Sampson, Deborah (1760–1827)
Sampson, Deborah (1760–1827)
Revolutionary War soldier who, disguised as a man, fought in several engagements with the enemy. Name variations: Mrs. Deborah Sampson Gannett; (aliases) Timothy Thayer, Robert Shurtleff, Shurtliff, Shurtlieff, or Shirtliffe, and Ephraim Sampson. Born Deborah Sampson on December 17, 1760, in Plymton, Massachusetts (near Plymouth); died in Sharon, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1827; daughter of Jonathan Sampson (a farmer and sailor) and Deborah (Bradford) Sampson; self-taught and attended local elementary schools; married Benjamin Gannett, on April 7, 1785; children: Mary Gannett; Patience Gannett; Earl Bradford Gannett.
Lived on family farm (1760–66); became an indentured servant (1770–78); unsuccessfully enlisted as a soldier (early 1782); enlisted in the Continental Army (May 20, 1782) as "Robert Shurtleff"; served with army north of New York City and in detachments versus Tories; wounded on head (June 1782) and on thigh (July 1782); went on expedition to Fort Ticonderoga (November 1782); appointed orderly to Gen. John Patterson in Philadelphia (June–September 1783); took ill, gender discovered, and discharged (October 25, 1783); granted pay settlement by Massachusetts (1792); romanticized biography published (1797); joined lecture circuit (1802); granted federal pensions, as a female army veteran (1805 and 1818).
Deborah Sampson symbolizes the patriotic contributions of women during the American Revolution and their rising expectations for greater freedom in domestic and public life. Sampson is the only documented female soldier, masquerading as a man, who served in the ranks of the Continental Army; she is also regarded as the first paid woman lecturer in America.
Large numbers of women participated in the war effort: sewing and mending clothes for the army, raising money, working farms and businesses during the absences of their male relatives, serving as nurses in army hospitals, and even accompanying the army, performing a variety of support duties. Some women, such as the well-known Margaret Corbin , Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley ("Molly Pitcher"), and Anna Maria Lane assisted their husbands at their battle stations. But Deborah Sampson is the only woman who served an enlistment as a soldier, engaging in the same military duties and the rigors of camp, long marches, and even battle as did her male comrades. She was the only woman to receive veteran's pensions for her own military service during the Revolutionary War.
She was born in 1760, in Plymton, Massachusetts, near Plymouth, the eldest of three daughters in a family of five children of Jonathan Sampson, a farmer, and Deborah Bradford Sampson. A high-spirited young woman, Sampson yearned for an easier and more exciting life than the drudgery of farm and household chores. She had a desire to travel. For a poor woman to do so, however, would arouse suspicion that she was a person of ill repute. Not having the resources to act the role of a gentlewoman, why not join the army? Men could, she thought, why not women? Tall for her times (5'8"), muscular, with a wide waist and long nose, though of female voice and countenance, she could well pass for a young soldier if properly attired. Many of the rag-tag infantry of the Continental Army were mere boys.
Sampson boasted a distinguished pedigree. On her mother's side, she was descended from Governor William Bradford of Plymouth colony, and, on her father's, from Miles Standish and Priscilla Alden , also early Pilgrims. Her father was a heavy drinker and poor provider, and, like many New England farmers, went to sea for part of each year. When Deborah was five, he abandoned the family and soon thereafter died in a shipwreck. Sampson's mother had to send her children to board at other homes. Deborah lived with a pastor's widow for two years, and then resided three years with an elderly relative who died in 1770. In a common practice of the time, Deborah next was taken in as an indentured servant of the Jeremiah Thomas family of Middleboro, Massachusetts. The Thomases were prosperous farmers, and Sampson continued doing farm and household work, becoming an accomplished spinner and seamstress. Thomas allowed her to attend school part-time with his sons and to earn money by having sheep and chickens of her own. Though the indenture ended when Sampson reached her 18th birthday in 1778, she stayed with the Thomas family for several more years. For six months, she was a substitute schoolteacher. In 1780, she was baptized into the First Baptist Church of Middleboro.
In early spring 1782, while staying a few days at the home of Captain Benjamin Leonard, Sampson took a suit of clothes belonging to Leonard's son Samuel and, tying her hair in back and taping a cotton strip to compress her breasts, headed to the local recruiting office. She enlisted in the army as Timothy Thayer. Given bounty money, she swaggered boldly to a tavern, and became outrageously inebriated. Her ruse, however, was undone, because an elderly woman, who had been in the same room when Sampson signed her enlistment papers, recognized "Timothy" as Deborah from Sampson's awkward way of holding a quill, having lost most of the use of her forefinger from an accident. Sampson was quickly removed from the army rolls and forced to relinquish that part of the bounty money that she had not spent in the tavern.
She was a remarkable vigilant soldier on her post, and always gained the admiration and applause of her officers.
