Mary had a little lamb, the childhood nursery rhyme familiar to all, tells the story of 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 in Sterling, Mass.:
“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.”
Mary Had A Little Lamb
The hand-reared lamb had little affection for its fellow sheep, preferring horses and cows as companions. But above all, the sheep loved Mary.
“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.
As Mary later remembered it, a new arrival wrote the poem/nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. John Roulstone had just come to 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.
That, at least, is how Mary remembered it as an old woman. But Sarah Josepha Hale had written and published Mary’s Lamb in 1830. She included it in a little book, book, Poems for Our Children. Hale’s version of Mary Had a Little Lamb had three additional stanzas that added a moral lesson to the tale.
Sandra Sonnichsen, volunteer archivist at the Richards Free Library in Newport, N.H., argues there is no written evidence that John Roulstone wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb for Mary Sawyer. And she points out that it wasn’t unusual for lambs to follow children to school.
“Sheep are very poor mothers,” wrote Sonnichsen. “It is astonishing. They reject lambs (especially twins); they drop their lambs in unfortunate places and die, leaving the lambs orphaned. These lambs may be adopted by other sheep, or may need to be bottle-fed. Bottle feeding a lamb requires the time and attention that most farmers cannot easily spare, so the orphaned lambs are often given to the farmer’s children to raise.”
The controversy over authorship arose because of a popular fundraising gimmick.
Mary’s mother made some stockings out of the lamb’s wool for Mary, and she treasured them. Then, when Mary was an old woman living in Somerville, Mass., preservationists started raising money to save the Old South Meeting House. Mary donated the wool from her stockings to the fundraising efforts. Volunteers picked apart the stockings and attached the wool to cards that said, “Knitted wool from the first fleece of Mary’s Little Lamb.” They sold like hotcakes.
Over the years considerable debate arose over who wrote the nursery rhyme. Hale originally claimed authorship. Others have suggested that Roulstone took the basics of the poem from an old English rhyme, but Mary Sawyer inspired him.
In any case, Mary Had a Little Lamb did help to save the Old South Meeting House.
This story about Mary Had a Little Lamb was updated in 2020.