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Musket fire, soldiers yelling, chaos. It’s the summer of 1782 and Robert Shurtleff lies groaning on the ground, clutching a gash in his forehead. He’s been shot at least twice. He can feel a musket ball lodged in his thigh, another in his shoulder. The skirmish is over but that brings no relief to Shurtleff. A fellow infantryman rushes over in search of survivors. “Hospital,” he says. “No,” Shurtleff growls, “let me die.” But the soldier grabs Shurtleff and tosses him onto the back of a horse. Later, he winces in pain, nervous, adrenaline pumping as a doctor stitches up his head wound. The doctor is called away and Shurtleff drags himself off the cot, grabbing a penknife and a needle, he limps out of the tent and off into the woods. He’ll remove the musket balls himself. It’s too risky. Because, you see, Robert Shurtleff is hiding something, something big, a secret the doctor would have surely uncovered. Robert Shurtleff is not a man at all. He’s actually a woman named Deborah Sampson and women are strictly forbidden from fighting in the continental army. But did you know, Deborah Sampson wasn’t even the only woman to help form this great nation? Many “founding mothers” have slipped through the cracks of history. Let’s fix that.


Hello! I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we’re bringing the story of Deborah Sampson out of the shadows of American history and into the light it’s so deserved for over 2 centuries. 


Disney’s Mulan came out in 1998 when I was 10 years old, so, yeah, I was a fan. I mean I was a Disney fan in general but I was pretty tired of fragile, orphaned princesses waiting for prince charming to come rescue them. So when I heard about a girl, disguising herself as a boy to defend her country, protect her father, and bring honor to her family, I was like, heck yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for. 


So when I found out America had a real life Mulan, I was super into it and also really surprised that I had never even heard the name Deborah Sampson before. As a history fan, a women’s history fan, surely I would have come across the name, no. So I determined months ago that I would cover her story for History Fix and decided to save it for my Independence Day episode, which you’re listening to right now. The 4th of July is 2 days away and for my international listeners, hey y’all, that’s the day the American Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 amid the Revolutionary War. This war started with the “shot heard around the world” fired in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775, and the rest is history. History that Deborah Sampson was very much a part of but often omitted from. 


I mean Mulan is, most likely, fictional, a fictional folk hero like Robin Hood or Odysseus. Deborah Sampson was a real person. Where’s her movie Walt? So I want to tell you Deborah’s story but I also want to tell you about some other women who were involved in the birth of the nation who have also been mostly forgotten. Everyone knows about the founding fathers, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, blah blah blah, we talk about them till we’re blue in the face. But what about the founding mothers? It’s their turn.


Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts in 1760. She was one of 7 children in an impoverished farm family. But looking at her lineage, it’s surprising that her family struggled financially. She was a descendant of 2 prominent early Americans dating back to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. On her fathers side - Captain Myles Standish, military advisor for the Plymouth Colony and, on her mother’s side - William Bradford, the governor of the colony. So, the Sampson’s should have been like American royalty, but they weren’t. Deborah’s father claimed he had been cheated out of his inheritance when his father died, but records suggest that he actually forfeited it intentionally through some kind of questionable financial transaction with a relative. 


So they’re poor, they have a bunch of kids, and they’re just trying to survive. Dad decides he wants out, unfortunately. According to the official report, Deborah’s father went off to sea and never returned. The family was told he had drowned. But that’s not actually what happened. In reality, Jonathan Sampson took off to Maine with another woman with whom he had 2 children. So he basically just started over, abandoning his family back on their floundering farm in Massachusetts. 


It’s unclear whether Deborah Sampson ever knew what really happened to her father. Either way, he was gone, and her mother simply could not care for 7 children on her own, without an income. The Sampson children were sent off to live with friends and relatives. I have a lot of opinions about Jonathan Sampson and the choices he made but I’ll spare you. 


At 10 years old, Deborah became an indentured servant to the Thomas family in Middleborough, Massachusetts. The Thomases were a large farming family of mostly boys. Deborah wasn’t formally educated like the Thomas children but she used their books to teach herself to read and write. She also did a lot of jobs that were usually reserved for boys - plowing the fields, woodworking, carpentry. She lived with the Thomas family, worked for them, until she turned 18 at which point her indenture ended. 


After that, Deborah became a teacher which is amazing considering she taught herself to read and write. She taught during the summers and was a weaver during the winter. I don’t know if kids just didn’t go to school in the winter or what, maybe it was just too cold, I don’t know. I wouldn’t blame them. 


