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Deborah Sampson Chose Her Own Path in Supporting the Revolutionary Cause
Some women joined the Continental Army.

The role of women who joined the Continental Army as relatives of soldiers and earned wages by performing domestic chores such as laundry is interpreted at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Deborah Sampson chose her own path, joining the army disguised as a man.

Deborah Sampson’s personal vision of what she could contribute to the Revolution was an unusual one. Born to a poor family in Massachusetts, she was orphaned at the age of five. As an indentured servant she worked outside in the fields, maturing into a strong young woman. After her indenture ended, she became curious about the war raging around her and decided she wanted to contribute to the Patriot cause.

As a woman, Sampson normally would have had only two choices:  to tend to matters on the homefront or to join the army as the wife of a soldier, but she chose a different path. In May of 1782, disguised as a man, she successfully enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the name of Robert Shurtleff. In spite of being wounded twice, Sampson managed to maintain her disguise until she developed a serious illness. During her treatment the medical staff discovered her secret, and she was given an honorable discharge.

Sampson married Benjamin Gannett in 1784 and moved to his farm.  By the 1790s, desperate for money, Sampson petitioned Massachusetts for back wages. The court recognized that she had “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.”

To earn additional income, Sampson became one of the first female lecturers in North America, traveling throughout New England, giving talks about her life as a soldier while wearing her uniform. Her story is an example of how for some people the Revolution seemed to offer the promise of limitless opportunities for anyone; even a young woman could fight for her country.