Juliette Gordon Low was related to the woman who helped to create the national U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Hale.
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was a formidable presence in antebellum America. Born in New Hampshire and raised by parents who thought, contrary to public sentiment, that girls should be just as well educated as boys, Sarah Buell was trained early on to believe that nothing was impossible. She married a lawyer, gave birth to five children, and was widowed young. Sarah wrote poetry—we know her best for “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—and fiction, including a celebrated anti-slavery novel. To support her family, Hale became editor of Ladies Magazine, later more famously called Godey’s Lady’s Book. From this platform, for forty years, Sarah Josepha Hale exerted a tremendous influence over the American middle class on topics from proper dress to women’s rights.
One of her interests was expanding the celebration of Thanksgiving. It was a holiday observed at various times and places in different states, and not at all in the South. From the mid 1840s, Hale campaigned to set Thanksgiving on a specific day to be honored nationwide. She saw it as a unifying force for a country simultaneously spreading westward and showing signs of irreconcilable differences on the topic of slavery. Hale lobbied every president for two decades, but Abraham Lincoln was the most receptive, because he, too, was seeking to unify the nation, riven during his presidency by the Civil War. In 1863, he issued a proclamation calling for Americans to “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.”
Sarah Josepha Hale was Nellie Gordon’s great aunt. Nellie’s aunt Maria Indiana Kinzie (her father’s sister) married General David Hunter. His brother, Dr. Hunter, married Sarah Josepha Hale’s daughter.
In 1866, Nellie wrote to Hale to suggest that she publish Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Lost Jewel” in Godey’s. In her response to Nellie, Hale wrote “I do remember you as ‘Nellie Kinzie,’ and was very glad to renew the intercourse with Mrs. Gordon, of whom I have often heard…Mrs. General Hunter and your cousin Marion, so often speak with love and appreciation. My daughter, Mrs. Dr. Hunter, with whom I now reside, always remembers you with affection, as one of our family.”
The Kinzies were founders of Chicago, but Hale knew that the Gordons were Georgians. The Civil War was so horrific, and divided so many families, that it remained uppermost in Americans’ minds long after the guns fell silent.
After filling two pages with family news, Sarah Josepha Hale continued, “Yes. The war is over, and I do earnestly hope and pray that we many now become really one people in heart as we are in name. ‘Let us love one another,’ and the world will be at our feet. Americans have now the noblest opportunity ever placed before a nation of becoming the exemplars and arbiters of progress and justice among men.”
Sarah Josepha Hale’s next letter concluded “I am much interested for our Southern friends. I say keep the National Thanksgiving—it is my favorite Day.”[i]
And from the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale’s influence spread even to the Thanksgiving table. In her magazine, more widely read than any other women’s periodical, Hale suggested the meal include what she considered traditional American foods: turkey with stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie.
Sarah Josepha Hale and Nellie Kinzie Gordon were forceful, multi-talented, and exceptional women who lived useful lives. Both were authors, both had a fervent sense of duty and civic pride. Mothers and grandmothers, Hale and Gordon shared a strong moral core centered in the Episcopal Church.
The toast made at family gatherings by the Gordon family was “To Absent Friends.” When Nellie raised her glass before Thanksgiving dinner, she might have included in her thoughts her redoubtable relative, Sarah Josepha Hale.