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.

THE PILGRIMS - Part IV: A Day of Thanksgiving

From a grateful people to a grateful nation.  Thanksgiving is a unique tradition that 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 Plymouth Colony.  They were also grateful for the help and friendship of the people of the Wampanoag Tribe. 

The celebration included hunting, fishing, and gathering crops.  The feast consisted of venison, goose, duck, seafood, wild and cultivated herbs, berries, vegetables, gourds, apples, and nuts.  

More than one hundred fifty years later, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington was known to pray over his troops and the nation and, after winning especially hard-fought battles, he designated days of thanksgiving for his troops.  On October 3, 1789, then-President Washington issued a Proclamation for the first National Day of Thanksgiving to be held annually on the third Thursday of October.  Over the next seventy years, America continued different forms of Thanksgiving celebrations, but with varying dates and customs.  To cause even more disunity among some of the states, the divisiveness between the northern abolitionists and the southern slaveholders, led the country into the Civil War.  Feeling the need to bring the country together was a patriotic-minded New Englander by the name of Sarah Hale.

Sarah Josepha Hale, widowed at thirty-three, became the sole support for her five children.  A self-educated poet, Hale gathered her poems, and with the help of her deceased husband’s fellow Free Masons, she became a published author.  Her 1820 book, Poems for 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 published articles and was also known for writing letters to state governors promoting the importance of a National Day of Thanksgiving.  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 continue support for a day of Thanksgiving by renewing it as a National 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 positively to Mrs. Hale’s letter.  The following are excerpts 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…”

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