She had to stop when she got caught, but Deborah Samson will always be remembered as a Revolutionary War hero. While she was not the only one woman to disguise herself as a man to fight alongside the Continental Army during the American Revolution, her story is well documented and ended with her husband being approved for war widower’s benefits in 1837.  What inspired this tough, smart woman to don a disguise and take on the Red Coats? When you know a little of her history, you can see she was preparing for the role starting at birth.

Deborah’s Mayflower ancestor shows her spunk

Samson was descended from prominent Massachusetts Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony military leader Myles Standish on her father’s side and Massachusetts Governor William Bradford on her mother’s. But her father never returned from a sea voyage when she was five and her poverty-stricken mom was forced to farm she and her six siblings out to other homes.


At the tender age of 10, Deborah became an indentured servant, exchanging her labor for her keep. The debt was paid when she turned 18. Self-educated, she next taught school for a bit. Then, with the Revolutionary War raging, she forged a new life for herself–as a soldier.

Also known as Robert Shurtleff

While scores of other women followed their husbands to military camps to help out, their nursing or cooking was always approved by the commanding officer. Deborah had other ideas. It would be 1917 before women were allowed to join the military for the last two years of World War I (and 1998 before the “woman warrior in disguise” movie Mulan would come out). Samson took on the name and identity of Robert Shurtleff, her deceased brother, and enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment in 1782.

Her fellow soldiers didn’t realize the joke was on them when they nicknamed “Shurtleff” Molly, due to the private’s lack of facial hair. But Samson was a fighter and a strategist. Among her claims to fame were scouting neutral territory in Manhattan, jointly leading 30 infantrymen on a mission that brought them face to face with Tories, and raiding a Tory household to further the capture of 15.

Many close calls for Deborah Samson

To fight as a man without being detected, Samson had to keep her clothes on and her head clear. A couple of times that proved almost impossible. Once she was wounded by enemy fire and could only allow medics at the field hospital to treat her head wound. She nonchalantly drifted out of the facility before they could strip her leg to treat her thigh wound. Instead, like the badass she was, Samson extracted one bullet in her thigh using her pocket knife and a sewing needle. She couldn’t treat herself for a fever that had her talking out of her head, however, and her secret was exposed when she got treatment in Philadelphia in 1783.

Samson’s husband was the first American war widower

Surprisingly, the wrath of the duped did not descend on Samson. Instead, she received an honorable discharge in 1783. A year or two later she and open-minded Massachusetts farmer Benjamin Garrett tied the knot. Her story made it into print in 1797 with The Female Review and she went on the lecture circuit on occasion starting in 1802. Admirably, she could still fit into her soldier’s uniform and wore it to tell swashbuckling tales of her two years in the service, for a fee no less.

Mass Moments

She also received a small Congressional pension with her male peers. After her death, her husband made history himself by making a case to receive surviving spouse benefits. It didn’t come through before Garrett died, but Congress passed an act awarding a full military pension to Samson’s heirs in 1838.