Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tuesday's Tip: Researching Your Deaf Ancestors in U.S. Federal Censuses

The beginning of the sign for "deaf."

March 13 marked the beginning of Deaf History Month 2015, which concludes on April 15. Today, and for the next four weeks, I will be listing tips and strategies for researching your deaf ancestors and relatives in historical records.

Although no one in my immediate family is deaf*, I did have an ancestor, my 4th-great-grandfather Ezra DICKINSON, who had three deaf children out of 12. His biography can be read here. It states: "In 1842, having three children who were [deaf] mutes, he sold his farm in Concord Township [DeKalb County, Indiana] and bought one near Hicksville, Ohio, that his children might have the advantage of the deaf and dumb asylum."

*UPDATE: In 2016, my first grandchild, Theo, was diagnosed at six weeks old as being severely to profoundly hard of hearing, which is technically deaf.  He received cochlear implants at age 13 months.  Genetic testing determined that both my daughter and son-in-law carry a recessive gene called Connexion 26.  If a child receives one gene from a parent, they can be hard of hearing.  If they receive both genes, they will be deaf.  In 2019, my second grandchild, Charlotte, was born.  She also was diagnosed as being severely to profoundly hard of hearing and received cochlear implants at 11 months of age.  My two children and I either do wear or have worn hearing aids, but until my grandchildren were born, we believed our hearing loss was caused by multiple ear infections we all had as children.  We now know we carry the Connexion 26 gene.  It is entirely possible that gene came down the line from the Dickinson family through many generations.  We are becoming a bilingual family, utilizing both American Sign Language and spoken English to communicate.

I've been fortunate to be able to trace this family through the U.S. Federal Censuses, and even more fortunate that our government decided to identify deaf and mute individuals in many of those censuses. In fact, the 1830 census was the first to identify people as deaf and dumb (the archaic term used for mute individuals, whether they were mute genetically, or were mute due to deafness and the inability or lack of opportunity to learn to speak). For the next six censuses, through the mostly destroyed 1890 census, all population registers identified the deaf and/or deaf and dumb. Also, the 1910 and the 2000 censuses identified this group. We will be taking a "walk" through these censuses to determine what can be found about your deaf ancestors and relatives, by using my Dickinson family as an example.


When the 1830 census was taken, Ezra DICKINSON was enumerated in Johnston Township, Trumbull County, Ohio. Only heads of household were named in this census. There were six individuals in the household: three sons, a daughter, and Ezra and his wife, Cynthia.

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On the second page of the census, we see the total number of people in the household (six), plus a one in the column identifying deaf and dumb individuals under the age of 14. This would probably have been son John Fletcher DICKINSON, born 10 May 1825.

If you use Ancestry.com to view these census images, please note that you cannot download the second page of the images, because--as they state--those pages aren't indexed (that seems rather silly to me). I took a screen shot of the above image and used my photo editing software to create a clip for this post. Here is the link to the 1830 census database at Ancestry.

In 1840, Ezra and his family were enumerated in DeKalb Co., Indiana (the township is not given). Four sons and five daughters graced their home. Again, only heads of household were named (here is the link for the 1840 census at Ancestry).

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On the second page of the census, the number 11 shows the total number of people in the household, followed by a 2 representing the number of people in the household engaged in agriculture. Then a 2 and a 1 are given in the columns for deaf and dumb individuals, ages 0-13, and 14-24, respectively. These likely were Harriet Anna DICKINSON (probably born 13 Dec 1839), Thomas Sherman DICKINSON (born November 1835), and John Fletcher DICKINSON, mentioned above.

The 1850 census was the first one in which every individual was named within a household; before this, only heads of households (usually male) were named. In this year, Ezra and his family were in Hicksville, Defiance Co., Ohio, having moved to that state so his deaf children would be eligible to attend the state school for the deaf and dumb. The family had originally lived in Ohio before moving to Indiana, so it wasn't a stretch for them to return and set up life in their former home state. Ezra and Cynthia are shown with seven of their children. Some of the adult children are out of the home, and there may have been children born after this census. Three children of theirs have yet to be identified by name. Cynthia died in 1852.

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As you can see in the far right column, John, Sherman, and Harriet are listed as "Deaf & Dumb." Sherman is specifically enumerated as a student for his occupation while older brother John is farming, and younger sister Harriet, although age 10, does not have a student occupation. Keep this in mind for when we discuss school records from schools for the deaf  in the future.

