Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The True Story Behind Mary Had a Little Lamb

Nursery rhymes evoke the idyllic days of childhood for most of us. We have a fondness for them and pass them along to our children. But the jolly melodies often mask words that recall dark deeds or tragic times in history. One exception is “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which tells the story of a devoted lamb that followed a little girl to school.

The words and images this nursery rhyme presents have inspirational connotations. Mary was the mother of Jesus, the Lamb of God, and the white fleece calls to mind the purity of our Savior. With this in mind, you would think this nursery rhyme might have been made up, but interestingly, it is based on a true story.
Mary and Her Lamb By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
There really was a Mary with a lamb who followed her to school one day. On a cold morning in March, Mary Elizabeth Sawyer begged her father to bring a newborn lamb that had been abandoned by its mother into the house to save its life. She warmed the poor creature, wrapped in an old garment, all night by the fire. It managed to take a little catnip tea, and by morning had recovered enough to stand. Mary continued to care for the lamb, feeding it milk, washing its fleece, and removing burdock burrs from its feet. The lamb developed a strong attachment to her and would follow her about.

A Reconstruction of the Sawyer Homestead in Stirling, Massachusetts by John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary’s brother, Nate, suggested they take the lamb with them to the one-room schoolhouse in Sterling, Massachusetts, where they attended school. All went well at first. The lamb laid quietly on a blanket beneath Mary’s seat, but then the teacher called upon Mary to recite. Not to be left behind, Mary’s little lamb followed her, much to the delight of the other children. Even the teacher laughed, but Mary was mortified and put her lamb in a shed until time to go home.

The Redstone Schoolhouse, Sterling Massachusetts ca. 1798
by Dudesleeper at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) via Wikimedia Commons

As Mary Sawyer tells it, John Roulstone was at the school that day, studying for college with his uncle, the Reverend Lemuel Capen. Young Roulstone was so pleased, as Mary Sawyer later recalled that “the next day he rode across the fields on horseback, came to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper which had written on it three verses…”

Despite Mary's story, two theories exist as to the authorship of the poem. Some believe that John Roulstone wrote the first four lines and that Sarah Josepha Hale wrote the last twelve, which are less childlike. Others credit Josepha with writing all the verses. Her Poems for Our Children included “Mary Had a Little Lamb” when it published in 1830.

Sarah Josepha Hale painted by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Composer Lowell Mason set "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to music in 1830, employing use of repetition.
Composer Lowell Mason,, public domain image

Mary Had a Little Lamb by Sarah Josepha Hale & Lowell Mason (Roud Folk Song Index # 7622) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The rest, as they say, is history. The catchy song caught children's hearts and the public imagination. When Thomas Edison made the first sound recording in 1877, he recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
Thomas Edison reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. Look for her upcoming western historical fiction. She also writes fantasy. Beginning with DawnSinger, Janalyn's epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, carries readers into a land only imagined in dreams.

Bohemian by ethnicity and mindset, Janalyn is an eclectic artist who creates in multiple disciplines. (she also draws, sings, writes poetry, and toys with a camera.)

Janalyn is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of Wordserve Literary. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.


  1. What a charming story! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I thoroughly loved learning about the history behind this beloved children's song and rhyme. I am now singing it to my 18 month old granddaughter. Great trivia fact about Thomas Edison reciting it on the first recording.

  3. Such a delightful story! Thanks for sharing it. It's fun to learn a happy history of a Nursery Rhyme. :)

  4. Janalyn: Loved this post. Great background reporting.