Three men in suits stand around a white turkey in front of the White House

President George W. Bush stands between Paul Hill, left, of the National Turkey Federation, and his son, Nathan Hill, during the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey in 2008, in the Rose Garden of the White House. Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.

Every year, the President of the United States pardons a turkey before Thanksgiving, protecting a lucky fowl from becoming the main course at someone’s dinner table. But did you know it was a Texan, President George H.W. Bush, who made pardoning a turkey at the White House an official tradition? This is just one of the great moments in the Lone Star State’s history with Thanksgiving and turkey.

1598 – Forget Plymouth. According to legend, Texas held the “first Thanksgiving” when Spanish expedition leader Juan de Oñate landed in San Elizario after a long and treacherous journey to reach the Rio Grande. They feasted on game provided by the Spaniards and fish from the Manso tribe and celebrated a Mass—all to celebrate this new land that Spain would reign over for 200 years.

1893 – The Texas Panhandle town of Turkey gets its name. Best known as the hometown of Western swing icon Bob Wills, Turkey was originally called Turkey Roost because of all the wild turkeys that lived along a nearby creek called—wait for it—Turkey Creek. Eventually, “Roost” was dropped from the name. In 2011, PETA sent a letter to the mayor of Turkey, asking him to change the town’s name to Tofurkey. His response? No furking way. (Actually, the mayor’s office had no comment.) Mark your calendars: April 30 is the 50th anniversary of Turkey’s annual Bob Wills Day.

1912 – The first Turkey Trot is held in Cuero. In the early 1900s, this southeast Texas town had a thriving turkey processing industry, and instead of driving turkeys to facilities in vehicles, local farmers moved the gobbling products on foot (like a cattle drive but with wings). Someone had the grand idea of creating an event around these drives, and in November 1912, 30,000 people showed up in Cuero to see thousands of turkeys make their way through the streets. Today, the town hosts an annual Turkeyfest with turkey races, a parade, barbecue cookoffs, and other festivities.

A group of people stand and watch a man in a dark brown suit put his hand on a white turkey

President George H.W. Bush at the annual Presidential Pardoning of the Thanksgiving Turkey. Photo courtesy George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

1989 – President George H.W. Bush makes pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey an official annual tradition at the White House. He wasn’t the first president to save a turkey from slaughter (Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan are among the presidents who unofficially pardoned turkeys while in office), but Bush was the first to declare this momentous occasion a duty of the chief of state every year. “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table,” he said. “Not this guy. He’s presented a presidential pardon as of right now—and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

1993 – Largest turkey in Texas bagged. According to the Texas Tribune, the record for the largest turkey ever killed in Texas was set in 1993, with the unlucky bird weighing 30.75 pounds. It was registered with the National Wild Turkey Federation. No word on how many pounds of turkey hash were made from the leftovers following Thanksgiving.

2003 – Technology arrives at the White House, and President George W. Bush becomes the first president to pardon turkeys chosen by the American people through online voting. “This year, for the first time, thousands of people voted on the White House website to name the national turkey and the alternate turkey. Stars and Stripes beat out Pumpkin and Cranberry. And it was a neck-to-neck race,” he said, as the crowd roared with laughter.

2011 – The Dallas Turkey Trot sets a Guinness World Record for largest gathering of people dressed as a turkey. The history of this human foot race dates to 1967, when 92 runners showed up to participate in an 8-miler. In 2011, 661 runners attended in turkey costumes, giving Dallas the record. Close to 40,000 people participate in the annual race, which takes place this year on Nov. 25, making the Dallas Turkey Trot the largest race of its kind in the country.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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