Plymouth County Biographies

Part of the Massachusetts Biographies Project

Deborah Sampson aka Robert Shurtleff

To Plympton, one of the smaller towns in Plymouth County, belongs the proud distinction of having furnished the most distinguished heroine of the Revolutionary War, Deborah Sampson. She was born in Plympton, December 17, 1760, of poor parents. She was a descendant of some of the most illustrious people of the Plymouth Colony, among them being Captain Myles Standish, Governor William Bradford, John Alden and Abraham Sampson.

Owing to the poverty of the family Deborah was "bound out" to a farmer's family as a domestic servant until she was eighteen years of age. Used to hard work and breathing the atmosphere of freedom, she wished she were a boy, that she might enlist in the service of the colonists in their quest for political liberty. She was ambitious to get an education and accomplish some real service in the world. Borrowing such books as she could she gave her time to learning all she could from them, attended a school for a time and also taught one of the early schools in the neighborhood.

Her scant earnings served to enable her to purchase some futian cloth secretly, and with this material she mad a suit of boy's clothes and hid it in a hay stack, taking no one into her confidence. When her preparations had been made she informed her friends in the neighborhood that it was her purpose to seek employment elsewhere, as she believed she could better herself and obtain a broader education, which, as they knew, she earnestly desired.

One evening she took the suit of fustian from the hay-stack, sought the privacy of the darkness beneath a low-spreading tree, and, in her excellent disguise, made her way to Worcester, fifty miles away. There she enlisted under the name of Robert Shurtleff and was assigned to Captain Webb's company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She went with the company to West Point. This was in 1778. She was accustomed to hard work, was tall, straight, and hands denoting rough use, and found herself easily accepted as a young man among the other Revolutionary soldiers. There were times, however, when some of the young men poked fun at Robert Shurtleff, because he was never known to shave and had no appearance of a beard, nicknaming him "Molly". This banter was taken in good part and responded to with wit and good nature of similar kind.

Robert Shurtleff was wounded in an engagement at Tarrytown, New York. She made light of the injury, dressed it herself and refused to go to the hospital, fearing that, in that event, her sex would be discovered and she would be obliged to retire from the service. She discharged the duties of a common soldier with fidelity and had the confidence of the officers, who always found her brave, resourceful and alert, cheerfully bearing her share in the campaigns and inspiring others. At Yorktown she served with a battery which was in active operation but came out unhurt. She was later detailed as a personal attendant of General Patterson.

About this time he had an attack of brain fever and was taken to a hospital in Philadelphia but took advantage of an opportunity to undress and get into one of the cots without assistance, where she tossed in great distress, in terror lest her sex should be discovered. One day Dr. Binney, one of the surgeons, inquired of the nurses, "How is Robert?" He was distressed to receive the answer, "Poor Bob is dead."

The doctor felt the pulse of the young soldier who was unconscious but there was a feeble pulsation. He placed his ear over the heart and was surprised to find a tight bandage around the breast. This bandage he cut away, revived the patient, and said nothing of his discovery that the bed contained a female patient. He gave the young soldier his personal attention during the time "Robert Shurtleff" remained in the hospital and arranged to give further care at his own house during convalescence.

Deborah Sampson probably was not a handsome girl but tall and straight, with fair skin, and presumably made a good-looking young soldier. While "Robert Shurtleff" was convalescing in the home of the considerate doctor, a young lady of the neighborhood often took the patient to ride and it was easy to see was smitten with him. The doctor saw that the wooing was all on one side and was amused rather than troubled about it. Deborah Sampson has been quoted as saying that she experienced great sympathy for the young lady when, in an outburst of frankness, the soldier was told of the affection with which he was regarded. The situation was saved, however, by the solder reminding his frank confidante that a soldier in the service could not indulge in matrimonial preparations but that possibly he would see her after the war.

Commendation from George Washington-

When Robert Shurtleff was finally discharged from the hospital, the doctor had confided to no one excepting General Patterson the sex of the latter's personal attendant. Deborah Sampson did not know that her secret had been discovered. General Patterson placed in her hand a letter, commanding her to deliver it to General Washington.

With great embarrassment she made her way to headquarters of the commander-in-chief, although she was tempted to run away, rather than deliver the communication. The habit and discipline and realizing that not to obey the command was equivalent to desertion nerved her to sufficiently overcome her anticipation of discovery to go into his presence.

General Washington, noticing the soldier's evident distress, bade and orderly give the young man refreshment while he perused the document. When the general summoned Robert Shurtleff into his presence he in no way gave a sign what the document was about but gave the soldier an honorable discharge from the army and with it a personal letter. Opening the latter, after being dismissed by General Washington, Deborah Sampson, then a young lady no quite twenty-three years of age, found a letter expressing appreciation for her services, giving her friendly advice and in enclosure of sufficient money to enable her to return home or a considerable distance if she chose to take up civil life elsewhere. No greater consideration could have been given a young lady in her circumstances such as her's than was shown by the kindly surgeon at the hospital and by the father of his country.

