During the time when women were not allowed to serve in uniform in the Continental Army, one woman has the distinction of successfully serving in Washington’s army while disguised as a man. She was among the first women with a documented record of military combat experience. Safe to say, she is the Mulan of the American Revolutionary War.

Off To A Rough Start

Deborah Sampson Gannet was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1760. She was one of the seven children of Deborah Bradford, a great-granddaughter of Massachusetts Governor William Bradford, and Jonathan Sampson, whose ancestry was among the Mayflower passengers. Despite this pedigree that placed her among America’s First Families, the Gannets were impoverished, so when her dad did not return one day after a sea voyage, her mother struggled to feed her seven children. Later on, they would find out that her father did not die but instead had a newfound love and migrated to Lincoln County, Maine.

Her mother decided to send all her children to live with her relatives and friends, which was common in New England back then. As for Deborah, she was sent to a relative, but when her mother later died, she was sent to be a companion to Reverend Peter Thatcher’s widow named Mary Prince Thatcher. The old lady in her eighties asked Deborah to read the bible for her, she learned how to read.

Deborah was sent to Middleborough with the Jeremiah Thomas family when Mary died. There, she worked as an indentured servant until she turned 18. She was not maltreated or anything, but she was not sent to school like the Thomas kids because they treated women’s education as unnecessary. Education was not free in those days and families tended to spend that money on their sons first. This did not prevent Deborah from learning what she could from Thomas’s sons, who shared their school works with her. And it paid off.

After her indentured servitude was over and she was 18, she made a living for herself by teaching in schools during summer sessions in 1779 and 1780. In the winter, she worked as a weaver for various families who would allow her to lodge while working on projects for them. Not only that, but this girl also knew woodworking and mechanical stuff. She also did some light carpentry and would make pie crimpers that she sold door to door. Deborah had useful skills as a tradesman.

Cheating The System

It is important to quickly discuss Deborah’s physical features as that greatly contributed to her success in getting herself into the male-exclusive army. She was a tall lady standing at 5 feet 9 inches tall as average women’s height at that time was 5 feet. She was even taller than men’s average height of 5 feet 6 to 8 inches. She was also described as “not thin.” She had small breasts that she could simply bind with a linen cloth. Her features were described to be plain and regular. While all these adjectives don’t sound flattering, she used these characteristics to her advantage.

Continental Army soldiers 1782. (H. Charles McBarron, Jr., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1782, a man going by the name of Timothy Thayer walked in and enlisted in the Continental Army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts. He collected his bonus but never reported to his company on the scheduled date.

Plot twist: Timothy Thayer didn’t exist, and it was no other than Deborah. Unfortunately, a local resident recognized her as she was signing her papers, and she was ratted out. She returned whatever was left of the bonus that she claimed. After her Baptist church heard what she did, they removed her from their church unless she apologized for what she did.