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A quick look at this dress — a round gown made of linen printed in indigo with a repeating pattern of floral sprays and seashells — would never provide a clue to the fascinating story behind the woman who wore it on her wedding day.
Deborah Sampson Gannett (1760-1827) led a life that, with one extraordinary exception, was typical of impoverished women of her time. In 1782, Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army as a man, first giving her name as Timothy Thayer and then enlisting in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment as Robert Shurtleff. She managed to avoid discovery for eighteen months until she contracted yellow fever. Sampson received an honorable discharge in 1783. She is the only woman known to have been granted an annual pension for serving in the Continental Army during the fight for American independence.
Sampson’s dress is currently on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, where it is featured in the exhibition When Women Lost the Right to Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776-1807 and is the focus of a special program, Deborah Sampson Unveiled: A Virtual Conversation, on April 7.
Congress recently passed the Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act. It includes the Deborah Sampson Act, named in honor of the first female veteran from Massachusetts. The bill includes necessary reforms for women veterans in medical care, housing and homelessness, education benefits, training programs, and other VA support areas.
Deborah Sampson’s dress is one item from the collection featured in Women of Historic New England. Visit there to discover more stories of history-making women of New England past and present.