The Woman Who Made Thanksgiving Happen

The Woman Who Made Thanksgiving Happen

Year after year, Americans gather around the table on the fourth Thursday of November to celebrate Thanksgiving. Many recognize its origins as connected to the 1621 Pilgrim feast and thanksgiving prompted by a good harvest, but few know the woman responsible for making the celebration official. Sarah Josepha Hale, author and poet, fought to institutionalize Thanksgiving. Through her efforts, it was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln.

This Thanksgiving is 152 years since the proclamation by President Lincoln, making it a national holiday. MyHeritage decided to locate the descendants of Sarah Hale and to look deeper into the legacy passed down through the generations of her family.

Sarah Josepha Buell was born October 24, 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire. She married lawyer David Hale in 1813, and the couple had five children. A writer and influential editor, she wrote letters to politicians for 27 years advocating for Thanksgiving to become an official holiday. Until then, Thanksgiving was celebrated mainly in New England, and on different dates in each state.

Hale wrote letters to five different US presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln. Although her initial letters failed to yield results, her letter to Lincoln convinced him to support 1863 legislation to establish the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

In her letter she wrote:

“You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

To encourage American unity between the Northern and Southern states, Lincoln proclaimed a national date for Thanksgiving:

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise …”

However, it was only in 1870, after the Civil War, that the Confederate States recognized the holiday. Celebrating Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November became nationwide.

Hale continued to support and advocate many causes over her lifetime. She believed in higher education for women and helped to found Vassar College. She worked to preserve George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, raised funds for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, and more.

After an intensive search, covering scores of documents and records, including birth and death certificates, American and Canadian census records, immigration records, obituaries and newspaper archives, MyHeritage researchers discovered Sarah’s descendants in Baltimore, Maryland. The family we located are all direct descendants of Sarah Hale’s son, Horatio, and all have the surname HALE. Horatio was born in New Hampshire but moved to Canada, where he lived and raised his family.

Sarah Hale’s descendants were aware of their important lineage, and have many documents, books and images to support their connection to the founder of Thanksgiving. Thanks to MyHeritage’s research, their family story has been cemented and they now have the historical documents to prove their special family story.

Each year, the Hale family elders take care to tell the story of Sarah Hale around the Thanksgiving table, to ensure that the story and knowledge of their family heritage will be preserved for future generations. With the help of MyHeritage, the family now hopes that more Americans will learn more about the history and foundation of Thanksgiving and Sarah Hale’s part in institutionalizing Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

View Sarah Hale’s family tree on MyHeritage:

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time for family gatherings. It’s an ideal opportunity to continue Sarah Hale’s tradition of the holiday by sharing family history stories and strengthening family bonds.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Comments

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  • Beverly Woodard

    November 24, 2015

    Just to set the record straight, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Virginia in 1609.

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    Esther

    November 25, 2015

    Hi Beverly,

    Of course Thanksgiving was celebrated well before Sarah Hale, but without her, the holiday wouldn’t be what it is today!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Esther / MyHeritage Team

  • Linda Thatcher

    November 25, 2015

    Thank you Sarah Hale !!!

  • Allison

    November 25, 2015

    Thank you My Heritage for sharing this unknown story. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • BGWilder

    November 29, 2015

    In 2003, the last annual Thanksgiving performance I directed as a music educator with my 2nd graders, a long tradition in Chelmsford, MA was re-enacting the story of SJHale. Each of the four classes read
    the Scholastic illustrated book (I forget its title) and we assigned roles
    to the script I wrote, added a few songs, etc. It was a hit! Of course, I added a few singing/dancing/celebration “turkeys” to the cast. What was so unique about this presentation was when one of the boys told me that he was descended from SJHale! So he was thrilled when I gave him the role of one of her 5 children and he had one line to say. His last name was not Hale, but with 5 SJH children I hope we can find even more of her direct descendants! She was such a remarkable woman, and the perfect example of PERSEVERANCE–the virtue both the book and the script I wrote were emphasizing in the performance.

  • Jane Chamberlin

    November 30, 2015

    What a fantastic lady who persevered until the US made it a National Holiday!!

  • EdwinaBrown Lay

    November 30, 2015

    Thank you for this information. We all aregratefil to those who came here from all over the World. We are a country of United States. Today would have been my Dads 86 birthday, Thomas Lively Brown. .

  • Sally Austin

    November 30, 2015

    Enjoyed the story Thanks so much!!

  • Steve Whittier

    November 30, 2015

    I spoke about Sarah Hale at our Thanksgiving dinner and including a bit about the history and evolution of this important holiday. She was a visionary

  • Crystal Tullis

    November 30, 2015

    This link to her tree actually opens a door to my own tree as it’s part Hale, this is wonderful to see and I can’t wait to share it with my family!!!

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    Esther

    November 30, 2015

    Crystal – It’s so nice to hear that you’re related — What a nice family discovery!

  • Graham

    November 30, 2015

    I believe that you will find that Jefferson Davis, of the Confederacy, declared a national day of Thanksgiving for the Confederacy 2 years earlier than Lincoln.

  • E

    Esther

    November 30, 2015

    Graham – True. The Proclamation made later on by Lincoln was for all states, and to unify the country.

  • Jerry Cronin

    December 1, 2015

    You’ll actually find that our nation’s first president…John Hanson that is…was the first to declare the Thanksgiving holiday as the 4th Thursday in November which is WAY befoire all the rest.

  • Carolyn Bigelow

    December 1, 2015

    Thanksgiving is a wonderful to celebrate. It’s the Pilgrims that started this tradition. It’s been going on for century’s. It’s not only for food, but it’s a celebration. It’s just so sad that some of American people don’t know the true meaning of it all.
    Just like Christmas. How many know the true meaning of Christmas? cnbigelow@charter.net

  • Judy

    March 22, 2016

    I’m no ‘genius”ologist but my ancestors are worth finding since they are the tree of (my) life.