Deborah Sampson: Biography & Facts

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  • 0:04 Early Years
  • 1:04 Sampson Heads to War
  • 2:26 Discovery and Discharge
  • 3:11 Marriage
  • 3:26 Pension Battle and Publicity
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

In 2016, the first women in U.S. history were accepted into Special Forces training. These two women mark an important moment in the history of women in the military, one that started with Deborah Sampson and other women in the Revolutionary War.

Early Years

Although women didn't officially serve in the military until World War I, women have been serving in many roles alongside men since the Revolutionary War. Many of them were nurses or cooks, but some, like Deborah Sampson, dressed in a man's uniform and fought right alongside men on the battlefront.

Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts. Her family struggled to feed their seven children, so after her father was presumably lost at sea, her mother had to send the children to live at the homes of friends and relatives. Deborah became the indentured servant (someone under contract for another person for a definite amount of time, sometimes without pay but in exchange for passage to another country) of Jeremiah and Susannah Thomas, whom she lived with from the time she was ten until she was released from her servitude at 18. The Thomases had helped educate Deborah, so she was able to work as a school teacher in the summers of 1779 and 1780.

Sampson Heads to War

As the Revolutionary War continued to rage, Sampson was feeling restless. She didn't want to just be a nurse, though. She sewed a uniform for herself and said her name was Robert Shurtleff. Some say she enlisted in either 1781 or 1782 in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. Here she served as a scout, meaning she had to go and find out where the British were encamped and how many of them were there and what kind of supplies they had. At this time the regiment was in New York.

In July of 1782, Sampson and two sergeants, along with 30 infantrymen, were exploring when they were confronted by British soldiers. She also led a raid on a Tory (usually British or someone who sided with the British) home that captured several Tories. She also dug trenches during the Battle of Yorktown.

Sampson was wounded three times while fighting. The first injury was a gash to the head. She knew she might be discovered if she went to a hospital, so she took care of the injury herself. Her second injury was a musket ball to the thigh. This time she had to go to the hospital but showed the doctor her head injury instead. There are two tales when it comes to the musket ball injury. Both say that Sampson treated the wound herself, but one tale has her getting the ball out and the other doesn't. Either way, the injury caused her pain the rest of her life. Her third injury was a shot in the shoulder.

Discovery and Discharge

In 1783, Sampson became ill. She was hospitalized while fighting in Philadelphia. While being treated by Dr. Barnabas Binney, her identity was discovered. Binney admired Sampson 's patriotism and let her recover from her fever at his house. Sampson had been serving under General John Patterson, so when she had recovered, Dr. Binney sent her to General Patterson with a letter telling him that Sampson wasn't a man named Robert, but was actually a woman. Sampson thought she'd be punished, but Patterson was supportive, as she had fought bravely and should be rewarded. Patterson wrote to General Henry Knox who then told General George Washington of the situation. Other generals and sergeants testified to Sampson's bravery, and she was given an honorable discharge in October of 1783.

Marriage

Upon her return to Massachusetts, Sampson met Benjamin Gannett. They married on April 7, 1785. They had three children: Earl, Mary, and Patience. They ran a farm in Sharon, Massachusetts, but they weren't very successful.

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