The “gender-bending” Deborah Sampson

In The New York Times of January 13, 2014, there was a review of a novel by Alex Myers called Revolutionary. I was interested because Myers based his work of historical fiction on the true story of a 22-year-old Massachusetts woman named Deborah Sampson who cut her hair, bound her breasts, donned men’s apparel, and, as Robert Shirtliff, enlisted in the Continental Army in 1782. She lied about her age, claiming to be in her teens, which would account for the lack of facial hair, and collected the bounty paid to those who volunteered.

Deborah Samson (her name was later misspelled as Sampson) was one of seven children of Jonathan Samson, Jr. and Deborah Bradford, both of whom had ties to the earliest settlers in Massachusetts. The family was poor and when the father left when Deborah was five, her mother had to place some of the children with friends, relatives or employers. As soon as possible Deborah was “bound out,” that is indentured, and worked until she was freed at age 22. Tall for a woman, and strong and muscular from doing farm chores, she was, to put it mildly, plain, with a prominent nose and bulky jaw. Sent to West Point with other recruits, she was outfitted (there were no physicals), trained, and participated in skirmishes in Westchester County where there, and elsewhere, guerilla warfare still went on after the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781. She was wounded near Tarrytown, New York, but managed to maintain her disguise. Eventually, however, she was revealed to be a woman and was honorably discharged in 1783.

Returning to Massachusetts she discarded men’s clothes and married Benjamin Gannett. The couple lived on a small farm in Sharon and had three children. But Benjamin was not a good provider and in 1792 Deborah petitioned the state of Massachusetts for compensation for her service in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. A resolution granted her back pay of £34 and stated “that the said 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.”

More in the next post.

posted January 23rd, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: American soldiers, Military Service, New England, Patriots

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