1760 - 1827

Grade Level: 5th

Related Topics: Early America, Revolutionary War
Author: Lora Barney


    • Background Information:

      Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, in Plymouth County, in the colony of Massachusetts on December 17, 1760. She was born to parents, Jonathan Sampson Junior and Deborah Bradford Sampson.Deborah's early years of life proved to be difficult ones. The Sampson family was impoverished. Before Deborah's fifth birthday, her father abandoned the family to find his fortune at sea and was never heard from again. Deborah's mother was later told that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck.

      Due to her father's abandonment, Deborah's mother lacked the means to support her family. Deborah and her five younger siblings were sent to live with various friends and relatives. At age five, Deborah was adopted by a distant relative who died only three years later. At age eight Deborah was once again forced to find a new home, this time that of a pastor's widow. Deborah was unhappy there, and at age ten she became bound out as an indentured servant to the family of Benjamin Thomas. Thomas was a deacon of the church and an affluent farmer in Middleborough, Massachusetts.

      Deborah seemed to enjoy life on the Thomas farm, although she was required to work many long and difficult hours. At the Thomas residence, she was able to learn many skills in addition to her normal housework and farming duties. Deborah did not necessarily comply with the accepted Puritan attitudes of the times regarding women, and participated in numerous "unfeminine" type activities. Some activities included plowing fields, spreading manure fertilizer, milking cows, stacking hay, and feeding farm animals. She also became skilled in carpentry, spinning, sewing, and weaving cloth. Throughout her life, Deborah continued to be different from most women of her time period.

      Most importantly, however, Deborah was permitted to gain skills at school and to get an education. She tagged along with the Thomas sons to the town schoolroom where she devoured every bit of information possible. Deborah also began to find great interest in politics and in the events of the war that had begun between the American colonies and the British.

      Legally, in 1778 at the age of eighteen, Deborah was free from her servitude with the Thomas family. Nevertheless, she chose to remain at the Thomas farm for approximately two more years, during which time she taught at the local school and spun wool for several families.

      At age 20, Deborah desired a more adventurous life and set out to travel to distant towns. Being afraid to travel alone as a woman caused her to devise a plan to travel dressed as a male. Deborah compressed her breasts by wrapping them with a cotton strip. She donned a man's coat, waistcoat, and breeches, and made her journeys into several distant towns and wild taverns, subsisting on a very meager income.

      In the winter of 1781-1782, Deborah found herself boarding with the family of Captain Benjamin Leonard. Similar to previous winters, she was employed by the family to weave cloth for the Leonard family's clothing. During these winter months, Congress desperately pleaded for more recruits to join the American Army. Deborah began scheming with the Leonard's servant Jenny to enlist in the army dressed as a man.

      Deborah disguised herself and went to the local recruiting office, enlisting under the name of Timothy Thayer. She pocketed the bounty money given to all recruits, and went to a nearby tavern to spend the evening. Apparently, an older woman at the recruiting office noticed the way that Deborah had held the quill when signing her name. She reported that it was similar to the way Deborah Sampson held a pen, due to an injured finger that prevented her from properly writing with a quill.

      Officials confronted Deborah about the matter, and forced her to give back the bounty money she had received. They told her not to do this again, warning her that she would be severely punished. Deborah's mother thought she ought to marry in an effort to distract the town from all the cruel gossip about Deborah. However, Deborah had no interest in marriage at the time, and felt strongly about a particular young man whom her mother wanted her to marry. "I had not her eyes to see such perfection in this lump of a man, or that he possessed qualities that would regenerate me" (Evans, p.306, 1975).

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      Deborah escaped Middleborough and went to Bellingham. There she found an agent who charged part of her bounty to sign her up to enlisted in the town of Uxbridge. Dressed in men's clothing, on May 20, 1782, Deborah Sampson became the first American woman to impersonate a man and join the American army serving as a soldier. Under the name of Robert Shurtliff (also reported as Shirtliff, Shurtleff, and Shirtliffe), she had enlisted for three years of service in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by Colonel Shepard and later by Colonel Henry Jackson.

      In the military, Deborah was able to keep her gender a secret with minimal effort. She bathed during odd hours, changed clothes, and used the restroom in the dark whenever possible. For the most part, Deborah participated fully in her soldier responsibilities, such as marching and drilling each day. Never once did anyone hear Deborah complain.

      During the summer of 1782, Sampson and thirty other soldiers volunteered to flush out armed Tories in East Chester. During this maneuver Deborah became wounded. She was taken to a hospital and treated for head wounds. Deborah was very fearful of having her gender discovered, thus she hid a shot received to the thigh from her doctor. While in the hospital, she was able to get the bullet from the shot out of her leg by herself. Rather than confess her hidden injury, she returned to active duty immediately without allowing ample time for the leg wound to heal. Deborah's leg never healed correctly and was a problem for the remainder of her life.