—The Independent Gazette, January 10, 1784
Sampson's erratic behavior raised a few eyebrows in the small New England farming community. Her mother felt that the best way to stay gossip was to quickly find a husband for her daughter. A young man located as a candidate for such a match, however, did not suit Sampson. "I had not [my mother's] eyes to see such perfection in this lump of a man, or that he possessed qualities that would regenerate me," she said, according to her biographer.
I had no aversion to him at first, and certainly no love, if I have ever understood that noble passion. At any rate, this marry, or not to marry, was decided thus: On a certain parade-day he came to me, with all the sang froid of a Frenchman, and the silliness of a baboon, intoxicated, not with love, but with rum. From that moment I set him down a fool, or in a fair way to be one.
Sampson was still determined to join the army but took more care in her disguise than before. She went to Bellingham, and there on May 20, 1782, contacted a recruiting agent, sometimes known as a "speculator," who agreed to sign her up, providing he received part of the bounty money. Sampson enlisted as Robert Shurtleff, the name of her elder brother. Every town divided its male population capable of bearing arms into classes, from whom soldiers for the Continental Army were selected. Sampson represented a class from Uxbridge. According to the policy for Continental enlistments at the time, Sampson signed on for three years or the duration of the war. She was mustered into the service at Worcester by Captain Eliphalet Thorp on May 23, and assigned to George Webb's infantry company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Shepard and later by Colonel Henry Jackson. Because she looked too young to shave, other soldiers began calling her "smock face" and "Molly."
The Fourth Massachusetts Regiment was assigned to West Point, and Sampson had no difficulty escaping detection. Again she kept her breasts tightly taped, and she dressed and used the latrines during darkness. Family and friends, disturbed over her disappearance, suspected that she had gone soldiering. When a family friend went to camp searching for her, she successfully avoided him. Sampson wrote her mother that she had found "agreeable work" in "a large but well-regulated family." Members of her church in Middleboro, having for some time despaired of Sampson's waywardness, decided to excommunicate her. The record of the First Baptist Church in Middleboro, September 3, 1782, declares:
The Church consider'd the case of Deborah Sampson, a member of this Church, who last Spring was accused of dressing in men's clothes, and enlisting as a Soldier in the Army, and altho she was not convicted, yet was strongly suspected of being guilty, and for some time before behaved verry loose and unchristian like, and at last left our parts in a suden maner, and it is not known among us where she is gone, and after considerable discourse, it appeard that as several bretheren had labour'd with her before she went away, without obtaining satisfaction concluded it is the Church's duty to withdraw fellowship untill she returns and makes Christian satisfaction.
Although the war had stalemated after Charles Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, patrols from George Washington's army, encamped above New York City, which was still held by the British, clashed with enemy units. Bands of Tories and patriots often fought each other on the so-called "Neutral Ground" in Westchester County, located immediately above the city. Sampson and her company were sent to White Plains, and from there sought out enemy detachments along the east side of the Hudson River. In mid-June 1782, Sampson's unit fought with British dragoons and Tories between Tarrytown and Sing Sing. Sampson sustained a sword wound on the left side of her head. Several weeks later, she and 30 other soldiers were ambushed by Tories at East Chester, four miles east of the river. A musket ball pierced her thigh. Sampson feared that the wound was so serious that a doctor would discover her sex. Sent to a hospital of the French army, six miles away, she was treated by a surgeon, without her gender being discovered. She then was permitted to sleep. "I had slept scarcely an hour, when he again alarmed me," Sampson later recalled. "Approaching me on my mattress of straw, and holding my breeches in his hand, dripping from the wash-tub, 'How came this rent?' said he, putting his finger into it. I replied, 'It was occasioned, I believe, on horseback, by a nail in the saddle or holster.'" As she grew better, the surgeon's "scrutiny diminished," and she rejoined the army before her wound healed. "Had the most hardy soldier been in the condition I was when I left the hospital," she noted, "he would have been excused from military duty." It appears that the bullet was never extracted. Many years later, in 1837, a committee of Congress, hearing a pension claim by her husband as a widower of a war veteran, would state "that the effect of the wound continued through life, and probably hastened her death."
In November 1782, Sampson traveled with her company to Fort Ticonderoga for the purpose of protecting settlers from marauding Indians. She saw some action. The unit, in January 1783, returned to Washington's army, encamped at New Windsor, New York. In June, she was transferred to Philadelphia to serve as an orderly to Major General John Paterson, who, with troops from Washington's army under the command of Major General Robert Howe, had come to the city to quell a mutiny. Soldiers of the Pennsylvania line, demanding back pay before being discharged, had seized the State House where Congress was in session. The legislators quickly fled to Princeton. The mutineers soon dispersed, but Paterson, in charge of court-martials of the leaders of the malcontents, stayed in Philadelphia for several months. While acting as the general's orderly, Sampson came down with "malignant fever" and lay near death. In a hospital ward, Dr. Barnabas Binney attended to her. "Thrusting his hand into my bosom to ascertain if there were motion at the heart," noted Sampson, "he was surprised at finding an inner vest tightly compressing my breasts, the instant removal of which not only ascertained the fact of life, but disclosed the fact that I was a woman!" The startled physician had Sampson brought to his home to recuperate, for the time being agreeing to keep her secret.
