Biography of Deborah Sampson, Revolutionary War Heroine

Engraved portrait of Deborah Sampson (1787)
Engraved portrait of Deborah Sampson (1787).

Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760–April 29, 1827) was one of the only women to serve in the army during the Revolutionary War. After disguising herself as a man and enlisting under the name Robert Shurtliff, she served for 18 months. Sampson was severely wounded in battle and received an honorable discharge after her gender was discovered. She later successfully fought for her rights to a military pension.

Early Life

Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts on December 17, 1760. Her parents, Jonathan Sampson and Deborah Bradford, were descended from Mayflower passengers and Puritan luminaries, but they did not prosper like many of their ancestors. When Deborah was about five years old, her father vanished. The family believed that he was lost at sea during a fishing trip, but it later emerged that he had abandoned his wife and six young children and built a new life and family in Maine.

Deborah’s mother, unable to provide for her children, placed them with other relatives and families, as was common for destitute parents of the time. Deborah ended up with the widow of a former minister, Mary Prince Thatcher, who likely taught the child to read. From that point on, Deborah displayed a desire for education unusual in a girl of that era.

When Mrs. Thatcher died around 1770, 10-year old Deborah became an indentured servant in the household of Jeremiah Thomas of Middleborough, Massachusetts. A history of Middleborough recounts: “Mr. Thomas, as an earnest patriot, did much towards shaping the political opinions of the young woman in his charge.” At the same time, Thomas did not believe in women’s education, so Deborah borrowed books from the Thomas sons.

After her indenture ended in 1778, Deborah supported herself by teaching school in the summers and working as a weaver in the winter. She also used her skills at light woodworking to peddle goods like spools, pie crimpers, milking stools, and other items door-to-door.

Enlisting in the Army

The Revolution was in its final months when Deborah decided to disguise herself and attempt to enlist sometime in late 1781. She purchased some cloth and made herself a suit of men’s clothing. At 22, Deborah had reached a height of around 5 feet, 8 inches—tall even for men of the period. With a wide waist and a small chest, it was easy enough for her to pass as a young man.

She first enlisted under the pseudonym “Timothy Thayer” in Middleborough in early 1782, but her identity was discovered before she made it into service. In September 1782, the First Baptist Church of Middleborough expelled her, writing: “Last spring [she] was accused of dressing in men’s clothes and enlisting as a Soldier in the Army...and for some time before had behaved very loose and unchristian like, and at least left our parts in a sud[d]en manner, and it is not known where she has gone…”

She ended up walking from Middleborough to the port of New Bedford, where she considered signing on to an American cruiser, then passed through Boston and its suburbs, where she finally mustered in as “Robert Shurtliff” in Uxbridge in May, 1782. Private Shurtliff was one of fifty new members of the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Infantry.

Identity Uncovered

Deborah soon saw combat. On July 3, 1782, just a few weeks into her service, she took part in a battle outside Tarrytown, New York. During the fight, she was struck by two musket balls in the leg and a gash to her forehead.

Fearing exposure, “Shurtliff” begged comrades to leave her to die in the field, but they took her to the surgeon anyway. She quickly slipped out of the field hospital and removed the bullets with a penknife.

More or less permanently disabled, Private Shurtliff was reassigned as a waiter to General John Patterson. The war was essentially over, but American troops remained in the field. By June 1783, Deborah’s unit was sent to Philadelphia to put down a brewing mutiny among American soldiers over delayes in back pay and discharge.

Fevers and illness were common in Philadelphia, and not long after she arrived, Deborah fell seriously ill. She was put under the care of Dr. Barnabas Binney, who discovered her true gender as she lay delirious in his hospital. Rather than alert her commander, he took her to his home and put her under the care of his wife and daughters.

After months in Binney’s care, it was time for her to rejoin General Patterson. As she prepared to leave, Binney gave her a note to give to the General, which she correctly assumed revealed her gender.

Following her return, she was called to General Patterson’s quarters. “A re-entrance was harder than facing a cannonade,” she later told a biographer. She said she nearly fainted from the tension.

