Deborah Sampson

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Deborah Bradford Sampson
Frontispiece of The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution.
Born (1760-12-17)December 17, 1760
Plympton, Massachusetts
Died April 29, 1827(1827-04-29) (aged 66)
Sharon, Massachusetts
Buried Rock Ridge Cemetery, Sharon, Massachusetts
Service/branch Continental Army
Years of service 1782-1783
Rank Private
Unit Light Infantry Company, 4th Massachusetts Regiment
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War
Spouse(s) Benjamin Gannett
Relations 3 children (Earl, Mary, Patience)
Other work Teacher

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827), better known as Deborah Samson or Deborah Sampson, 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.[1] She served 17 months in the army under the name "Robert Shirtliff" (also spelled Shirtliffe or Shurtleff)[2][3] of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, was wounded in 1782, and was honorably discharged at West Point, New York in 1783.

Early life[edit]

Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts, into a family of modest means. Her father was Jonathan Sampson (or Samson) and her mother was Deborah Bradford. Her siblings were Jonathan (born 1753), Elisha (born 1755), Hannah (born 1756), Ephraim (born 1759), Nehemiah (born 1764), and Sylvia (born 1766).[4] Deborah's mother was the great-granddaughter of William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony.[5] Some of Deborah's ancestors included passengers on the Mayflower.[6]

Deborah was told that her father had most likely disappeared at sea, but evidence suggests that he actually abandoned the family and migrated to Lincoln County, Maine.[4] 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. A 1770 murder indictment in Maine named someone called Jonathan Sampson as the defendant;[4] it is not known for certain whether this individual was Deborah’s father because there are no existing records containing biographical details about the defendant.[4]

When Deborah's father abandoned the family, her mother was unable to provide for her children, so she placed them in the households of friends and relatives, a common practice in 18th-century New England. Deborah was placed in the home of a maternal relative. When her mother died shortly afterwards, she was sent to live with Reverend Peter Thatcher's widow, who was then in her eighties. It is thought that she learned to read while living with the widow Thatcher, who might have wanted Deborah to read Bible verses to her.[4]

Upon the widow's death, Deborah was sent to live with the Jeremiah Thomas family in Middleborough, where she worked as an indentured servant from 1770 to 1778. Although treated well, she was not sent to school like the Thomas children because Thomas was not a believer in the education of women. Sampson was able to overcome Thomas's opposition by learning from Thomas's sons, who shared their school work with her. This method was apparently successful; 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. She worked as a weaver in the winter; Sampson was highly skilled and worked for the Sproat Tavern as well as the Bourne, Morton, and Leonard families.[4] During her time teaching and weaving she boarded with the families that employed her.[4]

Physical description[edit]

Sampson was approximately 5 feet 9 inches tall,[4] compared to the average woman of her day, who was around 5 feet,[4] and the average man, who was 5 feet 6 inches[7] to 5 feet 8 inches tall.[8] Her biographer, Hermann Mann, who knew her personally for many years, implied that she was not thin, writing in 1797 that "her waist might displease a coquette".[9] He also reported that her breasts were very small, and that she bound them with a linen cloth to hide them during her years in uniform. Mann wrote that "the features of her face are regular; but not what a physiognomist would term the most beautiful".[9]

A neighbor who as a boy knew Deborah as an elderly woman remarked that she was "a person of plain features".[9] A descendant named Pauline Hildreth Monk Wise (1914–1994[5]) was believed by relatives to have strongly resembled Deborah, based on a 1797 portrait of Deborah, the description of Deborah's features and height, and Pauline's height, which at 6 feet was taller than most men.[4][5] Sampson's appearance—tall, broad, strong, and not delicately feminine—contributed to her success at pretending to be a man.[4]

Army service[edit]

In early 1782, Sampson wore men's clothes and 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 by a local resident 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.[10] The Baptist church to which she belonged learned of her actions and withdrew its fellowship, meaning that its members refused to associate with her until she apologized and asked forgiveness.[11]

In May 1782, Sampson enlisted again in Uxbridge, Massachusetts under the name "Robert Shirtliff" (also spelled in various sources as Shirtliffe and Shurtleff), and joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment,[12] under the command of Captain George Webb (1740–1825). This 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 William Shepard. Light Infantry Companies were elite troops, specially picked because they were taller and stronger than average.[13] Their job was to provide rapid flank coverage for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties for units on the move.[14] Because she joined an elite unit, Sampson's disguise was more likely to succeed, since no one was likely to look for a woman in a unit made up of soldiers who were specially chosen for their above average size and superior physical ability.[4]

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 a doctor, but 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 her leg. Fearful that her identity would be discovered, she removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other one was too deep for her to reach. Her leg never fully healed. On April 1, 1783, she was reassigned to new duties, 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. On June 24, the President of Congress ordered George Washington to send a contingent of soldiers under Paterson to Philadelphia to help quell 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 by Doctor Barnabas Binney (1751–1787). He removed her clothes to treat her and discovered the cloth she used to bind her breasts. Without revealing his discovery to army authorities, he took her to his house, where his wife, daughters, and a nurse took care of her.[4]

In September 1783, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, November 3 was set as the date for soldiers to muster out. When Dr. Binney asked Deborah to deliver a note to General Paterson, she correctly assumed that it would reveal her gender. In other cases, women who pretended to be men to serve in the army were reprimanded, but Paterson gave her an honorable discharge, a note with some words of advice, and enough money to travel home. She was discharged at West Point, New York, on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.[3]

