“Mary Had a Little Lamb” Is Based on the True Story of a Massachusetts Girl and Her Lamb
Sterling, MA– For centuries, playground songs, nursery rhymes, and school-based hummable tunes have been hallmarks of childhood and growing up. It’s an absolute tradition for four- and five-year-olds to gather on the blacktop and hold hands and skip in a circle while singing “Ring around the Rosie,” for example. That classic nursery rhyme is thought to have some dark undertones to it (or maybe not). And there are many nursery rhymes with bleak origins.
However, the story of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” is a fairly innocuous tune with an origin that comes from a very innocuous way of life. Those who coined the song probably never could have imagined that it would be such a cultural touchstone for young children over two hundred years later.
Thanks to a historical article from the New England Historical Society that was shared as a fun fact on the Boston subreddit by Reddit user u/bobthirsty1, it is beginning to become even more common knowledge. People, as improbable as it sounds, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is based on a true story.
The song is about Mary Sawyer, a ten-year-old girl from Sterling (in central Massachusetts) who went to school one day in 1816, and her lamb followed her all the way there. A simple act of teasing and sing-songy tomfoolery resulted in an iconic tune that is still a part of the youth culture. Or was this an early instance of schoolyard bullying? Did Mary ever live it down? Is this nursery rhyme just as dark as all the others?!
Most people only know the opening verse of the song, but a further section of the song definitely seems to confirm this story as it reads, “He followed her to school one day, / School one day, school one day, / He followed her to school one day / Which was against the rules.”
Sterling residents have chimed in on the post with confirmation that Mary’s school eventually moved to Sudbury and her house burned down, but there is still a lamb statue in the center of town. There has been no official confirmation yet on how white is the fleece of the lamb on that statue. But according to legend, it should be white as snow.