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Deborah Samson - America's First Woman Warrior
Tami Richards, Contributing Author
Deborah Samson was the first American woman to be awarded a soldier's pension. She fought successfully in the American Revolution disguised as a man for seventeen months. This detail is such a miniscule side-note in the annals of history, and the research materials so elusive that I have compiled very little information thus far that could be termed conclusive fact.
In the vast portals of time, not every interesting fact from the past can possibly make its way into the future. Sometimes an obscure presence of an overlooked detail can maintain its hold on the time continuum and become realized by a curious browser. Discovering such a detail may cause a person to delve into the history books to learn all they possibly can about it.
Deborah Samson was the first American woman to be awarded a soldier's pension. She fought successfully in the American Revolution disguised as a man for seventeen months. This detail is such a miniscule side note in the annals of history, and the research materials so elusive that I have compiled very little information thus far that could be termed conclusive fact.
At the age of twenty-one, Deborah Samson enlisted in the Continental Army as Robert Shurtliff. Both of these names are recorded with several spellings, but apparently the paper trail has been attributed to the right persons according to learned historians. I imagine just this one act of enlisting and already I see the courage of a soldier. Cutting away her long, feminine locks of hair, casting aside her hand-sewn dress, and stepping into men's clothing would have been a very brave thing for a woman to do in a time when that sort of behavior was considered deranged.
While there is no doubt that the Molly Pitchers of the American Revolution (Fleming 288) served a great need, which no doubt saved the brave soldiers from dehydration and perhaps death, the neglect to mention Deborah Samson even in passing has not gone unnoticed by this researcher. The feats of Molly Pitcher are common knowledge among most Americans; she is known for carrying water to the battling soldiers. Deborah Samson should be a more common reference because she was indeed a heroine, which is proven by the fact that she is the official heroine of the state of Massachusetts (Leonard).
She fought courageously beside her male counterparts for seventeen months before her sex was discovered. It was reported in 'The Independent Press' on January 10, 1784 that 'She was a vigilant soldier on her post, and always gained the admiration and applause of her officers.' (Commire 745) During her time enlisted in the army she shared a small cot with a fellow soldier as was common in those days, bathed in the river at night to avoid detection, snuck off alone for the purposes of her feminine hygiene, and withstood countless hours of coarse talk around the campfire. (Freeman, Bond 75)
Perhaps because the behavior of dressing in men's clothing and being in the private company of men for such a long time was considered deplorable during those times, it seems that Deborah Samson's actions were swept under the carpet as well as they could be. A man by the name of Herman Mann attempted to write a biography of Ms. Samson in 1797 titled The Female Review: Life of Deborah Samson. Although he interviewed her at length he apparently exaggerated her story to the extent that the book is more fiction than fact. Both author and subject had regrets over the books publication, and Mann planned to rewrite it, but died in 1833 before accomplishing this task (Commire 746).
Some researchers have used Mann's book to psychoanalyze Deborah Samson in an effort to reach a conclusion about what her motive was. Pinpointing a motive can be a daunting task, especially when there are few facts to use as evidence; however, motive is often seen as the key to understanding a research subject. Sometimes historians get stuck on motive, especially when there are very few documents written by the subject his/her self, and some historians dip in and out of various presentations of different motives while making claim to none. To any student of humanity, motive is the crux of historical context. In the case of searching for Deborah Samson's motive for donning men's clothing and fighting in a bloody, harsh, hands-on battle, no single motive seems to stand out to the historians.
It is important to define her motive due, in part, to the theory that it is human nature to emulate heroic behavior and also in order for all who learn of her to better understand how one's own actions during his/her lifetime may have an effect on the future.
It is not an uncommon practice for psychologists and psychiatrists to perform psychoanalysis on historical figures. It is not that difficult for a trained professional to assess a persons personality through his/her personal writings. Objectivity of the researcher certainly can be influenced by his or her own personal biases though, which can taint the focus of the research with the preformed assumptions of his or her own motivations.
For instance, no one would argue that George Washington wanted to be a president of all the people, not just to political parties. We ascertain this from his writings as well as from the things written about him and from his actions. In searching for Deborah Samson's motivations I came across a lot of interesting views. One of which was that her main motivation was one of anger toward her father who abandoned her when she was young. This is asserted in 'America's First Woman Warrior, The Courage Of Deborah Samson' by Lucy Freeman and Alma Bond, P.h.D. In this book the authors state that 'she could feel the deep hatred in her heart each time she physically wounded an enemy soldier. Part of her had entered the army to free the colonies from the cruel British, but part of her had joined out of a wish to kill the man who had forsaken her so early in her life. In her fantasy, the British villain and her father were one and the same.'
Even a casual perusal of this book would reveal it's lack of objectivity. Objectivity does not include words such as 'deep hatred in her heart' without quotes or a reference. Neither should '...wish to kill the man who had forsaken her...' or 'the British villain and her father were one and the same' be included in an objective presentation. Though the conclusion given in the above paragraph is not inconceivable as an assumption, certainly just because Deborah Samson was a woman gives no cause to assert that she had motives different, or more abnormal, than her male comrades. Though this researcher has not yet been able to procure documents of the heroine's own words, the evidence that she withstood horrific battles in itself seems to indicate the presence of a mind more stable than delusory.
She fought right along side the men very efficiently as stated in 'The Independent Gazette' on January 10, 1784. During her time in the Revolutionary War she sustained a sword wound on the left side of her head, and a musket ball in her thigh. (Commire)
She gave lectures after the war, some of which this researcher hopes to find record of. She is the first American woman to hit the lecture circuit. Although I'm not certain of how much of a struggle it was for her to procure placement in a lecture hall, I hope to find out because it appears that Deborah Samson fought more than one revolutionary war in her lifetime. Due to Herman Mann and those who take his fiction to be fact, Deborah Samson's story may become a tale of a woman detached from reality instead of a story about a person's battle for independence. I hope to someday be able to dispel those notions and get Deborah Samson's name written into the history books as an American Heroine.
Commire, Anne, editor and Deborah Klezner, asst. editor "Women In World History, A biographical Encyclopedia" Vol. 13, 2001.
Freeman, Lucy and Alma Bond, Ph.D "America's First Woman Warrior, The Courage Of Deborah Samson" Paragon House, NY 1992
Fleming, Thomas, "Liberty!" Fleming Viking Books, 1997
Leonard, Patrick "Canton Massachusetts Historical Society, Deborah Samson, Official Heroine of the State Of Massachusetts" www.canton.org/samson
Tami Richards Tami has interests in poetry, photography, and women\'s history.