Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Turkey Herding Garretts

The search for family history can point us to interesting pastimes, practices, and occupations that our ancestors followed.  It caught my attention when my husband’s grandfather told me that his Garrett family used to herd turkeys in Tennessee.

During the 1820’s, 30’s, 40’s the John Garrett family was living in Benton county Tennessee, about ninety miles west of Nashville.  Farming was their primary pursuit, but they may also have done some building in the area.  Isaac Walker Garrett , born in 1831, was the second son of John Garrett and his wife Jemima White Garrett.  He grew up in Benton county Tennessee, and his grandson, Otis Garrett, gave me this little clue to some of his youthful activity:

When the Garrett family was still living in Tennessee IW Garrett had a horse, a dog and a gun and he travelled around buying Turkeys and driving them to New Orleans to market.

When I closely considered this statement, I found it pretty amazing!  - first, because the Garrett family removed from Tennessee to Illinois in the early 1850’s, suggesting that Isaac Garrett was a rather young lad when he pursued this turkey-herding avocation, and second because New Orleans was five hundred miles to the south.  Driving turkeys five hundred miles would have been no small feat!

I had a great time reading through several turkey-herding “memories” posted on the internet.  One article suggested that turkeys were sometimes moved great distances overland.  For the Garretts in Middle Tennessee, it seems slightly more plausible that their turkeys were gathered locally, and driven west to the Mississippi River for a boat ride to New Orleans.  But, I can’t confirm that scenario.  Whatever the case, the process of moving, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of turkeys, must have required monumental patience, tempered with a dose of good humor.  Turkeys are not counted among the most intelligent of creatures, and it took quite an effort to keep them moving along in the right direction.  Apparently, young boys were often hired to scatter feed, and entice the turkeys forward.  This might have been an appropriate task for a boy with “a horse, a dog and a gun”.   Otis Garrett’s statement describes the “buying” and “driving” of turkeys though; which might suggest the entrepreneurial pursuit of a young man.

It is unlikely we will ever know just what role young Isaac Garrett played in the movement of turkeys in 19th Century Tennessee.  But, the memory of driving turkeys to market must have come out of a real experience.  So, the next time we are enjoying our Thanksgiving turkey we can consider the challenge of the Great Turkey Walks, and appreciate Isaac Garrett’s commitment.

For more details on Isaac Walker Garrett, visit his page at Family Stories,

Photo:  Wild Turkey in twilight found in Zion National Park, USA; by Philipp Kuchler, 2011 (CC, Wikimedia Commons).

Moving back in time:   Richard William “Dick” Garrett 1925 > Otis Sylvester Garrett  1894 > Isaac Sylvester Garrett 1860 > Isaac Walker Garrett 1831 > John Garrett 1805.

For further Reading:
Turkey Herding; Peter A. Gilbert, director of Vermont Humanities Council.
Bullitt Memories - Herding Turkeys; David Strange, originally appeared in The Courier-Journal (Louisville Kentucky), 21 November 2012.
Herding Turkeys in Hancock County; Fred Sauceman, 2013.

Just for fun:
The Great Turkey Walk; a novel for young people by Kathleen Karr (2000).
Big, brawny Simon Green, who's just completed third grade (for the fourth time), may not be book smart, but he's nobody's fool. When it's time to be done with school and make his way in the world, Simon hatches a plan that could earn him a bundle. He intends to herd a huge flock of bronze turkeys all the way from his home in eastern Missouri to the boomtown of Denver, where they'll fetch a mighty price. In the year 1860, the hazards of such a trek are many - how does one shepherd the birds across a river, for instance? - but Simon is undaunted. Accompanied by a faithful drover, and eventually to be joined by two boon companions, he undertakes the biggest journey of his young life, in this high-spirited Wild West adventure by an acclaimed author of historical fiction.


  1. Excellent story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the turkey-herding story! I had fun learning about it. I would love to hear back if you share any family connection with the Garretts.


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