      Back in her hometown of Middleborough, the First Baptist Church decided to excommunicate Deborah. The church considered her actions of dressing like a man (Timothy Thayer) to be "unchristian like" and loose behavior, and that it was in the Church's duty to disfellowship her until she returned and made "Christian satisfaction".

      Sampson found herself in a hospital once again after arriving in Philadelphia to aid in squelching a rebellion of several American Officers. Malignant fever was raging in Philadelphia and Deborah had a terrible case that nearly ended her life. Dr. Barnabas Binney cared for Deborah at the hospital during this illness. At one point he thrust his hand to her chest to make sure her heart was still beating. At this moment the doctor inadvertently discovered that the soldier was a woman. This discovery became crucial to Deborah's career in the military due to the fact that Barnabas Binney was responsible for eventually telling military officials that "Robert Shurtliff" was a woman.

      Nevertheless, Dr. Binney was kind to the tired soldier and opened his own home to Deborah. She stayed with the Binney family for quite some time before returning to the military in the 11th Massachusetts Regiment in full health.

      In September 1783, peace was assured through the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Robert Shurtliff was to report to West Point where she would join the West Point regiment under the command of Major General John Paterson. The Binneys saw Deborah off from Philadelphia, and Dr. Binney gave her a letter for General Paterson.

      Tragically, on her journey from Philadelphia to West Point, Deborah's personal journal was lost. She was caught in a boat on a river during a terrible storm, which capsized their vessel and sent her clothes and daily journal to settle permanently at the river bottom.

      Upon reaching West Point, Deborah handed Dr. Binny's letter over to General Paterson. The letter revealed Sampson's guarded secret concerning her true gender, while it praised her moral and intellectual qualities. General Paterson and Colonel Jackson did not believe they had a woman in their army until Deborah changed into women's clothing. She was honorably discharged from the military by General Henry Knox at West Point on October 23, 1783.

      After her discharge, Deborah headed toward Boston and found work at an uncle's farm in Stoughton. She worked there until she met and married Benjamin Gannett in April of 1784. Deborah had three children between 1786 and 1790, named Earl, Mary, and Patience. The family eked out a meager life on a small farm.

      In January, 1792 Deborah petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay which the army had withheld from her. Her petition passed through the Senate and was approved, being signed by Governor John Hancock. The General Court of Massachusetts verified her service and wrote, "...Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished" (Evans, p.317, 1975). The Court awarded Deborah a total of thirty-four pounds for her services.

      In 1802 Deborah began traveling and speaking publicly for audiences throughout the colonies regarding her service in the military. These speeches were initiated due to her own personal financial needs as well as a desire to justify her enlistment. During public speeches, she would often speak as a type of opening act for theater plays. Sampson spoke while fully clad in official blue and white uniform, armed with a musket, and beginning only after performing twenty-seven maneuvers of military gun drills.

      She stated that, "I am indeed willing to acknowledge what I have done, an error and presumption. I will call it an error and presumption because I swerved from the accustomed flowery path of female delicacy, to walk upon the heroic precipice of feminine perdition!" (Evans, p.327, 1975). She also declared, "...I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe..." (Henretta, p.2, 1997).

      In 1804 Paul Revere, a good friend of the Gannett family, wrote to William Eustis, Massachusetts' representative in Congress, on their behalf. The family was destitute and Deborah's health was failing. Congress in Washington obliged the letter, and placed Deborah Sampson Gannett on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll. The pension plan paid the Gannetts 4 dollars per month.

      Deborah died on April 29, 1827 at the age of sixty-six and was buried in Rockridge Cemetery, one mile south of her home in Sharon. It is speculated that wounds suffered during the war may have hastened her death.

      Upon her death, the government stopped all pension payments to the Gannett household. After 10 years of petitioning by Benjamin Gannett and one year after his death, Congress passed a Special Act for the relief of Deborah Gannett's heirs, and paid them the sum of $466.66. This amount was determined compensation for the pension owed Mr. Gannett from the time of his first petition to his death in 1837.

      "...They believe they are warranted saying that the whole history of the American Revolution records no case like this, and furnishes no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity, and courage" (Evans, p.333, 1975).

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    • References:

      Amazing Women in War and Peace. [On-line]. Available:

      Bois, D. Deborah Sampson. (1760-1827). [On-line]. Available: http//

      Cheney, C. (1967). The Incredible Deborah. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

      Evans, E. (1975). Weathering the Storm: Women of the American Revolution. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

      Freeman, L. and Bond, A.H. (1992). America's First Woman Warrior. New York: Paragon House.

