Mary had a little lamb, the childhood nursery rhyme familiar to all, has its roots in Sterling, Mass., where there was a real Mary, a real lamb, and it really did follow her to school one day around 1816.
Mary was Mary Sawyer, born in 1806, and she remembered her lamb all her life. The story, as republished in the book Mary’s Little Lamb, started out on a cold, bleak March morning:
"I went out to the barn with father; and after the cows had been fed, we went to the sheep pen, and found two lambs which had been born in the night. One had been forsaken by its mother, and through neglect, cold and lack of food was nearly dead. I saw it had still a little life, and asked to take it into the house; but father said, No, it was almost dead, anyway, and at the best could live but a short time. But I couldn't bear to see the poor little thing suffer, so I teased until I got it into the house. Then I worked upon mother's sympathies. At first the little creature could not swallow, and the catnip tea mother made it could not take for a long time.
"I got the lamb warm by wrapping it in an old garment and holding it in my arms beside the fireplace. All day long I nursed the lamb, and at night it could swallow just a little. Oh, how pleased I was! But even then I wasn't sure it would live; so I sat up all night with it, fearing it wouldn't be warm enough if there was not someone at hand to look out for its comfort. In the morning, much to my girlish delight, it could stand; and from that time it improved rapidly. It soon learned to drink milk; and from the time it would walk about, it would follow me anywhere if I only called it."
Being hand-reared, the lamb had little affection for its fellow sheep, preferring horses and cows as companions. But above all, the sheep loved Mary, herself.
"The day the lamb went to school, I hadn't seen her before starting off; and not wanting to go without seeing her, I called. She recognized my voice, and soon I heard a faint bleating far down the field. More and more distinctly I heard it, and I knew my pet was coming to greet me. My brother Nat said, "Let's take the lamb to school with us"."
Off the two went. When they got to the schoolhouse, Mary tucked the lamb into a blanket at her feet and everything went swimmingly until it let out a bleat, alerting the teacher to its presence. The teacher gave out a laugh and simply put the lamb outside for Mary to take home at lunch.
The poem/nursery rhyme was the brainchild of John Roulstone, who had newly arrived in town to study with his uncle to prepare for college. Roulstone witnessed the events of the lamb sneaking in to school, and gave Mary the now world-famous poem he wrote about it:
Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned it out;
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.
Mary's mother made some stockings out of the lamb's wool for Mary, and she treasured them. However, later in life when Mary was living in Somerville, Mass., the Old South Meeting House in Boston was raising money for restoration work. Mary donated the wool from her stockings to the fundraising efforts. The stockings were picked apart and wool was attached to cards that said, "Knitted wool from the first fleece of Mary's Little Lamb."
The story of the lamb made it into wider circulation when the poem, expanded with three additional stanzas that added a moral lesson to the tale, was included in Sarah Josepha Hale's 1830 book, Poems for Our Children.
Over the years there has been considerable debate over who wrote the nursery rhyme. Hale, at one point, claimed authorship. But it seems most likely that she only wrote part of it. Others have suggested that Roulstone took the basics of the poem from an old English rhyme, but was inspired by the Mary Sawyer story.
In any case, the nursery rhyme was most likely the result of the four collaborators, Sarah Hale, John Roulstone, Mary Sawyer and the lamb.