Although we often associate Thanksgiving Day with the Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts, it has been an official holiday only since the 1860s. Sarah Josepha Hale of Newport played a major role in making this day one of our most important national holidays.
Sarah was born in Newport, then part of Cheshire County, in 1788. She grew up there, attended local schools, and studied her brother’s college textbooks to learn Latin, philosophy and advanced mathematics. In 1813 she married David Hale, brother of Keene’s well- known historian Salma Hale.
Nine years later David died, leaving Sarah to support a family of five children. She taught school and began to write. Realizing the importance of education, she sent her daughters to study at Catherine Fiske’s Young Ladies Seminary in Keene.
After publishing a successful novel in 1827, Sarah was invited to become editor of a women’s magazine, which later became Godey’s Ladies Book. As the first woman editor of a national magazine, Sarah used her influence to aid various charities and improve the status of women in this country.
She wrote about 50 books during her lifetime. She also worked to preserve George Washington’s Mount Vernon home and raised funds for the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument. One of her most famous causes, however, was the Thanksgiving holiday.
In the mid-1840s, Sarah suggested that there should be a national holiday of Thanksgiving to honor our forefathers and recognize the bounty of our nation. No one was against Thanksgiving, but the states each wanted to name their own day. As a result, the date of the holiday differed from year to year and state to state. Furthermore, Thanksgiving was chiefly a New England holiday, with few southern states celebrating the day.
For nearly 20 years, Sarah wrote editorials and letters to governors and to presidents calling for an official holiday. After writing to Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan, Sarah wrote to President Lincoln. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving Day holiday. At 75 years old, Sarah Josepha Hale of Newport had won her long battle, and is remembered today as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”