Frontispiece of The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution.
December 17, 1760|
|Died||April 29, 1827
Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827), better known as Deborah Sampson or Deborah Samson, was a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. She is one of a small number of women with a documented record of military combat experience in that war. She served 17 months in the army, as "Robert Shurtleff" of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, was wounded in 1782, and was honorably discharged at West Point, New York, in 1783.
Despite having prominent ancestry (Deborah's mother was Gov. William Bradford's great-granddaughter), the Sampsons were not well off by the time Deborah was born (on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts). Her siblings were Jonathan (born 1753), Elisha (born 1755), Hannah (born 1756), Ephraim (born 1759), Nehemiah (born 1764), and Sylvia (born 1766).
Although Deborah was always told that her father had most likely disappeared at sea, evidence suggests that he actually abandoned the family, migrated to Lincoln County, Maine, and started a new life. It is known that he took a common-law wife, named Martha, had two or more children with her, and returned to Plympton in 1794 to attend to a property transaction. Additionally, there was a multiple murder indictment in Maine against someone named Jonathan Sampson in 1774, but it is unknown whether or not this individual was Deborah’s father because a trial was never held.
When Deborah’s father abandoned the family, her mother, unable to provide for her children, placed them in the households of various friends and relatives, a common practice in 18th century New England to provide for dependent children. Deborah was first placed in the home of a maternal relative, shortly after which Deborah's mother died. Deborah was then sent to live with Reverend Peter Thatcher's widow, an elderly woman in her eighties; she, too, died after a few years. Deborah was then sent to live with Jeremiah Thomas in Middleborough, where she worked as a servant for about eight years, from 1770 to 1778. Although treated well by the family, she was not sent to school like the Thomas children and greatly longed to learn. It is believed that she learned to read while living with the widow Thatcher, who might have wanted Deborah to read bible verses to her. When her time as an indentured servant was over at age 18, Deborah made a living by teaching school during the summer sessions in 1779 and 1780, and by weaving in the winter. She was a highly skilled weaver and worked for the Sproat Tavern as well as the Bourne family, the Morton family, and the Leonard family. During her time as a teacher and a weaver she boarded with the families for which she worked.
Sampson was recorded to have been approximately 5 feet 7 inches, tall at a time when the average woman was around 5 feet, which contributed to her success in posing as male during her time in the army. Only limited evidence of her appearance exists, mostly from her biographer, Hermann Mann, who knew her personally for many years. He wrote that “[h]er waist might displease a coquette”, implying that she was not thin. Mann also reported that her breasts were very small, and she bound them with a linen cloth to hide them during her years in uniform, which also contributed to her success in posing as a man (large breasts were an obvious giveaway for other women who tried to masquerade as men in the army). Moreover, Mann wrote that “the features of her face are regular; but not what a physiognomist would term the most beautiful”.
A neighbor who knew Deborah as an elderly woman, when he was a boy, remarked that she was “a person of plain features”. A descendant named Pauline Hildreth Monk Wise (1914-1994) was believed by relatives to have strongly resembled Deborah, based on a 1797 portrait of Deborah, the description of her features, and her 6-foot height.
In early 1782, Sampson joined an Army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts, under the name Timothy Thayer. She collected a bonus and then failed to meet up with her company as scheduled. Inquiries by the company commander revealed that Sampson had been recognized at the time she signed her enlistment papers. Her deception uncovered, she repaid the portion of the bonus that she had not spent, but she was not subjected to further punishment by the Army. The Baptist church she had joined became aware of her actions, and subsequently subjected her to the withdrawal of its fellowship -- congregants would refuse to associate with her until she apologized and asked forgiveness.
In May 1782, Sampson enlisted again, this time in Uxbridge, Massachusetts under the name Robert Shurtleff, and she joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, under the command of Captain George Webb. The unit, consisting of 50 to 60 men, was first quartered in Bellingham, Massachusetts and later mustered at Worcester with the rest of the regiment, commanded by Colonel Shepard.
Sampson fought in several skirmishes. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers to let her die and not take her to the hospital, but they refused to abandon her. A soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital. The doctors treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before they could attend to the musket balls. Fearful that her true identity would be discovered, she removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but her leg never fully healed because the other musket ball was too deep for her to reach. On April 1, 1783, she was promoted and spent seven months serving as a waiter to General John Paterson.
The war was thought to be over following the Battle of Yorktown, but since there was no official peace treaty, the Continental Army remained in uniform, ready to resume the fight if necessary. On June 24, the President of Congress ordered George Washington to send a contingent of soldiers, under Paterson, to Philadelphia to aid in quelling a rebellion of American soldiers who were protesting delays in receiving their pay and discharges. During the summer of 1783, Sampson became ill in Philadelphia and was cared for Doctor Barnabas Binney (1751-1787). He removed her clothes to treat her, discovered the cloth she used to bind her breasts, and thus discovered her secret. He did not betray her but instead took her to his house, where his wife, daughters, and a nurse housed and took care of her.
In September 1783, peace was assured through the signing of the Treaty of Paris. November 3 was the date for soldiers to muster out. When Dr. Binney asked Deborah to deliver a note to General Paterson, she correctly presumed that her secret was out. Rather than reprimand her, as had happened with other women who pretended to be men to serve in the army, Paterson gave her an honorable discharge, a note with some words of advice, and enough money for her trip home. She was discharged at West Point, New York, on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.
