Deborah Sampson was a young woman who assumed a male identity so she could join the Continental Army in the fight against the British in the US Revolutionary War. (Bio here.)
Very little is known in detail about Sampson's life, and even less about her sexual orientation. Including Sampson was one of the most important and difficult decisions I made while writing Queers in History, and I tried to be careful to avoid making a mistake.
My decision boiled down to answering one question: “Why did she do it?” I think it’s the most important question about her as a person, and your answer determines the way you interpret the surrounding facts and stories about her.
What we might call the “standard” story is that she was a heterosexual woman motivated by extreme patriotism to disguise herself as a man, join the army, and fight for her young country. The alternative story is that she was a very masculine female, who wanted to dress and live life as a man, had romantic interest and sexual attraction to women, and found the army to be a fulfilling and effective mode of achieving her desires. These are the two hypotheses that must be tested against the known facts.
Based on my reading of the relatively scant biographical materials available from the 18th century to today, I find little evidence that she was an extreme patriot who found no way to serve her country other than to reluctantly assume a male role. There is relatively abundant evidence that she had the personal motivation that would qualify her to be a “queer.”
The earliest source about her life is a newspaper article in the New York Gazette, January 10, 1784. Here’s what it says about her motivation: “The cause of her personating a man, it is said, proceeded from the rigour of her parents, who exercised their prerogative, to induce her marriage with a young man she had conceived a great antipathy for, together with her being a remarkable heroine, and being warmly attached to her country …” There you have it in a nutshell. Was she a girl who didn’t want to be forced to marry, or a selfless patriot, or both? I’m more inclined to take the personal motivation more seriously.
I know the story of a young woman rejecting marriage is common in the biographies of lesbians. I don’t know if it’s truly common in the life stories of heterosexual women of the time. Still, the earliest fact stands the test of my hypothesis that she was motivated by a strong personal desire to avoid expressing female sexuality.
In 1792, Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to grant her pay for her military service. In that document she claimed she enlisted, “from Zeal for the good of her Country.” I wouldn’t give that much weight in terms of determining her real motivation. After all, her purpose at that time was to try to get some well-earned money.
In 1797, Herman Mann wrote a biographical memoir of her, with her cooperation. It was published as The Female Review. It is the most detailed account we have of her life. Proponents of the “standard” story like to dismiss Mann’s biography as mostly fantasy, and indeed much biography written before the mid-20th century included large doses of imagination. Many modern historians dismiss Mann, and I think they are wrong to do so. It is the earliest account, written with her approval. I think the facts presented in The Female Review should be taken very seriously unless they can be proved to be false.
Mann’s biography contains several references to Sampson’s romantic involvement with women during the time she was posing as a man. They include detailed assertions that she rescued a woman captured by Indians by “marrying” her, and conducted a romantic, passionate, erotic affair with a woman in Philadelphia. Mann also describes Sampson as a very masculine “tomboy” in her youth.
Some quotes from Mann about the rescue of Sampson's "wife" from an Indian tribe: “… they came up with a large company of Indians.... to her surprise, who should make one of the company, but a dejected young female! At once she [Sampson] was anxious to learn her history … she said she was taken from Cherry Valley—had been sold many times… at once she [Sampson] resolved to liberate her if anything short of her life would do it. Her plan was thus concerted: she requested to marry one of the girls. They haughtily refused; but concluded, for so much, she might have the white girl.” The story goes on that the captive white girl (supposedly a virgin) and the soldier (Sampson) were effectively married and expected to consummate the marriage: “At night a bear’s skin was spread for their lodging; but like a timorous bird, sleep was to her a stranger.” They kept up their relationship long after the liberation but eventually went their separate ways and, as Mann writes, “Thus parted two lovers, more singular, if not more constant perhaps, ever distinguished on Columbia’s soil.”
Here's a little bit of what Mann had to write about Sampson's love affair in Philly: “As our heroine was walking the streets in Philadelphia, in a beautiful, serene evening, she was ravaged by the sweet, pensive notes of a piano-forte. Looking up at the third loft she discovered a young female, who seemed every way expressive of the music she made.” The pianist’s name is given as Fatima, and Mann goes on for pages describing their love affair in the most florid, obscure, language, ending up with “Remember, females, I am your advocate; and like you would pay my devoirs to the Goddess of love. Admit that you conceived an attachment for a female soldier. What is the harm?”
After the war, Deborah Sampson got married and had three children. Here’s some of what Mann (who was basically co-writing with Sampson) had to say about that: “As it is nothing strange that any girl should be married, and have children; it is not to be expected, that one, distinguished like Miss Sampson, should escape.”
He is also compelled to write, “It is hearsay, that Mrs. Gannet [Sampson] refuses her husband the rites of the marriage bed.” Mann then goes on for several sentences about why she doesn’t sleep with her husband any more.
Of course, the fact that Sampson married and had children after the war does not prove her heterosexuality, any more than Oscar Wilde’s happy marriage to Constance Lloyd which produced two sons prove his.
Modern historians disparage Mann’s style (it’s definitely old fashioned), and selectively reject his stories out of hand – I really don’t know why, but I suspect there’s a good bit of prejudice involved. There has always been a tendency among historians to reject sexuality as an important factor in historical events. It seems ridiculous to me, but I see it happen repeatedly in biographical literature. I think historians must be generally taught that sexuality is not a legitimate subject of study in history. Alternative explanations are always given precedence, and the sexual elements are left out.
Fatima and the wife rescued from the Indians weren't the only women associated in love affairs with Sampson. In 1851, Graham’s Magazine quotes “a fair authoress”: “While in the house of Captain Thayer, a young girl, visiting his wife, was much in the society of the young soldier [Sampson]. Coquettish by nature, and perhaps priding herself on the conquest of the blooming recruit, she suffered her growing partiality to be perceived. Robert [Sampson] on his part felt a curiosity to learn by new experience how soon a maiden’s fancy might be won; and had no scruples in paying attentions to one so volatile and fond of flirtation, with whom it was not probable the impression would be lasting. This little piece of romance, gave some uneasiness to the worthy Mrs. Thayer, who could not help observing that the liking of her fair visitor for Robert was not fully reciprocated. She took an opportunity of remonstrating with the young soldier, and showed what unhappiness might be the consequence of such folly, and how unworthy it was of a brave man to trifle with the feelings of a girl. The caution was taken in good part, and it is not known whether the courtship was continued, though Robert [Sampson] received at parting some tokens of remembrance, which were treasured as relics after years.”
How can this story be interpreted? Was Sampson just toying with the affections of this young girl, out of curiosity? It seems clear to me this was a genuine, though brief, love affair between two women (though one of them may have been in the dark about the other’s gender), taken seriously by Sampson, who kept the treasured gifts from her girlfriend for years.
My interpretation of the early biographical material is that Deborah Sampson was a very masculine young girl, who enjoyed taking on the male role throughout her early life. She was so unwilling to get married that she chose to dress as a man and joined the army, where she found herself very attractive to other women. She reciprocated their attentions passionately, and treasured the memory of her romantic affairs with women. She participated in a marriage with a young white girl, ostensibly to liberate her from Indians, and she continued the relationship, with passionate attachment, long after it was necessary to obtain the girl’s freedom.
These are stories that Deborah Sampson permitted others to tell about her, and even told about herself. They were published at a time when the reading public would have probably been more curious than upset by the suggestion that two women might fall in love. I guess you can ignore them if you want to, but to me they tell something much closer to the truth than the standard history. --Keith Stern Los Angeles, May, 2010