In the early part of 1782, Timothy Thayer joined a Continental Army unit in Middleborough, Mass., receiving a bonus for enlisting. One of thousands to enlist during the Revolution, there was nothing unusual or noteworthy about Timothy at first glance. But when he failed to show up for muster, an inquiry revealed that someone had recognized him. That ended the deception. Timothy was really Deborah Sampson (Samson).
One can only imagine the commotion this caused, and of course, being a woman, she was instantly dismissed. She surrendered the bonus. As a Baptist she then faced the wrath of the church, which withdrew its fellowship, essentially ostracizing her. A woman belonged solely in the home in the 18th century.
Deborah Sampson was born on Dec. 17, 1760, in Plympton, Province of Massachusetts Bay, British America. She was the oldest of seven children, and a descendant of Governor William Bradford, a Mayflower passenger and the first governor of the Plymouth Colony. Her family was abandoned by her father when Deborah was five. Her impoverished mother sent the children away to various homes. At age eight, she ended up indentured to Jeremiah Thompson and his family of 10 sons in Middleborough, Province of Massachusetts Bay.
Initially she self-schooled, learning by studying with the Thompson boys each night. They always did it after a day of hard farm labor. In the winter, when the farm work lessened, she could attend school. Almost a foot taller than women of her time, and taller than most men, she would have been an undeniable presence, even when indentured.
At 18, her indenture ended. Pushed to find a husband, normal for her age and time, she refused. She took up a position as a schoolteacher, supplementing her income with spinning and weaving. During her time spent in a local tavern, again not normal for a single woman, that she came across men engaged in and supporting the then-ongoing Revolutionary War.
Robert Shurtliff Enlists
In May 1782, Robert Shurtliff enlisted at Uxbridge, Mass., for three years. He served as a private in Capt. George Webb’s Light Company, Col. William Shepard’s 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Line. The Light Company, a unit of elite troops, had reconnaissance and flank security duties.
Tall for his time at 5 feet 9 inches and muscular from hard farm work, he fit right in. Again, not an unusual instance, except this time, Deborah Sampson got away with it. This time she had the smarts to go farther from home to avoid recognition.
Disguised as a man, she must have had more than a little difficulty sustaining the deception, especially in the conditions of the 18th century and surrounded by rough and tumble men. But she somehow managed. By this time, the major battles of the Revolution had ended, the last at Yorktown in October 1781. But the war itself had not ended, and numerous small actions continued to flare. Most conflicts involved meeting engagements and guerilla actions as both sides tried to locate the other and gauge their intentions.
On July 3, 1782, Robert Shurtliff/Deborah Sampson saw her first action near Tarrytown, N.Y. In short, sharp, close-in hand-to-hand fighting, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a saber cut to her head. She was taken to a doctor in spite of her protestations where her cut was treated first. The doctor, called away, left briefly. Deborah took the opportunity to leave before he could treat her bullet wounds, as that would have inevitably led to the discovery of her sex.
Two bullets in the thigh would incapacitate most people, especially considering that these were soft lead balls that tended to spread and create large wounds. Making good her “escape” she treated her own wounds, removing one ball with a pen knife, then sewing up the wound with a needle and thread. She left the other ball in her leg as it was too deep to reach. All of this had to be done in private, and it was an age when there was no anesthetic or wound hygiene. The pain must have been incredible, hygiene non-existent, and it was a miracle that the wound never turned septic.
Her leg never fully healed but she remained in service. To avoid discovery, she immediately rejoined her unit, and probably was on some type of light duty for a short period before continuing with the normal scouting duties. Then on April 1, 1783, she was assigned as a waiter to Gen. John Paterson. It was a promotion, and such an assignment would only be given to a soldier who was well-respected and thought of as having good character.
With the war drawing to a close, unrest was brewing in Philadelphia among soldiers who hadn’t been paid. Washington sent General Paterson with a contingent of soldiers to quell the unrest, and Deborah traveled with the general, still in his direct service. While in Philadelphia, she became ill with a serious fever, more dead than alive, and at this point she had to be taken to Dr. Barnabas Binney. To treat her, he had to remove her clothes and it was at this point that her deception was revealed. Rather than immediately turn her in however, he kept her secret and took her to his home to recover, where she was treated by his wife, daughters, and a nurse.
The Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783 ending the war. With no more need for a standing army, November 3 was set the date for mustering out of the American forces. Deborah Sampson, still officially enrolled as Robert Shurtliff, had sufficiently recovered to return to duty. Dr. Binney sent her back to General Paterson with a note. Deborah knew what the note said, and when she presented it to General Paterson, her deception was finally officially revealed.
