stackpole Books, 1992), 7.

10. Schorger, Wild Turkey, 479–480.

11. “Our harvest having been gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their great king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” Edward Winslow, “A Letter Sent from New England,” in A Relation or Journal of the English Plantation Settled at Plymouth in New England (1622); reprinted as Dwight B. Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation (New York, 1963); cited in Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2005), 15.

12. Andrew F. Smith, “The First Thanksgiving,” Gastronomica 3 (Fall 2003): no. 4, 79.

13. Dickson, Wild Turkey, 11.

14. E. Gilbert, History of Salem (Concord, 1907); cited in Schorger, Wild Turkey, 480.

15. Ibid., 481.

16. Leonard W. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1959), Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, 14 August 1747.

17. Ibid., B.F. to P.C., 29 April 1749.

18. Ibid., B.F. to P.C., 4 February, 1750.

19. Ibid., B.F. to P.C., 25 December 1750.

20. Claude-Anne Lopez and Eugenia W. Herbert, The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), 45.

21. Gaspard Grimod de la Reynière, Almanach des gourmands: servant de guide dans les moyens de faire excellente chère, 3rd ed. (Paris: Maradan, 1804), 229–235. I am indebted to Kyri Watson Claflin for alerting me to this passage.

22. Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 348.

23. Ronald W. Clark, Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1983); cited in Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 348.

24. Lemay, Benjamin Franklin, 344ff; B.F. to Sally Franklin Bache, 26 January 1784.

25. J.A. Leo Lemay, “The American Aesthetic of Franklin’s Visual Creations, Appendix ii: The Eagle and the Turkey,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, October 1987, 497–99. I am grateful to Dr. Roy Goodman of the American Philosophical Society and Dr. Ruth Cohn of the Franklin Papers at Yale University for their help.

26. Dickson, Wild Turkey, 11.

27. Patrick Martins, “About a Bird,” New York Times, 24 November 2003.