History

Female Revolutionary War Hero Deborah Sampson Disguised as a Man

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Taking a look back in time is always interesting, especially when we are talking about women that had to disguise themselves as men in order achieve their goals. Many of us are familiar with icons such as Joan of Arc or J.K. Rowlings impersonating males, but not as many people have heard about Deborah Sampson who is an American Revolutionary War hero that fought alongside our first American soldiers and even had her husband approved for widower’s pay upon her death in 1837.

Changing your identity is fairly common. Really, we all love to do it at one time or another. Just take a look at Halloween to see the love that people have for being someone else; however, we are talking about something entirely different. When a woman feels the need to impersonate a man for a long period of time in order to achieve a goal such as advancement in career or to fight for a cause, the risk is much greater.

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Deborah Sampson’s Tenacious History Growing Up as a Colonist

Sampson was born in 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts, which was just 140 years after her Pilgrim ancestors landed in America on the Mayflower. Although her mother and father were descendants of Governors and famous Pilgrims, her family struggled to make ends meet. She lost her father out at sea when she was five-years old and her and her six siblings were given to other families while her mother farmed. Needless to say, this family was tough as nails. 

Eventually, Deborah became an indentured servant at 10 and was released when she was 18 of her debt. From there, she began to teach in summers and weave in winters, but when she saw all of her countrymen fighting in the Revolutionary War, she decided to disguise herself as male and become a Patriot, too. 

Woman Warrior in Disguise

At this point, Deborah Sampson became known as Robert Shurtleff (her deceased brother’s name) and joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment in 1782. She was assigned to Captain Webb’s  Company of Light Infantry at West Point where the other soldiers nicknamed her “Molly” due to her lack of facial hair, but the joke was on them.

Sampson was given the dangerous and important job of scouting neutral territory in order to report back to General George Washington about British activity in Manhattan. She also helped two sergeants lead the attack on a confrontational expedition of a Tory home (American supporters of the British effort) that ended in a one-on-one battle and the capture of 15 men. She is also said to have endured cannon fire in Yorktown where she dug trenches. 

Sampson Honorable Discharged

Sampson had to stay on her toes to avoid detection. Not only was she in the middle of the war, but she also had to keep in continual disguise. She did for almost two years, dodging anyone revealing her identity. Sampson was injured and forced to dress her head wound by the medics on the field, but when they tried to take her to the infantry, she wandered off. No one ever found out that she extracted the bullet wound herself on her thigh, narrowly avoiding exposure of her true identity. 

She couldn’t avoid things too much longer because she developed a fever due to infection and started talking nonsense. She was sent to the medics again and her identity was revealed. She received an honorable discharge in 1782. 

After the American Revolution

Sampson married a Massachusetts farmer named Benjamin Garrett, and they lived happily together until 1827 when she died at age 67. Sampson didn’t just settle down after the war; she went on to sell her story to Herman Mann and tour in her full uniform, telling her story. Her husband Benjamin filed for widower’s spousal support even though they weren’t married during the war. No case set a precedent for her honorable discharge as a woman and Garrett was granted the support by 1838, but he passed away before the money came to him. 

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