Why we don’t eat eagles
November 18, 2010
The Pilgrims came to America from Europe, naming their children after hoped-for virtues like Prudence and Chastity while drowning elderly neighbors to take their farms and ward off infestations of witches.
Despite these unneighborly tiffs, they brought some nice traditions to the New World. Among them was a celebration of the autumnal air and the accompanying harvest. The first recorded American Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 when four unlucky women got to cook and clean up after 56 Pilgrims and 91 Indians.
Benjamin Franklin wanted America to adopt the turkey as the National Bird. Had he prevailed, next Thursday we might be sitting down to a dinner of a roast eagle.
The year after that first harvest gathering, the crops failed and the Pilgrims never celebrated much of anything afterwards. One hundred and fifty years passed before the nation again gave thanks together, this time to celebrate the unlikely American victory of the Battles of Saratoga, a major turning point of the American War of Independence.
In 1777, two forks of the British army attacked out of Canada with a plan to drive a military wall between New England and the rest of the barely United States. The major branch of the attack, more than 15,000 strong, was led by British General Burgoyne, and a smaller group led by General Howe, whose mission was to widen the breach by riding east of Burgoyne, yet remaining able to quickly come to his aid if needed. Howe deviated from the plan to score an easy victory over the town of Philadelphia. The distraction rendered his troops unable to come to Burgoyne’s aid in two close and critical battles of the war, the Battles of Saratoga. Things were going badly for the revolutionaries. American forces were weakened and decimated through General Washington’s fruitless and unsuccessful invasion of Canada. Burgoyne’s early speed and successes were disheartening.
But these easy victories made Burgoyne overconfident and contemptuous of American soldiers. In a display of splendid arrogance, he decided to march his troops overland instead of sailing down the Hudson. The march, while impressive, exhausted his men while giving the Americans time to rest, regroup and resupply at Saratoga. The Battles of Saratoga waged for weeks until October 17, 1777, when General Burgoyne surrendered his remaining 6,000 troops with only 4,000 standing. Their first job as prisoners was to bury the 9,000 British and German soldiers who perished there.
Later in December of 1777, President George Washington invited the nation to sit down together every December 18 to party like it was 1621 and give thanks for America’s bounty and freedom. But the idea never caught on because many felt that the hardships endured by the Pilgrims were too insignificant to be honored with a national holiday. Thomas Jefferson publicly condemned the feast.
Recognition of Thanksgiving as a national feast day in America is due to the efforts of Sarah Joseph Hale, America’s first woman editor of a national magazine, the Boston Ladies’ Magazine. Her editorials often argued for the setting aside of a day to “offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year.” Her persistence carried her through five Presidents and 17 years before she finally succeeded.
It was in 1863 that a bitterly divided nation fought at Gettysburg. The country was stunned by the staggering loss of 50,000 lives. Nonetheless, it was an important victory for the North. A ringing and widely circulated editorial by Mrs. Hale convinced Abraham Lincoln to proclaim that the last Thursday of November would be set aside for a national day of Thanksgiving.
You probably couldn’t get enough stuffing in an eagle anyway.