When either of the sexes reverses its common sphere of action," her memoirist Herman Mann wrote in 1797, "our curiosity is excited to know the cause and event." Mann was not of an analytical mind, but, in five rambling chapters about Deborah Samson as a child, youth, and young adult, using the clues she provided, Mann offered answers to the question he posed. Judging by the number of times he attributes her as his source ("she informs," "she has often said," "she has assured me," "she has said"), for her youth she was his major source of information. She even revealed something of her inner life in a riveting dream. A child in effect without parents after she was five, Deborah was placed as an indentured servant in a farm household, and after she was a free person became a weaver and for a time a teacher. Setting the scraps of her biography in what we can piece together about the different worlds she entered gives us a story of a remarkable transformation. To use Mann's words, she was a "young female of low birth and station" who rebelled against "a contracted female sphere."
1. The Child
"As I was born to be unfortunate, my sun soon clouded"
At an early age, Deborah Samson was a near orphan. She was born into a family of unusually prominent ancestry that had already slid to a point near the bottom of colonial society, a slope of downward mobility Americans have pushed out of their national myths. She was a Bradford. Her mother, Deborah Bradford, was the great-granddaughter of William Bradford (1590-
1657), the first governor of the Plymouth colony. Living in Plymouth County, in what had once been a separate Pilgrim colony until it was absorbed by Massachusetts in the 1690s, she grew up with a heritage that was being celebrated anew in the Revolutionary era.
On the side of her father, Jonathan Samson, Jr., she was also descended from a settler who had come over on the Mayflower, Henry Samson. The Samsons knew their ancestry-in 1785, she (or someone else with the same name) bought and inscribed a copy of a sermon by Reverend Robert Cushman, the first preached in the Pilgrim colony, reprinted in 1785. How much the Bradford name meant to her is left to our imagination; in her dark days as a child and servant, it could have been a source of shame that she had sunk so far below the expectations the community had for someone with so illustrious an ancestry, but it might also have been a source of pride and inspiration. In 1785, she would name her firstborn child Earl Bradford Gannett.1
She was born in Plympton, a small inland farming village adjoining the seaport, Plymouth, according to family tradition, in the house of her grandfather, Jonathan Samson, Sr., a prosperous respected farmer. The house still stands, enveloped by subsequent additions and layers of renovation. The core of the original house, as far as one can tell, was a one-story cottage organized around a multipurpose room with a huge hearth, and small bedrooms at either end. Jan Lewis Nelson, who was caretaker of the house in 1974, thought it was not much changed from the original: wide pine planks in the floor, pine on the walls, a fireplace with wrought-iron fixtures for cooking over an open hearth, built-in beehive ovens. As farmhouses went in colonial New England, it was a comfortable dwelling, but it is not where Deborah lived for long.2
Deborah was born December 17, 1760-at least that is the date she gave Mann; no birth record has been found. It is possible she was born a year or so before. Exactly where Jonathan and Deborah Bradford Samson lived after they were married in 1751 is cloudy. In 1758, Jonathan was identified as a "labourer" in a legal document, which meant he very likely moved around for work, as agricultural laborers often had to do. Many decades later, the Plympton town clerk explained to the descendants of Ephraim, Deborah's brother, that he thought the Samsons led "a rather transient and unsettled life," which accounts for the birth dates of their children not always being registered. Deborah seems to have been the fifth of seven children: Jonathan (1753), Elisha (1755), Hannah (1756), Ephraim (1759[?]), Nehemiah (1764), and Sylvia (1766).3
One suspects her mother was responsible for the children's biblical names, all save Sylvia taken from the Old Testament. Such names were still in vogue in conservative areas of New England like Plymouth County, even as they were passing out of fashion elsewhere. In naming a daughter Deborah, she was passing on a name common in her family-no less than a dozen Deborahs came before her in the Bradford line. Our Deborah could hardly have escaped the story of her namesake in Judges, the prophet in Israel who inspired men to battle, or of Jael who in the same chapter killed the enemy general Sisera. "A good name," as an English Puritan minister put it, "is a thread tyed about the finger, to make us mindful of the errand we came into the world to do for our Master."4