Having mended, Sampson joined a party of troops of the Massachusetts 11th Regiment on a land-surveying expedition. The expedition to the Ohio River set out from Baltimore. Once again sick, she had been left at an "Indian camp" and rejoined the troops on their return eastward. Back in Baltimore, it seems that a young lady of 17 developed a crush on Robert Shurtleff (Deborah), even presenting Sampson with six linen shirts, 25 Spanish dollars, and 5 guineas. Not sure how to react, Sampson encouraged the relationship for awhile, the two going on carriage rides and the like. Finally, on departing Baltimore, Sampson wrote the young lady, signing the letter as "Your Own Sex."
The war had now officially concluded, with the signing of the Peace of Paris on September 3, 1783, and the British prepared to evacuate their last bastion, New York City. In October, Sampson set out for West Point to receive her discharge. While she was traveling in a boat on the Hudson, a squall came up near Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, and a trunk containing clothes and her diary were lost. This was especially unfortunate because if her diary had survived it would have served as corroboration as well as a corrective for her later recollections.
Meanwhile, Dr. Binney had second thoughts about concealing knowledge of Sampson's true sex, and, considering himself duty bound, informed Paterson of his discovery. The general then wrote General Henry Knox, commander of the remnant American army at West Point, revealing that Private Robert Shurtleff was actually Deborah Sampson. All was done with good humor. At West Point, Sampson, dressed in female attire, paraded up and down the ranks of the troops, never recognized by her fellow soldiers. She received an honorable discharge from General Knox on October 23, 1783.
After being discharged, Sampson traveled by ship to New York City and then made her way to Boston. She went to live on a farm owned by her uncle, Zebulon Waters, at Stoughton, Massachusetts. Unable to resist the urge to cross-dress again, she wore men's clothing, passing herself off as Ephraim Sampson, the name of her younger brother. But at last, in spring 1784, she decided to establish permanently her identity as a woman and to wear female attire. Meanwhile, she had become a celebrity of sorts. A New York newspaper, on January 10, 1784, printed a tribute to her as a female hero, which the Boston Gazette also carried on February 9, 1784.
Sampson soon attracted a suitor, and on April 7, 1785, married Benjamin Gannett. The couple settled into a two-story farmhouse in Sharon, Massachusetts. They had three children—Mary, Patience, and Earl Bradford. Because of trouble from her war-related thigh wound, Sampson was unable to be of much help in the farm work.
Like so many other New Englanders, the Gannetts had great difficulty in making a livelihood from their small farm. Deborah Sampson had received no pay while in the army. This was not unusual, as most soldiers went unpaid from 1782 to 1783. The Continental currency was worthless. Eventually, states issued veterans "settlement certificates," to be redeemed in the future. Sampson, however, had been given none of these. She evidently had lost her discharge papers. On January 1792, she sent a petition, supported by depositions from persons who attested to her military service, to the Massachusetts legislature. Eight days later, the Massachusetts Assembly granted her the sum of £34, with interest from the date of her discharge in October 1783. The resolution conferring the grant stated that Sampson had "exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue & chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished, & was discharged from the service with a fair & honorable character."
In 1797, Herman Mann of Dedham, Massachusetts, published a biography of Deborah Sampson. Although he interviewed her at length, the book obviously contains much exaggeration and fiction. Both author and subject had regrets over the book's publication, and Mann planned to rewrite it, but died in 1833 before accomplishing this task. His son executed a revision that removed much of the outlandish material, but this work has never been published. In 1866, John A. Vinton published the Mann biography of 1797, along with sharp editorial evaluation of the authenticity of various passages and excerpts from the revised biography.
Herman Mann also prepared a pat speech for Sampson, which she delivered it at the Federal Street Theater in Boston on March 22, 1802, and subsequently at other places in New England and New York until September 9, 1802. She was probably the first woman to go on a paid lecture circuit. The "Address," as it was known, was hardly more than patriotic rhetoric, with no mention of Sampson's specific deeds. As to her own motives, Sampson declared: "Wrought upon at length by an enthusiasm and frenzy that could brook no control, I burst the tyrant bonds which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural privilege."
