Deborah Sampson is one of the rare women who literally fought the British during the Revolutionary War. While other women were doing their part by caring for their families, standing behind their husbands and tactfully lending their opinion on political issues, Deborah Sampson was donning men’s clothing and carrying a rifle. She wasn’t a feminist and she wasn’t railing against injustice; she was simply doing what she could for her country. Aside from her bravery and skill as a soldier, there was nothing particularly unique about her. Perhaps that is what made her such an admirable individual.
Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was the oldest of six children born into an impoverished family. She had two sisters and three brothers. Her parents were Jonathan and Deborah Sampson (originally spelt Samson). Before Deborah was five-years-old, her father left his family to seek his fortune at sea. It was later learned that he likely died there. Dead or not, he never returned to his wife and children. Deborah’s mother had no means to care for her children and so she sent them all to stay with friends, relatives and neighbors. Her namesake was sent to stay with a female relative, who unfortunately died three years later.
After the death of Deborah’s foster mother, she went to live with another family for a couple of years. When her time there was up, she was taken on by a deacon named Jeremiah Thomas as an indentured servant. It would seem that Jeremiah was good to Deborah, but she certainly worked very hard in both the fields and in the home and became a skilled laborer during her time there. She was also allowed to attend school when work around the farm was scarce. This enabled her to become a teacher, at the age of 18 when her servitude was over. She stayed with the deacon for a little while longer, but then Deborah Sampson began leading a very different life.
Soon after Deborah Sampson left her longtime home, she began dressing as a man and enjoying freedoms she couldn’t have in women’s clothing. She also attempted to enlist with the Continental Army, but was soon found out. Undeterred, she tried again and on May 20, 1782, Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army as Robert Shirtliff. After she had left Massachusetts with her regiment, she was excommunicated by her church for her previous behavior. None of them knew that she had succeeded in enlisting.
Deborah Sampson’s time in the military was eventful. During a skirmish in New York state, she was wounded in both the head and leg. She hid the leg wound so that her gender would not be discovere. Her comrades did not suspect that Robert was a woman, they just assumed that “he” was very boyish. Nonetheless, her gender was eventually discovered in Philadelphia. She had come down with malignant fever and was hospitalized. A kind doctor treated her in the hospital and then allowed her to stay in his home. He did eventually reveal her secret, but he did so while extolling her admirable qualities. She was given an honorable discharge by General Henry Knox on October 25, 1783.
Deborah returned to Massachusetts and found work on a farm. She married a farmer named Benjamin Gannett in April of 1784. The couple had three children together. Their names were Earl, Mary and Patience. Deborah was granted a single soldier’s pension payment of 34 pounds around 1792. Years later, her friend Paul Revere penned a letter to Congress requesting a fair soldier’s pension for the veteran, Deborah Sampson. The request was granted and in 1804, she began receiving a monthly pension of four dollars a month.
In 1802, Deborah Sampson gave lectures about her service, during which she donned her Army uniform and conducted drills with her rifle. She must have been quite the sight to people of colonial Massachusetts. This would be the first time she was able to reveal both of her identities in public without fear. She died twenty-three years later, at the age of sixty-six. Her body was interred at the Rockridge Cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts.
Boris, Danuta, Deborah Sampson, retrieved 2/27/10, distinguishedwomen.com/biographies/sampson.html
Barney, Lora, Deborah Sampson, retrieved 2/27/10, teacherlink.ed.usu.edu/tlresources/units/byrnes-famous/sampson.htm