Turkey may not have been the main dish at the first recorded U.S. Thanksgiving at Plimouth Plantation in 1621, but now it is the best-known component of the traditional holiday – besides giving thanks, that is. Plenty of hunters bowhunt wild turkeys these days using tactics and equipment far different than hunters used in the 1600s.
In honor of the holiday and the fowl we so enjoy this time of year, here’s a look at how Native Americans in 1621 would likely have hunted wild turkeys, and how modern hunters do the same.
Historical details are provided by KC Nelson, certified field archaeologist and North American Indian Anthropologist. Modern hunting information is provided by CJ Davis, avid bowhunter and president of Montana Decoy.
In the Southeast, Native Americans would have used bows made from hickory or bowdock (mock orange). In the Northeast, bows would have been made from hickory, chestnut or possibly oak, depending on the type of wood that was available. Bowstrings were made from sinew and the draw weight was between 40 and 70 pounds.
Most modern bowhunters use compound bows, although some use recurves. The draw weight to hunt wild turkeys now is about the same as when bowhunting deer: between 60 and 70 pounds.
Native Americans in the Southeast would have hunted with arrows made from fire-hardened switchcane and likely birch (carved and dried) or cedar in the Northeast. The point would have been a nickel-sized stone knapped (carved) to a razor-sharp point.
Modern hunters mostly use arrows with carbon shafts and expandable broadheads like a WASP Jak-Hammer.
Early arrows were fletched with wing feathers from wild turkeys, herrons or other large birds.
Modern arrow fletchings are plastic. Plastic fletching is sturdier than feathers when wet.
Native Americans used a hunting technique called trench trapping. They dug trenches about 20 feet long by 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep. They would place lattices made from limbs across the top of the trench, pour maze (corn) and acorns in the trench as bait, and hide out of sight. Once the turkeys were in the trench, the hunters would rush in and shoot the turkeys with arrows.
Most modern hunters hunt from blinds and use decoys. A hunting blind can conceal you when you draw your bowstring; a decoy can distract the turkeys while you draw. When hunting during autumn, you’re less likely to see a strutting turkey than in spring. (Why? Learn more about wild turkeys here.) To play to a turkey’s social senses instead of their breeding sense, try using a feeding hen decoy like Montana Decoy’s Dinner Belle.
Native Americans likely would have hunted turkeys within 35 yards. Modern hunters can shoot wild turkeys at 60 yards depending on the hunter and bow setup.
Native Americans made turkey calls from wingbones, but didn’t often have to use calls since they trapped wild turkeys.
Modern wild turkey hunters often carry a variety of calls including mouth calls, box calls and pot calls when they are hunting from a blind; when bowhunting from a treestand, many hunters opt to use mouth calls.
Native Americans ate wild turkey meat, used feathers for fletching and wingbones for calls and jewelry. They also may have used wild turkey spurs for jewelry.
Modern hunters eat wild turkey meat and often keep turkey tailfans, feet and beards from male turkeys to remember their hunts. Some also make turkey calls from wingbones and fish hooks from other turkey bones. Others fletch their own arrows or to make decorative items like wreaths with wild turkey feathers.