In 1804, Sampson applied to the U.S. government for a disabled veteran's pension, the only kind of postwar military remuneration awarded at that time. Paul Revere, a neighbor of the Gannetts, wrote to Congressman William Eustis on her behalf:
I have been induced to inquire her situation & character, since she quitted the Male habit & soldier's uniform: for the more decent apparel of her own sex, & since she had been married and become a mother. Humanity and Justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about Her, & it is not a few, speak of her as a woman of handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent. She is now much out of health. She has several children, her husband is a good sort of man, though of small force in business. They have a few acres of poor land, which they cultivate, but they are really poor.
She has told me that she has no doubt that her ill health is in consequence of her being exposed when she did a soldier's duty & that while in the army she was wounded.
Congress, on March 11, 1805, placed her on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll, providing her a stipend of four dollars a month, retroactive to January 1, 1803. Sampson's stipend was raised to eight dollars a month, under an act of Congress of 1818, which gave pensions to veterans who had served continuously for nine months and who had relinquished state pensions. In her petition to Congress for an increased award, Sampson mentioned that she had been at the battle of Yorktown, in October 1781. Herman Mann, in his biography of Sampson, had also claimed her presence at Yorktown, but offered no specifics or evidence. Unquestionably, Sampson had a faulty memory, as did many old veterans seeking pensions, or she let fantasy dictate reality; her muster certificate, noting her entry into the army and dated May 23, 1782, has survived and is to be found in the Massachusetts Archives, Boston.
On April 19, 1827, Deborah Sampson died at age 66. Several months before her death, when asked the value of her possessions, she replied that all that she had was $20 worth of clothing. She was buried in Rockbridge Cemetery, in Sharon, one wing of which is dedicated as a memorial to Deborah Sampson Gannett.
In 1836, Congress passed an act allowing pensions to widows of deceased Revolutionary War soldiers. Benjamin Gannett took the unprecedented step of applying for a widower's pension. At first, it was deemed that widowers were not covered under the law. The Committee on Revolutionary Pensions, however, decided that the case of Deborah Sampson was a worthy exception. Sampson, as a common soldier, had "fought and bled for human liberty."
[Benjamin Gannett] was honored much by being the husband of such a wife; and as he has proved himself worthy of her, as he has sustained her through a long life of sickness and suffering, and as that sickness and suffering were occasioned by the wounds she received, and the hardships she endured in defence of the country; and as there cannot be a parallel case in all time to come, the Committee do not hesitate to grant relief.
Therefore, Congress, by a special act, gave Gannett a pension of $80 a month in 1837, retroactive to March 4, 1831. He did not live to collect, dying in January 1837 at age 83. Congress then passed another special act, conferring upon the Gannetts' three children, as heirs, the sum of $466.66 to be divided equally among them.
Deborah Sampson's place in history is indeed unique in the history of the Revolutionary War. She was a common soldier among male companions, many of whom were of the roughest sort and riff-raff, yet her gender was undetected. Her experience was more than "theatrical," as one contemporary noted; it verged on the miraculous. But all the more tribute is due her, not only for equalling men in the soldier's life and in combat, but also for having the hardship of maintaining the persona of "Robert Shurtleff." While some anecdotes attributed to Sampson are at least partially fictional and specifics of her military activity are missing, her service is fully documented.
Davis, Curtis C. "A 'Gallantress' Gets Her Due: The Earliest Published Notice of Deborah Sampson," in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Vol. 91, pt. 2, 1981, pp. 319–323.
Evans, Elizabeth. Weathering the Storm: Women of the American Revolution. NY: Scribner, 1975.
Mann, Herman. The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson. Introduction by John A. Vinton. NY: Arno Press, 1972 (reprint of 1866 edition).
Stickley, Julia W. "The Records of Deborah Sampson Gannett, Woman Soldier of the Revolution," in Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives. Vol 4. Winter 1972, pp. 233–241.
Doyle, Kathleen. "'Pvt. Robert Shurtleff': An Unusual Revolutionary War Soldier," in American History Illustrated. Vol. 23. October 1988, pp. 30–31.
McGovern, Ann. The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson. NY: Scholastic, 1975.
Freeman, Lucy, and Alma Halbert Bond. America's First Woman Warrior. Paragon House, 1992.
Norwood, William F. Deborah Sampson, Alias Robert Shirtliff of the Continental Line. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957.
Pension file of Deborah Gannett, alias Robert Shurtleff, S32722 (M 804, microfilm roll 1045), National Archives, Washington, D.C.; several documents relating to Deborah Sampson's military service reside in the Massachusetts Archives, Boston.
"Deborah Sampson, a Woman in the Revolution" (15 min. video), Phoenix-BFA Films & Video, 1976.
"Women on the Battlefields Molly Pitcher and Deborah Sampson" (15 min. video), Eye Gate Media, 1977.
Harry M. Ward , Professor of History, University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia, author of Colonial America (Prentice-Hall) and other books on colonial and Revolutionary America