Deborah Sampson

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Deborah Sampson
Born (1760-12-17)December 17, 1760
Plympton, Massachusetts
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Sharon, Massachusetts
Spouse(s) Benjamin Gannett
Children Earl

Deborah Samson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827[1][2]), 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 part of a small number of women with a documented record of military combat experience in that war.[3] She served 17 months in the army, as "Robert Shurtleff"[4][5] of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, was wounded in 1782 and honorably discharged at West Point, New York in 1783.

Early life

Although having prominent ancestry, the Sampsons were not well off by the time Deborah was born in Plympton, Massachusetts on December 17, 1760. Her siblings were Jonathan (born 1753), Elisha (born 1755), Hannah (born 1756), Ephraim (born 1759), Nehemiah (born 1764), and Sylvia (born 1766).[6]

Although Deborah was always told that her father had most likely disappeared at sea, evidence suggests that her father actually abandoned the family, migrated to Lincoln County, Maine, and started a new life.[7] It is known that he took a common-law wife named Martha and had two or more children with her. He also returned to Plympton in 1794 to attend to a property transaction. There was also a multiple murder indictment in Maine against someone named Jonathan Sampson in 1773,[6] but it is unknown whether this individual was Deborah’s father, because no trial was ever held.[6]

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 relative of her mother, who died shortly thereafter. She was then sent to live with the widow of Reverend Peter Thatcher, 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 8 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 of Reverend Thatcher, who might have wanted Deborah to read bible verses to her.[6] 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.[6] During her time as a teacher and a weaver she boarded with the families for which she worked.

Physical Description

Deborah was recorded to have been around 5 feet 7 inches,[6] tall at a time when the average woman was around 5 feet,[6] which contributed to her success in posing as male during her time in the army. Only limited evidence to her appearance exists, mostly from her biographer, Hermann Mann, who knew her personally for many years. He wrote that “Her waist might displease a coquette”,[8] implying that she was not thin. Her breasts where also reported by Mann to have been 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. Mann also wrote that “the features of her face are regular; but not what a physiognomist would term the most beautiful”.[9] A neighbor who knew her as an elderly woman when he was a boy remarked that she was “a person of plain features”.[8] A descendant named Pauline Hildreth Monk Wise (1883-1975) was believed by relatives to have a strong resemblance to Deborah based on a portrait of Deborah from 1797 and the description of her features.[6]

Military service

In 1782 Sampson enlisted in the Army under the name Robert Shurtleff, and she joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment[1] under the command of Captain George Webb. The unit, consisting of fifty to sixty men, was first quartered in Bellingham, Massachusetts and later the unit mustered at Worcester under the Fourth Massachusetts 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 there was no official peace treaty, so 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 by a doctor, Barnabas Binney. He removed her clothes to treat her and discovered the cloth she used to bind her breasts and, thus discovered her secret. He did not betray her, but took her to his house, where his wife, daughters, and a nurse housed and took care of her.[7]

In September 1783, peace was assured through the signing of the Treaty of Paris. November 3 was the date for soldiers to be mustered out. When Dr. Binney asked her to deliver a note to General Paterson, she thought that her secret was out, but Patterson gave her an honorable discharge, a note with some words of advice, and a sum of money sufficient to cover her expenses for her trip home. She was discharged at West Point, New York on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.[5]


Statue of Sampson at Sharon, Massachusetts public library

Deborah 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), as well as Susanna Baker Shepard, an adopted orphan. Although they had a routine family life living on a farm, the family suffered from mild poverty.

Final years and death

Eight years later, 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 passed was approved, and then signed by Governor John Hancock. The legislature awarded her 34 pounds plus interest, dating back to her discharge in 1783.

Ten years later, 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 complicated and physically taxing military drill and ceremony.[5] She initiated these because of 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, Paul 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 her 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."[10] 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, she found herself in even more financial trouble, so she wrote once more to Revere asking for 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 twenty 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. She died of Yellow fever at the age of 66 on April 29, 1827 [2] and was buried at Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon.[11]


Sampson's long and ultimately successful public campaign for her pension helped bridge gender differences by asserting for women the same feelings expressed by male veterans -- that the country had an obligation to those who fought a war to help found it, especially the wounded, injured, and the families of service members who had died during the war.[12]

In 1797,[13] Herman Mann published a book entitled "The Female Review", a biography of Deborah Sampson[9]

Sharon, Massachusetts now memorializes Sampson with Deborah Sampson Day (May 23), Deborah Sampson Street, a Deborah Sampson Statue in front of the public library, Deborah Sampson Field, and the Deborah Sampson House.

As of 2001, the town flag of Plympton incorporates Sampson as the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In 2014, Alex Myers, a descendant of Deborah Sampson, published Revolutionary (Simon & Schuster), a fictionalized account of her life.

See also

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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.
  • 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


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Vital records of Sharon, Massachusetts, to the year 1850, Boston: unknown, 1909.
  3. Weatherford, Doris, American Women's History, Prentice Hall, 1994
  4. Soldier's Secret by Sheila Solomon Klass
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  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  7. 7.0 7.1 *Masquerade by historian Alfred Young (Knopf, 2004)
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  9. 9.0 9.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  10. Revere, Paul. Letter to William Eustis. Feb. 20, 1804. Massachusetts Historical Society website.
  11. Deborah Sampson at Find a Grave
  12. America's First Woman Warrior by Lucy Freeman and Alma Pond (1992)
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External links