All the world told Deborah Samson that she had no right in law or society to fight for her country’s liberty. Abandoned by her father, indentured to strangers, shunned by her church, and turned away by community recruiters, she persisted. She wrapped her torso to hide her gender and enlisted in the Continental Army. The year was 1782.
Samson’s Pilgrim roots went deep. She was born on Dec. 17, 1760 in Plympton, a few miles west of Plymouth, Mass. She was one of at least seven children of Jonathan Samson and Deborah Bradford. Her father was descended from Miles Standish on one branch of the family tree and from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins on another – the love triangle in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Samson’s mother was the great-great-granddaughter of Plymouth Colony’s first governor, William Bradford.
The recent family history was steeped in the lore of colonial combat. During the French and Indian War, Samson’s aunt and uncle, Hannah and Joshua Bradford, were grinding corn in Meduncook on the Maine coast when they were slain May 22, 1758 by Indians. Samson’s father’s cousin, Capt. Simeon Samson, escaped the enemy by dressing as a woman. When four-year-old Deborah innocently asked the seaman if she could be his cabin boy, however, the veteran only laughed and said that girls could never be cabin boys.
But Deborah had a close relationship with her grandmother, a spirited French woman named Bathsheba LeBrocke Bradford, who told stories about a different kind of cross-dresser, a heroine of the French nation – Joan of Arc, who refused to heed others and listened to a higher calling, that of God himself.
Not all of Mrs. Samson’s children grew to adulthood. While Deborah was one of seven to survive, not all were so fortunate. Her first-born, Robert Shurtliff Samson, died at the age of eight. The mother mourned him for many years, and her grief made an impression on his sister Deborah.
As the war ended, England began to pass laws which directly interfered with colonial life and aspirations. These impositions on colonial liberty prevented westward expansion, imposed taxes, interfered with colonial trade practices, and quartered soldiers in civilian homes. Stamp Act riots in nearby Boston in the summer of 1765 demolished the home of Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, and Irish MP Isaac Barre called Americans “Sons of Liberty.”
The following summer Jonathan Samson was reportedly lost at sea near the coast of England. In reality, the man had simply abandoned his family, returning to Maine to live in poverty until his death in 1811. Mrs. Samson, who was ill herself, could not support her family on her own, so she farmed out her children to relatives. Deborah, not yet six years old, went to live with her mother’s spinster cousin, Ruth Fuller of Middleboro, a town several miles west of Plympton.
Massachusetts continued to be a hotbed of discontent as British indignities mounted. In 1767 the Townsend Acts taxed several new goods and established customs commissioners to stop corruption, all but halting smuggling, which was a major source of income to the colony. The women of Massachusetts organized boycotts of taxed goods. They ignored finer fabrics from abroad and made clothes of homespun cloth. These, the Daughters of Liberty, augmented the more violent acts of Samuel Adams’s Sons of Liberty in opposing British autocracy.
Then, in 1769, Ruth Fuller died. Deborah went to live with the widow of Peter Thatcher, late minister of the First Congregational Church of Middleboro. The Congregational Church was the institutional heir of Pilgrim and Puritan faith. It seemed a natural place to foster the child, but this was not meant to be a permanent home, either.
In 1771, at the age of ten, Deborah was made an indentured servant in the home of Benjamin Thomas, a deacon in the church. He and his wife had eight sons. Here she grew from a rootless child into a young woman. She learned the domestic arts of spinning, sewing, knitting, and cooking. But in a household of boys, she also learned to shoot a musket, ride a horse and perform tasks in the field that required strength. She grew to a height of 5-foot-7, as big as most men of that era. At night after her chores were done, she gained a rudimentary education as the Thomas boys went over their lessons from school.
Deborah spent her formative years in servitude while watching the American colonies take their first steps toward freedom. She was 12 when the Sons of Liberty rowed out to ships and dumped a shipment of tea into Boston Harbor and Massachusetts suffered under the Coercive Acts that closed the port of Boston, cut the power of the Assembly, and sent Americans to be tried in England. She was 14 when the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill lit the flame of revolution; 15 when the British evacuated Boston and Washington’s Patriot army evacuated New York; 16 when rebels beat the vaunted redcoats at Trenton, Princeton and Saratoga, and 17 when Americans suffered at Valley Forge and France recognized American independence.
Deborah reached the end of her indenture in 1779. She still needed some means of living, and she found it working part time for board and room on the farm of Benjamin Leonard and his wife. In two years of public school she gained enough education to teach, though her income was meager. She earned extra money by spinning and weaving at area homes and Sproat’s Tavern, where battles of the Revolutionary War were discussed, including the exploits of the tavern keeper’s son, Ebenezer, a colonel in the Second Massachusetts Regiment. One 19th century source claims that about this time a 19-year-old Deborah Samson tried unsuccessfully to join the Continental Army, using clothing borrowed from Samuel, the Leonards’ son, who had already left for the war.
It was a time of religious revival in New England. State-mandated religion had continued to dominate the colonies, and Baptist ministers lobbied for religious freedom. Fresh fervor came to Middleboro in March 1779, when Pastor Asa Hunt came to the Third Baptist Church to preach and skies dimmed May 19 on “New England’s Dark Day,” the suspected result of Canadian forest fires. The New Light Stir of 1779-81 brought Third Baptist conversions by the score. One of these was Deborah Samson, a woman whose own liberty had been mortgaged by circumstance for most of her young life. The schoolteacher joined the church on Nov. 12, 1780.
