Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

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).

4 thoughts on “Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

  1. fran says:

    I have an old book written by Letitia W. Owen in l9l3titled “The Life and History of Mary and Her Little Lamb”. The facts obtained for this book were from Anna E. Sawyer, Mary’s niece.

  2. I understand that Sarah never signed her name to the actual poem; Mary Had a Little Lamb. This could be all the proof Mary Sawyer needs that the first part was indeed the poem given to her. Besides Sarah being the good woman that she was, would never have had to stoop to stealing a poem. She was better than that. She was a well respected woman.

    The way I see it happening, since witnesses all said that the children were memorizing and reciting this poem, was that it was lyric Sarah had heard or received from someone else—since the neighboring states were so close in distance. I’m sure she researched it and found the author to be “unknown” which means it is probably “Public Domain” (So many things were back then) which means it is okay to use. Sarah new the law very well. She added enough to the poem to protect her from any legal claims against her if perhaps the unknown author ever surfaced. And if he did, she was a fine respectable lady, I am sure she would have given the author partial credit for the poem.

    No one is in the wrong here, and sweet Mary was not the type to make a fuss about it anyway, as we’ve been told.

    The proof that the two parts of the poem are done by different authors is in the fact that when you compare the writing style of the first twelve lines of the poem to the second part—they have different writing styles. If that is not enough, then notice how the main character and subject matter changes from the lamb and his love for Mary to a lesson in being kind to animals!

    I think both parties should shake hands.

    Sarah’s township and family should be proud that she even published the poem in her book! She is the one that made it famous! Mary’s family knew this, so what is wrong with giving Mary Sawyer credit for her story? It’s not like they are going to share any royalties with her for the poem OR the song! She got nothing! AND it isn’t as if anyone is calling Sarah Hale a thief! I think both sides of the story are very interesting. But lets be nice and give SOME credit where credit is due!

    It even looks as though John Roulstone may have borrowed the poem and just changed a few words himself. He was staying with his uncle I believe, who was a minister and it is quite possible being a minister that he had in his home a copy of Lucy and the Lamb—or told his nephew of the English poem himself, Lucy and the Lamb— I do believe was during the time the Scriptures were forbidden in England, so it was a way mothers found to tell their children about Jesus and Mary without the King finding out. It would make since that his uncle would have it (Since many of them were descendents of those who fled from England) and that John may have just changed it around to impress his new friend Mary after he was there visiting and saw the Lamb event.

    It was a sad misfortune that He died too young to tell us anything about his poem.

    But I believe that Mary and her brother Nathan and everyone else who has no reason to lie, has told the truth about the poem and what it said.

    Someone made the rude remark that no one outside of Sterling has ever argued that Mary Sawyer was the star of the poem and it was not entirely made up by Sarah J Hale. But they are wrong. She may be able to bark that Henry Ford was no historian— but at least he had a heart!

    I have never even been to Sterling, but I have been to Greenfield Village in Deerfield, Michigan where to this day the kindness of the Fords are still telling Mary’s story in a replica of the schoolhouse where it all started.

    I believe Mary Sawyer with all my heart, and it is too bad that Sarah was not able to tell us the whole story HERSELF. (instead of something family came up with for her to sign to protect their name)

    Believe me. When a writer writes something, they sign their name to it and claim it if it is theirs to claim!
    If not, it is simply borrowed.

    I am sure Sarah Hale did not know of Mary’s Lamb anymore than Mary did that her poem may not have been original in the first place.

    They were both wonderful women from what I’ve studied.

    So why argue?

    I love the story of Mary and her Little Lamb as told by everyone who knew her. She set the bar for unselfish love in America, and her story deserves to be told—with or without a poem!

    LeFerna Walch
    Author of “The Secret of Yahweh!”
    Dedicated to the friends and family of Mary Sawyer.

    • Tom Gamache says:

      Mary Sawyer, from Sterling, Mass,. is in my wife’s ancestry. Mary was married to Columbus Tyler in March 1835.

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