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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf History Reader

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had approached Braidwood in 1760 about educating his own deaf son. Both Harrower and Shirreff were merchants in Harrower’s instruction of John Edge ended, apparently as a result of his father’s failure to pay for the tutoring. The last entry was in December, indicating that approximately five months of lessons took place.

One influential parent who sought support for his deaf child in late eighteenth-century America was James Rumsey, one of the inventors of the steamboat. Rumsey bitterly fought Robert Fulton, John Fitch, Oliver Evans, and others over patent rights. On May 15, 1788, before leaving for a patent battle in England, he wrote an emotional letter to his brother-in-law Charles, asking that his deaf son, also named James, be kept

with the doctor if possible, or some other school. I shall endeavor to have him some clothing got against winter, and if nothing else can be done, send him to Joseph Barnes. I have a train for him to finish his studies, but it will be expensive, and therefore must be the last shift except [if] my circumstances change. . . . Charles, take [care] of my child and all the little business I left with you. I can make no promises, but I think I shall not go to Europe for nothing.47
Rumsey died in London, England, in December 1792, leaving his wife and children penniless, but his deaf son apparently did receive some tutoring as a young boy. He was considered “talented, ingenious, ready and dextrous at various mechanical employments” but nevertheless struggled in adulthood to earn but a “scanty subsistence by daily labor.”48 Years after the inventor’s death, the United States Senate and House of Representatives passed a resolution to present to the deaf son of James Rumsey a gold medal, “commemorative of his father’s services and high agency in giving to the world the benefits of the steamboat.”49 But the attorney for Rumsey’s heirs prevented the resolution from passing in the Senate. Edward Rumsey, a cousin of the deaf man and congressman from Kentucky, was also not satisfied with this tribute. He stood in front of the House of Representatives and pleaded for additional support:
When I have reflected that the only son of this man was toiling for his daily bread, smitten by his God, and neglected by his country—when I have contemplated that and this spectacle, the steamboat and the unfortunate son of its inventor, feelings, emotions, reflections, have crowded upon me of a character which, as a patriot, a philanthropist, and a Christian, I acknowledge it was improper and sinful to entertain. To the support of that stricken one, I have thought his country, abounding in resources . . . might contribute something more substantial than a medal, with extraordinary stretch of liberality.50
Rumsey’s will provided boarding and clothing for his deaf son for about six years. At the age of 21, he would receive one of four equal shares of his father’s estate.

Deaf Experiences during the Revolutionary War

In the late eighteenth century when the Revolutionary War began, encounters between Indians and colonists could be violent and tragic. Several reports of these incidents involve deaf people. In 1777, the grandparents of frontiersman Davy Crockett were killed by Indians in their cabin in the territory that became Tennessee. Two of their sons were at home that day. Joseph suffered a broken arm from a rifle bullet, but his brother, “Deaf and Dumb Jimmy,” was kidnapped by the Indians and rescued twenty years later by his older brothers. We are left to wonder whether Jimmy communicated in signs with his captors during the two decades he spent with them. The manner in which he communicated with his family, too, is not known. On his return, he sought unsuccessfully to show his brothers the gold and silver mines he had been taken to blindfolded while a captive.51

Similarly, in Salisbury, Vermont, Joshua Graves, who was exempted from military duty because of his deafness, was living in a log house he had built with his son when a clash with Indians occurred. Graves and his son had cleared and planted a few acres of land, the first clearing for agricultural purposes in Salisbury, but in June 1777, he and one of his sons were captured by a party of about 250 Indians. They were taken to Lake Champlain and then by a British vessel to Montreal. The Indians demanded a bounty for the father and son, but the British officers released them because they were not considered “rebel heads.” The Indians had captured them while they were engaged “in quiet and peaceable prosecution of their labors as farmers.” The prisoners were allowed to find their own way back to their families and finally arrived home after an absence of three weeks. After the Revolutionary War, Graves built the first framed barn in Salisbury. Four of his sons served in the militia in defense of the frontier area north of Rutland.52

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