Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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The Pilgrims - Part IV: A Day of Thanksgiving

From a grateful people to a grateful nation. Thanksgiving is a unique tradition which started in the Plymouth Colony in 1621. It was a three-day celebration and time for thanksgiving for the Pilgrims’ successful harvest of corn after a harsh first year in the Plymouth Colony. They were also grateful for their friendship with the people of the Wampanoag Tribe.

The celebration included hunting, fishing, and gathering of crops. The feast consisted of roasted venison, goose, cod fish, lobster, grains, and apples. History does not record that they had turkey and potatoes, and if they had cranberries and various gourds, they were mashed and eaten without the benefit of butter or sugar.

More than one hundred years later, in 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving after the defeat of the British Army at Saratoga, New York. Over the next sixty years, Colonial America continued some forms of Thanksgiving celebrations, but with varying dates and customs. However, 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.

When Sarah Josepha Hale became a widowed at age 33, she became the sole support for her five children. A self-educated poet, Hale gathered her prior-written poems and, with the help of friends, she became a published author. Her 1820 book, Poems of Our Children, included one of the most famous poems in the English language – Mary Had A Little Lamb. She went on to become the “editress” of several women’s magazines.

For more than twenty years, Mrs. Hale was a published essayist. She also became known for writing letters to state governors promoting a National Day of Thanksgiving. On September 28, 1863, she sent a letter to President Abraham Lincoln requesting a few minutes of his “precious time,” on 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 Americans set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving for our blessings, and for our freedom.

In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale’s letter and her suggestion. The following is an excerpt from the President’s Thanksgiving Proclamation:

ABRAHAM LINCOLN
PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

THANKSGIVING DAY 1863:
A 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…”

Signed on October 3, 1863
Lincoln papers – Library of Congress