Some of you family historians may owe Alexander Graham Bell a debt of gratitude for very impressive records about your deaf ancestors.
Bell’s wife, Mabel Grace Hubbard, and his mother, Eliza Grace Symonds Bell, were deaf. Bell also taught at a day school for deaf children. So it should be no surprise that in 1887 he founded the Volta Bureau, which became a center of information for deaf persons.
Through Volta, E.A. Fay researched marriages of the deaf in the United States. In 1880 the federal government appointed her as a special agent for collecting statistical information on deaf individuals. The result of her work is titled “U. S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895.”
Data collected from these families included the names of the husband and wife, whether they were deaf or hearing, who attended school, occupations, details about the couple’s marriage (including date and place), details about the couple’s children and their parents and siblings.
A review of the record of John Frederick Roth and his wife, Alma Carroll, shows what typically is in these files.
The couple married on Sept. 28, 1875, in Waverly, Ill. They had four children; three were hearing and one was deaf. One unnamed child died at 15 months of dropsy of the brain and another at just 2 months of whooping cough. A child, Julia, was born Jan. 14, 1878, in Rockford, Ill., and the fourth child, Lilli, was born Oct. 22, 1883, in Kansas City, Kan. Julia lost her hearing when she was teething.
John also provided his parents’ names, including the maiden name of his mother, Annie. His father was killed at the Battle of Shiloh (which allows for an approximate date of death of April 6 or 7, 1861) when John was only 10 years old. John was one of six children born to Annie, but apparently she was married three times; elsewhere in the file John referred to his “second stepfather.” Three of Annie’s children were hearing and three — including John — were deaf. John’s file included the given names of his five siblings but did not give their surnames. He gave the dates of birth of three of them, a date of death of one, and the identity of one sister’s husband.
John revealed that he got lockjaw from a lanced gum and this led to his deafness. He was admitted to an institution for the deaf in 1862, when he was 11 years old.
Alma’s questionnaire was equally informative, giving her date of birth and identifying her siblings and their dates of birth. Alma and one sibling were deaf. She went deaf at the age of 2 and was admitted to the institution for the deaf in 1863 when she was 11.
The final page of each record is a blank sheet labeled “Remarks.” It is here that researchers may find interesting and intriguing details that give insight into family dynamics.
“Mr. Roth is a fine workman, well-off. He and his 2nd stepfather attribute the deafness of Nicholas (John’s youngest brother) to Divine displeasure. When Mr. R. was at school, this father utterly repudiated him and would not have him at home. Niclaus [cq] was born deaf, thereafter.” The final note is that Niclaus was the stepfather’s “only son.” Neither the first or second stepfathers were identified by name.
These records, digitized and indexed, are available at Ancestry (www.ances try.com) by subscription or free to patrons in local libraries and LDS Family History Centers. Researchers may not know that ancestors were deaf, so everyone would be wise to run their surnames through the index of these records.
Thank you, Mr. Bell.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.