Now it’s 1782. Deborah is 21 years old-ish and the Revolutionary war is in full swing. At the beginning of the war, men were eager to enlist and they rushed to join the continental army. But by the 1780s, so we’re 7 years in, many of those eager men are dead and it’s becoming harder and harder to find new recruits to fight the British. So they start drafting people into the army. Which is like, you know, when they just make you do it, like “okay I know you’re only 15 years old and you mostly just plant cotton or make shoes or whatever, whittle stuff, but you’re a soldier now so, get out there and kill some redcoats.” But there was a way out as a drafted man. If someone volunteered to fight in your place, they would receive a bounty. So they would be paid by the government to fight for you for a period of 3 years or until the war ended, whichever came first. 


So, I mean this was cool if you didn’t want to go fight and you had a money-hungry friend who would take your place. But it did attract some unsavory folk into the army who were just in it for the money. Some of them even claimed the bounty and then just took off, never actually showing up to fight. 


The diary of a man named Abner Weston was discovered just a few years ago in New Hampshire. Which, discoveries like this, y’all OMG, I live for this stuff. Weston was Deborah’s neighbor at one point and a corporal in the Massachusetts Militia. He writes of an earlier attempt she made to join the army under the name Timothy Thayer. At this time, no physical exams were required to join and you didn’t have to provide any documentation of your name or age. They were mega desperate. So she showed up dressed like a man, they gave her the bounty money and she was like “cool, I guess I’m in the army now.” But someone who saw her enlist noticed that Timothy Thayer wrote exactly like Deborah Sampson. Apparently she had a hand injury or something that made her hold a pen or a quill or whatever in a funny way. So she was found out, she returned the money, and was basically shamed by the whole town. It was a huge scandal. Crossdressing had been firmly outlawed since 1690. It was a big no no. 


But the shame and the scandall didn’t stop Deborah. A few months later she successfully enlisted in Uxbridge, Massachusetts under the name Robert Shurtleff. She was mustered into the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, marched to West Point, and assigned to Captain George Webb’s light infantry. So if you don’t know about military stuff, I don’t, I have to tell you, light infantry is like super impressive. It’s an elite group of extremely skilled soldiers. First you had to be at least 5’5” tall which Deborah Sampson was 5’9.” That’s freakishly tall for a woman in the 1700s. The average height for women then was 5 feet. The average height for men was like 5’6.” So she’s even tall for a man. Light infantry were very physically fit and fast. They traveled with fewer supplies and took part in super risky missions. They were like stealth, secret operatives. So, pretty freaking cool, considering she’s actually a woman who they don’t believe can contribute anything to the military, and yet she’s placed in this upper echelon of soldier badassery. I’m impressed. 


Deborah spent most of her time in the lower Hudson River Valley which was a neutral territory between US occupied land in northern New York and New York City, which was controlled by the British. Neutral territory sounds nice but it was actually a lawless no man’s land full of patriot and loyalist raiders who terrorized just everyone. There weren’t any major battles to note but she did take part in many smaller skirmishes against the British and Loyalists AKA Tories, which were colonists who supported the British.


It was here somewhere that Deborah was wounded and forced to remove a musket ball from her own leg to avoid detection. She ended up leaving the second bullet lodged in her shoulder because she was just unable to remove it on her own and she was pretty much permanently disabled to some extent after these injuries, or after failing to receive proper medical treatment for them at least. There was no way she could keep up with the light infantry at this point. She was transferred and became a, basically like a personal servant to General John Patterson in Philadelphia. 


But, before long Deborah got really sick with some kind of fever, possibly measles, and lost consciousness. She was taken to the hospital where a doctor by the name of Barnabas Benny, which, like, I love it. I’m picturing this super cartoony pop-eye-esque doctor for some reason. Barnabas Benny needs his own cartoon. So while treating who he thinks is Robert Shurtleff, good ol Doc Benny discovers that he’s wearing a breast binding situation and is actually a woman. 


He gives Deborah a letter when she comes to and tells her to deliver it to General Patterson, which she does, likely knowing full well that it’s revealing her secret. Upon this discovery becoming known, she’s granted an honorable discharge which is a big deal. This is not how the army dealt with women who tried to enlist. They were usually publicly shamed, charged with fraud and crossdressing, even subjected to traumatic physical examinations. They certainly were not honorably discharged. So I think this speaks to how highly Deborah’s higher ups thought of her as a soldier that they would go that route. 


