Thanksgiving History: Sarah Josepha Hale Biography

Thanksgiving became part of our history when Sarah Josepha Hale made it a national holiday. Find out how she did this and about her other endeavors.

Sarah Josepha Hale's name is not familiar to the millions of people who sing "Mary had a Little Lamb." When most Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, few think of Sarah Josepha Hale. Yet, she wrote the words to the nursery rhyme. President Lincoln was the first president to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday at the behest of Sarah Josepha Hale, who had spent 40 years writing to congressmen, lobbying five presidents, and writing countless editorials in her campaign to create an official day of thanks. These are only two of the many accomplishments of an extraordinary woman, unknown to most Americans, whose name is Sarah Josepha Hale.

Born on a farm in Newport, New Hampshire on October 24, 1788, Sarah Buell's desire for an education was apparent from a young age. She went as far as a girl of that time could in gaining an education. With the help of her brother Horatio, she received a Dartmouth education in spite of the fact that she never entered Dartmouth's hallowed halls. Each day when he returned from school, he would teach Sarah what he had learned and the two would study together. Dartmouth awarded a diploma to Horatio and he awarded a diploma to Sarah in which the Horatio Gates Buell College declared she had earned her degree in the Arts, Summa Cum Laude.

Sarah upset the prevailing wisdom of the world of education when, at the age of eighteen, she founded a private school and taught there as well. At that time, women were not accepted as teachers.



Her teaching career lasted a few years until she met a young lawyer named David Hale. They fell in love and were married. David's love of learning matched Sarah's and they spent their evenings studying French and botany. With her husband's encouragement and support, she wrote short stories and articles which were published in local newspapers. Sarah was pregnant with their fifth child when David died suddenly. After a failed attempt to start a millinery business, Sarah resumed teaching and writing. The young widow struggled in her efforts to support herself and her five children.

However, her life was about to change. In 1827, Sarah's book, Northwood: A Tale Of New England was published. Although it was fiction, it was the first such book to weave the issue of slavery into its plot. Reverend John Blake of Boston planned to publish a new woman's magazine, the Ladies Magazine. After reading Sarah's book, he offered her the position of editor. As the first female editor of a magazine in the United States, Sarah used her position to promote American writers. Until that time, many American magazines published the works of British writers. Eventually, the name of the Ladies Magazine was changed to the American Ladies Magazine to reflect Sarah's editorial policies.

Many female suffragists of the day scorned Sarah because she didn't support the cause. While she didn't feel that women should be involved in politics, she was a champion of women's' rights. She worked tirelessly to promote her life long belief that females should be granted the same educational opportunities as males. She supported the founding of Emma Willard's seminary in Troy, New York. Matthew Vassar was persuaded by his friend, Sarah, to hire a female administrator and many female instructors for his newly created college -- Vassar.

While in Boston, Sarah founded the Seaman's Society to help feed, house, and provide job skills to destitute women to enable them to support themselves and their children. She also supported a woman's right to become a physician. She supported Elizabeth Blackwell who would become America's first female doctor.

Her interests included civic minded projects. She was instrumental in raising funds to complete the Bunker Hill Monument. In later years, she would begin a crusade to preserve Mount Vernon.

Difficult financial times forced the sale of the American Ladies Magazine to Louis Godey, the Philadelphia publisher of Godey's Lady's Book. He merged the two magazines and hired Sarah as the editor. They forged a highly successful partnership that turned Godey's Ladies Magazine into one of the most successful of its day with 150,000 subscribers. She continued to support American writers and women's rights. She used her platform as editor to profile successful women who otherwise may have gone unnoticed. She effectively called for the opening of the workplace to women. At the age of 89, Sarah retired and she died two years later.

This woman, editor, prolific writer, champion of women's rights, promoter of child welfare, fund-raiser for civic causes, author of "Mary had a Little Lamb" and the person responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale, one of America's unknown treasures.

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