The History of Thanksgiving

A fall chill is in the air signaling November’s arrival in Charleston. Our thoughts turn to the holidays and our annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations. It is a wonderful time of year as our families and friends prepare to gather together for fellowship and to give thanks for our many blessings. Bags are packed and menus are finalized as we plan our trips to come together on this most special day.  The weather in Charleston is spectacular in November which makes it a popular destination for celebrating the holiday. As we make our Thanksgiving preparations, a look back to the origins of Thanksgiving give this beloved National Holiday special meaning.

Thanksgiving traditions originated in Colonial Massachusetts. By the mid 1800’s, a day of thanks was widely celebrated in the Northeast, Midwest, and to a lesser degree in the South. It was not widely recognized as an official holiday, and it was celebrated on different days depending on the state.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale
Author, Editor & Advocate 

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin


In 1788, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was born in New Hampshire. She was home schooled and was unable to attend college as college educations were not available to women until the 1830’s. Her mother inspired in her a love of learning. Fortunately, her brother allowed her to use his Dartmouth College textbooks, and she educated herself. At age 18 Sarah became a school teacher. After 6 years of independent living, she married David Hale, a lawyer. In 1822, her husband passed away, and she was left to take care of her 5 children. With employment opportunities scarce for women, she turned to literature. She began writing and published her first novel, Northwood-or Life North and South in 1827 Here she introduced the custom of Thanksgiving to the rest of the country. She also penned the favorite children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” which appeared in her 1830 book, Poems for Children. In 1828, she became the editor for Ladies’ Magazine, the first magazine in the US by edited women for women. This later became Godey’s Ladies Book, the most widely read magazine in the 19th century. She was a crusader for women’s property rights as well as the need for equal educational opportunities. She was a dedicated early advocate for women’s rights and equality. 

"In her years as editor of The Ladies' Magazine and Godey's Ladies Book, Sarah Josepha Hale carved out a place for herself as an influential woman in a world where men ruled. She gave dozens of women professional opportunities by publishing their work, and she used her magazine as a bully pulpit to promote causes she cared about, especially the broadening of opportunities for women's education. Always a champion of women's ability to contribute to the good of society, Hale helped finance the founding of Vassar College, one of the nation's first colleges for women. Her influence laid the groundwork for future generations of leaders who have helped shape a stronger and more just United States of America."

- Dr. Melissa Walker, PhD. Emerita George Dean Johnson Jr. Professor of History at Converse College, Retired & President of Heyday Coaching.

Advocating for Unity

During the 19th Century our nation was bitterly divided by the Institution of Slavery as well as deep sectional rivalries. The anger and rhetoric of the times deeply affected Sara. She began an inspired quest to promote Thanksgiving celebrations as a pathway to bring the country together. In 1837, from the bully pulpit of her position as Editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, she penned her first editorial promoting Thanksgiving. What followed was a determined campaign to see Thanksgiving celebrated across the nation. Her 1847 editorial began her practice of penning an annual Thanksgiving editorial message. Her 1847 editorial read in part, “We hope every governor in the twenty-nine states will appoint the same day, the twenty-fifth of November, as the day of Thanksgiving.”  She also began a letter writing campaign to the nation’s governors urging them to establish a uniform national day of Thanksgiving. By the 1850’s most states had done just that. On September 28, 1863, she sent a letter to President Abraham Lincoln.  It read in part…

 “As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag -- could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus, the great Union Festival of America would be established.”

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation in the midst of the Civil War declaring the last Thursday of November as a National Day of 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 to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged…” – Abraham Lincoln

Thanksgiving was celebrated nationally in the years that followed, and on November 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law, formally establishing the fourth Thursday in November as a Federal Thanksgiving Holiday. 

Today, we celebrate Thanksgiving due in no small way to the patriotism of Sarah Josepha Hale. Her persistence, love of country and heartfelt desire to see a fractured nation come together is worthy of much praise. We can only assume that Sarah would be proud to see her lifelong dream come true, though the divisions we see in America presently would likely cause her distress. If we gain anything from Sarah’s story, it would be that one person with a voice and vision can, through dedication and singleness of purpose, make a difference.

Charleston Homes Decked with Thanksgiving Finery

Charleston Homes Decked with Thanksgiving Finery

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Charleston’s Only Civil War & Slavery Tour

Want to learn more about the tensions that shaped our nation and spawned an American holiday tradition? Consider booking A House Divided. This Civil War history tour runs Tuesday-Sunday each week. If you will be visiting Charleston for Thanksgiving, consider booking your tour early. Tours will not run on Thanksgiving Day, but regularly scheduled tours will resume Friday, 11/24. Book your tour online, or email Skip to learn more about private walking tours.  

Skip Evans