Home Arts and Leisure Mary Had a Little Lamb – Yes, There Was a Mary and She Did Have a Little Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb – Yes, There Was a Mary and She Did Have a Little Lamb

And then the lamb's wool helped save Old South Meeting House


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 had a little lamb

Illustration, Mary Had a Little Lamb

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”.”

The Redstone School, now in Sudbury, which Mary attended.

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.

Lousy Mothers

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.


A flock of Vermont merino sheep.

“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.

Old South

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.


The Old South Meeting House in 1898

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 2024.

Image: Schoolhouse By Dudesleeper at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14217560.


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Sandra Sonnichsen February 6, 2018 - 5:25 pm

You base this account on Henry Ford’s book. That book was published as part of a publicity campaign for Ford’s Wayside Inn. Read it critically. Look for facts. Consider the source. Ford’s book uses the memories of an old woman, who was long dead by the time he published his book. There is no copy of the original poem, no corroboration of the words of the poem, no other accounts in the intervening decades between the supposed event and the emergence of the long-past memories. We don’t know the words of the poem Roulstone gave to Mary Sawyer. We only know that Mary Sawyer wrote those words on a piece of paper decades later, long after everyone could easily recite Sarah Hale’s poem from memory.
Here is an essay I wrote after doing careful research. I really don’t care deeply about who wrote the poem, but I do care deeply about research and fact checking. I hate to see this story repeated over and over with no new information and apparently no fact checking. Please read my essay.

