Do you know the story of the mother of Thanksgiving? Sarah Josepha Hale is one of the most fascinating women in American history. If you don’t know her, our homeschool Thanksgiving Unit Study tells the story of how she wrote to--and eventually persuaded--U.S. presidents to declare national days of Thanksgiving. Here’s a bit about Sarah.
Sarah was born in Newport, New Hampshire on October 24, 1788, the year before George Washington became the first president of the United States.
Schools and colleges did not educate girls back then. This irritated Sarah, but her mother gave her a good education at home. As a girl, she read the Bible and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Her brother taught her Latin, math, and philosophy.
As she grew older, she championed early education for children. She even opened a preschool, called a dame school, and taught her pupils the alphabet, numbers, and even beginning Latin. She read her brother’s college textbooks (he went to Dartmouth), vicariously receiving a college education through him.
When Sarah was 22, her father, a Revolutionary War veteran, sold their farm and opened a tavern. It was there Sarah met a young lawyer named David Hale. Several years later, on October 23, 1813, Sarah and David Hale were married. Back then, married women did not have careers, but Sarah and David devoted two hours each day to reading and writing. Sarah loved those hours. David recommended books, and the couple discussed them together. David thought his wife was an excellent writer, and he sent the poems she wrote to newspapers in hopes that they would publish them. Sarah and some friends even started a writers’ group called the Newport Coterie.
Between 1815 and 1820, Sarah gave birth to four children: David, Horatio, Frances Ann, and Sarah Josepha. Then in 1822, tragedy struck. Sarah was pregnant with her fifth child, William, when her husband died of pneumonia. She was only thirty-four years old. Though David’s law practice was successful, he was young and had not saved much money. Sarah would have to raise five children and provide for her family on her own.
Fortunately, David’s friends were looking out for Sarah. They knew about her writing talents, and they helped her to publish a collection of poems: The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems. She also wrote newspaper and magazine articles and completed a book called Northwood. The book compared life in the North to the slave-owning South after the Revolutionary War. In it, she described a traditional New England Thanksgiving.
Sarah’s book was such a success that Reverend John Blake asked her to be the editor of a new women’s magazine he was publishing called Ladies Magazine. Reverend Blake wanted to use the magazine to set a model for American womanhood. Since Sarah needed money to support her family, she accepted the offer.
As “editress,” as she was known, of Ladies Magazine, Sarah had to write persuasively. Her first challenge was to get husbands to agree to pay three dollars for the annual subscription fee. This was a heavy sum at the time. She had to convince them that Ladies Magazine would benefit them. Sarah claimed that if women had more knowledge, they would be better mothers. Better mothers meant better children, which could only lead to a better country. Sarah’s argument worked. Subscriptions rolled in, and the magazine was a success.
Sarah’s work as an “editress” kept her busy. She had to write her own editorials, poems, book reviews, and articles, as well as revise and edit the work of other writers for the magazine. While she was busy editing, she even wrote a small book of poems called Poems for Our Children. It contained the poem “Mary’s Lamb,” known today as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
In 1836, Ladies Magazine merged with Godey’s Lady’s Book, owned by Louis Godey. While Louis Godey did not allow Sarah to take political sides in her writing, he did allow her to write about issues she felt were important.
Today, Sarah is best known as the mother of Thanksgiving. From the late 1840s through the 1870s, Sarah argued in Godey’s Lady’s Book that America should celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. Sarah grew up celebrating Thanksgiving in New England, and she hoped people around the country, in the North and South, could use the holiday to celebrate their common heritage.
Sarah wrote to U.S. presidents to try to persuade them to declare national days of Thanksgiving. In the midst of the bloody Civil War, she twice persuaded Abraham Lincoln to declare national days of Thanksgiving.
Sarah was almost ninety years old when she finally gave up her editing job. She died at age ninety-one in the year 1879.
Sarah's story is just one slice of Thanksgiving history. To learn more, check out our homeschool Thanksgiving Unit Study.
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