For Veterans Day: This amazing story of a female vet centuries before her time
Today is Veteran’s Day, a day to honor our heroes, past and present, female and male, living and deceased, and thank them for protecting our country’s freedom and our future. Veteran’s Day is also a chance to reflect on the history of our country and consider the steps and sacrifices our ancestors made to give us a nation of free speech, free religion, free press, and free WiFi in many conveniently located shopping centers. I love the United States of America, and I am forever thankful to all the veterans out there who made it possible for me to sit in my PJs and write this ode to one of my favorite, and one of the most kickass, lady veterans: Deborah Sampson.
Sampson was born in 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts to Jonathan and Deborah Bradford Sampson. While the Sampsons were direct descendants of original colonists (her mother was a descendant of William Bradford, a signer of the Mayflower Compact!), they were very poor, and when Sampson’s father failed to return home from a sea voyage, her mother was forced to distribute her seven children among various neighbors and friends in the hopes that they would have a better life.
Sampson spent five years in many different households before becoming an indentured servant to Deacon Benjamin Thomas at the age of 10. Sampson spent the next eight years helping not just with the housework, but also working the fields and teaching herself to read and write. At age 18, when Sampson’s servitude ended, she left the Thomas house strong, educated, and determined.
To support herself, Sampson worked as a teacher in the summer months and a weaver in the winter. Yet, even with two jobs, she struggled to make ends meet. Around this time, Sampson’s mother tried to convince her to marry a rich suitor and settle down to start a family. Sampson decided she’d rather fight.
In 1780, when America. was deep in the throes of the American Revolution, Deborah Sampson sewed herself a coat, taped down her breasts, and enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts regiment under the alias Robert Shurtliff. Now keep in mind that this was not only dangerous, but highly, perilously illegal at the time. Sampson didn’t care, she was going to kick some British butt, and no little law was going to stop her.
At 5 foot 7, and with undercover boobs, Sampson was able to blend in with her male comrades. While they did mock her for her lack of facial hair, they never doubted her strength, resolve, or military competency. Sampson embarked on many campaigns and fought several battles, even partaking in some hand-to-hand combat. This is even more remarkable when you consider that she was critically injured in her very first battle, but marshaled on, pulling two musket balls from her thigh with a penknife and a sewing needle. If I haven’t made this clear already, Deborah Sampson was a badass.
Eventually Sampson’s secret got out when she caught a fever and was admitted to the care of Dr. Barnabas Binney. Binney removed her clothes to treat her and discovered that she had breasts and was therefore, most likely, female. However, Binney kept her secret to himself and arranged for Sampson to have an honorable discharge so she could fully recover.
After the war ended Sampson married farmer Benjamin Gannett and gave birth to three children: Earl, Mary, and Patience, and also adopted orphan Susanna Baker Shepard. Although the family subsisted on the profits of their farm, they lived in relative poverty. Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for pay that had been withheld from her because she was a woman. Her petition was approved and signed by Governor John Hancock.
Ten years later, Sampson became the first female lecturer in American history when she began traveling the nation and telling of her war experiences. She would spend the first part of her lectures praising the traditional gender roles of women, but then would return to the stage in full uniform and perform complex military maneuvers and drills.
In 1804, Sampson’s friend Paul Revere wrote a letter to Congress on her behalf requesting that Sampson be given a full military pension for her service. The pension was granted, and further pensions followed supporting Sampson as a veteran, and hero of the American Revolution.
So Happy Veteran’s Day to Deborah Sampson, and thank you for your tenacity, bravery, and strength. You go, girl.