Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On Thanksgiving, a tale of turkeys

As we gather among family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the traditional feast whose centerpiece is most often the magnificent roasted or baked turkey, it is fitting to pause a moment to consider the man who some historians say gave us the turkey dinner.

His name is William Strickland, and he gained reputation and wealth as a navigator for the Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot, who hired himself out to the Spanish and English crowns in the 16th century to explore faraway lands. It is said that on a voyage to America in 1526 – nearly a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock – William Strickland, shrewd trader that he apparently was, acquired six turkeys from Native Americans and took them back to England, where they were then unknown. 

Evidently the birds acquired quite a following. In a country where grouse, pheasant, partridge, ducks, geese and quail were the holiday game birds of choice, turkeys soon became quite popular. Strickland is said to have made a fortune in his trips to the New World, at least some of it through trading in turkeys.

So when the Pilgrims had what tradition (if not all scholars) consider the first Thanksgiving dinner in America nearly 100 years later, it is likely that they were already familiar with the gobbler with all that delicious white meat. It was an English tradition that had its origins in America.

That clever fellow Strickland, newly wealthy and able to buy a fine Yorkshire manor house in 1542 and get himself elected to Parliament, asked for and received permission from the Queen to include a turkey in his family crest. What's more, the little church near his Boynton Hall home sports numerous turkey decorations, somehow, we think, influenced by Strickland. And Boynton Hall is still in the hands of descendants. Incidentally, there is some reason to believe that Strickland may be our ancestor as well, but so far as we know we have no claim on the estate that turkeys built.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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