Under the rules of the time, General Paterson would have been justified in reprimanding her and summarily dismissing her on the spot. However, he gave her regular discharge papers, a lecture, and money to return home. On October 25, 1783, Deborah Sampson aka Robert Shurtliff was honorably discharged by General Henry Knox at West Point, New York. She had served for a year and a half. Though she was honorably discharged, the pay due her was withheld due to her sex.
Deborah Sampson After the War
Returning home, she met and married Benjamin Gannet on April 7, 1785, in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Gannet was a farmer from Sharon, Massachusetts, and Deborah assumed the quiet life of a farmer’s wife, giving him a son, Earl, and two daughters, Mary and Patience.
It was a very small farm, and money was constantly an issue. To help alleviate their financial situation, Deborah petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature in 1792 for pay denied her when she was discharged. This time the legislature granted her petition, and she was awarded 34 pounds ($6472 in 2023) with interest from the time of her discharge, along with praise for her service. It was a significant sum at the time.
In 1796, Deborah and Benjamin adopted a baby, Susannah Baker Shepherd, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father disappeared. The reason for the adoption is not clear, but they must have been close to the mother to essentially take in another mouth to feed, their financial situation still a serious problem.
In 1797, the family was still struggling financially when Deborah was approached by a writer and editor named Herman Mann, who suggested they cooperate with publishing a story of her service in the Revolution. Deborah saw this as an opportunity to help with finances and it led to the publishing of “The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution”. The book sold well, but it was a really a poor history since Mann took a great deal of literary license. But it did serve to make Deborah more of a New England household name.
By 1802, the family still faced financial stress. Deborah began appearing around Massachusetts and parts of New England in a lecture/demonstration event. Designed around her, she called her appearance “The American Heroine.” For about a year, she appeared on stage speaking about her experiences. She lectured on the virtue of womanhood, then changed into a military uniform, showing the audience how to clean, load and fire a musket. All these roles, while married and trying to enhance the family finances, would have been unique for a woman of the time. An unseen, unheard role as the woman of the house was the expected norm.
Friendship with Paul Revere
At some point, Deborah became friends with Paul Revere. In 1801 he had established a copper rolling mill, the Revere Copper Company (now the Paul Revere Heritage Site Park), in Canton, Mass., a town next to hers. At the time, Revere was not the Revolutionary War icon that Longfellow’s poem later made him. He was simply a well-known local entrepreneur, and his revolutionary war role was not remarkable or generally known at the time. It’s not clear how they became acquainted, but the friendship was close enough that in 1804, Revere, moved by her financial situation, wrote a long letter to Congress petitioning for them to grant her a pension. The letter, dated Feb. 20, 1804, stated in part:
“Her husband is a good sort of man, though of small force in business. They have a few acres of poor land, which they cultivate, but they are really poor. I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit and soldier’s uniform for the most decent apparel of her own sex,; and 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 granted her an invalid pension on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension rolls. Effective on that date, it amounted to four dollars a month (about $102 in 2023). She was the first female to be granted a military pension. The money certainly helped. But in 1809, Deborah again petitioned Congress to make the pension retroactive to 1783. Congress refused. In 1816, she renewed the petition, and this time Congress approved it. She received $6.40 a month (about $135 in 2023).
Deborah Sampson Remembered
Some histories claim she was present at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered in 1781. She did claim this as an afterthought in an 1818 petition, but made no such claim in her original 1792 petition. Deborah then listed her period of service as starting in 1782. She most certainly would have claimed it in her original petition if it had been true. It appears to have been an ill-conceived effort to enhance her later petition. Furthermore, no records exist of anyone at Yorktown serving under either of her known aliases. Nor does any proof exist that she had previously served under another name.
The effects of the musket ball still lodged in her thigh began to catch up to her. She suffered chronic ill health. Although she lived for several more years, she contracted yellow fever, a common illness at the time. She died at age 67 in Sharon, Mass., on April 29, 1827.
Her story didn’t end with her death, however. In 1983, Massachusetts declared her the Official State Heroine. The commonwealth celebrates Deborah Samson Gannett Day each year on May 23. Also, the Town of Sharon raised a statue to her in front of the town library.
Women played various roles in the American Revolution, including some who took up arms to protect their homes. At least three others tried to enlist, two for the bounty alone, and one to fight. Anne Bailey enlisted under the name of Samuel Gay. Anne was quickly discovered, fined, discharged and jailed for two weeks.
Deborah Sampson, however, was the first, and only woman known to have fought as a soldier during the American Revolution.
Deborah Sampson is the author’s 4th Cousin, 8 times removed.