One day in June of 1783, four-year-old Sarah Whitcher of Warren, N.H., begged her parents to let her go along with them when they visited her uncle at the top of the tall hill behind their house.
What followed was a remarkable story that lived on for centuries as both a charming historical tale and a favorite bit of New Hampshire folklore.
John Whitcher and his wife told little Sarah she could not come on their short visit and left her in the care of her older siblings. But when they returned late in the day it was clear they had miscommunicated. Why, her siblings asked their parents, had they not brought Sarah back with them from their visit?
When they sorted the stories out, the Whitchers realized no one had been minding Sarah and she had wandered off. The Whitchers assembled a search party, and as word spread more and more people descended on Warren.
On the second day of the search, an ominous report came back to the Whitchers. Searchers had found Sarah’s tracks. And behind them they saw the tracks of a bear. She was surely dead, they feared.
Finally an expert woodsman from Plymouth, N.H., arrived in Warren four days after Sarah’s disappearance. He set out to aid in the search. Hours later, the town rejoiced as the townspeople heard three shots from a gun – the agreed-upon signal that Sarah had been found safe.
The stranger from Plymouth returned to Warren with the little girl in his arms, and she told a remarkable story. She had wandered away to gather flowers, and while walking, her feet had been cut and were bleeding.
She was startled to find that a bear had emerged from the woods and was puzzled by her. The bear gave Sarah a lick and lay down, affording her a warm place to snuggle up and sleep. The bear watched over the little girl, disappearing into the woods only as her rescuers arrived.
The story of Sarah Whitcher became part of Warren, N.H., lore for generations. Over time, it was imbued with religious overtones and made more miraculous in its depiction. The man from Plymouth had been following a vision, in one retelling. In others, the prayers of the town brought the little girl back.
William Little documented the story through eyewitness accounts in his History of Warren, A Mountain Hamlet Located Among the White Hills of New Hampshire. He became convinced of its essential facts because so many people knew of it.
Later two children’s books featured the story: Sarah Whitcher’s Story, by Elizabeth Yates and Nora Spicer Unwin, and The Bear That Heard Crying, by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock and Helen Kinsey.
Sarah Whitcher herself went on to marry and have a family, and her story entertained young children for centuries.
This story about Sarah Whitcher was updated in 2023.