The Reading Room

Deborah Sampson: American Warrior

Today, over 1.4 million women serve as active-duty members of the American military. While today’s acceptance of women in warfare is relatively new (women were allowed full participation in the Armed Forces with the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948), history is full of myths and stories about renegade female warriors who defied the odds to fight for justice. Consider the traditional Chinese folk tale, Ballad of Mulan, or the life of St. Joan of Arc. But today’s American women of action can trace the roots of their service to the American Revolution and a remarkable woman who took the call to arms personally. Her name was Deborah Sampson, and she is recognized as the only pensioned female veteran of the American Revolution. True to her name, which takes inspiration from the great female leader of Israel in the book of Judges, Deborah was a fearless military leader who accepted great personal risk to see the American mission succeed.
Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Massachusetts. Though descended from the pilgrims, the Sampsons were poor, a predicament made even worse by the death of Deborah’s father when she was five. By age 10, she was an indentured servant. As a woman of relatively low stature, she received little education, though the self-education she managed to accomplish allowed her to find work as a teacher once she completed the terms of her indenture.
Deborah Sampson was just 16 when the Revolutionary War began in 1776. By 1782, she decided to join the fray herself. She fashioned herself into a man by the name of Robert Shurtleff and signed up to join the Massachusetts Regiment. She served under the command of George Webb in the Light Infantry for two years while concealing her gender. Proving herself to be an asset to her regiment, she was assigned several dangerous missions including ones involving spying and scouting and was tasked with leading a number of successful raids. Deborah also went to tremendous lengths to conceal her identity, knowing that she would no longer be allowed to serve if it became known that Robert Shurtleff was actually a woman. She treated many of her own battle wounds, including personally removing a bullet to her thigh.
The jig was up for Deborah when she fell ill in Philadelphia in late 1783. Taken to a hospital for professional care, her unconscious state led medical professionals to discover the truth. This scrappy and courageous soldier, who had braved great danger, was in fact a young woman. Despite her deception, Deborah was awarded a full honorable discharge from the United States military. She went on to marry, produce three children, and live a relatively quiet life on a farm. However, she was sometimes called upon to give lectures on her experience in the Revolution and she did so enthusiastically.
After her death in 1826, Deborah’s husband was awarded spousal pay as the husband of a soldier – the first recorded instance of such a payment made in the new United States. In their decision on the matter, the United States Congress issued a statement which maintained that, apart from Deborah Sampson, the Revolution “furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage.” Truer words could not have been spoken of Deborah. She was a woman with little in the world – no title, no prestige, little money – but to the American cause, she gave of herself what she could. She gave her service and risked her life and went to great lengths to do so.
In 1623, more than a generation before the American Revolution, English poet John Donne wrote his immortal line, “send not to know / For whom the bell tolls / It tolls for thee.” When the bell of the American Revolution tolled, it tolled for Deborah Sampson. She allowed nothing to stand in the way of her desire to defend the fledgling new nation in its fight for independence. We have long discussed our “Founding Fathers,” and less often our “Founding Mothers,” but we have rarely discussed the woman who is surely the mother of American female military service – the courageous Deborah Sampson, our nation’s first warrior woman.
Works CitedMichals, Debra. "Deborah Sampson."


Walter Donway

Wonderful brief story. I am from Massachusetts and studied American history at Brown, but never heard of Deborah. I must look up where she lived in Massachusetts. I am from Holden, just outside Worcester, which is the center of the state. Still, I understand that Worcester was the first place in which the Declaration of Independence was read in the public square before city hall. And The American Antiquarian Society Library in Worcester today houses the largest and most accessible collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, children's literature, music, and graphic arts material printed through 1876 in what is now the United States... Notable, to go back to your topic, how common was the story of women disguising themselves as men, including to fight in wars. Nice job.

Kirstin Anderson Birkhaug

Thank you, Mr. Donway! What an interesting perspective. Deborah was from Plimpton, Mass., and later lived in Middleborough! I’m glad you enjoyed the read—she is truly fascinating, and I’m happy to have introduced you to her.