The childhood nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is familiar to all, but did you know it’s based on a real Mary and a real lamb and a real incident that took place at school?
The real Mary, Mary Sawyer, was born in 1806 in the town of Sterling, Massachusetts, the United States. One day, when Mary was about ten, she discovered two recently born lambs on their family farm. One was abandoned by the mother and was nearly dead from cold and neglect. Mary asked her father if she could adopt it as a pet, and although her father was reluctant at first because he feared the lamb would die and Mary would be sad, she was able to coax her father into submission.
“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,” remembers Mary. “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.”
Both Mary and her lamb became very attached to each other.
“I used to take as much care of my lamb as a mother would of a child. I washed it regularly, kept the burdocks picked out of its fleece, and combed and trimmed with bright-colored ribbons the wool on its forehead.”
“We roamed the fields together and were, in fact, companions and fast friends. I did not have many playmates outside the dumb creatures on the place. There were not many little girls to play with, and I had few dolls; but I used to dress up my lamb in pantalets, and had no end of pleasure in her company. Then I had a little blanket or shawl for her; and usually when that was on, she would lie down at my feet, remaining perfectly quiet and seemingly quite contented.”
One day, her brother suggested that they take the lamb to school. Once they got to the schoolhouse, Mary hid the lamb under her desk and covered it with a blanket. Everything was going fine until Mary was called to the front of the class to recite. The lamb followed her and the entire class including the teacher burst into laughter.
The Redstone School (1798), now in Sudbury, Massachusetts, is believed to be the schoolhouse mentioned in the nursery rhyme. Photo credit: Dudesleeper/Wikimedia
Visiting the school that day was a young man named John Roulstone, who was nephew of a minister. Young Roulstone was so pleased with the incident that he wrote the now famous poem about Mary and the lamb and gave it to her.
The original poem contained three verses, and ran like this:
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.
Later, when the American writer Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, who was a friend of the minister’s wife, published a small book of poems, she included the three verses and added a few lines of her own.
The poem made it into wider circulation when it was included in a grammar school text, and over the years it has been read and memorized by countless schoolchildren all over the world.
As for John Roulstone, the original author, the poor fellow died of tuberculosis when he was just seventeen.
The Redstone School, to which Mary went and took her lamb with her, was purchased by Henry Ford and relocated to a churchyard on the property of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where it can be still seen today.
At Mary’s hometown, Sterling, there stands a small statue representing Mary’s Little Lamb. The historic house at 108 Maple Street, where Mary was born stood until 2007, when it was burned to the ground by an act of arson. A reconstructed house now stands there.
A reconstruction of the Mary Sawyer’s home after it was destroyed. Photo credit: John Phelan/Wikimedia
Photo credit: lynnvalois/Flickr
Inside the school house. Photo credit: Dudesleeper/Wikimedia