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Turkey Traditions

In recent years, the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate have found a home at Mount Vernon after their official pre-Thanksgiving presidential pardoning at the White House. Although the birds we see today are very different from the breeds known in 18th-century America, turkeys were frequently found on the table at Mount Vernon in George Washington’s lifetime.

Washington’s earliest tastes of turkey may have come from his days as a young surveyor. A teen-aged Washington and his companions hunted for wild turkeys while on a survey trip for Lord Fairfax, nabbing a 20-pound bird on one occasion. While Washington was impressed with its size, the bird was small in comparison with others of the period, which reportedly weighed in at 40 or 50 pounds. Some years later, on a journey to the frontier in what is now West Virginia and Ohio, the 38-year-old Washington noted in his diaries that the country was teeming with wild game of all sorts, including turkeys. He did not, however, have to go far from home in order to hunt the wild birds. One visitor to Mount Vernon described the estate’s “heavenly” situation “upon one of the finest rivers in the world.” There he saw “thousands of wild ducks…all within gunshot. There are also plenty of blackbirds and wild geese and turkeys…”.

Although wild turkeys were plentiful, the Washingtons also saw value in raising domesticated birds on the estate and built up the turkey flock. In 1760, they paid two shillings and six pence for a male turkey, one pound ten shillings for fifteen turkeys of unmentioned sex, and another forty shillings for an unknown number of additional turkeys. Two years later, they purchased three turkey hens, one turkey cock, and several others of unspecified gender.

Primary Source: Thanksgiving Proclamation

Washington issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 as a national day of thanks.

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The task of raising—and selling—domesticated turkeys did not fall solely upon George Washington. In accordance with both English and colonial American practice, as mistress of the house, Martha Washington would have had charge of the poultry yard and overseen the care of the fowls, including the turkeys. While the General was away from Mount Vernon during the American Revolution, Lady Washington continued to purchase and raise turkeys, which would occasionally be sold to others. She bought twenty in December of 1777; four turkeys were sold from Mount Vernon two months later.

Visitor accounts and common 18th-century farming practices offer some suggestions of how Mount Vernon’s poultry yard was maintained, under Lady Washington’s watchful eye. Wooden boxes, constructed by the plantation’s carpenters, provided nesting places for the turkey hens in the spring. The hens might lay up to 30 eggs, which would hatch after about four weeks. The chicks were likely kept indoors, where they would be safe from predators and could be fed hard-boiled eggs, greens, herbs, oatmeal, milk, and/or curds until they were stronger and could fend for themselves. Turkeys were typically fattened for about three weeks prior to being slaughtered in the fall, after they had reached at least two years in age.

The presence of so many turkeys, both wild and domestic, could be a problem, as the hungry birds looked to newly-planted fields as a source of food. George Washington wrote to a friend in 1788 to thank him for the gift of some turnip seeds but cautioned that he was keeping his hopes for a good crop rather small. He feared that the several hundred turnips he had transplanted were in danger due to their exposure to “Poultry, especially Turkies…”

Despite the potential challenges of raising and co-habiting with wild and domestic turkeys, the Washingtons and the enslaved people who worked at Mount Vernon benefited from the delicious addition to their dining table. Martha Washington’s grandson recalled that his grandmother and the plantation’s cook generally met right after breakfast to discuss the day’s menu. With guests liable to arrive at any time to see her famous husband, she frequently ordered that “a pr of ducks, a goose or turkey be laid by [separated by others], to be put down in case of the arrival of company…”.

While roasting was a common turkey preparation method in the 18th century as it is today, Martha Washington’s various cookbooks offer alternative recipes. The birds might be soused or pickled “in Imitation of Sturgeon,” stewed, or served in jelly. Mrs. Washington’s cookbooks also contained instructions for making several types of gravies, sauces (bread, onion, mock-oyster, and celery), and force-meat or stuffing to serve with turkey.

Turkeys were frequently prepared and served by Mount Vernon’s enslaved community as well. Archaeologists have uncovered large numbers of turkey bones at the site of an original slave quarter, suggesting that the inhabitants of those quarters found the taste of turkey just as palatable as the people in the Mansion, though likely prepared in simpler fashion. While there are numerous references to the plantation’s slaves keeping chicken and ducks, there are no indications that they raised turkeys, suggesting that the turkeys were likely acquired through hunting.