Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)
Deborah Sampson rebelled against the British and society by dressing as a man and fighting in the Revolutionary War for eighteen months under the guise of “Robert Shurtlif” or “Shirtlieff.”
Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760, and, except for her military service, lived her entire life around the inland towns of Massachusetts’ south shore. She was one of seven children born to Jonathan and Deborah Bradford Sampson, who were direct Mayflower descendants. Deborah Sampson’s father disappeared on an alleged trip to England. It was thought that he had been lost at sea, but the family later discovered that he had abandoned them and moved to Maine.
Sampson’s mother could not provide for all of the children, so she sent some of them away to live with friends and family. At about the age of ten, Deborah was sent to be an indentured servant, a common practice at that time. Her conditions were not severe, and she attended school in the winter. In the summer she did a lot of manual labor, including hard farm work. Though she didn’t know it at the time, this work helped to build up her muscles in preparation for her service during the Revolutionary War.
When her servitude ended in 1779, Sampson became a schoolteacher in Middleborough, an inland Massachusetts town. Exactly how long she taught is not clear, but Sampson felt she had a duty to her country and decided to join in the fight for Independence. She made herself some men’s clothing, cut off her hair, and wrapped her chest in order to disguise herself as a man. Some writers say that Sampson first signed up to join the militia as “Timothy Thayer” of Carver, which is near Middleborough, but that she did not report to duty the next day. Whether she was having second thoughts or she felt that her identity was compromised cannot be determined, but Sampson tried again near the war’s end. On May 20, 1782, she signed up for duty as Robert Shurtliff. She received 60 pounds from Muster Master Noah Taft for signing up in Wochester and promptly left for duty. Shurtliff’s signature still exists in Massachusetts’s records.
Seven months prior to her enlistment, the British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, and the October 1781 battle was the last large-scale one. Guerilla warfare continued, however, and Sampson’s unit, the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, fought several small battles in upstate New York, especially near West Point and Tarrytown. Sampson proved quite skillful, yet despite her ability in these hand-to-hand skirmishes, she was wounded. In one skirmish, she received a head injury from a saber and was hit with a musket ball in the upper thigh. She received medical attention for the head wound, but did not inform the doctor of her thigh wound for fear that her identity would be discovered. After leaving the hospital, Sampson bravely removed the musket ball herself and went on fighting.
At one point, Sampson’s unit encountered another American unit headed by Colonel Ebenezer Sproat. Sampson had spent time spinning and weaving in a tavern that Colonel Sproat’s father owned. She was nervous that he would recognize her, but her disguise was so good that he did not. None of the other soldiers suspected that she was a woman. Many of them would tease Sampson and call her “Molly” because she had no facial hair, but they thought she was a young boy, which explained the lack of facial hair.
Sampson was one of the special soldiers selected to go to Philadelphia to defend Congress from soldiers who were upset that they had not been paid at the war’s end. During this time, she grew sick and became unconscious due to a head fever. The nurse thought that Sampson was dead and went to retrieve the doctor. While searching for a heartbeat the doctor felt the wraps around Sampson’s chest and unwrapped them to inspect what he thought was an injury. To his surprise he found that his patient was actually a woman. Dr. Barnabus Binney decided to take her home to give her better care without revealing her identity.
Dr. Binney kept her secret, and Sampson returned with her regiment to New York. There, General Henry Knox (who would become the nation’s first Secretary of War) honorably discharged “Robert Shurtleff” at West Point on October 25, 1783.
Meanwhile, in Middleborough, Massachusetts, her hometown, Sampson was the talk of the town. Rumors had been spread and there was heavy suspicion that she dressed in men’s clothing and enlisted in the army. In fact, in her absence, she was excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough for this very reason. Sampson had already left Massachusetts with her regiment and the town’s suspicions were never proven.
Sampson went to the home of her aunt, Alice Waters, in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Still dressing in men’s clothes, she was able to convince most folks in town that she was her brother, Ephraim, who was also a soldier during Revolutionary War.
She did not begin dressing like a woman again until she met Benjamin Gannet, a local farmer. They were married April 17, 1785. The couple had three children, Earl Bradford, Mary and Patience. They even adopted a local orphan, Susanna Baker Shepard.
Deborah Gannet was recognized by Massachusetts less than a decade after the war was over. On January 19, 1792, she was awarded 34 pounds, which included the interest accumulated since her 1783 discharge. A document praising her service was sent with the pension. The document stated "that the said Deborah Sampson exhibited an extraordinary instance of feminine heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished and was discharged from the service with a fair and honorable character." It was signed by John Hancock.
The authenticity of her service was further attested to by Paul Revere in 1804, when he wrote a letter to Congress on her behalf. As a result, Sampson received a US pension. More strikingly, her husband sought pension rights when he became a widower after her death at age sixty-six. He died the year prior to an 1838 Congressional Act, in which their children received retroactive payment based on their mother’s military service.
The decade after the Revolution, however, was one of serious economic turbulence, and in order to help ease her family’s financial burdens, Deborah Sampson Gannet became one of the first female lecturers. She visited places such as Providence, Rhode Island, New York, and many Massachusetts cities as “The American Heroine.” She began her lecture tour dressed as a woman and later changed into her uniform and demonstrated a soldier’s routine.
In 1813 her son married and built a beautiful mansion in Sharon, Massachusetts, where Sampson spent her final years. The mansion still stands at 300 East Street. Sampson died there on April 29, 1827.
- Library of Congress
- Canton Historical Society
- Encyclopedia Britannica
- Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
- Diamant, Lincoln, Ed. Revolutionary Women: In the War For American Independence. (Westport: Praeger, 1998).
- Resmond, Shirley Raye. Patriots in Petticoats: Heroines of the American Revolution. (New York: Random House Children’s Books, 2004).
- Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004).
- Weatherford, Doris L. American Women's History: An A-Z. (Prentice Hall, 1994).