J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Deborah Sampson’s First Masquerade

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia announced a new acquisition with this article in the New York Times.

The news hook is Deborah Sampson, the young woman from Middleboro who served in the Continental Army under the name of Robert Shurtliff. Alison Leigh Cowan’s article says:
Did she fight in the decisive Battle of Yorktown, as she later insisted on multiple occasions? And how did she keep her secret for the many months she served in Washington’s light infantry?

Now, scholars say the discovery of a long-forgotten diary, recorded more than 200 years ago by a Massachusetts neighbor of Sampson, is addressing some of the questions and sharpening our understanding of one of the few women to take on a combat role during the Revolution. . . .

The diary, written by Abner Weston, suggests Sampson likely did not fight at Yorktown as she claimed. He dates Sampson’s botched enlistment to a period around January 1782, months after the British thrashing at Yorktown. . . .

The…diary that just resurfaced is a hand-stitched, 68-page account of the period between March 28, 1781 and August 16, 1782, which Weston updated while back home in Middleborough, Mass., where Sampson also lived.

In an entry for Jan. 23, 1782, Weston, then 21, wrote with variant spelling about an “uncommon affair” that rocked the town. A woman, posing as a man, had tried to enlist.

“Their hapend a uncommon affair at this time,” he wrote, “for Deborah Samson of this town dress her self in men’s cloths and hired her self to Israel Wood to go into the three years Servis. But being found out returnd the hire and paid the Damages.”
There’s indeed some new information there, but Sampson’s enlistment after Yorktown hasn’t been in doubt. Alfred Young’s biography Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (2004) firmly sets Sampson’s enlistment in the spring of 1782 based on Continental Army records.

Masquerade also discusses Sampson’s earlier abortive enlistment based on a local minister’s account and town lore collected generations later by John Adams Vinton. A young recruit named Timothy Thayer didn’t show up for duty, prompting inquiries which revealed that Thayer was actually Sampson.

Abner Weston’s diary entry provides an additional source for that episode. It suggests Israel Wood was not the local army recruiter, as Al Young guessed, but someone trying to hire a substitute so he wouldn’t have to serve himself.

Sampson hid this moment from her biographer, so we have no record of what she was thinking. Was she just hoping to collect the recruitment money and vanish with it back into women’s clothing? Or was she planning to march off as a young man, but something got in the way? Either way, a few months later Sampson once again put on male clothing, went to another town where they didn’t know her, and began her documented army service as Robert Shurtliff.

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