The Surprising Controversy Behind 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'


19th century illustration of the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" 19th century illustration of the "Mary Had a Little Lamb"
This 19th-century illustration of the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" nursery rhyme is from the "Little Folks Colored Picture Book" published circa 1875. McLoughlin Bros./Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

If you visit the town of Sterling, Massachusetts today, you'll find a small copper statue of a woolly little creature meant to be a replica of the original lamb that followed 9-year-old Mary Sawyer to school in 1815. Below the statue is a plaque inscribed with the famous opening verse:

"Mary had a little lamb/ Its fleece was white as snow/ And everywhere that Mary went/ The lamb was sure to go." — John Roulstone

So who exactly was Mary Sawyer and who was this John Roulstone who allegedly wrote the original poem? According to a 60-page book published in 1928 by none other than Henry Ford (more on that later), Mary Sawyer was a typical New England schoolgirl who nursed a starving lamb back to health, winning a lifelong friend.

"I got the lamb warm by wrapping it in an old garment and holding it in my arms beside the fireplace," an adult Sawyer recounted in the book. "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 only I called it."

Before leaving for school one morning, Sawyer whistled for the lamb and it came faithfully trotting over, at which point her brother Nat suggested, "Let's take the lamb to school with us." She tried to hide the lamb in a basket under her chair, but it was discovered when she stood up to recite a lesson and the fluffy critter started to bleat. Her teacher, Polly Kimball, "laughed outright," which caused Sawyer some embarrassment, so she took the lamb out to a shed until school was out.

John Roulstone was a local boy preparing for college who happened to be visiting the old red schoolhouse that day and was "very much pleased with the incident of the lamb," Sawyer recalled in Henry Ford's book. Roulstone went home, wrote a three-stanza poem and returned the next day on horseback to hand deliver the original verses of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to Sawyer herself.

Or so goes the story in Sterling, Massachusetts.

Did Sarah Hale Write 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'?

Meanwhile, in Newport, New Hampshire, the townsfolk celebrate hometown hero Sarah Josepha Hale, as the author of this beloved nursery rhyme. (Hale is also famous for her role in creating the Thanksgiving celebration). As a young poet and writer, Hale moved to Boston in 1828 to become the editor of the first women's magazine in the United States, later known as "Godey's Lady's Book." It was in Boston that Hale met Lowell Mason, a young musician and composer intent on bringing music education into America's public schools.

Mason and Hale shared the belief that simple children's poems set to music could be used to teach good, Christian morals to kids that would help them grow them into productive and upright citizens. At Mason's request, Hale wrote a short book of 15 poems called "Poems For Our Children," which was published in 1830. Mason then wrote simple melodies to accompany each poem, including the six-verse poem then known as "Mary's Lamb."

Interestingly, the tune Mason wrote for Mary's Lamb, which was included in his 1831 book "Juvenile Lyre," likely the first public school songbook, sounds nothing like the melody every schoolkid now knows by heart. That melody was borrowed later from a popular minstrel tune called "Goodnight Ladies," specifically the chorus that goes, "Merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along. Merrily we roll along, over the dark blue sea!"

Anyway, back to the controversy. Sawyer claimed that the first three verses of Hale's poem were identical to the one written by young John Roulstone, although the piece of paper gifted to Sawyer had long since disappeared. And Roulstone tragically died while a freshman at Harvard, so he wasn't around to corroborate. When Hale's version was included in school readers nationwide in the 1850s, Sawyer assumed that the author had simply expanded on Roulstone's original three verses.

But Hale denied ever seeing another version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and swore she had conjured the story wholly from her imagination. Both Sawyer and Hale signed letters and sworn statements in their old age (Hale just days before her death in 1889) professing that they were telling the truth of the origin of what had already become a classic nursery rhyme.

Enter Henry Ford

After both of the women were long gone, automobile magnate Henry Ford stepped into the fray. In 1927, he took up the cause of Mary Sawyer, moving the wooden frame of Mary's original red schoolhouse from Sterling. Massachusetts, to the nearby town of Sudbury, where Ford owned an inn. Then in 1928, he published the aforementioned book titled "The Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb," which gives Roulstone full credit for the original verses and asked why a respected local woman who served as a matron of the local hospital would make up such a wild story and repeat it her entire life.

Hale's defenders ask the same question. "The story of Mary Sawyer implies that somehow Sarah Hale came across this never published schoolhouse poem and plagiarized it. How could she have come across it?" writes Sandra Sonnichsen, volunteer archivist of the Sarah J. Hale Collection at the Richards Free Library in Newport, New Hampshire. "Henry Ford's book explains that the two towns [where Sawyer and Hale lived] were close to each other. They are ninety miles apart over the most direct route that would have been followed in 1815. Henry had not yet invented the automobile, so the distance was considerable."

In a hilarious Baltimore Sun story from 1998 about the ongoing feud between Sterling, Massachusetts and Newport, New Hampshire, a Hale supporter and Newport librarian comments, "Let's face it. Henry Ford made good cars. I don't think he's a good historian."