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The Story of Deborah Samson
By The Canton Girl Scouts
Deborah Samson was made the Official Heroine of Massachusetts in 1983, the first Official Heroine ever named in the United States. Do you know why? Do you know that at one time she lived in Stoughton when Canton was still part of that town? Private Robert Shurliff was known as one of the toughest, strongest and most patriotic soldiers in the Revolutionary War. What the soldiers who admired him didn't know was that Robert Shurliff was really a young woman named Deborah Samson.
Hi! My name is Deborah Samson. I wanted to write and share with you some of the exciting things that happened in my life. I was born in 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts. Three of my great-great-great-grandparents had come to America on the Mayflower. My great-great-great uncle, John Alden, was one of them. He didn't have enough nerve to ask his own sweetheart to marry him! Instead he had someone else ask for him! But my Aunt Priscilla wasn't going to put up with that---she told him to "speak for yourself!" My great-great grandmother was one of their kids.
I had seven brothers and sisters. We lived pretty good at first but my father became convinced that his brother was trying to steal his inheritance from their father. So dad sold his share of the estate and disappeared. We thought he was lost at sea off the coast of England in 1766. I was just 6 years old at the time.
My mom couldn't afford to feed and clothe all of us, so she "scattered" some of us to live with relatives. At first I lived with a cousin and then with a minister's widow in Middleborough. When I was ten I was "too much for the widow to handle" so my mom "bound" me out to the Thomas family. In my day "bounding" was OK to do: typically a child would promise not to disgrace their new family, and the family would promised that when they'd return the child at the age of 18 to their real family, they'd include a cow and one suit of clothes "suitable for the Lord's Day". So, I was to live with the Thomases, do whatever work they needed me to do, and in exchange, they would feed, clothe, and educate me. It wasn't a bad deal. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas had ten sons and a large farm. I loved working on the farm, being outdoors, wearing boy's clothing, and growing tall (5 feet 8 inches---about a foot taller than most women of the times) and strong. Because Mr. Thomas didn't believe girls needed schooling, I learned my own way: after evening chores, I had the Thomas boys tell me what they learned in school each day.
While living with the Thomases, I loved hearing about politics and the erupting situation in the colonies, even though girls weren't supposed to be interested in such things. We all were very excited to learn that some colonists in 1775 bought the right to extract iron ore from a pond nearby (in what became Sharon) and that Richard Gridley used it to make cannons (in land that would become Canton). Since gunpowder was so scarce, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the army resort to bows and arrows! But at George Washington's request Paul Revere went to Philadelphia to learn how to make gunpowder. He returned to build a powdermill nearby (in what became Canton)---only to have it blow sky-high around 1780!
When I was eighteen I got a job as a school teacher in Middleborough. I taught reading, writing, and religion with only a few Bibles, spelling books, and copies of "The New England Primer". I also taught the girls to sew and knit.
As the war progressed, all the Thomas boys had enlisted. I hated being left at home and often thought about joining the army. How unfair it was that girls couldn't serve in the army! One time I did dress up in men's clothing that I had sewn, named myself "Timothy Thayer of Carver" and enlisted. As I waited to depart with the other recruits, I used my enlistment bounty (money representing advanced wages for being a soldier) to drink at a tavern. (You know, of course, that drinking beer and wine is safer than drinking water, which carried disease.) But in the end I backed out.
Next I signed up to be a sailor, but when I found out the captain mistreated his men, I returned the wages he had advanced and got out of there. I eventually walked all the way to Bellingham, where my cousin, Noah Alden (great grandson of John and Priscilla) was a preacher. I knew he'd be able to help me and sure enough he did. He made sure that I did look like a man, told me where I could get the most money for enlisting, and then helped me sign up as Robert Shurtliff on May 20, 1782.
Under the direction of Captain Thorp of Pelham, I got my official uniform and my gear; a good firearm, bayonet, hatchet, cartridge box and cartridges, buck shot and leaden balls, flint and powder, jack knife, canteen, backpack and blanket Off we marched, carrying all that weight to New York where I joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.
Although the last major battle of the Revolution had already been won (when Cornwallis surrendered at York Town in October, 1781) I still saw a lot of fighting. We often were fighting hand to hand combat against the Tories in the area who refused to give up. Once my group was ambushed near Tarrytown, and I got a sabre slash on my forehead and a musket ball in my upper left front thigh. My boot filled with blood as we fought on. Just as we were about to be annihalated, Colonel Sproat's soldiers showed up and drove off our attackers. Good thing that Colonel Sproat didn't recognize me---I had often seen him in his tavern back in Middleborough!
I got my head wound bound up at a field hospital, but fearing that I'd be discovered as a woman, I didn't want the doctor to look at my thigh wound. As he got sidetracked, I limped out of the hospital into the woods. There, I took my knife and dug the musket ball out of my thigh. I rested there in the woods until I was strong enough to rejoin my company.
We fought Indians near Albany, and were eventually ordered to Philadelphia. Many soldiers had not been paid their wages for a long time, and in mutiny, had surrounded the State House, holding the Congressmen prisoners. George Washington sent our company to protect the Congressmen after they had gotten free. During that time I got sick and had a terrible fever that left me unconscious. While I was in the hospital, Pr. Binney of Boston discovered that I wasn't an almost dead soldier boy but an almost-dead soldier girl! He was totally surprised! He took me to his home where his wife took care of me until I was fully recovered.
I couldn't return to the army, and so I was issued an "Honorable Discharge" on October 23, 1783.1 returned to my mother in Plympton, but she was so angry with my army exploits that I went to my aunt Alice Waters, in Stoughton. Since I was still dressed as a man, Aunt Alice thought that I was Ephraim Samson, one of my brothers. I let her continue to think so, and worked on her farm until I met a farmer from Sharon, Benjamin Gannett.
We married on April 7, 1785, and I moved into his parent's farmhouse in Sharon...along with Benjamin, Sr. and his second wife and family. It was a little crowded, and got more so after we had three children. Farmers were really struggling in those days, and we barely had enough to eat Paul Revere, a prosperous man with a foundry and a home in nearby Canton, learned of how hard we were working and how poor we were. He used his political connections to get the Governor, John Hancock, to give me a pension for my services in the war.
That and the $10 Paul Revere loaned me, helped, but it wasn't enough. I decided to ignore the disapproval of my family and friends, and take on another career up to this point reserved for men only; I became a public speaker in 1802. Talking about my experiences in the war, I traveled to Boston and Providence, Worcester, and out to Albany. Tickets were 25 cents to see me billed as "The American Heroine".
Eventually I settled into Sharon, living with my son, Earl, and his wife. People referred to me as "The old Soldier". Paul Revere and I would have a cup of cheer at Cobb's Tavern on Bay Road (Cobb's Corner) and talk about his copper mill in Canton. I lived out my life fairly quietly, knowing that I had done my service to my country when it needed it Who would have known that someday girls would be allowed to fight for their country!
There are many conflicting stories about Deborah Samson The story here was compiled from many sources, some of whom conflict in their "facts" Historians continue to attempt to compile an accurate biography of her life We do know that Deborah Samson died on April 29,1827. She is buried in the Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon.
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