At that point she went back to Massachusetts and just resumed her life as Deborah Sampson. She got married and had 3 kids, adopted a 4th. But the family struggled financially. Deborah attempted to get the money she was owed as a war veteran. She petitioned the government for back pay in 1792 and got 34 pounds. Which, I have no idea how much money that is today, sorry. But apparently it wasn’t enough because a few years later she applied to receive a pension as a disabled veteran. This application stalled out in Congress. I’m sure they were just like “we don’t even know what to do with this. Does not compute. Help.” 


So in 1802 Deborah went on a speaking tour to raise money and gather support for her cause. She would go on stage dressed as a woman to speak and then would change into a military uniform and do military drills. She was billed as the “American Heroine” and people were kind of digging it despite the fact that crossdressing was so not cool. But Deborah kept a journal of this time in her life and it paints a bleak picture of her days on the road. She often traveled alone, she was sick and uncomfortable a lot, and she just missed children which so resonates with me. I feel that. 


Finally, in 1805 Paul Revere like the Paul Revere one if by land 2 if by sea “the British are coming, the British are coming” which he never actually yelled by the way it was a super stealth situation that would have been way dumb. Anyway Paul Revere vouched for Deborah Sampson saying she was quote “much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous.” And then they were like, “oh well if Paul Revere says so, then, here you go,” and she was finally awarded a pension of $4 a month which is closer to $100 today. So, not much for all that work. Although she did apply for and receive increases a few times. 


Deborah died in 1827 at the age of 66. Her husband Benjamin Gannett applied for a survivors pension which typically went to widows after their veteran husbands died and it was finally authorized in 1838. Congress remarked that the revolution had quote “furnished no other example of female heroism, fidelity, and courage.” Sadly, Benjamin died before receiving this money but it did go to his heirs. 


Deborah Sampson was an extremely unique case. Now, of course, women can join the military but it’s still overwhelmingly a male profession. I was curious to know what it’s like to be a female soldier so I reached out to my friend Corinne West. Corinne is an elementary school teacher and I worked with her on a daily basis when I taught 4th grade. She’s incredible. But before she became a teacher, she was a US marine. I asked Corinne to share a little about her experience as a female marine and this is what she had to say:


  • Corinne West - 


So we’ve obviously come a long way for the most part, which is great. But it was a long time coming. Women could not officially enlist in the US military until 1948, and apparently still took makeup classes until 1996. Please refer back to my toxic beauty episode - episode 15 - for more on how pressure to look beautiful has contributed to the oppression of women, forever. But yeah women couldn’t join the army until 1948. Now that doesn’t mean they weren’t involved before then. They were. In big ways. I want to highlight a few women who helped the colonies gain their independence alongside Deborah Sampson. Now, it’s impossible to do this without leaving some things out, so I want to apologize for that in advance. It’s extremely difficult to report on the achievements of women throughout history because, for the most part, those achievements were just never written down, never talked about. Women were very much working behind the scenes. That makes women’s history a particularly difficult area to research. 


No one knows this better than my sister, Hannah West. No relation to Corinne West, that’s just a coincidence. Hannah is a nonfiction author and a teacher, the fourth teacher involved in this episode, by the way. Hannah recently published a book called “Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks” that unveils the stories of 7 women who contributed in big ways to the rich history of the islands we call home. I could not recommend this read enough, not just because the author is my sister, she’s objectively a fantastic writer and the tales she weaves in her book are truly riveting. You can snag a copy through her website and I’ll, of course, link that in the description. 


But writing this book was no small feat. Researching the lives of these women was difficult. Here’s what Hannah had to say: 


  • Hannah West - 


“The sooner the better” indeed. So, let’s talk about the founding mothers. We have of course the wives of important men like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams who were likely far more instrumental than we even know. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband, John Adams, while he was in Philadelphia helping to write the Declaration of Independence. She reminded him that the new government should quote “remember the ladies” or they would form a revolution of their own. Which is ballsy and I’m here for it. You tell um Abigail. 


Martha Washington was married to George Washington who was the commander of the whole military and would go on to become the young nation’s first president. Martha spent about half of the war at various military camps with her husband. She helped out the war effort in any way she could, copying Washington’s letters - cause you know, there weren’t like copy machines back then. If you wanted to send the same letter to more than one person you just had to rewrite it a bunch of times. So Martha did that. She also knitted things for the soldiers and visited the hospitals. She rallied a group of women to raise money which they used to buy shirts and other supplies for the soldiers. 


Many women without famous names contributed as well. In fact, thousands of women actually followed their husbands in the army, much like Martha Washington. They were called “camp followers” and while they weren’t directly involved in battle like Deborah Sampson, they performed many necessary jobs like washing, cooking, mending clothing, and providing medical assistance to the doctors by nursing injured soldiers. 


