Born in December of 1760 in Massachusetts, Deborah Sampson had six siblings. The family line came directly from the Pilgrims; they had a direct relation to Myles Standish and William Bradford. Deborah’s father vanished at sea, leaving his wife and his family behind and with a huge financial struggle. It is rumored that her father actually abandoned the family and moved to Maine.
Due to these unsightly circumstances, her mother had to separate the family, placing the children in other homes. Deborah was only five years old at the time. Her first residence without her family was with a reverend. However, he and his wife were elderly and they died not too long after she went to live with them. Her mother also died around that time.
At age ten, she became a servant for a prominent farmer and his family in Middleborough, Massachusetts. During that time, she was a teacher during the summer and a weaver in the winter; she was self-taught in her education and skills. Her employer refused to send her to school because he felt women should not be educated. Deborah paid close attention to his sons and what they were learning in school. As a result, she learned much from them. In addition to teaching and weaving, it was also said she had woodworking and mechanical skills.
In the year 1782, Deborah dressed like a man and was able to join the United States Army during the American Revolutionary War. She called herself Timothy Tayer and was able to hide her female physique well underneath extra tight linens and the Army uniform. Deborah was also 5’ 7”; at this time the average male stood at 5’ 6”. She fit in perfectly.
Early on, she collected her payment yet her real identity was soon discovered. While she had enlisted, someone recognized her. Deborah had to pay part of the money back and had to endure further punishment from the Army. At the time, she was very involved in a church and it is said she was not allowed back at the establishment until she asked for forgiveness for her misdeeds.
Later that year, in late Spring, Deborah enlisted again. She was no longer Timothy Tayer, but Jonathan Shirtliff this time around. She was placed in the Light Infantry Company which consisted of fifty to sixty men. This particular Infantry was focused on providing rapid flank coverage for other units who were moving. This sector was viewed as prestigious. Deborah, who was always described as being a large woman with a small chest, was able to hide well in this unit. She fit right in with the soldiers who were larger than others and who were chosen for their stature and strength.
Only one month after her enlistment the second time around, she and two supervisors, sergeants, led thirty men. This mission ended up with a confrontation with the Tories.
In July of 1782, Deborah faced her first large battle. She was slashed on her forehead with a sword and shot in the thigh. She was adamant about not going to the doctor, afraid she would be found out. However, another soldier took her anyway. Her sex was not revealed at that time.
In April of the following year, she was reassigned to another unit. There she was involved in a few more missions until she became ill. The doctor treating her, realized she was a female but did not tell Army authorities. Instead, he took her to his home where his wife and daughters looked after her until she was well enough to return to her duties. However, her identity was found out eventually and the Army gave her an honorable discharge. Deborah officially served
from May of 1782 to October of 1783. She had successfully made an impact on women’s history.
She later married a man named Benjamin Gannett and they resided in Sharon, Massachusetts. They had four children, one of whom was adopted. They had a quiet life on a small farm.
In 1792, Deborah sent a request to the Massachusetts State Legislature petitioning pay that had been revoked from her. The Army had not rewarded her pension for her work in the American Revolutionary War. Her request was granted and John Hancock who was governor at the time signed the paperwork.
She later commissioned a man named Herman Mann to write and publish her biography, The Female Review. Deborah never let her talents go to waste. In 1802 she began working by giving lectures. These lectures were centered on her time in the war. After that, she decided to return to wearing her uniform and performed military drill routines. Her reasoning for doing this was to justify her uniform and to earn money. Though the family had a farm, they often struggled financially. She often borrowed money from her good friend, the legendary Paul Revere.
She later died of yellow fever in Sharon, Massachusetts at only age 67. Her family later buried her in a cemetery in Sharon. Several years after her death, her husband tried to claim her pension since he was a Veteran’s spouse. He was granted this request but died before he could reap the benefits.
The town of Sharon, Massachusetts has honored Deborah Sampson in many ways. One such way is in the form of a statue in front of the public library. There is also a park named after her there, a street, and the historical house she resided in with her family. This house is privately owned.
She has also been recognized by her birth town, Plympton. In the year 2000, the town added her to its flag. She is recognized as the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Deborah Sampson will forever be known as the woman who changed American women’s history.
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