An Official Record of Deborah Gannet's service as "Robert Shirtliff" from May 20, 1782 to Oct 25, 1783 appears in the "Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War" series.[15]


Statue of Sampson at Sharon, Massachusetts, public library

Deborah Sampson was married in Stoughton, Massachusetts, to Benjamin Gannett (1757–1827), a farmer from Sharon, Massachusetts, on April 7, 1785. They had three children: Earl (1786), Mary (1788), and Patience (1790). They also adopted Susanna Baker Shepard, an orphan. They farmed on land that had been in Gannett's family for generations; their farm was smaller than average, and the land was not productive because it had been worked extensively. These factors, coupled with the depression in the post-war economy, left the family on the edge of poverty.[4]

Final years and death[edit]

In January 1792, Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for pay which the army had withheld from her because she was a woman. The legislature granted her petition and Governor John Hancock signed it. The legislature awarded her 34 pounds plus interest back to her discharge in 1783.[16]

In 1802, Sampson began giving lectures about her wartime service. She began by extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles for women, but toward the end of her presentation she left the stage, returned dressed in her army uniform, and then performed a complicated and physically taxing military drill and ceremony routine.[3] She performed both to earn money and to justify her enlistment, but even with these speaking engagements, she was not making enough money to pay her expenses. She frequently had to borrow money from her family and from her friend Paul Revere. 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. 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".[17] 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 wrote once more to Revere requesting a loan of ten dollars: "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 be modified to start from her discharge in 1783. Had her petition been approved, she would have been awarded back pay of $960 ($48 a year for 20 years). Her petition was denied, but when it came before Congress again in 1816 an award of $76.80 a year was approved. With this amount, she was able to repay all her loans and make improvements to the family farm.

Sampson died of yellow fever at the age of 66 on April 29, 1827,[18] and was buried at Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts.[19]



Sharon, Massachusetts, now memorializes Sampson with a statue in front of the public library, the Deborah Sampson Park, and the "Deborah Sampson Gannett" House, which is privately owned and not open to the public. The farmland around the home is protected to ensure no development occurs on the historic homestead.

In 1906, the town of Plympton, Massachusetts with the Deborah Sampson Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, placed a boulder on the town green, with a bronze plaque inscribed to Sampson's memory.[20]

During World War II the Liberty Ship S.S. Deborah Gannett (2620) was named in her honor. It was laid down March 10, 1944, launched April 10, 1944 and scrapped in 1962.[21]

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[edit]

Sampson is portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg in episode 34 of Liberty's Kids entitled "Deborah Sampson: Soldier of the Revolution."

Alex Myers, a descendant of Sampson's, published Revolutionary (2014), a fictionalized account of her life.[22]

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.[23]

In her speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 26, 2016, Meryl Streep named Sampson in a list of women who had made history.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Weatherford, Doris (1994). American Women's History'. Prentice Hall. 
  2. ^ Klass, Sheila Solomon (2009). Soldier's Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 9780805082005. 
  3. ^ a b c Bronski, Michael (2011). A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0807044650. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Young, Alfred F. (2005). Masquerade. New York: Vintage. ISBN 978-0679761853. 
  5. ^ a b c Myrick, Carolyn E. (2005). Roots and Branches, The Extended Family of Gertrude and Rodney Monk. Carolyn Myrick. 
  6. ^ "Best of the Westchester Historian". Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  7. ^ Kirschke, James J. (2005). Gouverneur Morris: Author, Statesman, and Man of the World. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. p. 285. ISBN 978-0-312-24195-7. 
  8. ^ Baseler, Marilyn C. (1998). "Asylum for Mankind": America, 1607-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-8014-3481-5. 
  9. ^ a b c Mann, Hermann (1916). The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson: The Female Soldier in the War of Revolution. Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books. p. 97. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ "Deborah Sampson. How She Served as a Soldier in the Revolution—Her Sex Unknown to the Army." (PDF). New York Times. October 8, 1898. Retrieved May 22, 2013. 
  13. ^ Anderson, Dale (2006). Soldiers and Sailors in the American Revolution. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8368-5929-4. 
  14. ^ Soldiers and Sailors in the American Revolution.
  15. ^ Massachusetts soldiers and sailors of the revolutionary war. A compilation from the archives 1906 .p.164
  16. ^ "DEBORAH SAMPSON" (PDF). Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  17. ^ Revere, Paul (February 20, 1804). "Letter to William Eustis". Massachusetts Historical Society. 
  18. ^ Vital records of Sharon, Massachusetts, to the year 1850, Boston: unknown, 1909.
  19. ^ Freeman, Lucy; Bond, Alma H. (1992). America's First Woman Warrior: The Courage of Deborah Sampson. Paragon House. pp. 128, 206. 
  20. ^ "Self Guided Walking Tour Of The Plympton Village Historic District" (PDF). Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  21. ^ "Launching and Christening of S.S. Deborah Gannett, Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Baltimore, Marylan, 04/10/1944". United States Navy. April 10, 1944. Retrieved September 20, 2016. 
  22. ^ Myers, Alex (2014). Revolutionary. Simon & Schuster. 
  23. ^ Cowan, Alluson L. (July 7, 2016). "Deborah Sampson: Continental Army soldier". National Park Service. Mount Vernon, New York. 
  24. ^ Al-Sibai, Noor. "Transcript of Meryl Streep's DNC Speech Calls For The "Grit And Grace" That Hillary Clinton Embodies". Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
Additional 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. March 11, 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.

External links[edit]