Who wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb?
In the broad scope of Sarah Josepha Hale’s historical legacy, this is not an important question. Her other accomplishments are far greater than the authorship of one poem published in a small book of poems for children. Just think of them all: editor of a very popular magazine, publisher of many famous authors, crusader to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday, successful campaigner to complete the Bunker Hill monument, supporter of innumerable other causes… and at the same time raising five children as a single mother. She was incredible. But this question will not go away, and for some reason that poem is often all anyone knows of Sarah Josepha Hale, so it must be addressed again.
Sarah Josepha Hale first published the poem as Mary’s Lamb in 1830. It was part of a small book of children’s poems entitled Poems for Our Children. She is clearly named as the author of these poems on the title page. That same year Mary’s Lamb was published in the September-October issue of the Juvenile Miscellany magazine (vol. 5, no.1, page 64) with her initials attached. The next year, 1831, the same poem was set to music by Lowell Mason in his book, Juvenile Lyre, and entitled Mary had a little lamb. Three years later, in 1834, she published this poem once more in her School Song Book, where, once again, she is clearly named as the author on the title page. It is a simple poem, published with clear authorship.
Lambs and schools
Sheep are very poor mothers. 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. My mother grew up on a sheep farm in Putney, Vermont and talked all her life about the bottle-fed lambs. They are sweet, wooly things that follow their adopted parents everywhere until they are weaned. Ideal pets until they abruptly grow into sheep, herd animals with no remaining interest in their human parents. The little lambs often ended up in school. When I attended school in Alaska in the early 1960’s, my friend, Royal, brought his two lambs to school one day. They were delightful and quite disruptive. Our teacher, Mrs. Heddell, finally turned them out. If we were soon assigned the task of writing a poem (which we were not, Mrs. Heddell was much more interested in math), I suppose many of us would have written about those lambs. A lamb or two in school is just not unusual in a farming community. It is even known to happen today, and it must have been very common during the New England sheep boom of the early 1800’s. Poems about lambs written by children must have been commonplace during the sheep boom also.
The controversy:
In 1815 a nine year-old child named Mary Sawyer (1806-1889) was caring for, like many farm children, an orphaned lamb that was born in March of 1814. (We know this date from the facsimile of a letter Mary wrote in 1889, found on page 12 of The Story of Mary’s Little Lamb, published by Henry Ford in 1928.) Mary’s lamb followed her to school one day. This took place at the Redstone Schoolhouse in District No. 2 in Sterling, Massachusetts. That same day a ten year-old boy, John Roulstone, Jr. (1805-1822) was visiting the school. The next day he is said to have handed Mary a slip of paper upon which he had written a poem about her lamb. It appears that Mary did not save this slip of paper because a poem written in Roulston’s hand has never been produced. But she did at some point tell family and friends the story. It must be noted that no printed copy of a pre-1830 poem about a lamb at school has ever surfaced in the United States.
In 1830, when Mary Sawyer was 24, Sarah Josepha Hale’s poem was published in Poems for Our Children. Sometime after its publication, Mary Sawyer saw Sarah Hale’s poem, and thought it must be her lamb (after all, her name was Mary) and the poem must be Roulstone’s. Perhaps she saw it in the 1857 McGuffey’s Reader. The date when Mary first recognized the poem is unclear, as she did not tell her story publicly until she was an old woman. Her story became publicly known sixty-one years later, when, in 1876, at age 70, she participated in the successful fundraising effort to save Boston’s Old South Meetinghouse. The Meetinghouse was damaged in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and was in the process of demolition when it became the first historically significant public building in the country to be preserved. Mary sold autographed cards, tied with a piece of old sock yarn, to support the renovation. Who would want to buy that? These cards sold because she said she was the famous Mary and the yarn was the famous Mary’s lamb’s wool. They were a popular item. Mary still had some of her lamb’s wool because, she said, she had saved two pairs of socks knitted in 1818 from the wool. Mary’s teacher, who might have recalled John Roulstone’s poem, was long gone, as was John Roulstone. Mary finally wrote the poem she attributed to Roulstone down as she remembered it, in her own hand, in 1883. This hand written copy of Sarah Hale’s verse is often used as support for Roulstone’s authorship, but it is meaningless. By 1883, Sarah Hale’s poem was so well known that any school child (or adult) could easily write it from memory.
Enter Henry Ford.
The lamb story became even more dramatic when Henry Ford, who owned the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, became involved. When Mary’s Redstone Schoolhouse was closed in 1856, it was used as a barn or garage for the Baptist parsonage in Sterling. In 1926, almost 40 years after Mary’s death, Henry Ford purchased the cornerstone, some foundation stones, and what remained of the frame from this barn, and incorporated those remains into a schoolhouse he had built in Sudbury. He used the schoolhouse as an attraction at his Wayside Inn. In 1928 Ford published the author-less The Story of Mary’s Little Lamb, in which he promoted this schoolhouse as the very school to which the famous Mary’s lamb went. To support his claim he erected a bronze commemorative plaque at the site, which infers that, OK, maybe this isn’t the original schoolhouse, but it is a schoolhouse made from lumber from Sterling, Massachusetts. His forty page book includes 25 pages embellishing Mary’s “circumstantial story,” (as described on page 12). Ford turned an admirable old woman’s fond memory into a vigorous promotional scheme, without a thought for any historical fact. Henry Ford was a promotional genius with lots of money.
Poetic style
