What's In a Name?
At times during the composition of Revolutionary, it seemed like the research would never end. What road leads from Middleborough to Taunton? Where did the ferry cross the Hudson in the spring of 1782? What currency was most commonly used in southeastern Massachusetts, and how much would a room at an inn cost? There were facts momentous and mundane to establish. There was verisimilitude to render. There was a historical record to which I felt accountable. But amid all this, one tiny question, a miniscule point to resolve, led me to a profound insight into the period.
|Artist's rendition of Deborah Samson|
As a descendant of Deborah, I knew my own copy of the family tree recorded “Sampson,” and certainly Google searches of her name yielded far more texts that had the “p” than didn’t. But these contemporary sources weren’t satisfying to me, so I delved into the historical records. I don’t know what I expected to find, but the results surprised me. There is no remaining record of Deborah writing or signing her maiden name. There are others who recorded it – she is noted in the record of the Middleborough Baptist Congregation at the time when she joined and also at the time when they excommunicated her (for purportedly dressing in men’s clothes and other “unchristian” behavior). There is a document of intention to marry, written by some clerk. After this, she becomes Deborah Gannett and, as she lobbied for her right to a pension, I found more of her writing and letters, though not her maiden name.
But at this point in my research, the spelling of the name ceased to interest me so much. I went back again and again, looking for more evidence of her early years. But that was it. Two Baptist records are the sole surviving mentions of this young woman. More than anything, this made me think about how profoundly different the world in which she lived was from our world today. How many official records of our existence are tucked in file folders somewhere? How many of our signatures – digital and inked – are floating about at large? We are everywhere. We blare our existences: we proclaim and proclaim who we are. (It is for someone else to answer whether anyone hears us. Or whether any of this flotsam will survive for two hundred years.)
Imagine my delight, then, to discover the one record that remains of her hand signing her name before she was married. This signature survives in the records of the Massachusetts Archives, in faded ink on a discolored page. The text begins: “Received of Mr. Noah Taft, Chairman of Class No. 2 for The Town of Uxbridge, The Sum of Sixty Pounds Legal Money as a bounty to serve in the Continental Army For the term of Three years.” And it ends with the firm and legible signature of one Robert Shurtliff.
Alex Myers' Revolutionary was published in January in hardcover by Simon & Schuster (320pp, $26) and as an ebook (currently $11.89 on Kindle). My Booklist review can be found here.