Deborah Sampson Presentation Part of 300th Anniversary Events
Mar 28, 2019 06:00AM
● By Pamela Johnson
Presenter Janet Parnes (left) with descendants of Deborah Sampson, Kate Smith and her daughter Julia, of Bellingham
story & photo by Marjorie Turner Hollman, Contributing Writer
The Bellingham 300th Committee has begin the series of public events to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the town’s founding, and what better way to celebrate than to bring in a real hero from the 1700s? Janet Parnes, who offers historical portrayals of significant women from different American eras, brought Deborah Sampson to life for a full house at the Bellingham library on March 11.
The visit “in person” of Deborah Sampson was part of the “Community Reading Program” for the town’s 300th anniversary. Discussions about the young-adult book Soldier’s Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson will take place at the Bellingham Library on Monday, April 1, at 3 and 6:30 pm, and on Saturday, April 6, at 10:30 am; a discussion will also be held at the Bellingham Senior Center on Tuesday, April 23, at 7 pm.
Parnes, dressed in a Continental Army uniform, told the story of Deborah Sampson, who was the only woman who served, undetected, in the Continental Army. She fought (and was wounded) for the cause of the American Revolution. Sampson grew up poor, and after her father abandoned the family she faced even deeper poverty. Parnes described being taught to read by a woman who took Sampson in. She was refused further education “because she was a girl” when she worked for a family as an indentured servant. But since Sampson already knew how to read, she stayed up after the boys in the family went to bed, and studied the boy’s school books, doing her best to educate herself.
Throughout her presentation, Parnes shared with the audience what her “nay” (negative) voice told her, as well as what her “yay” (yes) voice prodded her to do. Over and over, Deborah listened to the voice that urged her to action; Parnes offered the audience a chance to celebrate with her that “I can do it!” attitude (with a rather modern “thumbs up” thrown in for fun).
The audience was a mix of residents and people from other towns, with numerous school-age children scattered throughout the crowd. Parnes, in character, offered a masterful telling of Sampson’s story that kept the youngest audience members on the edge of their seats. She invited the children to come up to play with various games that children from the 1700s would have entertained themselves with, and asked the children questions such as “You do go to school, yes?”
Once Deborah was released from her period of indentured servitude, she took on a teaching job even though she had never gone to school herself. Each step she took involved risk, but ultimately, each time she was faced with a big challenge, she decided she could do it. After teaching school, she spent some time living in people’s homes working as a weaver, producing cloth for each family she stayed with.
The crowd learned about the Boston Tea Party and Patriots and Tories, and heard a brief retelling of Paul Revere’s ride to warn the colonists that “the British [were] coming.” Deborah attempted in Taunton to enlist in the Continental Army, but since she lived nearby, she was recognized and fled. She then came to Bellingham, where she was able to enlist under the name Robert Shurtliffe and served as a solder to the end of the war, when she was honorably discharged.
Parnes, in character, told of being injured and of her efforts to avoid detection. Afterwards, Parnes noted that it was likely that those who served with Deborah realized that she was a woman, but chose not to expose her. According to Parnes, the consequences of impersonating a man would have been serious.
We learned that Deborah returned to Massachusetts and married, and after her children grew up, she went on a speaking tour to “set the record straight” as it were. She knew that her secret was not really secret any more, but she also knew that many untrue stories were being told about what she had done. Parnes described the challenges of travel in that era, and once again, as before, Deborah listened to her “nay” and “yay” voices and decided, as before, “I can do it!” and traveled as far away as New York City.
During a question-and-answer time after the historical presentation, Parnes addressed some contradicting information about what is known about Deborah Sampson and cited several sources she had used to create the presentation. A highlight for Parnes (and others of us) was meeting Kate Smith of Bellingham and her daughter Julia, who are descendants of Deborah Sampson. Smith explained that she had grown up with stories of her illustrious ancestor (5th great grandmother, Smith noted) but that she had never heard of the difficult circumstances of Deborah’s upbringing.
Funding for this program was made possible by a Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services grant through the Library Services & Technology Act. This “Go Local: Building Communities & Collections” grant is administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.