In the years after the pilgrims and Wampanoag natives came together in Plymouth to observe a time of Thanksgiving, this annual harvest feast was celebrated some of the time by some of the people in some of the settlements.
By the time the 13 colonies became the United States of America, the only national holidays were Independence Day and George Washington’s birthday. There was no national day of Thanksgiving.
That eventually changed when a very determined lady by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for years to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Sarah was the daughter of Martha Whittlesey Buel (1752-1811) and Captain Gordon Buel who were married in 1783 in Saybrook.
For his service during the American Revolution Gordon Buel received 400 acres in Newport, N.H. and he and Martha moved and eventually had four children there.
One of their children was Sarah Josepha, born on Oct. 24, 1788. She was educated by her mother and older brother, and by the time she was 18 started a dame school and in her spare time wrote poetry.
One poem described an incident where a lamb followed a child to school. To encourage kindness to animals, she wrote a poem about the incident, which we know today as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
In 1813 she married David Hale, a lawyer, and they eventually had five children before David died of pneumonia in 1822. In mourning, Sarah wore black for the rest of her life.
To support her five children, Sarah opened a millinery shop, but her writing soon attracted attention and she was invited to become the editor of the new “Ladies Magazine.” She happily accepted and moved to Boston.
This magazine was later sold to Louis Godey of Philadelphia who named it Godey’s Lady’s Book and in 1841 Sarah moved to Philadelphia where she served as “Editress,” a term she preferred, for the next 40 years.
Thanksgiving observances ranged between October and January and Hale campaigned for a uniform national day of celebration. She wrote articles and thousands of letters to politicians, ministers, military personnel, to every governor and five presidents, urging them to support a national holiday of Thanksgiving.
In September 1863 she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln urging that a set date become an “American custom and institution” and in the midst of the Civil War Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be the nationwide Thanksgiving. The Southern states in rebellion, refused to recognize the president’s authority and did not observe Thanksgiving on that date until after the war.
Sarah Josepha Hale set the tone in matters of fashion, cooking, literature, the role of women, morality and manners. She wrote to support equal education for girls and higher education for women and helped her friend Matthew Vassar start a college for women.
She fought to improve women’s wages and reduce child labor, promoted public playgrounds and wrote more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles and poems.
She retired in 1877, at 89 years old, and wrote her last words to readers in the December 1877 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Sarah Josepha Hale died at her home in Philadelphia on April 30, 1879 and is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Her obituary published in Harper’s Bazaar on June 28, 1879 notes that “Mrs. Hale was accustomed to ascribe all that she had herself been able to accomplish to her mother’s influence.”
So, as we join in observing Thanksgiving throughout the nation, give a quick thought to the work of Sarah Josepha Hale, the daughter of Martha Whittlesey of Saybrook.
Tedd Levy is from Old Saybrook.