From Maid to Soldier
American Patriot: Deborah Sampson
Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, MA in December 17, 1760. At some point in her childhood, her father abandoned her family, and Deborah was forced to work as an indentured servant to help support her mother and siblings. It was not at all what Deborah wanted; she was an adventurous spirit, and she loved hearing the story of Joan of Arc from her grandmother. Inspired by the tales, Deborah had asked her uncle Captain Simon Sampson if she could serve as his cabin boy, and wasn’t very happy when he laughed at the suggestion.
From the age of ten to roughly eighteen, Deborah worked as an indentured servant to the Thomas family of Middleborough. The hard work made Deborah strong, and when she went hunting with the Thomas boys she became a crack shot with a musket. When she finished her work for the Thomases, she worked briefly as a teacher in a public school.
But Deborah wasn’t happy. Restless and desperately needing money, Deborah discovered that General George Washington and the new Continental Congress were offering cash bounties to anyone who would join the army and fight the British. Inspired by the thought, Deborah stole some men’s clothes from a friend, dressed herself, then enlisted as, “Thomas Thayer.” Taking the money, Deborah went to the nearest tavern where she spent all of the bounty, overslept and missed roll-call the next morning. Worse yet, an elderly woman recognized Deborah through her disguise and ratted her out to the commanding officers of the Continental Army. Dismayed that they had been tricked, the officers forgave the bounty Deborah had squandered but warned her that if she ever tried to enlist again then there would be severe consequences.
Deborah heeded the warning for a time, but in 1782 she enlisted again in Bellingham, signing up with the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, this time as, “Robert Shurtliff,” the name of one of her brothers who had died at a young age. Standing at 5’7” and muscular, nobody in the Continental Army seemed to suspect that “Robert” was really a woman. This time, Deborah wasn't in it for the money; she really wanted to help fight the British.
It didn’t take long for the war to find Deborah; not long after enlisting, Deborah was part of a scouting unit when they surprised enemy troops. A three hour battle ensued, and at the end Deborah was shocked to find a bullet hole in her hat and two more in her coat. Some time later Deborah was in an army camp when the American soldiers were ambushed by Tories, settlers who were still loyal to the king of England. In the melee, Deborah received a head wound and two musket balls to the thigh. She was carried to a nearby French field hospital where one of the doctors became suspicious of her. Deborah allowed him to treat her head wound, but he somehow missed the two musket balls. Finding a place to hide, Deborah was able to remove one of the musket balls with a needle and a penknife, but the other was in too deep. By operating on herself, she was able to keep her gender a secret.
In another battle outside of Yorktown, Deborah killed a Redcoat and was wounded by a saber slash. According to Deborah, too injured to continue, Deborah and another soldier named Richard Snow were allowed to stay behind and quickly found shelter in the attic of an empty house. To Deborah’s horror, a large group of Tories met that night in the house. That night Snow died from his wounds, and, to make matters worse, stray cats were finding their way into the house and attic, meowing loudly. Deborah tried to chase them off with her cutlass and managed to avoid detection until the next day. Sneaking out of the house, Deborah rushed to rejoin her unit, leading them back to the house where they rescued Snow’s body and captured the Tories.
In 1783, Deborah and her regiment were en route to Philadelphia to crush a mutiny when she suddenly became ill with a fever. Sent to a hospital, her secret was discovered by Dr. Barnabas Binney. Fortunately, Dr. Binney never said a word to anyone, and even arranged for “Robert” to stay with Binney’s clueless family until “he” recovered.
It was a long, bloody war, but it finally ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, and the colonies were granted their freedom. Ordered to West Point to receive discharge papers, Deborah went to the fort with a letter from her friend Dr. Binney, which explained her whole story. General Patterson took the letter and instantly thought it to be a joke, but he quickly changed his mind when “Robert” stepped out and returned a short time later wearing women’s clothes. Just like Dr. Binney, General Patterson knew to keep his mouth shut and quietly gave Deborah both an honorable discharge and money to return home.
Deborah returned to Massachusetts, where she married Benjamin Garrett and had three children plus an adopted girl. When times became tough, Deborah petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature to grant her the backpay she was due from the army, backpay the army wasn’t willing initially to give up because she was a woman. Deborah won that battle in 1792, but it still wasn’t enough. She began to tour the theaters throughout the young United States, giving lectures on her exploits in the army, dressing in her uniform, practicing drills and singing songs. It still wasn’t earning Deborah much money so one of her good friends, a man named Paul Revere, personally requested that Congress grant Deborah a military pension. Finally, Congress placed Deborah on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll, granting her four dollars a month, but Deborah and Revere continued to petition Congress until they agreed to pay her $76.80 a year.
On April 29, 1827, brave, bold, patriotic Deborah passed away and is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon, MA where there is a statue of her in front of the library. Her husband continued to receive a pension as the widow of a soldier.
Deborah Sampson worked referenced:
Warrior Women, by Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles
Women Warriors, by David E. Jones
America’s Women, by Gail Collins
Uppity Women of the New World, by Vicki Leon
Hell Hath No Fury, by Rosalind Miles & Robin Cross