What is the Story Behind Mary Had a Little Lamb?

(Last Updated On: January 10, 2022)
What is the Story Behind Mary Had a Little Lamb?

Many of us are familiar with the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Originally published in 1830, it tells the story of Mary and her white-fleeced lamb that followed her everywhere. While there is no deeper, hidden meaning behind the lyrics, the story behind this popular nursery rhyme is an interesting one. What are the origins of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? Was Mary an actual person?

The Story Behind Mary Had a Little Lamb

According to the popular story, in 1815, at the age of nine, a girl named Mary Sawyer found a sick newborn lamb when she was assisting her father on their Sterling, Massachusetts farm. Mary convinced her father to let her keep the little lamb for a pet, her dad fearing the lamb would not survive. But to his great surprise, Mary took loving care of her little lamb and it grew up to be healthy and strong. 

On one occasion, Mary was walking to school and turned to find that the lamb was following her.  Delighted, she managed to hoist the lamb over the gate of the schoolhouse. Not wanting to part with her beloved pet, even for the school day, Mary snuck her lamb inside and tucked a blanket around its little body to keep it hidden. She was almost successful in her endeavor, but the teacher called her up to the blackboard and the jig was up when the lamb emerged from underneath the blanket and trotted behind her to the front of the classroom. 

The teacher instructed her to put it outside where it waited dutifully until Mary brought it home over the lunch hour. During that week, a fellow classmate, John Roulstone, wrote a poem detailing the day’s previous events. 

“Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.”

That little lamb stayed loyal to Mary and lived its entire life on her family’s farm. She mothered three lambs. Tragically, the lamb was killed by a farm cow when she was four. Even more tragically, Roulstone, the child that penned the famous poem, passed away suddenly at the age of 17. 

Controversy Over Authorship

In 1830, Poems for Our Children was published. The edition included “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The author was Sarah Josepha Hale, a well-known writer and editor. According to one of Hale’s biographies, she took inspiration for the nursery rhyme from her own personal experiences while teaching boys and girls at school near her New Hampshire home. This contradicts Sawyer’s origin story.

In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1876, at the age of 70 years old, that Mary Sawyer would come forward with her account, adamant that it was her classmate John Roulstone who wrote the poem–something Hale denied. And unfortunately for Sawyer, with no hard evidence to back her claim, Hale’s sole authorship is typically supported.

Still, that did not stop some from siding with Sawyer. By the time the 1920s rolled around, both Sarah Hale and Mary Sawyer had passed away. But it was then that Henry Ford got involved in the age-old debate. He claimed he sided with Mary in terms of the poem’s origin story. Ford purchased the one-room schoolhouse that housed the alleged events of the famous nursery rhyme. Today, multiple sites in the town of Sterling, Massachusetts, continue to perpetuate this claim.

The Influence of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

Once the poem was released into the world, it blew up into one of the most widely recited rhymes of all time. The craze for the poem started in the 1800s. In 1877, Thomas Edison read it over his phonograph, making it the first English audio recording in history. In Sterling, they carry on celebrating Mary Sawyer, the girl who gained loyalty and companionship from a lamb after nursing it back to life. And in Mary’s home town, there is a statue of the infamous lamb. One thing is for certain, the story of Mary and the little lamb has stood the test of time. 

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