Lydia Maria Francis Child, born February 11, 1802, was an American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, opponent of American expansionism, Indian rights activist, novelist, and a journalist. Despite her many accomplishments and courageous political activities that were way before her time, she is best known today for her poem “”Over the River and Through the Wood” about Thanksgiving.
This song, written originally as a poem and published in 1844, recalls Child’s visits to her grandmother’s on the Thanksgiving holiday. The poem was eventually set to music by an unknown author. (Occasionally lyrics are substituted to make it a Christmas song.)
Lydia Child and her husband first took up the anti-slavery cause in 1831. Child believed women were also held in subjugation by men, but felt the abolition of slavery was the more important cause. Nevertheless, she began campaigning for equal female membership and participation in the American Anti-Slavery Society, an issue which eventually split the movement. (Some anti-slavery societies, it should also be noted, didn’t even admit black members.)
Child had already gained fame as the editor of a periodical for children and as the author of works for women. In 1833 she published a tract “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans” which not only called for an immediate end to slavery, but insisted that blacks were as much Americans as whites, and “intellectually equal to Europeans.”
In 1839, Child was elected to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and became editor of the society’s “National Anti-Slavery Standard” in 1841, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to edit a political newspaper. She expanded coverage beyond abolitionist news, and under her direction the subscription list grew to 6,000, more than double that of the famous newspaper “Liberator” edited by William Lloyd Garrison.
Child decided to leave the “National Anti-Slavery Standard” over a dispute about the use of violence as an acceptable weapon for battling slavery (she was against it). Eventually, however, she acknowledged the need for the use of violence to protect anti-slavery emigrants in Kansas and also sympathized with the radical abolitionist John Brown while not condoning his violent methods.
In the meanwhile, she continued to write for many periodicals during the 1840’s, speaking out against slavery and in favor of women’s rights. She also turned to the issue of Native American rights, especially after the Civil War was over, publishing a book anonymously about an interracial marriage between a white woman and a Native American man (not favorably received), and publishing a number of pamphlets on Indian rights. While most people were not much interested in doing much about the Indians except eliminating them, she did change the mind of Peter Cooper, a wealthy and prominent industrialist. Cooper organized the privately funded United States Indian Commission, dedicated to the protection and elevation of Native Americans in the United States and the elimination of warfare in the western territories. His efforts in turn led to the formation of the Board of Indian Commissioners.
Child died in Wayland, Massachusetts, at the age of 78 in October, 1880, only a month before Thanksgiving.