Revolutionary War heroine memorial proposed for Statehouse to better represent women’s history

A rendering of Deborah Sampson, a Plympton woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

By Hannah Schoenbaum
BU News Service

BOSTON — Young women visiting the Massachusetts Statehouse may soon find a new female hero among the halls of male historical figures.

Noticing a dearth of women’s history displayed in their workplace, Rep. David Vieira, R-East Falmouth, and Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, filed legislation to begin developing a memorial for Revolutionary War soldier Deborah Sampson, a Plympton resident who disguised herself as a man to fight with the patriots in 1782 in a small Uxbridge militia.

A rendering of Deborah Sampson, a Plympton woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The bill, which currently sits before the House Ways and Means Committee, would establish a 15-member commission of state senators, representatives and female veterans to make initial recommendations for the memorial.

“Clearly, the existing portrayal of history is male dominant,” Vieira said. “There’s no question of that. This is one step toward expanding that history and that story with the richness of the diversity we have in Massachusetts.”

Vieira learned about Sampson’s legacy last year when he nominated Nancy Ross, a veteran from his district, for the Deborah Sampson Award, which recognizes a Massachusetts woman for outstanding contributions to her community and the military.

After Ross received the award from the Women Veterans Network, she and Vieira spoke over lunch about their ideas to improve representation for female veterans in the Statehouse.

Recognizing that he was neither a woman nor a veteran, Vieira consulted with female military personnel before taking his idea for a Deborah Sampson memorial to Campbell, the House chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. Together, the two filed their legislation in September.

Vieira said he hopes the bill will pass by Veterans Day on Nov. 11 so the commission can meet before the Legislature’s winter recess. After the commission makes its recommendations, Vieira said, he and Campbell will develop a plan for funding and work with the arts committee on the design.

“It could be a statue, it could be a bust or it could be a bronze inlay monument,” Vieira said. “If it’s what the women veterans believe is a good portrayal of Deborah Sampson as the historical figure to tell their story, then I’m going to be very happy.”

Sampson, who was born in 1760, assumed the moniker Robert Shurtleff and joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society. She enlisted in Uxbridge and later assembled with her unit in Worcester.

While stationed in New York, Sampson scouted out neutral territory around Manhattan, dug trenches at the siege of Yorktown and led a raid on a home of British loyalists that resulted in the capture of 15 men. At one point, Sampson was shot in the left thigh and extracted the bullet herself to avoid detection.

After nearly two years of service, Sampson fell ill. Doctors in Philadelphia discovered she was a woman, leading the military to grant her an honorable discharge. She became the first woman to earn a full military pension from the state for her service.

Sampson died of yellow fever on April 29, 1827. More than a century later, in 1982, the Massachusetts Legislature declared May 23 “Deborah Sampson Day.”

“This is a Massachusetts story that deserves to be told far and wide,” Campbell said. “The Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs feels it is important that Massachusetts students and all visitors to the Statehouse have the opportunity to learn about this woman veteran who served in an important unit with a dangerous mission during the Revolutionary War.”

Campbell and Vieira said they hope the Sampson monument will be incorporated into the Statehouse tours for school groups.

“For every young woman and every young man that comes to the Statehouse, they need to know these stories and hear the richness of our history,” Vieira said.

This article was originally published in the Worcester Telegram.

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