Have you ever felt that you were called to something else? That you need to go against norm and conventions to be your authentic self?
Yesterday I heard a story of one of the the first female soldiers for our country. At a time when women were expected to tend to the home, be married by age twenty, and had no civil rights, one woman decided to take her future into her own hands.
Deborah Sampson was born in New England of Mayflower stock. Her mother was a direct descendent of Governor William Bradford and her father was a direct descendent of Miles Standish. Unfortunately her father was an impoverished farmer who left her mother with seven children. Deborah's mother couldn't afford to raise her children so they were farmed off to friends and relatives. At the age of ten, Deborah as the eldest was placed as an indentured servant to a farm in a nearby town. While there, Deborah worked hard physically but she was also allowed to read books and became self-educated.
When her service was done, she worked for a couple of years as a teacher and weaver. In 1781/1782 (historians are unclear as to the correct date), she disguised herself as a boy calling herself Robert Shurtliff and enlisted with the 4th Massachusetts regiment. For seventeen months, no one in her regiment knew her secret. She was an ideal soldier- "a remarkable vigilant soldier on her post, [who] always gained the admiration and applause of her officers; was never found in liquor, and always kept company with the most upright and temperate soldiers."
She received a bullet in her thigh and in order to maintain her secret refused medical treatment. She was able to extricate it herself but the wound never properly healed and gave her problems the rest of her life. She was also wounded again with a shot to her shoulder which led to a fever. It was only when she became ill and unconscious did an army doctor uncover her secret. She was not punished for her deception but was praised for her "gallentress".
In leaving the army, she married and had three children and adopted a fourth. In later years she continued to petition the government for a military pension which she eventually received in 1805. (Paul Revere, after visiting her farm, wrote a letter in her favor to the board- see below.) She also had a biography written and went on lecture tours, dressing up in her uniform and speaking about her experiences. She died of yellow mountain fever in 1827 at the age of sixty-seven.
Wow! Quite a lady. I love the independence, the determination, the bravery. She had been dealt some pretty awful cards: Her father disappeared, partly due to a family squabble of mis-inheritance (He didn't get his fair share.) Her mother was left destitute and desperate to care for the children. Whether or not her mom kept with her some of the younger children, we don't know. But Deborah, being the eldest was given away. Did she ever see her family again? What did the ten-year-old Deborah think about that? As she aged did she have any suitors? Did she feel that she had any say in self-determination? What made her decide that she needed to serve her country? Was it to avoid spinsterhood? Did she have a hard time fitting into the "woman's" role after her army service? How did her independence exhibit itself in her role of mother and wife? What did she say in her lectures? Did she inspire others? Was she just a curiosity?
I love stories of individuals who are, true individuals. People who are comfortable in their own skin and in their choices in life. People who are not afraid to go against the norm and societal convention to be true to themselves.
What about you? Any historical person that resonates with you? What qualities do you like? Have you learned anything from the past? Has it affected your future?
Paul Revere, in his letter to Congressman William Eustis wrote:
“Sir, Mrs. Deborah Gannett of Sharon informs me, that she has inclosed to your care a petition to Congress in favour of her. My works for manufacturing of copper, being a Canton, but a short distance from the neighbourhood where she lives; I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quitted the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own sex; & since she has been married and become a mother. Humanity, & justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman of handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife and an affectionate parent. She is now much out of health; She has several children; her husband is a good sort of a man, ‘tho of small force in business; they have a few acres of poor land which they cultivate, but they are really poor. She told me, she had no doubt that her ill health is in consequence of her being exposed when she did a soldiers duty; and that while in the army, she was wounded. We commonly form our idea of the person whom we hear spoken off, whom we have never seen; according as their actions are described, when I heard her spoken off as a soldier, I formed the idea of a tall, masculine female, who had a small share of understanding, without education, & one of the meanest of her sex. When I saw and discoursed with I was agreeably surprised to find a small, effeminate, and conversable woman, whose education entitled her to a better situation in life. I have no doubt your humanity will prompt you to do all in your power to get her some relief; I think her case much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous. I am sir with esteem & respect your humble servant,