Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives

Hidden Gems

While “billions and billions” of genealogical documents are digitized and searchable online, an equal number reside in libraries, court houses and archives, waiting for a request or a researcher to don white gloves and unfold their secrets. Living in DC affords me the opportunity to assist researchers in other locales by pulling pension records from the National Archives or wedding licenses from the DC Courthouse. A recent request sent me to the Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives, the “world’s largest collection of materials related to the Deaf.”

Certainly the hundreds of newspapers, bulletins, journals and other publications on the worldwide Deaf community would help any genealogist researching a family with Deaf members, however,the matriculation records and pupil statistics records housed in the archives offer all sorts of personal data on students who attended these institutions. I worked with the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf Applications, a record set that dates back to 1824, examining documents ranging from 1848 – 1863.

PA School for the Deaf application

Circa 1863 application questions

The applications are on tabloid-sized vellum paper, handwritten answers to pre-printed questions. The questions changed slightly over time, but of the applications I reviewed, the questions asked about the birth date of the applicant; information about his or her parents including financial status; information and sometimes names of siblings; questions about the demeanor of the applicant; and how the applicant became deaf, if not from birth. Really unique and valuable information!

In the case of the work I did, the family knew their ancestors had attended the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The Census also provides clues to finding out if there might have been Deaf ancestors in your tree. Beginning in 1830, enumerators asked the head of household about the number of “deaf and dumb” people in the household in three different age groups, and it also asked the same question regarding slaves and “colored persons.” In 1840, the same questions were asked and the same categories maintained. In the 1850 Census, the name and age of the person, along with the question “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict” was asked. A question regarding the ability of a person to hear was asked through the 1880 Census.

Once one moves from the reaction to the lack of understanding of being Deaf relayed in the Census questions, a new avenue of research opens. Obviously, if the family lived in Pennsylvania, or perhaps Ohio or another nearby state, the first place to look would be the index to the Pennsylvania school records at Gallaudet Archives. The Archives also houses the pupil statistic records for Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which became Gallaudet University. There were more than 30 schools for the Deaf in the US during the 1800s, meaning many more places to research, and hidden gems to discover.