Before the arrival of European colonists in North America, wild turkeys were everywhere. Some biologists believe that they numbered around 10 million and inhabited nearly every corner of what is now the continental United States.
Now wild turkeys make an incredible meal, having eaten both wild birds and their farm-raised equivalent I can attest to the difference that a diet of berries, nuts, and fresh plants makes in the taste of their meat. It didn’t take long for early colonists to discover how plentiful and delicious wild turkeys are, so it’s no surprise that they almost ate them into extinction—moving from a population of 10 million birds down to a couple hundred thousand in the entire US between 1910 and 1920. In fact, biologists have linked the Great Depression to the resurgence of wild turkeys in the US. The economic collapse drove many farmers out of rural areas to big cities in search of jobs, resulting in a lot of farmland reverting to the native habitat of the turkey.
But during the years when the wild turkey population was in steep decline, these birds were eradicated in 16 to 18 states where they had once been abundant. For the people in these areas, the wild turkey had become not only a food source but part of their cultural tradition. Every harvest season, marksmen would take to the woods to show their skill and return with a gobbler to be plumped down in front of their admiring family on Thanksgiving day. With no more wild turkeys in these areas, a new tradition arose, the turkey shoot.
A turkey shoot was an event where a domesticated turkey was tied behind a barrier that it could peek over. Marksmen sat at a distance and took turns shooting at the bird’s head, which proved to be a challenging target due to its small size, and the turkey constantly ducking behind the barrier. Whoever killed the turkey took it home as the prize. This allowed the village marksmen a chance to show off their skills around the holidays.
Such events date back at least to the days of author James Fenimore Cooper who wrote about a turkey shoot in his 1823 novel The Pioneers.
The following story is an account of a turkey shoot that took place in a small town in Michigan recorded by Sewell Ford and published in the Harrisburg Telegraph, on November 24, 1896:
Rufe Jackson worked every summer in the wheelhouse of a little tugboat in which he was captain and crew. During the fall and winter, Rufe turned his hand to almost anything that did not demand hard work and in which there was an honest dollar.
So along about Thanksgiving time there appeared in the local weekly paper a notice to the effect that “our enterprising and genial townsman, Captain Rufe Jackson, has secured from Detroit two dozen fine turkeys which he is fattening in anticipation of the annual Thanksgiving turkey shoot which he will conduct at the foot of Main street.”
Everyone knew the place indicated, for Main street had a definite foot, or ending, in the lake. So on Thanksgiving morning every man who thought he was a good rifle shot—and there were full two score in the village—could be seen making his way down toward the lake shore.
“Hello, doc! Where you goin’ with the gun?” was a common salutation on such occasions.
“Oh, just down the shore.”
“Expect to get one of Cap’n Rufe’s turkeys?”
“Oh, no! I’m just going to throw a little lead at ‘em for fun. Want to help Rufe out, you know.”
This reply would call out a hearty laugh, for it was well known that the doctor was one of the best shots in town and that he usually got a turkey pretty cheap on Thanksgiving day.
At the lakeshore would be gathered from 50 to 75 men, most of them with rifles, but some without The latter were the noncombatants who had come down to see the fun along with half the boys in the town. Out on the edge of the shore ice Captain Rufe had stationed his assistant with the turkeys, The birds were in crates and bobbed their heads up through the slats wonderingly. They were as excited and nervous as if they knew the fate in store for them.
The butt of a saw log which had been rolled out on the ice served as an executioner’s block. Behind this, the turkeys were tied. Had they had wit enough to crouch down behind it they would have been safe from the bullets, but the foolish birds constantly stretched up their necks to see what was going on, and thus offered a fair if not easy mark for the sportsmen. The assistant had rigged up a bulletproof windbreak of logs and boards, behind which he might seek shelter while the rifles were popping.
Inshore, 100 yards away, Captain Rufe had marked off the line behind which the marksmen were to stand. The boys had built up a fire of driftwood, where numbed fingers might be thawed out, and all was in readiness.
“Now, boys,” spoke up the captain, “we’re all ready for the slaughter. I’ve got two dozen fine birds out there, fat and young and tender, and it only costs you 10 cents a shot. Who will open the ball?”
The captain’s assistant had tied one of the turkeys behind the log, and the bird was peering foolishly about to see what was going to happen next. There was a loud laugh from the crowd when Tuttle, who ran the hardware store, stepped up to the improvised range and tossed a half dollar to the captain, with the remark that he reckoned he “could get two or three birds for that.”
As Tuttle was known to be the poorest but most persistent shot in town, his optimistic sally was regarded as the height of the ridiculous. With a good-humored smile, he told the crowd to watch him “knock that fellow’s head off” and blazed away with his new breechloading rifle. His first shot sent up a little cloud of powdered ice 20 feet to the right of the turkey. The second went as far to the left. The third was nearer the line, but fell 50 feet short, while the fourth went sailing harmlessly over the turkey’s head far out on to the frozen surface of the lake.
“You’re gettin’ the range, Tuttle, you’re gettin’ it,” the captain said, while the bystanders added other remarks which were not so encouraging.
“I’ll get him this time sure,” said Tuttle. But he didn’t. There was much discussion as to where his bullet really did strike, but the point was not settled. There was no disputing one fact—the captain had 50 cents in his pocket, and not a feather of his first bird had been touched.
While Tuttle was carefully cleaning out his rifle and reloading, another marksman stepped up to the line. His bullets went much nearer the mark than those of the hardware dealer’s, but a turkey’s head is not an easy mark to hit at 100 yards, especially when a strong wind is sweeping across the range. So inside of half an hour, Captain Rufe had been paid almost as much as the bird cost him, and was feeling very good natured.
Then Hayes, the blacksmith, shouldered his way to the front, unlimbered his rifle and squinted carefully along the sights. It took three shots before he got the gauge and his fourth bullet made the splinters fly from the log. His fifth and sixth shots were evidently close, but it was not until the seventh shot that the waving neck of the turkey disappeared from sight.
“Got him that time, Hayes!” remarked the captain. “Here, boy, run down and get that bird, will you?”
When the trophy was brought back, it was “hefted” by the crowd, who decided that it was a good 12 pounder.
Then the doctor signified his intention of shooting a little, and a fresh bird was put up. The doctor got him at the sixth shot, and the captain said that 60 cents was twice as much as he had expected to get from him.
Then came the other marksmen. Some of them shot as many as a dozen times without even hitting the stump, and the next three or four turkeys which were killed brought the captain in from $1.50 to $2 each. The firing had been going on merrily for an hour when a peculiar looking figure came shuffling down the street.
“Hello! Here’s old Jake.”
Jake proved to be a half-breed Indian, well known as a village character. A cur dog loped along at his heels, and he trailed an antiquated and battered muzzleloading rifle. Jake viewed the shooting for awhile and then handed out a 10 cent piece to the captain without a word. Raising his long-barreled gun to his shoulder, he cautiously took aim and fired. The turkey’s head still waved defiantly, and Jake swore fluently. With a good deal of grumbling, he fished out another dime and reloaded his rifle. It was evident that he meant business this time, for he peered carefully through the sights before he pulled, and the turkey’s head disappeared. Jake’s second bullet had cut the bird’s head off as clean as if it had been severed with a hatchet. Tuttle brought the prize, and Jake went back up town to invest the proceeds of his marksmanship in hot and rebellious liquor.
These are some of the incidents connected with the most recent turkey shoot that I witnessed, and, although that was a dozen years ago, I suppose that this coming Thanksgiving there will be a similar gathering down on the lake shore.
Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) · Tue, Nov 24, 1896