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Deborah Sampson
Frontispiece of The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution.
Born (1760-12-17)December 17, 1760
Plympton, Massachusetts
Died April 29, 1827(1827-04-29) (aged 66)
Sharon, Massachusetts
Rock Ridge Cemetery, Sharon, Massachusetts
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch Continental Army
Years of service 1782–1783
Rank Private
Unit Light Infantry Company, 4th Massachusetts Regiment
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War
Spouse(s) Benjamin Gannett
Relations 3 children (Earl, Mary, Patience)
Other work Teacher

Deborah Sampson was a woman who dressed as a man, so that she could join the American soldiers in the Revolutionary War. The Revolutionary War was a war between Great Britain and the thirteen original colonies. Deborah Sampson came from a poor family. She worked as an indentured servant from the age of eight to the age of eighteen. She worked for no pay for a family, but that family let her study with and spend time with their sons.

Sampson wanted to serve in the war against the British, but the American Army would only take men. She dressed as a man, and she got into the Continental Army. She went by the name of Robert Shurtleff. She later got married. She worked as a teacher. She also spoke in public about her experiences in the war.

During her time in war she went to extremes to keep her identity a secret. She once got slashed in the head by an enemy, yet bandaged it up herself. She also got shot in the leg twice. But, in order to not let people find out who she was, she pulled the bullets out of her own leg. In war, she collapsed from fever. She went to the hospital because of it and this is where her peers and boss found out about her being a woman.

Even if she lied to get into the army, her bravery was recognized and she was honored by her General and Congress as well.

Early life

Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts, at the ancestral home of her grandparents, a house that still stands today. Her father's name was Jonathan Sampson (or Samson) and her mother's name was Deborah Bradford. Her siblings were Jonathan (b. 1753), Elisha (b. 1755), Hannah (b. 1756), Ephraim (b. 1759), Nehemiah (b. 1764), and Sylvia (b. 1766). Sampson's mother was the great-granddaughter of William Bradford, the first Governor of Plymouth Colony. Sampson's ancestry also included Mayflower passengers on both sides of her family including William Bradford (mother) and Henry Samson (father)

Historic American Buildings Survey, Arthur C. Haskell, Photographer. Oct. 1937. (a) Ext- General View from Southwest. - Deborah Sampson House, 280 Wareham Street, Middleboro, HABS MASS,12-MIDBO,6-1
Deborah Sampson ancestral home

Sampson's family was told that her father died in a shipwreck, but evidence suggests that he actually abandoned the family. Sampson's mother was unable to provide for her children, so she placed them in the households of friends and relatives, a common practice in 18th-century New England. Sampson was placed in the home of a maternal relative. When her mother died shortly afterwards, she was sent to live with Reverend Peter Thatcher's widow Mary Prince Thatcher (1688–1771), who was then in her eighties. Historians believe Sampson learned to read while living with the widow Thatcher, who might have wanted Sampson to read Bible verses to her.

Upon the widow's death, Sampson was sent to live with the Jeremiah Thomas family in Middleborough, where she worked as an indentured servant from 1770 to 1778. Although treated well, she was not sent to school like the Thomas children because Thomas was not a believer in the education of women. Sampson was able to overcome Thomas's opposition by learning from Thomas's sons, who shared their school work with her. This method was apparently successful; when her time as an indentured servant was over at age 18, Sampson made a living by teaching school during the summer sessions in 1779 and 1780. She worked as a weaver in the winter; Sampson was highly skilled and worked for the Sproat Tavern as well as the Bourne, Morton, and Leonard families. During her time teaching and weaving, she boarded with the families that employed her.

Sampson was also reported to have woodworking and mechanical aptitude. Her skills included basket weaving, and light carpentry such as producing milking stools and winter sleds. She was also experienced with fashioning wooden tools and implements including weather vanes, spools for thread, and quills for weaving. She also produced pie crimpers, which she sold door to door.

Physical description

Sampson was approximately 5 feet 9 inches tall, compared to the average woman of her day, who was around 5 feet, and the average man, who was 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 8 inches tall. Her biographer, Hermann Mann, who knew her personally for many years, implied that she was not thin.

Army service

In early 1782, Sampson wore men's clothes and joined an Army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts under the name Timothy Thayer. She collected a bonus and then failed to meet up with her company as scheduled. Inquiries by the company commander revealed that Sampson had been recognized by a local resident at the time she signed her enlistment papers. Her deception uncovered, she repaid the portion of the bonus that she had not spent, but she was not subjected to further punishment by the Army. The Baptist church to which she belonged learned of her actions and withdrew its fellowship, meaning that its members refused to associate with her unless she apologized and asked forgiveness.

In May 1782, Sampson enlisted again, this time in Uxbridge, Massachusetts under the name "Robert Shirtliff" (also spelled in some sources as "Shirtliffe" or "Shurtleff"). She joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, under the command of Captain George Webb (1740–1825). This unit, consisting of 50 to 60 men, was first quartered in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and later mustered at Worcester with the rest of the regiment commanded by Colonel William Shepard. Light Infantry Companies were elite troops, specially picked because they were taller and stronger than average. Their job was to provide rapid flank coverage for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties for units on the move. Because she joined an elite unit, Sampson's disguise was more likely to succeed, since no one was likely to look for a woman among soldiers who were specially chosen for their above average size and superior physical ability.

