America’s First Gender Bending Revolutionary War Soldier

| August 6, 2017

Women have challenged gender roles to take on “men’s work” for centuries. LGBTQ Nation has published the story of Deborah Sampson, who is often said to be the first American woman to disguise herself as a man to join the Army. Serving 17 months as Robert Shurtleff, she was wounded in 1782 and later received a military pension.

Sampson was born on Dec. 17, 1760, in Plymouth County, Mass., to Jonathan Sampson Jr. and Deborah Bradford. Both were direct Mayflower descendants and had married nine years earlier. Deborah Bradford’s great-grandfather was Gov. William Bradford, while Jonathan’s ancestry included Capt. Myles Standish.

Deborah was the eldest child and had at least five other siblings. As the family grew, funds to support the family did not, and they slipped into poverty. With the belief that Jonathan Sampson had become lost at sea off the coast of England in 1766, it became necessary for Deborah’s mother to farm out her children to others for their care. Deborah was sent at age 5 to the home of the elderly widow of the Rev. Peter Thatcher and months later became an indentured servant to Middleborough farmer Jeremiah Thomas.

At the Thomas farm, Deborah did both women’s and men’s work, including helping with the housework and working in the fields. Hard labor developed her physical strength. While there, she also learned to shoot a gun during hunting trips and became an expert shot.

During the winter, with less work on the farm, Deborah would follow Thomas’ 10 sons to school and, when her servitude ended in 1779, she was hired as a teacher in a Middleborough school where she taught for six months. To make ends meet, she did spinning and weaving work for the locals.

With the Army offering cash bounties for signing up during the American Revolutionary War, Sampson responded by dressing in men’s clothes and enlisting under the name Thomas Thayer. Now as Thayer, she never showed up for muster.

The next month, on May 20, 1782, Sampson again dressed in men’s clothes and enlisted under the name Robert Shurtleff. She signed up for a three-year stint, using the name of her mother’s son who had died as a child — Robert Shurtleff Sampson. Muster Master Noah Taft paid the new recruit a bounty of 60 pounds. Three days later, in Worcester, Mass., Shurtleff and 49 others mustered into the Light Infantry Company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment led by Capt. George Webb.

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