In 1782, American colonist Deborah Sampson (1760–1827) disguised herself as a man to gain entry into the Continental Army. Sampson served 17 months during the Revolutionary War and was wounded in combat. Afterward, she launched a public-speaking trek across New England to tell her story, thereby becoming the first American woman to embark on a lecture tour.
According to Sampson biographer Alfred F. Young, as a member of the Continental Army under General George Washington, Deborah Sampson received positive reviews from her superiors, who found her to be a good and faithful soldier. In Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, Young cited a newspaper article from 1784 that included remarks about Sampson's soldier days. The article quoted an officer who said that she “always gained the admiration and applause of her officers … [and] displayed herself with activity, alertness, chastity and valour.”
Deborah Sampson was born December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts. Her mother, Deborah Bradford, was a great-granddaughter of William Bradford, who became governor of Plymouth after it was established as the first permanent colony in the New World. Sampson's father, Jonathan Samson, Jr., hailed from a family that arrived aboard the Mayflower. Town records imply that Sampson's family moved often, and legal documents from 1758 indicate that Jonathan Samson was a laborer who moved to find work. Although it is thought that Sampson was the fifth of seven children, the family's peripatetic lifestyle meant that the children were not registered at birth. Sampson's grandfather and parents appear as “Samson” in legal documents, but somewhere along the way the family adopted a more modern spelling by inserting a “p.” This was the spelling used by Sampson to advertise her lecture tour.
While living with the Thomases, Sampson was left to further her education on her own. She was not allowed to attend school with the Thomas boys because she had too many chores at the farm. It would have been unusual for her to appear at school in any event, since girls at this time were discouraged from learning to read anything beyond Scripture. Sampson had a quest for knowledge, however, and she was able to wangle school books from the Thomas boys in order to continue her studies.
When Sampson turned 18, the Thomas family released her from servitude. From 1779 to 1782, she worked as a weaver, spinner, and teacher, educating local children during the summer months between the planting and harvest seasons. Her position as a “masterless” woman was unconventional at the time, because the laws bound women to a “master” who had authority over their lives. Women moved from having their father as their master to having an employer or husband fill that role. Sampson's free and single status was rare.
In the spring of 1782, Sampson disguised herself as a young man and enlisted in the Continental Army at a recruiting station in Middleborough. She gave her name as Timothy Thayer and collected a bounty. The Continental Congress set state quotas for enlistment. Towns tried to fill the quotas by paying volunteers as draft substitutes for the local men. It was common for men to enlist, collect their bounty, and desert so that they could re-enlist and collect another bounty. According to Young, Sampson may have enlisted in order to collect the bounty because she was desperate for money.
Sampson returned to being her female self after securing the money. Unfortunately, when “Thayer” failed to report for duty, Sampson's scheme was revealed, and she was in trouble. Not only had she defrauded the fledgling U.S. government, she had worn men's clothing, which was a crime. Fearing legal prosecution, Sampson also endured the wrath of elders at the Third Baptist Church, which she had joined in 1780. In his book, Young referenced church minutes from 1782 that mentioned the incident and accused Sampson of behaving “very loose and unChristian like.” Sampson never admitted her guilt. Instead, she fled town.
Sampson left Middleborough disguised as a man and she visited neighboring cities over the next few weeks. Young suggested that she may have been trying to see if she could actually pass as a man. Desperate for a job, Sampson inquired about becoming a cabin boy at sea but changed her mind. In time, she met a draft speculator for Uxbridge, Massachusetts, who offered her a large bounty to join the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.
Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army on May 20, 1782, presenting with the name Robert Shurtliff. After reporting for duty in Worcester, Massachusetts, she joined about 50 other recruits in a march to West Point, New York. General Washington had established a large military presence in the Hudson River Valley because he knew that whoever controlled the Hudson River supply line would win the war. West Point sat atop the Hudson River, making it a strategic fortification.
Sampson was assigned to a light infantry company. The light infantry was composed of agile, responsible men who could move quickly and cover a lot of ground while loaded down with equipment. They carried a musket, a cartridge box for ammunition, a wooden canteen and a sack of rations, plus extra clothing and personal possessions. They were sent on patrol and engaged in scouting missions. Sometimes the light infantry was dispatched to harass the enemy and slow their advance. These troops were heavily drilled and trained.
During her 17 months in the Continental Army, Sampson was involved in at least two battles. On one occasion, she was wounded, although the details of her injury remain murky. After the war, she was interviewed extensively by printer and editor Herman Mann, and in 1797, he published The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution. As Mann told it, Sampson received two wounds in one battle: one to the head and the other to the thigh, where a musket ball had lodged.He included a dramatic narrative about Sampson's boot filling with blood and how she bled in secret to avoid detection. Since its publication more than 200 years ago, Mann's account has been criticized for embellishing Sampson's story, and his report on her injuries has not been viewed as reliable. Historians, however, have corroborated many dates, figures, and facts from the manuscript.
