Perhaps the most famous four line rhyme in the English language, Mary Had a Little Lamb is based upon and incident in the life of one Mary Sawyer, who grew up in Sterling, MA. But that is about all authorities can agree upon when attributing authorship to the verse.
Two New England towns claim bragging rights to the children’s poem . Years ago, the town of Sterling, Mass. erected a statue of a lamb to celebrate the birthplace of Mary Sawyer. In 1815, young Mary was followed to Sterling’s schoolhouse by her pet lamb. Her classmate, John Roulston, wrote the poem. In other versions, Roulston is described as a visiting Harvard student. It is said by some that Mary knitted some of her lamb’s wool into mittens and stockings that she sold to benefit Civil War soldiers, or alternately, to help save the Old South Meeting House in Boston.
Newport, New Hampshire, claims that the poem was actually written by their local poet Sarah Josepha Hale, and that she invented the lamb at school incident herself. Hale is honored in Newport with a simple plaque. In fact, Sarah Hale was the first to publish the poem in a book called Poems for Our Children, in 1830. Sterling maintains that the first three stanzas of Roulston’s poem were incorporated by Hale into her own verse.
There is a different theory, that the rhyme was written by an anonymous. Harvard student. Still others, (probably not haling from either Massachusetts or New Hampshire), contend that the rhyme predates Mary Sawyer, and originated in old England as a sort of religious parable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a little lamb (Jesus, of course) whose fleece was snow white (Jesus was without sin). The Jesus -Lamb is sure to go with his believers wherever they go.
As for the Sterling schoolhouse, it was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass; it’s authenticity as the very schoolhouse immortalized in the poem may be wishful thinking, however, as by that time it had been much modified and was serving as a barn. Mary Sawyer became Mrs. Tyler, worked as a schoolteacher and as a matron in a retreat for the insane, and died in 1889. She is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The house where she was born still stands in Sterling (as of 2003).