Deborah Sampson was married in Stoughton, Massachusetts, to Benjamin Gannett (1761–1827), a farmer from Sharon, Massachusetts, on April 7, 1785. They had three children—Earl (1786), Mary (1788), and Patience (1790)—and adopted the orphaned Susanna Baker Shepard. They had a routine family life living on a farm and were mildly poor.
Final years and death
In January 1792, Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for pay which the army had withheld from her because she was a woman. Her petition was approved and then signed by Governor John Hancock. The legislature awarded her 34 pounds plus interest, dating back to her discharge in 1783.
In 1802, Sampson began giving lectures about her experiences in the war. She would start her lecture extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles for women. Toward the end of her presentations she would leave the stage, return dressed in her army uniform, and then perform a complicated and physically taxing military drill and ceremony. She initiated these to address her financial needs and a desire to justify her enlistment, but even with these speaking engagements, she was not making enough money to pay her expenses. She had to borrow money from her family and from her friend Paul Revere on many occasions. Revere also wrote letters to government officials on her behalf, requesting that she be awarded a pension for her military service and her wounds.
In 1804, Revere wrote to U.S. Representative William Eustis of Massachusetts on Sampson's behalf. A military pension had never been requested for a woman, but with Deborah's health failing and her family destitute, the money was greatly needed. Revere wrote, "I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender...humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent." On March 11, 1805, Congress approved the request and placed Sampson on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll, at the rate of four dollars a month.
On February 22, 1806, Sampson found herself in even more financial trouble, so she wrote once more to Revere requesting a loan of ten dollars. Part of her letter read, "My own indisposition and that of my sons causes me again to solicit your goodness in our favor though I, with Gratitude, confess it rouses every tender feeling and I blush at the thought of receiving ninety and nine good turns as it were -- my circumstances require that I should ask the hundredth." He sent the ten dollars.
In 1809, she sent another petition to Congress, asking that her pension as an invalid soldier commence with the time of her discharge in 1783. Had her petition been approved, she would have been awarded back pay of $960, to be divided into $48 a year for 20 years. However, it was denied until 1816, when her petition came before Congress again. This time, they approved, awarding her $76.80 a year. With this amount, she was able to repay all her loans and take better care of the family farm.
As of 2001, the town flag of Plympton incorporates Sampson as the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Portrayals in art, entertainment, and media
Alex Myers, a descendant of Sampson's, published Revolutionary (2014), a fictionalized account of her life.
On July 7, 2016, historian/journalist Allison L. Cowan presented "Deborah Sampson: Continental Army soldier", a biographical talk for that week's First Thursdays at Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site.
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References and sources
- Bohrer, Melissa Lukeman. Glory, Passion, and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution. New York: Atria Books, 2003. ISBN 0-743-45330-1 OCLC 52097551
- Keiter, Jane. "Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)." Education & Resources. National Women's History Museum, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
- Klass, Sheila Solomon. Soldier's Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. ISBN 9780805082005
- Leonard, Elizabeth D. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999. ISBN 0-393-04712-1 OCLC 40543151
- McGovern, Ann, and Harold Goodwin. The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson. New York: Scholastic Inc, 1975. ISBN 0-590-32176-5 OCLC 13190829 Intended for juvenile audiences.
- Young, Alfred Fabian. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. ISBN 0-679-44165-4 OCLC 52079888
- "Deborah Sampson. How She Served as a Soldier in the Revolution—Her Sex Unknown to the Army." (PDF). New York Times. 1898-10-08. Retrieved 2013-05-22.
- Vital records of Sharon, Massachusetts, to the year 1850, Boston: unknown, 1909.
- Weatherford, Doris (1994). American Women's History'. Prentice Hall.
- Klass, Sheila Solomon (2009). Soldier's Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 9780805082005.
- Bronski, Michael (2011). A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0807044650.
- Myrick, Carolyn E. (2005). Roots and Branches, The Extended Family of Gertrude and Rodney Monk. Carolyn Myrick.
- Young, Alfred F. (2005). Masquerade. New York: Vintage. ISBN 978-0679761853.
- *Young, Alfred. (2004). Masquerade. Knopf.
- Mann, Hermann (2012). The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson: The Female Soldier in the War of Revolution. Forgotten Books.
- "The Female Review". google.com.
- Wayne, Tiffany K. (2015). Women's Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Review of Issues, Events, and People. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC. p. 163. ISBN 978-1-61069-214-4.
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- Mann, Herman (1916). The Female Review: Or, Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution. New York, NY: William Abbatt. p. 21.
- Revere, Paul (February 20, 1804). "Letter to William Eustis". Massachusetts Historical Society.
- Deborah Sampson at Find a Grave
- Myers, Alex (2014). Revolutionary. Simon & Schuster.
- Cowan, Alluson L. (July 7, 2016). "Deborah Sampson: Continental Army soldier". National Park Service. Mount Vernon, New York.
- "Deborah Sampson". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2009-01-24.
- Canton (Massachusetts) Historical Society Deborah Samson [sic] Retrieved 2012-04-15.