To her surprise, Patterson decided not to punish her. He and his staff seemed almost impressed she had carried off her ruse for so long. With no sign she had ever acted inappropriately with her male comrades, Private Shurtliff was given an honorable discharge on October 25, 1783.   

Becoming Mrs. Gannett

Deborah returned to Massachusetts, where she married Benjamin Gannett on April 17, 1785 and settled down on their small farm in Sharon. She was soon the mother of four: Earl (1786), Mary (1788), Patience (1790), and an adopted daughter named Susanna.

Like many families in the young Republic, the Gannetts struggled financially. Starting in 1792, Deborah embarked in what would become a decades-long battle to receive back pay and pension relief from her time in service.

Unlike many of her male peers, Deborah didn’t rely just on petitions and letters to Congress. To raise her profile and strengthen her case, she also allowed a local writer named Herman Mann to write a romanticized version of her life story and in 1802 embarked on a lengthy lecture tour of Massachusetts and New York.

National Tour

Reluctantly leaving her children in Sharon, Gannett was on the road from June 1802 to April 1803. Her tour covered over 1,000 miles and stopped in every major town in Massachusetts and the Hudson River Valley, ending in New York City.

In most towns, she simply gave a lecture of her wartime experiences. In bigger venues like Boston, "The American Heroine” was a spectacle. Gannett would give her lecture in female dress, then exit the stage as a chorus sang patriotic tunes. Finally, she would reappear in her military uniform and perform a complex, 27-step military drill with her musket.

Her tour was met with widespread acclaim...until she got to New York City, where she lasted only a single performance. “Her talents do not appear calculated for theatrical exhibitions,” one reviewer sniffed.

She returned home to Sharon soon after. The high cost of travel ate up most of her expenses, and ended up making a profit of around $110.

Petition for Benefits

In her long fight for benefits, Gannett had the support of some powerful allies: Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, Massachusetts Congressman William Eustis, and her old commander, General John Patterson. All would press her claims with the Government, and Revere, in particular, would frequently lend her money.

“When I heard her spoken off [sic] as a Soldier, I formed the Idea of a tall, Masculine female, who had a small share of understandg [sic], without education, & one of the meanest of her Sex,” Revere wrote after meeting her in 1804. “When I saw and discoursed with [her] I was agreeably surprised to find a small, effeminate, and conversable Woman, whose education entitled her to a better situation in life.” But, he added, “she is much out of health,” in part because of her military service, and despite the Gannett’s obvious efforts, “they are really poor.”

In 1792, she successfully petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for back pay of £34. Following her lecture tour in 1803, she began to petition the Congress for disability pay. In 1805, she received a lump sum of $104 plus $48 a year thereafter. In 1818, she gave up disability pay for a general pension of $96 a year. The fight for retroactive payments went on until the end of her life.

Death

Deborah died at the age of 68 on April 29, 1827 after a long period of ill health. The family was too poor to pay for a headstone, and the Gannett’s gravesite in Sharon’s Rock Ridge Cemetery was unmarked until the 1850s or 1860s. At first, she was noted only as “Deborah, Wife of Benjamin Gannett.” It wasn’t until years after that someone memorialized her service by carved into the headstone: “Deborah Sampson Gannett/Robert Shurtliff/The Female Soldier.”

Deborah Sampson Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Deborah Sampson Gannett
  • Also Known As: Private Robert Shurtliff
  • Born: December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts
  • Died: April 29, 1827 in Sharon, Massachusetts
  • Education: No formal schooling.
  • Key Accomplishments: Disguised herself as a man and enlisted as “Private Robert Shurtliff” during the American Revolution. Served for 18 months before being honorably discharged.
  • Spouse's Name: Benjamin Gannett (m. 1785)
  • Children's Names: Earl, Mary, Patience, and Susanna

Sources

  • Mann, Herman. The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady. Printed by Nathaniel and Benjamin Heaton, for the Author, 1797.
  • Young, Alfred Fabian. Masquerade: the Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. Vintage Books, 2005.