The family spelled their name "Samson" without a "p." Her grandfather and father and mother are Samson in legal documents. John Adams Vinton, who in the 1850s worked on a genealogy of the family, wrote that "the name is Samson in nearly all the records, down to a late period. . . . But as the name now almost universally appears with a p he would follow the modern usage."5 Deborah never signed her maiden name on any document that has survived, but at two landmark events where her name was taken down orally, she was Samson: at her admission to the Third Baptist Church in Middleborough; and at her marriage. After she became a Gannett, it did not seem to matter very much to her. On her lecture tour in 1802-03, when she arranged her own publicity, she was "the celebrated Mrs. Gannett, the late Deborah Sampson." Her family name is Samson, and I have spelled it so in this part of the book about her youth, but I have left it Sampson thereafter, the common spelling.6
In 1758, her grandfather on her father's side died, and according to the story the children were told which Deborah passed on, a brother-in-law by his "ill designs, conniving and insinuations" cheated her father out of his inheritance, after which her father went off to sea to seek his fortune, "from whence he was not heard for some years." Eventually, "her mother was informed he had perished in a shipwreck." This is the kind of story a proud mother might tell her children because she was unable to face the fact that her husband had deserted her.7
Deborah's father never reappeared in her life. "She informs she had little knowledge of her father during her juvenile years," Mann wrote. Or if he did, she was too ashamed of his scandalous life to talk about him. Her parents seem to have had a tempestuous marriage. In the mid-nineteenth century the Plympton town clerk wrote, "I am told by older people who well recollected [Jonathan Samson, Jr.] that he and his wife quarreled, which led to their separation."8
The story that her father was cheated by a wicked brother-in-law smacks of a fairy tale. His father died intestate and the estate was divided by administrators among Jonathan Junior's mother, his five sisters, and himself. As the only son, he may possibly have received a double share, but he may have expected more had his father made a will. In February 1758, within three weeks of his father's death, Jonathan Samson, Jr., sold his share of the estate to a brother-in-law, a "cordwainer," according to the deed.9 The fact that her brother Ephraim did not know either the place or date of his birth, and that Nehemiah was born in Stoughton in 1764 and Deborah in Plympton in 1760, suggests that the family moved about. Deborah was born in her grandfather's house probably because her parents' house at best was small and cramped; an old-timer who knew the town in the nineteenth century thought the house might have been not "much more than a shanty. There were plenty around Plympton when I was a child."10
Some time in the mid-1760s, Jonathan Samson abandoned his family and, by 1770, appears to have started a new life, not by going to sea but by migrating to Lincoln County, Maine (then a frontier region of Massachusetts). In 1773, Reverend Jacob Bailey of Pownalboro, reporting that "five or six murders have been committed on the Kennebec River in Maine" since 1760, wrote that "indictments for capital crimes were found in that county against . . . Jonathan Sampson (1770)." Whether or not this was our Jonathan Samson is not certain. The case, it seems, never went to trial. We know that he lived in the area with a woman, Martha (nicknamed Patty), who became his common-law wife and by whom he had two or more children, and that both he and she ended up on poor relief, charges of the town of Fayette. So did his legal wife back in Plympton. We know this because years later the penny-pinching selectmen of Plympton who were paying for poor relief for Deborah Bradford Samson sent one of their own up to Maine to get Fayette to assume financial responsibility for her as the legal spouse of one of their residents. We also know from military records that in the 1770s Jonathan served a short stint or two in the army. In 1794, he came back to Plympton briefly to attend to a property transaction. He and his common-law wife died in poverty in Maine, he some time after 1807. Thus, he did not perish at sea in a shipwreck (the family mythology that Deborah was passing on in the 1790s), but he seems to have lived a storm-tossed life.11