Much has been made of the perceived difference in style between the first twelve lines of the poem and the remaining twelve lines. The discussion appeared in an anonymous article in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent Magazine, and continues to be repeated, for instance in the Sterling, Massachusetts Historical Society’s 1981 Mary Had a Little Lamb pamphlet. The theory is that Roulstone wrote the first twelve lines and Sarah Hale the last twelve. True, the first twelve lines are more well-known and more appealing to children. The remaining lines, while still sweet, become moralistic and message-driven. This was a very common format for children’s poems at the time. As stated in her introduction to Poems for Our Children: “I intended… to furnish you [children] with a few pretty songs and poems which would teach you truths, and, I hope, induce you to love truth and goodness.” Children populating the literature of the time were forever making poor choices and drowning. The inclusion of a moralistic ending to poems that begin sweetly was a device of the time; the change in tone does not indicate a different author. The fact that “expert” author of the two-styles theory was unnamed, and the theory appeared in Henry Ford’s own magazine, raises significant questions about the validity of the analysis. There has not been any new expert analysis since that time, just repeating of the anonymous article. Those who are inclined to trust the historical accuracy of something supported by the famous Henry Ford may want to read up on the quite shocking editorial approach of Ford’s Dearborn Independent.
The implication.
The story of Mary Sawyer implies that somehow Sarah Hale came across this never published schoolhouse poem and plagiarized it. How could she have come across it? The explanation in Henry Ford’s book is that the lost poem by Roulstone (who died in 1822, about seven years after supposedly writing it), traveled by word of mouth from Sterling, Massachusetts to Newport, New Hampshire where Sarah was living in 1815. That seems unlikely. Henry Ford’s book explains that the two towns were close to each other. They are ninety miles apart over the most direct route that would have been followed in 1815. Henry had not yet invented the automobile, so the distance was considerable. Facebook did not exist, and although letters were common, none have surfaced with Roulstone’s lamb poem. Local newspapers at the time published many poems, but there is no sign of Roulstone’s anywhere in print.
None the less, there are at least three published accounts of Mary Sawyer’s lamb story, all of them published after her death:
– Mary had a Little Lamb, the True Story of the Real Mary and the Real Lamb by Fannie M. Dickerson (1902, Frederick Stokes Company)
– The Life and History of Mary and Her Little Lamb by Letitia W. Owen (1913, Davis Press)
– The Story of Mary’s Little Lamb, no author. (Published by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford, 1928; and reprinted by Longfellow’s Wayside Inn).
The first two are largely the same. The Henry Ford version is driven by his promotion of the schoolhouse and so expands on the simple story, adding much argument about the poem’s heroine and its author.
As each new generation discovers these romantic texts about Mary Sawyer they raise, once again, the question of authorship. The texts are taken to be discoveries of a first person narrative. Librarians at the Richards Free Library, in Sarah’s hometown of Newport, New Hampshire, have been clearly refuting the story for the last 100 years, in the end contending that a woman of Hale’s renowned integrity would never stoop to plagiarism. Now it falls to me:
– The Roulstone lamb poem was supposedly written in 1815 when Mary Sawyer was a student in a one-room school house and her sheep was still a lamb.
– Roulstone’s written poem, if it ever existed, was lost.
– Sarah Hale published her poem fifteen years later in 1830.
– There was no avenue for Sarah Hale to have seen or heard of Roulstone’s schoolhouse poem.
– The fact that a child named Mary in rural Massachusetts had a lamb and brought it to school is sweet, but not remarkable, especially for those times. There were likely many Marys and very many little orphaned lambs in New England.
– Mary Sawyer did not make her story public until more than 60 years after the event took place, and did so as part of an urgent fund-raising campaign.
– While there are affidavits attesting to the fact that Mary Sawyer’s lamb came to school and a lamb poem was written (for instance, one in Henry Ford’s publication, another by a schoolmate in the Joplin News Herald January 15, 1927, and other second-hand memories by Mary Sawyer’s relatives who were not there, but recall her telling the story), no direct participants recall the words of that child’s schoolhouse poem.
– The style of Sarah Hale’s poem is in keeping with the times and with her stated goals for her children’s poems. Nothing indicates two authors.
– Sarah Hale in 1830 was a successful, prolific author and editor; she abhorred plagiarism. It would have been very out of character for her to steal a poem.
– The only established author of Mary’s Lamb is Sarah Josepha Hale, in 1830.
I don’t doubt that Mary Sawyer had a lamb that followed her to school. I don’t even have reason to question that John Roulstone could have written a lamb poem about it. But there is absolutely no evidence to connect that lamb incident to the poem written by Sarah Hale.
It is no of importance to the question of the poem, but interesting to note that the original schoolhouse pictured in Fannie Dickerson’s publication does not at all resemble the vigorously promoted schoolhouse pictured in Henry Ford’s publication. Why he didn’t make an effort to make his schoolhouse resemble the one attended by Mary is a mystery. As it is, the “Mary’s Lamb Schoolhouse” stands as a physical metaphor for the equally altered and promoted story of the lamb at the school.
Finally, for me, it is interesting to note that my mother, who cared for the bottle-fed lambs on her family’s farm in Putney Vermont in the 1920’s, was named Mary. She was a member of a succeeding generation of Marys and their lambs. Mom described them as following her everywhere. She named them and dressed them in clothes. I bet some of those lambs followed her to the one-room school house near her family’s farm in Putney, Vermont. The tails of those lambs were docked, but my mother did not go around in her old age claiming to be Little Bo Peep.
For those who need to do further research.
Here are some good places to start your own research of this story:
Richard Walden Hale, “Mary Had a Little Lamb and It’s Author,” Century Magazine, March 1904, 738-742.
Ruth E. Finley, 1931, “The Lady of Godey’s, Sarah Josepha Hale,” Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co., 318pp.
Joseph Kastner , “The Tale Behind Mary’s Little Lamb,” NY Times Magazine, 13 April 1980, 116-119.
And, regarding the Dearborn Independent: where Ford’s version of the lamb story first appeared:
Max Wallace; The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of the Third Reich. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
Sandra Sonnichsen Volunteer Archivist – Sarah J. Hale Collection Richards Free Library Newport, New Hampshire August, 2016

Leslie Landrigan April 3, 2019 - 9:47 am

Sandra, Thanks for your comments. We’ve updated the story to reflect them.

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