“Mary Had a Little Lamb” is one of the best known nursery rhymes. It was first published in 1830, but endured the test of time and remains a common song for parents to sing to their children But do you know that it is based on a true story?
Mary from the song is actually Mary Elizabeth Sawyer from Sterling, Massachusetts. She was born in 1806. The lamb that followed her everywhere was a sickly abandoned newborn lamb she found on her father’s farm that she nursed back to health.
“In the morning, much to my girlish delight, it could stand; and from that time it improved rapidly… and from the time it would walk about, it would follow me anywhere it I called it,” Mary Elizabeth later recalled in her book.
The lamb became Mary’s best friend and they did everything together. One day, as she was on her way to school, Mary heard the lamb following her and her brother Nat. The siblings thought it was a good idea to take the lamb to school with them.
Since her teacher was not yet around when she arrived at school, Mary positioned her lamb underneath her desk and covered her with a blanket. The lamb laid quietly. However, when Mary was asked to recite in front of the class, her lamb followed her, much to the astonishment of her teacher and classmates.
The lamb was sent outside the classroom until Mary was able to bring her home.
A much older visiting student named John Roulstone was amused by the lamb incident and wrote a three-stanza poem which he gave to Mary the following day:
“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.”
In 1930, Sarah Josepha Hale included “Mary’s Lamb“ in her book, Poems for Our Children, but insisted that she just made it up but it was uncanny since it included Roustone’s three stanzas. Henry Ford settled the dispute by publishing a book that featured Mary Elizabeth’s version of what happened.