In conducting research for Masquerade, Young uncovered historical accounts suggesting that Sampson was wounded in the breast or shoulder. It also remained unclear as to how the wounds were treated. Mann wrote that Sampson was treated at a French encampment and later dug the musket ball out of her leg on her own to avoid detection. According to Young, the officer who discharged Sampson from the military wrote that “she received two wounds, a small shot remaining in her to this day.” Historians agree that Sampson was injured, but whether it was the thigh, shoulder, or breast has never been confirmed.
Whatever her wounds, Sampson recovered sufficiently enough to continue her service and in 1783 became a waiter to Gen. John Paterson. A waiter was an officer's servant or orderly. Sampson's duties probably included taking care of Paterson's uniforms and cleaning his boots. She may have served food to him and his guests. Likely, she acted as a courier, delivering his orders to those in the field. The position Sampson held gained her some status among the rank-and-file.
In 1783, Sampson was camped outside Philadelphia when she caught a serious illness and was hospitalized. It is unknown what illness she contracted, but smallpox and measles were then rampant in Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, her gender was uncovered by Dr. Barnabas Binney, who nursed her back to health. After her recovery, Sampson returned to duty, serving under General Paterson at West Point. It remains unclear how this played out against the revelation of her true gender.
In any event, Sampson probably feared punishment. Only a few years earlier, in 1777, an English immigrant named Ann Bailey enlisted in the First Massachusetts Regiment by impersonating a man. When her identity was discovered, she was fined and jailed for appearing in men's clothing. Sampson was never arrested for her charade and was honorably discharged on October 25, 1783.
After the Revolutionary War, Sampson settled in Sharon, Massachusetts and she married Benjamin Gannett, Jr., on April 7, 1785. Later that year, Earl Bradford Gannett was born, followed by daughters Polly in 1787 and Patience in 1790. Sampson also raised another girl, Susanna Shephard, whom she adopted after her mother died in childbirth. For Sampson, marriage did not bring the financial security and upward mobility she yearned for. Gannett was a struggling farmer and, although he came from an upstanding family, he failed to inherit his family's land.
In 1792, Sampson grew brave and petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for the back pay she was owed for service in the Revolutionary War. She had been discharged nearly a decade and, as a female, did not know how to petition for her back pay. When she won a settlement from the legislature, Boston newspapers picked up the story of the female soldier. At this time, Mann learned of Sampson and began writing to her in the hopes of publishing her story. His biography of Sampson appeared in 1797, but was rushed. Mann continued interviewing Sampson and revising his manuscript for several more years.
After getting back pay from Massachusetts, Sampson petitioned Congress for a veteran's pension. Her petition suggested that she was in pain and infirm from her battle injuries. When Sampson's petition failed, she went on a lecture tour to build support for her cause. In March 1802, Sampson appeared on stage at a Boston theater, presenting a program that Mann had helped script. First, she appeared onstage as herself and told her story. Then she reappeared in full uniform with her musket and performed maneuvers from the Continental Army's manual of arms. Sampson spent from June 1802 to April 1803 filling speaking engagements through New England and New York.
Following her lecture tour, Sampson again petitioned Congress for a pension. She was deeply in debt, even borrowing money from famed Patriot Paul Revere and from her former commanding officer. After she wrote to her congressman, William Eustis, and requested help, Revere visited her, in February of 1804, and wrote a supporting letter to Eustis, explaining that the former veteran was in poor health as a result of her service in the war. In March 1805, Sampson was placed on the rolls of invalid pensioners and awarded $4 a month. Despite the pension, she and her husband continued to live in poverty and spent their last years living with their son, Earl.
Deborah Sampson Gannett died on April 29, 1827, in Sharon, Massachusetts, and was buried in town at the Rock Ridge Cemetery. Her husband was buried on one side of her and her son on the other. Although her story largely faded from public memory in the years after her death, it was revived during World War II, when the U.S. government appealed to women to help the war effort and christened a Liberty ship from its fleet the S.S. Deborah Gannett.
Freeman, Lucy, and Alma Halbert Bond, America's First Woman Warrior: The Courage of Deborah Sampson, Paragon House, 1992.
Young, Alfred F., Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Army, January 2015.
Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA), January 4, 2009.
U.S. Army Women's Museum website, http://www.awm.lee.army.mil/ (December 15, 2016), “Deborah Sampson Gannett.”❑