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Meet Deborah Sampson.

Feb 27, 2022 11:04AM ● By David Dunbar

Deborah Sampson served 17 months in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, enlisting in Bellingham. Photo sources Frontispiece of The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution,  Wikipedia

You won’t find her at a local Starbucks or Market Basket.  She died April 29, 1827, in Sharon, MA, after serving 17 months in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.  She was one of a very few women who presented herself as a man, as Robert Shirtlieff.  No women were allowed in the Army at the time.
She enlisted in Bellingham where nobody knew her. She first tried enlisting in Taunton, but she lived nearby and was recognized and then fled. So, she joined the Light Infantry Company headquartered in Bellingham.
Sampson and many noteworthy women have been celebrated over the years, particularly during Women’s History Month in March.
“When I first learned of Deborah Sampson,” says Bellingham Librarian Bernadette Rivard, “it was a fascinating story of a woman who overcame obstacles and was motivated to fight for her country. She wouldn’t sit on the sidelines, but thought instead ‘I can contribute, I should’.”
Sampson was born on December 17, 1760 in Plympton, MA to Jonathan and Deborah Sampson.  An impoverished family, the Sampsons had seven children.  Deborah’s father, Jonathan, abandoned the family. Deborah worked as an indentured servant, then as a teacher. Physically, she is described as tall, strong, and agile but plain, with brown hair and eyes; she was intelligent, with a strong knowledge of politics, theology, and war.
At five feet, nine inches she was taller than the average man. She was described as “tall, strong, and not delicately feminine.”
And so, she enlisted using her oldest brother’s name (he died before she was born). “Of one thing I am certain, I never wanted to be a boy or a man. I was content in my femininity,” reports the book Soldier’s Secret by Sheila Solomon Klass.  “What I always wanted to be was the equal of any boy. Tell me if that is a sin.”
She saw action in New York against Loyalists and Native Americans. That same year, she was injured in Tarrytown, but escaped discovery by removing a musket ball from her own leg with a pen knife and sewing needle. There was another ball which she could not remove and it stayed with her for life.
In 1793, she contracted brain fever in Philadelphia; Dr Barnabas Binney discovered that she was a woman. Though he did not expose her, he did make arrangements for her discharge. As a result, she was honorably discharged in October 1783. While Deborah was away at war, she was expelled from her Baptist congregation for dressing in men’s clothing and enlisting as a soldier.
After her discharge, Deborah moved in with her aunt, Alice Walker, in Stoughton, MA.  She continued to dress as a man, passing herself off as her “brother, Ephraim,” until she met local farmer Benjamin Gannet. The two married in April 1785 and raised four children: three of their own and one adopted child. Faced with financial problems, Deborah became one of the first female lecturers, describing her military experiences in different cities throughout the northeast.
 In 1813, her son built their family home at 300 East Street, Sharon, MA. Deborah died on April 29, 1827 in her family home. She was buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery, located on the same street. Following her death, her husband Benjamin sought and became the first man to be rewarded pension benefits as her widower. And today, there is a statue of Deborah at the Sharon Public Library.
If you’d like to learn more about Deborah Sampson, Bellingham Librarian Rivard suggests these books which are available at the library: The Life of Deborah Sampson by John Adams Vinton, Soldier’s Secret by Sheila Solomon Klass, and Deborah Sampson by Rick Burke.
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