Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


Thanksgiving Day
By Judy Leithe

By kindergarten, most American children have been introduced to the story of the Pilgrims by wearing tall hats and buckle shoes or, as "Indians," dressed up in feathers and beads.  The children color pictures of Pilgrims and "Indians" sitting around a banquet-style table laden with roasted turkeys, corn-on-the-cob, and maybe even pumpkin pie.

Here are a few facts about this uniquely American tradition: 

In 1621, what we now call Thanksgiving, was a three-day celebration and time for thanksgiving for the Pilgrims' successful harvest of corn after a harsh first year in New Plymouth.  They were grateful for the help and friendship of the indigenous peoples of the Wampanoag Tribe, and an equally beneficial peace treaty, which lasted for 50 years (See Constitution corner Article 15).  The feast included days of hunting, fishing, and gathering of crops. 

The feast consisted of roasted venison, goose, cod fish, lobster, grains, and apples.  History does not suggest they had turkeys or potatoes, and if they had cranberries or pumpkins, they were simply mashed and eaten without the tasty benefit of sugar. 

The Continental Congress proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving for the Thirteen Colonies, in 1777, to honor our defeat of the British Army at Saratoga NY.  Over the course of the next 60 years, some Colonies, and later States, continued some form of Thanksgiving celebrations, with varying dates and customs.  However, even then, there was divisiveness between the northern abolitionists and the southern slave holders, causing concern for the unity of this newly-formed country.  One such patriotic-minded person was Sarah J. Hale, of New England. 

Sarah Josepha Hale, widowed at 33, became the sole support for her five children.  A self-educated poet, Hale gathered her prior-written poems and, with the help of her deceased husband's fellow members of the Free Masons, became a published author.  Her second book, Poems of Our children, 1820, included one of the most famous poems in the English language -- Mary Had A Little Lamb.  She went on to become "editress" of several women's magazines. 

For more than 20 years, Sarah J. Hale published articles, and wrote letters to state governors, promoting a national Thanksgiving Day.  On September 28, 1863, she posted a letter to President Abraham Lincoln requesting a few minutes of his "precious time," laying before him a "subject of deep interest to myself...of some importance.  The subject is to have the day of annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival."  She closed by saying that the President's proclamation would create a noble example of unification, when all American set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving for our blessings, and for our freedoms.  

In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale's letter and her suggestion.  The following are excepts from the President's Thanksgiving Proclamation":


"The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God..." 

"...It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with the heart and one voice, by the whole American people.  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..." 

Proclamation signed by President Lincoln on October 3, 1863.  - Abraham Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress.