How Sarah Joseph Hale Made Thanksgiving HERstory

Sarah Joseph Hale Story

We have all heard the story of the first Thanksgiving. You know it well; in 1621, the Pilgrims invited the Native American Indians to join them for an Autumn harvest feast. We model that feast every November with get-togethers to eat turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie until we can’t hold another bite, unless it’s more pie.We don’t really know if that first Thanksgiving tale is true. As a matter of fact, journals from the time show Pilgrims prayed to God to help them defeat the “agents of Satan,” thought to refer to the indigenous peoples of America. But that’s not the history lesson I want to impart today.

Sarah Joseph Hale

Thanksgiving HERstoryThe HERstory of Thanksgiving isn’t as well known.  Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) wrote “Mary’s Lamb”, later known as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (not a poem I adore, but one I was forced to learn on a recorder in the third grade anyway).

Sarah, widowed in 1822, was a single mother of five kids and needed to make a living. Her father and late husband had believed in education for women and encouraged her to be educated and to write stories. Her first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England was published in 1827.


A “thanksgiving” was originally a somber Puritan religious ceremony to celebrate a military victory or important event. Sarah devoted two chapters of her novel to Thanksgiving as an annual meal she shared with family. She believed a national implementation of the holiday would bring the country together in peace as North and South relations became increasingly hostile and contrary.The depictions of Thanksgiving in Northwood are recognizable as the holiday we celebrate today with turkey as the centerpiece and pumpkin pie as the dessert. Sarah’s Northwood called for Thanksgiving to be about the goodness of humanity.

Godey’s Lady’s Book

In 1828, Sarah was hired as the editor – she preferred editress – of Ladies’ Magazine. Godey’s Lady’s Book, a home journal for women, hired her away in 1837. Sarah turned the magazine’s genre from strictly recipes and fashion to primarily literature, especially literature written by women. Sarah believed girls should be educated equally to boys. In 1861, she published articles in support of the newly founded Vassar Female College. She hoped to help overcome public skepticism about offering equal educational opportunities to women.She was, however, opposed to the use of the word “female” in the name of the college. Sarah started a letter campaign with founder Matthew Vassar to remove the word. She wanted the institution to be named Vassar College for Young Women because she had come to think the word “female” was inelegant with a negative connotation. The school was renamed Vassar College in 1866.

Godey’s Lady’s Book had a readership of 150,000 women and men by 1860 and was considered one of the most influential periodicals in America. The magazine was the perfect medium to campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday and Sarah published an annual editorial calling for such. She also wrote letters to prominent citizens and those in political office.

President Lincoln

One such letter made its way to President Abraham Lincoln in September 1863. President Lincoln had already called for a “thanksgiving” in April 1862 and again in the summer of 1863, both following Union victories in battle. Within a week after receiving Sarah’s letter, President Lincoln had an official proclamation drafted to establish a national observation of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. His hope was the celebration would help “heal the wounds of the nation.”


Sarah finally had her national Thanksgiving holiday, thirty-six years after Northwood was published.