      Henretta, J. (1997) Biographies From Early America; Unruly Women: Jemima Wilkinson and Deborah Sampson Gannett. [On-line]. Available: http//

      McGovern, A. (1975). The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

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    • Objectives:

      1. Students will be able to describe the major accomplishments of Deborah Sampson and her importance in American history.

      2. Students will list in chronological order events that took place in Deborah Sampson's life.

      3. Students will illustrate correct mapping skills by locating places where Deborah Sampson lived on a map and by creating their own map.

      4. Students will be able to recognize how other individuals might think or feel by role playing Deborah Sampson during an interview and/or through a journal entry.
      5. Students will demonstrate their ability to formulate and express their own opinions.

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    • Time Allotment: Approximately a week or 5-6 class periods.

    • Resources Needed: Detailed map of the Eastern United States

      Sheet of questions in appendix


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    • Procedures:

      1. Mini-lecture. Present above background information on Deborah Sampson through a mini-lecture. Present information with enthusiasm, raising questions where appropriate. Be sure to locate on a United States map the different locations discussed in her life story.

      2. Numbered Heads. Divide students into groups of four. Provide students with a sheet of recall questions and inferential questions regarding the life of Deborah Sampson. (See Appendix) Have each group answer and discuss questions among themselves, making sure that each member of their group can adequately answer each question. Have each group number off from one to four among themselves, and number each group as a whole. Roll dice twice - first to choose the group number and second to choose the number of the person in the group. Have the chosen student answer a question on the sheet. Continue until all questions have been answered as a class.

      3. Pictorial Timeline. Students each create a brief timeline of the life of Deborah Sampson, drawing small pictures depicting each event. The timeline should cover the major events in Deborah Sampson's life and be as specific as possible. Have students volunteer to display and share their work with class members.

      4. Values Whip. Discuss as a class the question "What are your opinions about women fighting in the military, or doing things that are usually done by men?" Begin at one end of the class, and have each class member in turn express their own thoughts and feelings on the question. Provide an opportunity for students to pass if they choose, and allow every class member to have a turn.

      5. Mapping the Journey. Have students find the towns that Deborah Sampson lived in or traveled through on a map. Have students create their own map of Sampson's life and her travels. Students should use symbols and provide a legend, locate and name the significant places in Deborah Sampson's life, draw a line from place to place as they were traveled during Deborah's life (in a very general sense), and use the scale of the map to figure the distances between various towns. Scale should be close to realistic, but should not have to be exact.

      6. Role Playing. Divide class into groups of three or four. Assign one student in each group to "be" Deborah Sampson who is visiting your class. The other members of the group proceed to interview this person as if she were Deborah Sampson. Appropriate questions about her life, accomplishments, family, employment, feelings on the women's movement, etc. should be asked. Encourage students to also ask what she would think of our world and country today as compared to her time period. The teacher may have students switch roles after a few questions are asked to give each student an opportunity to interview and to be interviewed.

      7. Recovering the Journal. Individually, each student will write a journal entry from a day in Deborah Sampson's life. Students may choose any day they would like to write about, and narrate it as if it were Deborah Sampson writing the entry. Be sure to have students assign an approximate date to their entries. Students may volunteer to share their entry with the class. When all students finish, put journal entries together in chronological order and create your own classroom version of Deborah Sampson's lost journal.

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    • Assessment:

      1. Contributions to group discussion of questions and answers to questions during Numbered Heads will be assessed anecdotally.

      2. Correctness, creativity, and effort evidenced by students' timelines will be assessed.

      3. Responses to the Values Whip question will be assessed informally through observation.

      4. Correct mapping skills will be assessed from their maps of Sampson's journey.

      5. Legitimacy and willingness to participate realistically in the interviews of Deborah Sampson will be assessed anecdotally.

      6. Quality, creativity, and believability of journal entries will be assessed.

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    • Appendix:

      1. In what century was Deborah Sampson born?

      2. What was Deborah's family life like during her childhood?

      3. Describe the situation(s) that provided for Deborah to gain an education.

      4. Describe evidence of Deborah's tendency throughout her life to go against the "norms" of her times.

      5. Why was the loss of Deborah Sampson's journal tragic?

      6. In your opinion, what was Deborah Sampson's greatest accomplishment? Why?
      7. Do you believe that Deborah Sampson's life would have taken a different course if she had not lead a life of poverty? Why or why not? Would she still be a famous American woman? What would be the same and what would be different?

      8. Imagine you are Deborah Sampson's father and that you were alive throughout the American Revolution. When you heard of your daughter's enlistment and accomplishments as a soldier in the military, would you make an effort to contact her after abandoning her when she was four years old? Why or why not? If so, how would you do it? What would you say?

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