Sampson fought in several skirmishes. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and sustained a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers not to take her to a doctor out of fear her sex would be discovered, but a soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital. A doctor treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before he could attend to her leg. She removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other was too deep for her to reach. She carried it in her leg for the rest of her life and her leg never fully healed. On April 1, 1783, she was reassigned to new duties, and spent seven months serving as a waiter to General John Paterson.

The war was thought to be over following the Battle of Yorktown, but since there was no official peace treaty, the Continental Army remained in uniform. On June 24, the President of Congress ordered George Washington to send a contingent of soldiers under Paterson to Philadelphia to help quell a rebellion of American soldiers who were protesting delays in receiving their pay and discharges. During the summer of 1783, Sampson became ill in Philadelphia and was cared for by Doctor Barnabas Binney (1751–1787). He removed her clothes to treat her and discovered she was a woman. Without revealing his to army authorities, he took her to his house, where his wife, daughters, and a female nurse cared for her.

In September 1783, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, November 3 was set as the date for soldiers to muster out. When Dr. Binney asked Sampson to deliver a note to General Paterson, she correctly assumed that it would reveal her sex. In other cases, women who pretended to be men to serve in the army were reprimanded, but Paterson gave her a discharge, a note with some words of advice, and enough money to travel home. She was honorably discharged at West Point, New York, by General Henry Knox on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.

An official record of Deborah Sampson Gannet's service as "Robert Shirtliff" from May 20, 1782, to October 25, 1783, appears in the "Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War" Volume 14 p. 164.


Sampson married Benjamin Gannett (1757–1827), a Sharon, Massachusetts farmer, in Stoughton, Massachusetts on April 7, 1785. They were the parents of four children: Earl (b. 1786), Mary (b. 1788), Patience (b. 1790), and Susanna Baker Shepherd, whom they adopted after she was orphaned. They lived with Gannett's father on the Gannett family farm, but had limited success because it was smaller than average and the land had been overworked.

Life after the military

Deborah Sampson Gannett. Robert Shurtleff. The female soldier, service 1781-1783 - DPLA - 190857378f4057e49dfdda7424135002
Deborah Sampson's resting place, Sharon, MA

In January 1792, Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for pay that the army had withheld because she was a woman. The legislature granted her petition and Governor John Hancock signed it. The legislature awarded her 34 pounds plus interest back to her 1783 discharge. A biography by Herman Mann was published in 1797, The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution.

In 1802, Sampson began giving lectures about her wartime service. After extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles for women, she left the stage, returned in her army uniform, then proceeded to perform a complicated and physically taxing military drill and ceremony routine. She performed both to earn money and to justify her enlistment, but even with these speaking engagements, her husband and she were unable to pay all the family's expenses. She frequently had to borrow money from her family and from her friend Paul Revere. Revere also wrote letters to government officials on her behalf, requesting that she be awarded a pension for her military service and her wounds.

In 1804, Revere wrote to U.S. Representative William Eustis of Massachusetts on Sampson's behalf. A military pension had never been requested for a woman, but Revere wrote: "I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender... humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent." On March 11, 1805, Congress approved the request and placed Sampson on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll at the rate of four dollars a month.

On February 22, 1806, Sampson wrote once more to Revere requesting a loan of ten dollars: "My own indisposition and that of my sons causes me again to solicit your goodness in our favor though I, with Gratitude, confess it rouses every tender feeling and I blush at the thought of receiving ninety and nine good turns as it were – my circumstances require that I should ask the hundredth." He sent the ten dollars.

Statue of Sampson at Sharon, Massachusetts, public library

In 1809, she sent another petition to Congress, asking that her pension as an invalid soldier be modified to start from her discharge in 1783. Had her petition been approved, she would have been awarded back pay of $960 ($48 a year for 20 years — approximately $13,800 in 2016). Her petition was initially denied, but when it came before Congress again in 1816 an award of $76.80 a year (about $1,100 in 2016) was approved. With this amount, she was able to repay all her loans and make improvements to the family farm.


Sampson died of yellow fever on April 29, 1827. She was buried at Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts.



Deborah Sampson Gannett House, East Street, Sharon, Mass. - DPLA - 140d51deac5a798216a1eb7b348189b2
Deborah Sampson Gannett House, East Street, Sharon, Mass., August 7, 1930. Leon Abdalian Collection, Boston Public Library

The town of Sharon memorializes Sampson with a statue in front of the public library, the Deborah Sampson Park, and the "Deborah Sampson Gannett House," which is privately owned and not open to the public. The farmland around the home is protected to ensure no development occurs on the historic homestead.

In 1906, the town of Plympton, Massachusetts, with the Deborah Sampson Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, placed a boulder on the town green, with a bronze plaque inscribed to Sampson's memory.

During World War II, the Liberty Ship S.S. Deborah Gannett (2620) was named in her honor. It was laid down March 10, 1944, launched April 10, 1944, and scrapped in 1962.

As of 2000, the town flag of Plympton incorporates Sampson as the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In books

  • Alma Bond and Lucy Freeman, America's First Woman Warrior: The Courage of Deborah Sampson
  • Susan Casey, “Women Heroes of the Revolution"
  • Samuel Willard Crompton, “Deborah Sampson"
  • Ann McGovern and Katherine Thompson, The Secret Soldier: The Story Of Deborah Sampson

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Deborah Sampson para niños

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