She fought in Revolution disguised as a man

Deborah Samson Day honors state heroine

Deborah Samson as she was depicted in a late-18th-century painting. Deborah Samson as she was depicted in a late-18th-century painting.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Paul Della Valle
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2008

In 1782, Middleborough resident Robert Shurtliff enlisted to fight in the Revolution as a "three-year man." Slender but muscular, Shurtliff served 17 months in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, was wounded twice, and eventually honorably discharged.

Somewhere along the way, authorities discovered that Robert Shurtliff was really Deborah Samson - a woman.

Tomorrow, Massachusetts observes Deborah Samson Day - or, at least those people aware of her story do.

She fought so well as a man that two centuries later former governor Michael S. Dukakis proclaimed her the Commonwealth's official state heroine, and May 23 as Deborah Samson Day.

Her story may have special resonance today. Thousands of female soldiers - 182,000 as of January - have been deployed to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Samson's day, the military was officially off-limits to women. Samson pulled off her wartime gender-bending by binding up her chest, bathing privately in rivers, avoiding latrines - and fighting valiantly.

She enlisted when the American military was particularly desperate for men. In 1782, despite Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown the previous October, the British fought on and still held New York City. The war-weary Continental Army needed recruits and offered a 60-pound bonus to any man who would sign on for three years.

Deborah Samson decided to be one of those men.

Samson (often but erroneously spelled Sampson) was born in Plympton. Her father abandoned his wife and seven children and, at 10, Deborah was indentured to a wealthy family in Middleborough.

"As I was born to be unfortunate, my sun soon clouded," she told biographer Herman Mann.

Samson was 15 when the Revolution started and she soon became smitten with patriotism.

"Confirmed by this time in the justness of a defensive war," she said later, "I only seemed to want the license to become one of the severest avengers of the wrong."

In May 1782, Samson cut off her long blond hair, dressed as a man, and traveled 45 miles to Uxbridge to sign up. Recruits needed to meet just two qualifications: They had to be 5 feet 3 inches or taller, and needed at least two opposing teeth, since the ends of paper charges were bitten off during battle. Deborah was at least 5 feet 7 inches, taller than the average man in Colonial New England.

Even though Samson was actually 21 or 22 years old, "Robert Shurtliff" gave an age of 18. Three days later, on May 23, Private Shurtliff marched westward with the light infantry to New York's Westchester County, a Tory hotbed.

The other soldiers in the Fourth jokingly called Samson "Molly" because of her whiskerless face, but "Robert" fought as well as any man in skirmishes with the Loyalists and their Native American allies. Mann stated later that Samson, with a single shot, had killed an Indian charging at her with a raised tomahawk, an account she did not dispute.

Samson was struck on the head by a saber and was shot in the right thigh in an ambush near Tarrytown. A French doctor serving with the Continental Army treated the head wound, but Samson hid the thigh injury from him. She snuck off and clumsily attempted to remove the ball herself. The wound caused her pain for the rest of her life.

In spring 1783, while serving as a waiter to General John Paterson in Philadelphia, Shurtliff contracted a fever and became delirious. When Dr. Barnabus Binney opened Shurtliff's shirt, he discovered Deborah's truth. She begged him not to tell.

Samson continued to serve until someone - it's not clear who - revealed her gender. Shurtliff was honorably discharged on Oct. 23, 1783, one month after the Treaty of Paris was signed.

Samson quietly returned to Massachusetts. Then a front-page story appeared in the New York Gazette on Jan. 10, 1784.

It stated: "An extraordinary instance of virtue in a female soldier, has occurred lately in the American Army, in the Massachusetts line viz, a lively comely young nymph, 19 years old, dressed in man's apparel has been discovered; and what redounds to her honor, she has served in the character of a soldier for near three years undiscovered during which time she displayed herself with activity, alertness, chastity, and valour . . . For particular reasons, her real name is withheld."

A later newspaper story revealed her name. By then, she had married Benjamin Gannett in 1785 and had settled in on a hardscrabble 49-acre farm in Sharon. Deborah gave birth to three children and the Gannetts also adopted an orphan girl.

In 1792, the Legislature voted to give Samson back pay for her service. The proclamation, signed by Governor John Hancock, said: "Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism . . . at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished."

In 1797, Samson agreed to do an as-told-to book with Mann, a young editor from Dedham. She did not object to Mann's many embellishments - he even wrote she fought at Yorktown - or when he changed the spelling of her maiden name to Sampson.

In 1802, she became the first woman in America to go on a paid lecture tour. Dressed in her old uniform, Samson performed the same shtick every night - delivering a speech she and Mann had written; loading her musket, "Old Betsy;" and pretending to fire it.

Even with the money from her tour, the Gannetts lived in poverty. Paul Revere, a coppersmith in neighboring Canton, decided to help. The celebrated patriot wrote a letter advocating a federal pension for Samson to US Representative William Eustis in 1804.

"They are really poor," Revere wrote.

Samson received the pension and the family fortunes improved in later years. She died on April 29, 1827, at her son's home in Sharon.

Paul Della Valle of Sterling is the author of "Massachusetts Troublemakers, Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State," scheduled to be published by the Globe Pequot Press in the fall.

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