Now I’m picturing these women in tattered, dirty dresses, washing vats of blood stained uniforms and tending to sick and injured patients, elbows deep in all grades of human excrement and disease. It had to have been a rough life as a camp follower doing these dirty jobs behind the scenes with no praise or thanks whatsoever. In fact, camp followers were actually viewed in a negative, almost scandalous light, much like a groupie for a rock and roll band. Which is crazy to me. I guess just being in the proximity of an all male military camp like that as a female was seen as shameful and suspicious. Nevermind they’re scrubbing out your dying son’s chamber pot for him and holding his hand while he takes his last breath. So many, many nameless heroes there who were not only not praised but most likely shamed for the work they did. 


A few of these camp followers actually did find themselves in combat. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley who became known by the legendary nickname Molly Pitcher was delivering water to soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. When her husband was killed, she took his place operating his cannon. Mary was recognized afterwards by George Washington himself as a non-commissioned officer. 


Margaret Cochran Corbin has a similar story. Margaret was actually the first woman in US history to receive a military pension. Deborah Sampson is often incorrectly credited as the first but it was actually Margaret. Margaret left for war with her husband in 1775, becoming a camp follower. But she apparently was not satisfied with the unappreciated behind the scenes work of a camp follower and wanted to be more directly involved. In 1776, she dressed as a man and joined her husband during the Battle of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, helping him load his cannon. Just like Mary, she took over firing her husband’s cannon after he was killed. She was injured while fighting in this battle. Her left arm was almost completely severed which left her permanently disabled and unable to use that arm for the rest of her life. The British won the battle and Margaret was taken as a prisoner of war but was eventually released back to patriots to receive care for her injuries. I have to imagine the British went to assess the damage and discovered she was actually a woman dressed up like a man and were like “uh, oh, um, nevermind, send her back, send her back!” 


After she recovered, she joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point where she cared for the wounded, yes with only one working arm, until the end of the war. The Continental Congress awarded Margaret a lifelong pension, but of course it was only half what male soldiers received. In 1926, Margaret’s remains were moved from an obscure grave somewhere to West Point where she was reburied with full military honors. 


Sibyl Ludington also took an active role in the war. At just 16 years old she became, basically the female version of Paul Revere. After learning that the British were planning to attack Danbury, Connecticut, which was where a stockpile of provisions for the patriot army was kept, she hopped on her horse and rode 40 miles through the rain to raise the alarm in Putnam County, New York. The British successfully raided Danbury but, raised by Sibyl’s alarm, the Patriot forces drove them back at nearby Ridgefield, Connecticut.  


Sibyl received little to no recognition for this incredible act of heroism. Paul Revere had a patriotic poem written about him by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for a similar act but Sibyl went unrecognized until 1961. That year, the Daughters of the American Revolution or DAR (if you’ve ever watched Gilmore Girls you’ve heard of the DAR), commissioned a bronze statue of Sibyl which sits outside the public library in Danbury, Connecticut. So, better late than never, I guess. 


Other women took up the pen to help the war effort in more philosophical ways. Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved African American woman living in Boston who wrote patriotic poems during the war, one of which she personally read to George Washington at his Cambridge headquarters in 1776. Phillis was one of the first published female authors in America and the first female African American author to be published. 


Mercy Otis Warren was another notable female writer for the cause. She maintained a lifelong friendship with John Adams and wrote him many letters expressing her ideas on the nature of the new republic he was helping to form. She also wrote political dramas and poems in the years leading up to the war that denounced British policies and criticized the British colonial government. These helped draw colonists to the Patriot cause and led to acts like the Boston Tea Party and the boycott of British imports. So her words basically helped spur the fervor that led to revolution and eventually independence. 


And there are others, there are so many others that we don’t even know about. There were likely more women to join the army dressed as men. Maybe they were never detected. They would go on quietly home after the war, trading out their soldier uniforms for dresses and we’d just never know their contributions. 

So, American friends, while you enjoy your 4th of July fireworks and cookouts this year, please, please take a moment to remember and reflect on the many, many lives that were lost, the endless devotion and determination on the part of Patriot men AND women that won you that freedom. From George Washington himself to the obscurest of the camp followers who never did it for the honor and the glory. They did it for their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children. They did it for you. 


Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix. 


Information used in this episode was sourced from,, Smithsonian Magazine,,, and a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast episode about Deborah Sampson Gannett. An extra special thank you to Corinne West and Hannah West for providing much needed perspective. Remember, you can purchase Hannah’s book “Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks” through her website This and all of my sources are linked in the show notes.  

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