Revolutionary War Heroine That Disguised Herself as a Man to Join the Fight
“I am indeed willing to acknowledge what I have done, an error and presumption. I will call it an error and presumption because I swerved from the accustomed flowery path of female delicacy, to walk upon the heroic precipice of feminine perdition!”
~ Deborah Samson
The life of Deborah Samson was one of equal parts courage, mystique, and embellishment. She was born in abject poverty and all but abandoned by both of her parents by the time she was five years old. Deborah took fate into her own hands, learning skills frowned upon by Puritan values and eventually serving on behalf of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. Although ultimately discovered, she became heralded for her exploits and celebrated for the rest of her days.
Deborah Samson Gannett was born in December 1760 in Plympton, MA, to Jonathan Samson Jr and Deborah (Bradford) Samson. She was the oldest of seven children. Her family had very little money, and her life was difficult. At age five, Deborah’s father abandoned the family. Her mother, unable to adequately provide for the children on her own, sent Deborah and the next four oldest siblings to live with friends and relatives. She was adopted by cousin Ruth Fuller, a distant relative who unfortunately died three years later. Next, she was sent to live with Mary Prince Thatcher, a pastor’s ailing widow that required constant care. It was likely here that Deborah learned to read.
Within a year, Deborah was moved out of that situation and into one that would change the course of her life. At ten years old, she became an indentured servant for the family of Deacon Jeremiah Thomas¹, exchanging her labor for room and board. Life was hard, as the young girl was required to work long and hard hours, but Deborah enjoyed her time. She learned to sew, hunt, ride a horse, and do carpentry work alongside her daily duties. She also took part in tasks that weren’t necessarily in compliance with Puritan standards, including plowing fields, stacking hay, and spreading fertilizer.
Deborah wasn’t permitted to join the Thomas boys at school. The Deacon was opposed to women getting an education.² Although she wasn’t allowed to learn alongside them, she managed to learn from them. She devoured her lessons, gaining an interest in politics and the events that had led to the injustices against the American colonies at the hands of the British.
When she turned eighteen, she was no longer contractually bound to the family, however, she remained with them for two more years, teaching school and weaving clothing for money. Around the age of twenty, Deborah began to give in to her longtime want for adventure — to see the places she’d heard about in school. However, society frowned at the idea of a woman travelling alone. And the fact remained that it probably wasn’t safe for her to do so.
¹ Some sources list Deacon Jeremiah Thomas as Deacon Benjamin Thomas.
² Sources are inconclusive about this. Some note that Deacon Thomas was for Deborah getting an education and allowed her to join his boys in school — some say exactly the opposite.
In 1781 the American Army was desperately recruiting soldiers to join its forces and offered a bounty to those that enlisted. Either out of a need to serve or to explore the world around her, Deborah decided to join the military. She stitched herself a uniform, and signed on in her hometown. Women weren’t allowed to serve, so she disguised herself as a man named Timothy Thayer. She was given the signing bonus, but was recognized by another resident as Deborah Samson and eventually forced to return the money. The Baptist church she was a member of shunned her for her “unchristian like” attempted ruse.
Unwilling to take no for an answer, Samson traveled to Uxbridge, MA and attempted to enlist again in the Spring of 1782. This time, she named herself Robert Shirtliff³, after her deceased younger brother. She was successful. In May 1782 Deborah was mustered into Massachusetts Fourth Brigade an assigned to Captain George Webb’s Company of Light Infantry near West Point, New York. She and her company were sent along to neutral ground in southern New York to scout British troop movements and fight.
Deborah, 5’ 9” and muscular from years of labor, told authorities she was eighteen. She was immediately welcomed in as one of the boys. She slept in the same quarters and took part in the good-natured ribbing alongside the other men. She, as Robert, was even teased by the other troops in her unit for her inability to grow a beard.
³ The last name Shirtliff is alternately spelled a number of different ways, including Shirtlieff, Shurtliff.
On July 3, 1782, Samson received three injuries during her first battle, a cut to her head, and two musket ball wounds to her thigh. Less worried about losing her life than being discovered, she begged those fighting with her to leave her to die. They took her to the field hospital to have her wounds tended to. After the doctor attended on her head injury, Deborah snuck away. She removed one of the two bullets with a penknife and sewed the wound shut with a needle and thread. The other shell, too deep to dig out, remained with her for the rest of her life.
Still physically limited due to her injuries, on April 1, 1783, Samson was reassigned as a servant to General John Paterson.
In June 1783, Samson was among a contingent of soldiers sent to Philadelphia by Paterson to help quell a brewing mutiny of American soldiers that were protesting delays in receiving their pay and discharges. While in the city, Samson became deathly ill and was placed in the care of Dr. Barnabas Binney. He removed her clothes to treat her and noticed a cloth binding around her breasts. Instead of alerting her commanding officers, Dr. Binney took her to his home to be cared for by his wife, daughters, and a nurse named Mrs. Parker.
When Samson returned to health, she understood that it was only a matter of time before her superiors learned her secret, and she’d have to face the consequences of her actions. Deborah returned to the Army in September 1783, expecting punishment and was instead honorably discharged from the service on October 25, 1783, by General Henry Knox.⁴ The military had looked past her deception and rewarded her for her seventeen months of service.
⁴ Some accounts say that Dr. Birney gave Samson a note to present to General Paterson, explaining that although she served her post with honor — she had tricked them. Paterson then discharged her honorably. Others note that George Washington was eventually given the letter and rewarded her with an honorable discharge. The above seems to be the popular account.
On April 17, 1785, Deborah Samson married farmer, Benjamin Gannett. The couple had four children, three biological and one adopted. After an unconventional couple of years, Deborah Samson Gannett falls into a conventional life of sorts, taking care of the family home while the husband provides. Unfortunately, Benjamin is less than successful, and the family struggled financially.
In January 1792, to provide for her family, Samson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for the military pay withheld from her because she was a woman. She was awarded thirty-four pounds and lauded for her heroism.
The money was well short of what was given to men that had served, and not nearly enough to help pull her family out of poverty. In 1802, Samson Gannett decided to leverage her fame by holding lectures in the northeast, regaling audiences about her time in the Army. Through these lectures and Paul Revere’s help, she successfully campaigned to be paid for her service.
In 1805 the U.S. Congress granted Sampson a yearly pension of $48 for being injured in the performance of a soldier’s duties. The money allowed the family to buy a house on their land and perform necessary upkeep. The pension amount was increased in 1818 to $76.80.
On April 29, 1827, after suffering ill health for some time, Deborah passed away in her son’s home. She was buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery.
Deborah Samson Gannett lived an amazing life on her terms. As a young girl she learned to read, and admirably performed tasks that weren’t becoming of her gender in Puritan America. She risked her freedom to serve her country as a soldier for the Continental Army. Samson Gannett fought bravely, and in the end was discharged from the service honorably.
She continues to be celebrated almost two-hundred years after her death. In 1982, the Massachusetts legislature proclaimed her the state’s official heroine, declaring May 23, “Deborah Samson Day.”
References can be found here.