This Day in History: A Revolutionary War heroine dresses as a man so she can fight
On this day in 1827, American patriot Deborah Samson (or Sampson) dies at the age of 66. She is best known for disguising herself as a man so she could fight in the American Revolution.
Unfortunately, portions of Samson’s story are hard to tell with accuracy. In 1797, a biography was published about her, but the author of that biography admitted that he wrote the book “hurriedly.” It is full of mistakes! Despite this handicap, we do know a few things about Samson.
Samson was born to a poor family in Massachusetts. Depending on whose account you believe, her father either abandoned the family or was lost at sea. Either way, her mother was forced to sell her and her siblings into indentured servitude. Thus it was that Samson found herself working in Deacon Jeremiah Thomas’s home, laboring in the fields next to his sons. During her time with the family, she managed to learn some of the boys’ school lessons as they did homework in the evenings. By the time she was 18, she was able to leave the Thomas home. She became a schoolteacher.
She was obsessed with the conflict between Britain and America. She later noted that “my mind became agitated with the enquiry—why a nation, separated from us by an ocean more than three thousand miles in extent, should endeavor to enforce on us plans of subjugation . . . .” She decided to help. She was tall for a woman and strong from years of working the fields. She determined to sign up as a soldier.
At this point, accounts vary. Some claim she enlisted in 1781, but others claim it was 1782. If the latter, the war was unofficially over, but skirmishes continued anyway. Loyalists were not always ready to admit defeat and the British still occupied New York City. Samson tried to sign up as “Timothy Thayer,” but she failed. (It is unclear why.) In May, she tried again. This time, she signed up in a different town under the name “Robert Shurtlieff.”
In one incident, Samson was involved in hand-to-hand fighting. She suffered a gash across her forehead and a bullet in her thigh. She allowed the doctors to treat her forehead, but she (at least allegedly) hid the injury to her thigh because she did not want her true identity to be discovered. Instead, she snuck away and removed the bullet, all on her own. She did an imperfect job and her leg never fully recovered. She served honorably for many months before her gender was discovered. Colonel Henry Jackson later affirmed that Robert Shurtlieff “had the confidence of his officers and did his duty as a faithful and good soldier.” When Samson’s gender was discovered, she received an honorable discharge.
A few years later, Samson got married. She was suffering in poverty again, at least until her biography was published in 1797. Samson ended up receiving a pension for her service, and she went on a lecture tour to speak of her experiences. During these speeches, she donned a military uniform and performed military drills.
Many decades later, Michael Dukakis signed a bill naming her the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (2004)
Melissa Lukeman Bohrer, Glory, Passion, and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution (2004)
Paul Della Valle, Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State (2009).