Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Revolutionary War Veteran -- Deborah Sampson 
By Marcia Williams, Colonial Researcher

The bronze statue of Deborah (Sampson) Gannett, located in Sharon MA, depicts a woman wearing a simple Colonial-style dress although, on one side, she is draped with a coat of a Continental Army soldier and, she is also holding a musket and a powder horn.

When Deborah's father abandoned the family, her mother was unable to provide for her seven children, so she placed them in the households of family and friends.  Shortly thereafter, her mother died and Deborah, age 10, became an indentured servant from 1770 to 1778.  At 18, Deborah had fulfilled her obligations as a servant, honed her skills at weaving, and had learned to read.  She earned a living teaching school, and worked as a weaver. 

In early 1782, having bound her breasts with strips of linen, and wearing men's clothing, Deborah joined an Army unit in Middleborough MA under the name of Timothy Thayer.  Her deception was uncovered when someone recognized her and she was immediately discharged.  Even her church refused to associate with her until she apologized.  

Undaunted, Deborah enlisted again in Uxbridge MA under the name Robert Shirliff.  She joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.  Deborah (Robert) fought in several skirmishes.  On July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown NY, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a gash on her forehead.  Fearing discovery, Deborah begged her fellow soldiers not to take her for treatment, but just to let her die.  Not understanding this reasoning, a soldier put Deborah on the back of his horse and took her to the hospital.  

The doctors treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before they could attend to her leg.  Fearful that her identity would be discovered, Deborah removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other one was too deep for her to reach.  Her leg never fully healed so she was reassigned and spent the next seven months serving as a waiter to General John Paterson.  

Deborah became ill while being stationed in Philadelphia, where the doctor removed her uniform and found the cloths binding her breasts.  Without revealing his discovery to army authorities, he took her to his house, where his wife, daughters and a nurse took care of her. 

When General Paterson was finally notified of Deborah's deception, instead of a reprimand, he gave her an honorable discharge, some words of advice, and enough money to travel home.  Deborah was discharged at West Point on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.  Deborah married Benjamin Gannett, a Massachusetts farmer, had three children, and adopted an orphan boy.  Their small farm had been in the Gannett family for generations and had been worked extensively.  These factors, coupled with the depression in the post-war economy, left the family on the edge of poverty.  To supplement their earnings, Deborah would give lectures about her war-time service.  But even with these speaking engagements, Deborah had to borrow money from her family and from her friend, Paul Revere.

In 1804, Paul Revere wrote to the government on Deborah's behalf, assuring them of her fine moral character.  So, more than 20 years later, Congress placed Deborah on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll at the rate of four dollars a month.

In 1809, Deborah sent another petition to Congress, asking that her pension as an invalid soldier be modified to start from her discharge in 1783.  Her petition was denied, but when it came before Congress again in 1816, an award of $76.80 a year was approved.  Now she was able to repay all her loans, and make improvements on the family farm.   

NOTE:  Deborah (Sampson) Gannett's strong character was a reflection of her ancestral roots on her mother's side.  Deborah was a great-great granddaughter of William Bradford, the English Separatist who made the arduous journey on the Mayflower in search of freedom of religion.  In the new world Bradford served as Governor of Plymouth Colony over a period of 30 years.