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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf History Reader

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Deafness from artillery and disease were common during the Revolutionary War. Jonathan Gillett, who was held prisoner in New York by the British in 1776, mentioned observing deafened soldiers:
After giving you a small sketch of myself and troubles, I will endeavor to faintly lead you into the poor situation the soldiers are in, especially those taken at Long Island when I was. In fact, their cases are deplorable, and they are real objects of pity. They are still confined, and in houses where there is no fire, poor mortals, with little or no clothes, perishing with hunger. . . . Some almost lose their voices, and some their hearing.53
Deaf civilians during the American Revolution were also victims, as in the case of Fountain Smith, born in Norwalk, Fairfield County, Connecticut, in 1725. Smith was a deaf cooper married to Hannah Wassan. The British kidnapped him in front of his house on Raymond Street and took him to prison. He died in a British prisoner of war camp on Long Island in 1779.54

Formal Education of Deaf Children of American Colonists

Among deaf colonial children, those of influential parents were the first to receive formal private instruction. These privileged children included John, Thomas, and Mary Bolling, the children of Major Thomas Bolling, a descendent of Pocahontas; Charles Green, born in Boston in 1771, the son of Francis Green, a businessman; John Brewster, Jr., born in Hampton, Connecticut, in 1766, the son of a physician; and William Mercer, born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1765, whose father had fought in the Kittanning Expedition and was a close friend of George Washington.

One option for Americans with means was the Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1771, Thomas Bolling of Virginia enrolled his ten-year-old son John in the Braidwood Academy. One report stated that “Mr. John Bolling was deaf and dumb, he was extremely sensible he understood Geography, Arithmetic, Globe—he has a good sense and fine Education from Scotland.”55 Thomas and Mary followed their brother in 1775 and attained similar satisfactory educations. Charles Green likewise attended the Braidwood Academy for six years. After only two years, his father reported that he had acquired a “very perceptible” improvement “in the construction of language, and in writing; he had made a good beginning in arithmetic. . . . I found him capable of not only comparing ideas, and drawing inferences, but expressing his sentiments with judgment.”56

Other deaf children received private education in the colonies or in the early republic. William Mercer’s education, for example, focused on painting, for which he showed great talent. His father, General Hugh Mercer, was stabbed by British bayonets in the Battle of Princeton while assisting George Washington on January 3, 1777. He died on January 12. His brother-in-law, George Weedon, became the Mercer family’s guardian, taking responsibility for financial affairs and schooling of the children, including William, whom he sent to study under the distinguished Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale in 1783. Peale and his wife considered William an “adopted son” and pledged lifelong love and devotion to him.57 The American deaf community considers Mercer one of the first known congenitally deaf individuals in the United States to become a distinguished artist. Unfortunately, with the exception of the painting of the Battle of Princeton and an oval miniature on ivory of Edmund Pendleton of Virginia, now held by the Virginia Historical Society of Richmond, Mercer’s other works have been lost.58

Like Mercer, John Brewster, Jr., received private tutoring in painting, but many more of his works have been located over the years. Joseph Steward, a friend of Brewster’s father, taught the deaf boy, who later established himself as a freelance artist in Massachusetts and Maine. On December 13, 1790, the Reverend James Cogswell of Scotland Parish, Windham, wrote, “Doctr Brewster’s Son, a Deaf & Dumb young man came in . . . the Evening, he is very Ingenious, has a Genious for painting & can write well, & converse by signs so that he may be understood in many Things, he lodged here.”59

Brewster produced folk art for decades. Before the turn of the century, he painted a large portrait of his father and stepmother and a pair of portraits of Mr. and Mrs. James Eldredge of Brooklyn, Connecticut. His technique included portraying couples on separate canvasses and with highly decorative backgrounds. He lived for some time in the luxurious Prince mansion in Maine, where he painted James Prince and three of Prince’s children. Among his full-length portraits were three of his half-sisters, completed in Hampton, Connecticut, about 1800.60

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