She returned to Massachusetts and became the wife of Benjamin Robert Gannett, a Sharon farmer. She lived in that town until her death, April 19, 1827, and reared a family of three children, Earl Bradford, Mary and Patience Gannet of Seth Gay.

During Washington's administration, Deborah Sampson received from Congress a grant of land. She also received pension from January 1, 1803, of four dollars per month. This was increased in 1816 to $6.40 per month. From 1819 she drew a pension of eight dollars per month for the remainder of her life.

The Massachusetts Legislature, in 1792, in recognition of her military service, granted her thirty-four pounds. The resolve recites: "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, and was discharged from the service with a fair and honorable character."

In 1838, Congress passed a special act directing the secretary of the treasury to pay the heirs of Deborah Sampson the sum of $466.66. The committee which reported the bill stated: "As there cannot be a parallel case in all time to come, the committee do not hesitate to grant relief." The act (Statutes at Large, Vol. 6, page 735) reads as follows:

Be it enacted, etc., That the Secretary of the Treasury be, and is hereby, directed to pay, out of the money in the treasury, not otherwise appropriated, to the heirs of Deborah Sampson, a revolutionary soldier, and late the wife of Benjamin Gannett, of Sharon, in the State of Massachusetts now deceased, the sum of four hundred and sixty-six dollars and sixty-six cents, being an equivalent for a full pension of eighty dollars per annum, from the fourth day of March, eighteen hundred and thirty-one, to the decease of Benjamin Gannett in January, eighteen hundred and thirty-seven, as granted in certain cases to the widows of revolutionary soldiers by the act passed the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and thirty-six, entitled: "An act granting half pay to widows or orphans where their husbands or fathers have died of wounds received in the military service of the United Stated in certain cases, and for other purposes."

Approved July 7, 1838

The home of Benjamin and Deborah Sampson Gannett was on East Street, Sharon, about a mile from the center of town. Her grave is in Rockridge Cemetery, on the same street, and is decorated on Memorial Day each year by Deborah Sampson Chapter, Daughter of the American Revolution, of Brockton, one of the largest chapters of that organization. A tribute to her memory appears on the soldier's monument in Sharon, placed there as directed in the will of her grandson, Goerge Washington Gay, in which document he said: "I further request to have the name of Deborah Sampson Gannett, with proper reference to her service in the war of the revolution, inscribed on the same memorial stone." The testator was the son of Seth and Patience Gay, the latter being the youngest daughter of the heroine.

At the age of forty-two years, Mrs. Gannett consented to make a lecture tour, telling her story and some of her patriotic convictions. This lecture was given four nights in succession at the Federal Street Theatre in Boston, at the Court House in Albany, New York, and in various other places in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. The tour was a pleasure to Mrs. Gannett. She spoke before large audiences and received considerable financial profit which she sent to her family in Sharon. Moreover, during her tour she visited Captain George Webb at his home in Holden, Massachusetts. He was the captain of the company to which she was assigned upon her enlistment at Worchester. She also spent several weeks at the home of General John Patterson in Lisle, New York, in whose service she served as personal attendant and to home the discovery of her sex was told by the hospital surgeon which led to her being sent to George Washington and, by him, discharged. General Patterson was a member of Congress the two years following and recalled her lecture tour to his colleagues when the act pensioning her came before the House.

Mrs. Gannett said in her address that show would narrate "Facts, which, though I once experienced, and of which memory has ever been painfully retentive, I cannot now make you feel, nor paint to the life."

"I became an actor in that important drama, with an inflexible resolution to persevere thought the last scene; when we might be permitted and acknowleged to enjoy what we had so nobly declared we would possess, or lose with our lives-Freedom and Independence!"

The young lady so attentive to "Robert Shurtlef" while the latter was convalescing after the experience in the Philadelphia hospital, was a niece of Dr. Binney, the surgeon who had discovered the sex of his military patient. the family of Deborah Sampson still cherishes a shirt and vest which, with other clothing, was presented to the soldier by the young lady when "Robert Shurtlef" left with the letter to George Washington. Recalling the experience of the generous offer to pay for educational advantages and later a union in marriage from the young niece of Dr. Binney, Deborah Sampson said some years before her death: "The keenest anguish I ever experience was when she told me of her affection. I told her I ardently desired education but could not avail myself of such generosity."

She also recalled her feelings when she knew George Washington had been informed of her secret, and said: "How thankful was I to that great and good man who so kindly spared my feelings. One word from him at that moment would have crushed me to the earth. But he spoke no work and I blessed him for it."

Source: "History of Plymouth, Norfolk and Barnstable Counties Massachusetts; Volume I" by Elroy S. Thompson. Pub. 1928. Pages 113-117