Around 1765, in the space of about a year, when Deborah was barely five, she faced a calamity: her grandmother on her mother's side died; her father took off; and, to use Mann's words, her mother in "indigent circumstance was obliged, at length, to disband her family and to scatter her children abroad." Deborah was put out to live in the homes of strangers-the eighteenth-century way in New England of providing for dependent children. She was placed first with "a distant relation of her mother, an elderly maiden by the name of Fuller," where is not clear. After less than three years, Miss Fuller "was seized of a violent malady," and died. Then, when the young girl was about eight, she was placed in Middleborough with the widow of Reverend Peter Thacher, a woman in her eighties. She stayed with Widow Thacher for "about two years" before she, too, passed away. Middleborough was the next town over from Plympton, but as a huge town, one of the largest in Massachusetts, its center, where the minister's house stood, was a good trip from Plympton. Her mother was not exactly next door. Finally, when Deborah was about ten, "her mother removed her" to the family of Jeremiah Thomas in Middleborough. Deborah remarked of these years, "As I was born to be unfortunate, my sun soon clouded," a poetic comment-either hers or Mann's-that suggests how grim these years of being shunted about may have been for her. She had every reason to feel abandoned. The adults in her life recurrently disappeared.12
2. The Servant
"You are always hammering upon some book"
Deborah was a servant in the family of Jeremiah and Susannah Thomas from about the age of ten, if custom was followed, probably until she was eighteen, roughly 1770 to 1778. Her life as a servant is a story of incessant work, of the mastery of an unusual combination of skills, and of the successful pursuit of an education in books in defiance of her master-in short of the emergence of a young woman with a sense of herself.
Thomas family descendants later referred to Deborah as an "indentured servant" or a "bound girl." Mann did not use these terms, possibly because there was no such formal indenture, but just as likely, because in presenting her to the public, it was a source of embarrassment. He also elevated the status of his heroine in the army from "waiter" to "aide" to make her more respectable.
In colonial Massachusetts, there was a variety of arrangements for "putting out" children in what today might be called foster homes. For orphans or children whose parents were too poor to provide for them, a law of 1692 allowed local justices of the peace to bind out boys to the age of twenty-one and girls to the age of eighteen "or time of marriage." Often such children were apprenticed very young, between five and nine. In the average country town, the selectmen placed such children but invariably were wary of assuming jurisdiction over poor children from another town. In 1766, for example, Middleborough tried to return Josiah and Sarah Marshall and their three daughters, Sarah, Mary, and Deborah, to Plympton, "being poor persons and unable to support themselves." It was also fairly common for parents who were not necessarily poor to "put out" their children to service with another family. Thus, in Middleborough, Deborah might have been among a goodly number of young boys and girls who had been placed as servants.13
No evidence survives of either a private contract indenturing Deborah or the town fathers putting her to service. Most likely, after Widow Thacher died, there was an informal arrangement. Either Deborah's mother "removed her" to Jeremiah Thomas, or Reverend Sylvanus Conant, who had followed Thacher as Congregational minister, had a hand in it. The successor minister would have felt a special responsibility for a child who was a ward of the former minister's widow. If custom was followed, Deborah was not paid and was not free until she was eighteen.14
Deborah would have been referred to as a "servant," "servant girl," or perhaps "servant maid." In the colonial era, the term "servant" was widely used-apprentices were servants-and no odium was attached to it. It became invidious among young white native-born men and women in the North when "servant" became identified primarily with indentured servants imported from the British Isles and with African-American slaves in the South. Exactly when this happened is hard to pin down, but clearly at some time in the Revolutionary era a leveling spirit led free people who worked for wages to bristle at the word "servant." After the war, they wanted to be referred to as "help," "helper," "helps," or "hired girl," more fitting for a voluntary relationship in a more egalitarian society.15
Jeremiah Thomas, Jr., probably would have met the town's expectations for a master, that he be "a man of sober life and conversation." The Thomases were legion in town-their section of town was called Thomastown. The patriarch of the clan was Benjamin Thomas, chosen in 1776 as deacon of the Congregational Church. Susannah Thomas was Benjamin's daughter, Jeremiah, his son-in-law.
Copyright © 2004 by Alfred F. Young. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.