Deborah Sampson (1760-1827), supposed Revolutionary soldier & early woman lecturer, was born in Plympton, near Plymouth, Mass., the oldest, apparently, of 3 daughters & 3 sons of Jonathan Sampson, a farmer, & Deborah (Bradford) Sampson. She came of old Pilgrim stock, her mother being descended from Gov. William Bradford & her father from Miles Standish & John Alden.
Jonathan Sampson’s disappointment in his share of his father’s estate was so corrosive that he fell into intemperate habits, went to sea, & finally abandoned his family, perhaps losing his life in a shipwreck. Mrs. Sampson, finding it difficult to support her young family, was obliged to disperse her children into different households.
Deborah lived for 3 years with a Miss Fuller & afterward, at about 10, was bound out as a servant in the homed of Jeremiah Thomas of Middleborough, where she remained until she was 18. Here she developed into a strong, capable young woman, skilled in the domestic arts. Part-time attendance at the Middleborough public school, supplemented by instruction from the Thomas children, enabled her to obtain some education, & when her term of service in the Thomas family expired in 1779, she taught for 6 months in the same local school. In November 1780 she became a member of the First Baptist Church of Middleborough. Two years later (Sept. 3, 1782) this body excommunicated her on the strong suspicion of “dressing in men’s clothes, & enlisting as a soldier in the Army,” after having “for some time before behaved verry loose & unchristian like.” By then she had disappeared from Middleborough.
Deborah Sampson Delivers a Letter to Commanders
The venturesome young woman had, it seems, walked to Boston & from there to Bellingham, Mass., where on May 20, 1782, she enlisted in the Continental forces under the name of Robert Shurtleff (Shirtliff). A member of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, Capt. George Webb’s company, she was mustered into service at Worcester on May 23. Her height, which was above the average, her strong features, her stamina, & her remarkable adaptability enabled her to conceal her identify & perform her military duties. She participated in several engagements & was wounded in one near Tarrytown, N.Y. Not until she was hospitalized with a fever in Philadelphia was her sex finally discovered. She was discharged by Gen. Henry Knox at West Point on Oct. 25, 1783.
On her return to Massachusetts in November, she went to live with an uncle at Sharon. Here she resumed female attire, met Benjamin Gannett, a farmer, & was married to him on Apr. 7, 1785. Three children were born to them: Earl Bradford, Mary, & Patience. Reports of Deborah Sampson’s adventure began to attract attention, & in 1797 Herman Mann, to whom she had told her story, published a romanticized biography under the title The Female Review. Mann next prepared a lecture for her which told her story in extravagant phraseology extended beyond the bounds of truth. Beginning with an appearance at the Federal Street Theatre in Boston, on Mar. 22, 1802, she toured various New England & New York towns until Sept. 9, giving her “Address” as advertised in the local press. Besides b ringing her some remuneration & considerable personal satisfaction, the trip enabled her to visit one of her former commanding officers, Gen. John Paterson, who probably assisted her in obtaining a pension from the United States government.
Her first pension came from Massachusetts, which in 1792 awarded her the sum of 34 pounds bearing interest from Oct. 3, 1783. In 1804 Paul Revere wrote to a member of Congress in behalf of Deborah Gannett, who was then in poor health & financial difficulties. On Mar, 11, 1805, she was placed on the pension list of the United States at the rate of four dollars per month, beginning Jan. 1, 1803; the amount was afterward increased. After her death her husband petitioned the federal government for a pension, representing himself to be in indigent circumstances, with two daughters dependent on his charity; he declared that for many years he had paid heavy medical bills for his wife, whose sickness & suffering were occasioned by her military service. The belated response of Congress was an “Act for the relief of the heirs of Deborah Gannett, a solider of the Revolution, deceased,” approved July 7, 1838, which provided for a payment of $466.66, the equivalent of a full pension of eighty dollars per annum, from Mar. 4, 1831, to the decease of Benjamin Gannett in January 1837. This sum was paid to the three heirs, Earl. B Gannett, Mary Gilbert, & Patience Gay. Deborah herself had died in Sharon in 1827 at the age of sixty-six.
Bellesiles, Michael. "Sampson, Deborah." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History. Ed. Harold E. Selesky. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006. 1026. U.S. History in Context.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
Keiter, Jane. “Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier: The Westchester Connection.” The Best of the Westchester Historian. Winter 2000 (Vol. 76, No. 1).
Leonard, Patrick. “Deborah Samson: Official Heroine of the State of Massachusetts.” Canton Historical Society.
Eds. Edward James, Janet James, Paul Boyer. Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.