Sarah Josepha (Buell) Hale (1788-1879) was a patriotic American who made her mark in the literary and publishing worlds. For 17 years she tried to get a day designated as a national day of giving thanks. Her letters to presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan failed to convince them to initiate and support what it took to establish a national Thanksgiving holiday.
Sarah Hale’s letter to President Abraham Lincoln
In her letter to Lincoln, pictured below, Sarah said: “Permit me, as Editress of the ‘Ladies Book’ to request a few minutes of your precious time while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and, as I trust even to the president of our Republic, of some importance.”
She went on to request that thanksgiving, which was already observed in various locations, be “made a National and fixed Union Festival,” noting that there was increased interest “in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day in all the States” and that this feeling needed “national recognition and authorities fixation” to permanently become an American custom.
Sarah Hale’s Campaign for a Designated Thanksgiving Holiday
Enclosed with Mrs. Hale’s letter to Lincoln were papers in support of her plea. She also noted that for the past 15 years she had set forth the idea of an official Thanksgiving holiday in the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book (which she edited for 40 years, multiplying its readership from 10,000 to 150,000). She had also written to the governors of all U. S. states and territories, as well as to other sources, including missionaries and military officials, getting positive feedback.
President Lincoln instituted the new Thanksgiving holiday, hoping it would eventually help unify what was then a divided nation. Prior to that time there had been only two national holidays, Washington’s birthday and Independence Day.
Sarah Hale also raised money for the Bunker Hill monument, campaigned for the preservation of Mount Vernon, and helped found Vassar College.
The First Thanksgiving
There are conflicting stories about when and where the first North American Thanksgiving was observed. Documents cite the Mayflower pilgrims giving thanks not only when they were safely ashore, but also by those who survived the first winter and again at the first harvest. There is also a tradition that Thanksgiving was celebrated in the Jamestown Colony after the first fall harvest.
Other claims include even earlier thanksgiving celebrations in North America by the Spanish settlers at St. Augustine, Florida, and by the French who came to Canada more than 400 years ago.
Harvest festivals had long been observed all over the world by diverse civilizations. The American thanksgiving tradition was, however, a more religious one.
The Mother of Thanksgiving
Sarah Hale has been referred to as “the Mother of Thanksgiving” and “the woman who saved Thanksgiving.”
Even though Sarah Hale got Thanksgiving designated as a national holiday, it was decades later that the date of that holiday was finalized as the fourth Thursday of November instead of the last Thursday in that month.
A captivating version of this story, written for children by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner, was published in 2005 by Simon & Schuster. It is titled Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving.