Deborah Sampson – Revolutionary War Soldier and American Folk Hero

Deborah Sampson was the first known American woman to impersonate a man in order to join the army and take part in combat. She was born in Plympton, MA on December 17, 1760, the oldest of three daughters and three sons to Jonathan and Deborah Bradford Sampson.

Deborah is my 3rd cousin, 7 times removed. We both descend from William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Colony. I descend from Bradford’s son, William IV. Deborah descends from his other son, Joseph.

Sampson’s youth was spent in poverty. Her father abandoned the family and went off to sea. Her mother was of poor health and could not support the children, so she sent them off to live with various neighbors and relatives. At the young age of ten, Sampson became an indentured servant in the household of Jeremiah Thomas in Middleborough, MA. For ten years she helped with the housework and worked in the fields, which helped developed her physical strength. She attended school in the Winter since there wasn’t as much farm work to be done. She learned enough so that, after her servitude ended in 1779, she was hired as a teacher in a Middleborough public school.

On May 20, 1782, when she was twenty-one, Sampson enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army at Bellingham as a man named Robert Shurtliff (also listed as Shirtleff or Shirtlieff). Robert Shurtliff Sampson was the name of her deceased brother. Being almost 5 foot 8 inches tall, she was almost a foot taller than the average woman of her day and taller than the average man. Other soldiers teased her about not having to shave, but they assumed that this “boy” was just too young to grow facial hair. She performed her duties as well as any other man.

Back home, rumors circulated about her  and she was excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, MA, because of a strong suspicion that she was “dressing in man’s clothes and enlisting as a Soldier in the Army.”

Although the last major battle of the Revolution had been fought the previous October when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, guerilla warfare was still being fought in several areas by Tories refusing to surrender. It was during one of these skirmishes that Shurtleff suffered a forehead wound from a sabre slash and then was hit by a musket ball in the upper left front thigh. At a field hospital, a French doctor bound up the head wound, but was not advised of the thigh injury. When the doctor began to attend another wounded soldier, Shurtleff limped out of the hospital, and later, removed the musket ball herself.

However, when he was later hospitalized for fever, the physician attending her discovered that she was a woman and made discreet arrangements that ended her military career. Sampson was honorably discharged from the army at West Point on October 25, 1783.

Deborah Sampson returned home, married a farmer named Benjamin Gannett, and had three children. She also taught at a nearby school. About nine years after her discharge from the army, she was awarded a pension from the state of Massachusetts in the amount of thirty-four pounds in a lump payment. After Paul Revere sent a letter to Congress on her behalf in 1804, she started receiving a U.S. pension in the amount of four dollars per month. In 1802, Sampson traveled throughout New England and New York giving lectures on her experiences in the military. During her lectures, she wore the military uniform.

Deborah Sampson Gannett died April 29, 1827 in Sharon, MA, at age sixty-six. Her children were awarded compensation by a special act of Congress “for the relief of the heirs of Deborah Gannett, a soldier of the Revolution, deceased.” She is buried in the Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon.

On May 23, 1983, Governor Michael J. Dukakis signed a proclamation which declared that Deborah Samson was the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Two news services stated this was the first time in the history of the United States that any state had proclaimed anyone as the official hero or heroine.

Born:  December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Plymouth Co., MA
Married:  Benjamin Gannett on April 17, 1784
Died:  April 29, 1827 in Sharon, Norfolk Co., MA and is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery, Sharon, MA

Relation: 3rd  cousin, 7 times removed