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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf History Reader

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Figure 1. Two-handed manual alphabet published in The Pennsylvania Magazine, 1776.

Evidence of some exposure to various forms of fingerspelling among the colonists may also be found. In 1776, the Pennsylvania Magazine published a manual alphabet referred to as “Dumb Speech” as a means of carrying on a secret conversation. “This invention,” the anonymous correspondent explained, “consisteth of a natural alphabet composed on the human hand, and may be learned in the space of an hour, and executed with so much readiness, when often practiced, that you may be able to express our sentiments sooner this way, than the most skilfull artist can write his words at length with pen and ink.”43 The two-handed alphabet illustrated in this publication (and shown here in figure 1) originated in England.

Isolated Attempts at Tutoring in the Eighteenth Century

Because scarce records are available, we can only surmise how many deaf children received some individual tutoring. Nahum Brown, for instance, a deaf descendent of the first Englishman to settle in Concord, Massachusetts, was only four years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and there is no record of how he was taught. At seventeen, he moved to Henniker, New Hampshire, with his family, and he became a successful farmer. He had a 100-acre tract of land given to him by his father. He married a hearing woman, who interpreted in sign language for him during business transactions. They had two deaf children, and many of their descendents were deaf.44

Probably the first documented attempt at tutoring a deaf child in the American colonies before the Revolutionary War is found in the diary of John Harrower, an indentured servant at the Belvedere plantation on the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Harrower had notable success with his individual instruction of John Edge, the fourteen-year-old deaf son of a neighboring planter, Samuel Edge. On June 21, 1774, Harrower wrote in his diary that “This day Mr. Samuel Edge Planter came to me and begged me to take a son of his to school who was both deaf and dum, and I consented to try what I cou’d with him.”45

The Belvedere plantation had been built for Colonel William Daingerfield, and Harrower was the in-house tutor to the Daingerfield children. It is not known whether Harrower, who had lived in Shetland, Scotland, and left Lerwick in 1774 for America, was familiar with the work of Thomas Braidwood in Edinburgh or with the father of Charles Shirreff, who

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