In the winter of 1780, Deacon Thomas came to Sproat’s Tavern with news that two of his sons had been killed in the war. The victory at Yorktown in October 1781 gave rise to hopes that the colonies might actually drive out the British. Whether motivated by the deaths of the Thomas boys, the possibility of victory, or a love of independence, Deborah tried to enlist in the Continental Army the following spring. She tried out her male disguise at Sproat’s, where a fortune teller failed to recognize her. When the left-handed “Timothy Thayer of Carver” signed his enlistment papers in front of the recruiter, however, he was betrayed when a Mrs. Wood saw that he could not bend his index finger, the result of a farm accident that had injured that indentured girl, Deborah Samson. A tiny storm of scandal broke. Deborah was interrogated by church deacons.
Determined to enlist, Deborah walked 25-30 miles northwest of Middleboro to Bellingham, where a distant cousin, Rev. Noah Alden, was pastor of the Baptist Church. Both he and his son, Israel, saw service in the army during the Revolution. Conveniently, Alden’s home was across the road from the recruiting station for the Continental Army in Bellingham.
On May 20 a Robert Shurtliff signed papers for a three-year enlistment and three days later was mustered into Capt. George Webb’s company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Another seven weeks passed before the roll was full, and Shurtliff had no lodgings of his own at Worcester, so he was billeted at the home of Capt. Nathan Thayer. The clean-faced recruit attracted the attentions there of a young woman visiting Mrs. Thayer, who saw the girl’s growing interest and warned Shurtliff that it was unbecoming a gentleman to lead a young lady on.
In June Capt. Eliphalet Thorp of Pelham, New York marched the men to north to West Point, the fort which Benedict Arnold nearly surrendered to the British in September 1780. The soldiers received equipment there, but Deborah’s new uniform did not fit, and she sewed alterations. That and Shurtliff’s unwhiskered face led fellow soldiers to tease him as “Molly.”
The last major battle of the war had taken place, but the British still held Charleston, Savannah and New York City. As peace talks bogged down in Europe, rebels and loyalists conducted a vicious guerrilla war up and down the Hudson River. As prisoner exchange talks bogged down, loyalists transferring militia leader Joshua Huddy from New Jersey to New York stopped and hanged him, saying the execution was in retaliation for the murder of loyalist Philip White. George Washington demanded that the man leading the loyalist detachment, British Capt. Richard Lippincott, be surrendered for trial. The British saw no crime, saying that Lippincott had merely followed orders. Washington then threatened to execute a British officer chosen at random. The war crimes crisis was averted only after France pleaded for Asgill’s release, which took place Nov. 7.
Entering the vortex of this brutal tit-for-tat, the Fourth Massachusetts fought a number of skirmishes, some of them hand-to-hand, in the waning days of the war. In one of these desperate clashes near Tarreytown in early 1783, Samson was slashed across the head by a saber and struck by a musket ball in her thigh. The arrival of soldiers under Col. Sproat saved Samson’s detachment. In the melee, the tavern keeper’s son failed to recognize the Continental private as a girl from his own neighborhood. A doctor bandaged Shurtliff’s bleeding head, but she stole away from the field hospital and cut out the iron ball in her leg with her own knife to protect her identity.
On Sept. 3 many miles away, the deacons at Third Baptist in Middleboro voted to withdraw church fellowship from Samson for dressing in men’s clothes and enlisting. For good measure, the deacons added that she had previously “behaved very loose and un-Christian like, and at last left our parts in a secret manner.”
That hardly mattered to Samson, who was sent to Philadelphia after her convalescence. Samson came down with a fever there that rendered her unconscious. When Dr. Barnabas Binney asked a nurse about Shurtliff one day, she answered, “Poor Bob is gone.” Binney removed the soldier’s shirt to check his heartbeat and discovered not only that the he was a she but that the young woman was still alive. He had her taken to his home, where Samson was cared for by the doctor’s wife and a female nurse. Autumn brought peace and independence to the colonies, and Samson was mustered out of the army Oct. 25.
In Plympton, Samson’s mother had nothing but criticism of her military adventure, so she moved in with her aunt and uncle in Staughton. She later married and gave birth to three children, but poverty followed her. In 1792 a Massachusetts court voted to pay her 34 pounds for her army service, but five years later, she attempted to supplement her family’s farm income by cooperating in a biography of her, The Female Review, or Memoirs of An American Lady. Perhaps with help from the author, she went on a tour of towns in New York and New England in 1802. Billed as “The American Heroine,” Samson went through the manual of military exercises and talked about her army experiences. Two years later Paul Revere wrote to Congressman William Eustis on her behalf, seeking a federal pension. This resulted in some land and a stipend of $4 a month.
Samson died in 1827. In a proclamation 156 years later, she was declared the official heroine of the state of Massachusetts.
Bois, Danuta. “Deborah Sampson (1760-1827).” Distinguished Women of Past and Present.
http://www.distinguishedwomen.com/biographies/sampson.html. Acquired Jan. 4, 2012.
“Deborah Sampson: Soldier of the American Revolution.” Notable Women Ancestors. Rootsweb.
http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nwa/sampson.html. Acquired Jan. 5, 2012.
“The Huddy-Asgill Affair.” Massachusetts Historical Society Online: Collections. Summary in connection with a letter from George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, 5 June 1782.
http://www.masshist.org/database/doc-viewer.php?item_id=1706. Acquired Aug. 27, 2012.
Kidd, Thomas S. Baptists in America: A History. Oxford, 2015.
Leonard, Patrick J. “Deborah Samson: Official Heroine of the State of Massachusetts.” Canton Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.canton.org/samson/ . Acquired Jan. 5, 2012.
Puls, Mark. Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution. New York: Palengrave McMillan, 2008.