If you are researching enslaved ancestors in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, they will be identified if deaf-mute. However, they will not be named, but only be identified by gender and approximate age. If you believe your enslaved ancestor was a deaf-mute either from a family story or from identification as a deaf-mute in post-1860 population schedules, this can help narrow down the possibilities of where that ancestor was living and who his or her slave owner was. Slave schedules for 1850 and 1860 can be found here and here, respectively, as separate databases at Ancestry.

In 1860, Ezra, his second wife Hannah "Elizabeth," four of his children, and a step-son were back in Indiana, in Wilmington Township, DeKalb County. Sherman and Harriet are identified as deaf and dumb. John was married to his wife Chloe BATES, also deaf and dumb, and living in Brooks Township, Newaygo Co., Michigan (not shown).

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By 1870, all three deaf children of Ezra were married and living in their own homes with their spouses and children. Here are Sherman and John, living next door to each other in Sheridan Township, Newaygo Co., Michigan. As you can see, Sherman, John, and John's wife Chloe were identified as deaf and dumb. 

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Harriet was living with her husband, James Root, in Mount Pleasant, Cass Co., Nebraska (not shown). Interestingly enough, they had a hired hand living with them who was also deaf and dumb. He does not appear to be related.

If you find your deaf ancestors on the 1880 census, be aware that there is more to look at than just the population schedules. Here are Sherman and his family living in Rock Bluffs, Cass Co., Nebraska, probably to be near sister Harriet's family. The Harriet in his own household is a niece; she is John and Chloe's daughter.

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To the far right of Sherman's name, you can see a 1 in the column identifying deaf and dumb individuals. This information informs you that Sherman's name can be searched in the 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, which include deaf individuals. This is a separate database at Ancestry. These schedules were additional information gathered regarding "defective" (physically and mentally disabled), dependent (the indigent and orphans), and delinquent (criminal, imprisoned) individuals who were identified in the 1880 population schedule.

When I searched for Sherman in the DDD Schedule, he was enumerated on it on the same page as his siblings and sister-in-law, as all were living in Cass Co., Nebraska. Harriet was living in Rock Bluffs proper, while the rest were living in Rock Bluffs Precinct.

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The DDD schedule listed the individual, where they lived, and whether they were self-supporting, or partly so (the family members we are studying all said "yes" to this question). Then they were asked at which age deafness occurred. Harriet and Sherman said they were deaf from birth, Chloe stated she was 11 months old when she had brain fever (perhaps scarlet fever or meningitis), and John stated he was 2 years old when he had a contusion of the head when falling into a well. That is an interesting story; it does conflict with information given when he entered the Ohio State School for the Deaf, which stated he was deaf from birth. The next question was whether the individual had ever attended an institution for the deaf. All four stated the Ohio School for the Deaf in Columbus. John added that he had attended the School for the Deaf in Flint, Michigan, which may give us a hint about the family's migration to that state from the Indiana-Ohio region. Next is the number of years in the institution. The final column gives the date of discharge from the school.

The next census to identify the deaf was the 1890 census, which unfortunately was mostly destroyed mainly by water and mold damage as the result of putting out a fire. Neither John, Sherman, nor Harriet lived in a community where the 1890 census remnants are extant. However, for those fortunate enough to find their ancestors on these remnants, the information would be very similar to that which is found on the 1850-1870 censuses.

The last historical census that has been released to the public which identifies deaf individuals is the 1910 census. In this census, only deaf and dumb individuals are identified; those who were deaf (but not dumb) or dumb (but not deaf) were not identified.

I found Harriet living in Ward 7 of Lincoln, Lancaster Co., Nebraska in 1910. In the very last column on the right, you can see "DD" written, for "deaf and dumb."

Since 1910, the only census that has identified deaf individuals is the 2000 census. It will not be released to the public until 2072. Question 16 of that census asks: "Does this person have any of the following long-lasting conditions: a. Blindness, deafness, or a severe vision or hearing impairment?" It is unfortunate that our descendants will not be able to track deaf ancestors for over 90 years (the gap between the 1910 and 2000 censuses).


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John-Paul DeRosa said...

I have been researching deaf and mute ancestors from multiple generations who lived in Manhattan and were associated with various institutions serving the deaf there for decades. I just found your blog--what a godsend. Thank you very much for this highly informative and clear presentation.

Miriam Robbins said...

Hello, John-Paul:

I'm so sorry it's taken me a while to post your comment and respond. Blogger used to email me whenever a comment was submitted, but now I have to remember to go in and check.

It makes me very happy to help you and others with your research of your deaf ancestors and relatives!