Researching Deaf Ancestors

Records of the Deaf are often rich in genealogical detail. The can uncover so many facts about the entire family, not just the person who was Deaf. If you have any Deaf ancestors or collateral relatives, you will want to check out these records.

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Background

Beginning in the mid-1800s, there was a movement to study the impact of deafness. Could it be inherited? Were Deaf parents more or less likely than hearing parents to have Deaf children? Should a Deaf person be allowed to marry another Deaf person? Because of this, many records about Deaf people were quite detailed and include information not only about that person, but about his or her entire family.

First, identify your relatives who were Deaf. The 1850-1890 and 1910 US census asked if the person was deaf. Also look to see where family members are enumerated; some might be listed in residential schools for the Deaf. Biographies in county histories or obituaries sometimes include this fact as well. 

Let's take a look at some of the records.

1. 1880 Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes

If your relative was marked in column 17 as being "deaf and dumb," look for that person in the 1880 Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, which was part of the 1880 Federal census. 

Sometimes called the 1880 DDD schedule, it is comprised of several different sections, including one for "deaf mutes." As defined in this census, “A deaf-mute is one who cannot speak, because he cannot hear sufficiently well to learn to speak.” Information includes if he or she was self-supporting, age that deafness occurred, supposed cause of deafness, history of institutions (schools), and other disabilities. (You can learn more about the 1880 DDD schedule here.)

Several states are available on Ancestry in the collection “U.S. Federal Census – 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes.” Some, including Illinois and Iowa are available on FamilySearch. Also look in the FamilySearch Catalog; additional titles can be found there. Some of those are also online, so be sure to click on the title to check availability.

2. Deaf School Student Records

The American School for the Deaf opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Then called the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons, it was the first permanent school for the Deaf in the United States. Soon, more schools opened up across the country. 

The first type of record you'll want to look for are the school admission records or student registers. They are often incredibly detailed, giving information about the student, his or her family, and sometimes even the student's life after leaving the school. 

Below is the register entry for Robert William Searl, a student at the Ohio Institution for the Deaf and Dumb:

Ohio School for the Deaf Student Register
Ohio School for the Deaf Student Register

Robert William Searl, student 372, Register of Pupils, Oct. 1829-Feb. 1929, Ohio Institution for the Deaf, p. 136-137. Image courtesy FamilySearch.

Robert William Searl; born Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, May 28, 1835; admitted Sept. 27, 1848; cause of deafness: scarlet fever; no deaf-mute relatives listed. Parents, etc.: "Father dead / Mother Lydia Searl / stepfather Thos. Hibben. Discharged February 1852. Absent six months." 

What's remarkable about this record is that it gives us birth information and information about the parents long before civil birth records were kept in Ohio.

Later, this register begins to list all of the siblings of the student, not just the siblings who were deaf. 

Look in the FamilySearch catalog for these records. (One way to find them is to search for "deaf" in the author field; this will turn up records that were created by entities with "deaf" in their name.) You can also find these records still with the school as well as in state archives.

3. Deaf School Annual Reports

For schools that were run by the state, take a look for the annual report of the school. Some include a list of students during that school year, which is a handy way to spot siblings who are attending together. 

Annual reports also give tremendous context into life at the school. Descriptions of the buildings, the school day, and the curriculum give insight into what the students experienced. 

Below are excerpts from the Fifth Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees of the Michigan Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, and the Blind, For the Years 1861 and 1862 (Lansing: State printer, 1862).

Many annual reports have been digitized. Look on Google Books, Internet Archive, FamilySearch (check the catalog) and the Digital Public Library of America (use search term deaf annual report and then filter by location). Also look for them at state libraries, state archives, and state historical societies. 

4. Deaf Newspapers

Deaf newspapers, published by schools for the Deaf, served two purposes. First, it was a way that boys in the school could be taught the printing trade (a common occupation for Deaf men in the 1800s and early 1900s). The newspaper was also a way to keep in touch with the Deaf community. 

Deaf newspapers covered not only the school, but also the Deaf community at large, regardless of whether the person had ever attended that school. 

Look for newspapers at the school, state historical societies, state libraries, and state archives.

(School newspapers is one type of newspaper every genealogist should know.) 

5. Fay Marriage Survey

In the late 1880s, E.A. Fay undertook a survey of Deaf married couples in the United States, with the aim of compiling a statistical abstract around Deaf demographics and insight into hereditary deafness. To gather as much information as possible, questionnaires were filled out by couples and by Deaf schools which reported information from their student records. 

Information on these surveys includes birth information for the husband and wife, as well as their children; school attendance; names of parents and siblings; deafness in the family; and other remarks. 

The surveys are available on Ancestry in the collection "U.S. Special Census of Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895." NOTE: Each survey is 4 pages long. Be sure to scroll through all 4 pages. 

(If you're curious about Fay's findings, you can find his report, Marriages of the Deaf in America, linked from FamilySearch's catalog. When you click the link to view the digital version, be prepared to wait; it takes forever to load.)

Researching Your Deaf Ancestors

Records of Deaf individuals can give so much insight into their families and their lives. Many of these records will report the cause of deafness, which can be a boon when compiling a medical history. School records especially are goldmines of family information. 

If you identify any relative in your family tree, whether that person was your ancestor or a collateral relative, take the time to explore the records of the Deaf. 

Records of the Deaf are filled with genealogical information not only about them, but about the entire family. Explore these records if you have an ancestor or collateral relative who was Deaf. #genealogy #familyhistory

15 thoughts on “Researching Deaf Ancestors

    • Yes, I am working on making transcripts available at least on the episodes where I have a guest. For the solo shows, I’m not sure how much a transcript would add, as the post here on the site will cover the same material.

  1. Do sources exist for the blind? Just found someone listed on census as blind & in city directory as a piano tuner. I haven’t found anyone else in that family listed as blind.

    • There are similar records for state schools of the blind (admission records and annual reports). However, the family information doesn’t tend to be as complete as it is with the schools of the Deaf.

  2. In one of my presentations, I have an example of a couple young boys, both deaf, of the same family in Dakota Territory. These boys were also found in the DDD schedule. More research discovered that the school board determined they needed more education than what could be obtained locally. The family could not afford to send them to the deaf school in Iowa, so an appeal was sent to the legislature for the Territory to help support their education for a couple years. There was good background info found in these records. Good idea above to check the school admission reports. My next step on these boys. Thanks for the ideas.

  3. My paternal grandparents were both blind, they met at the Batavia (NY) School for the Blind.
    How would I go about finding records for them?

  4. I especially liked your info on annual reports. I found a list of a number of them (many online). It’s not comprehensive (Ohio School of the Deaf is not listed, for instance), but it’s very useful.

  5. Very interesting article, I will have to do more research with some of the information you have provided. I did find one reference including both my maternal great grand parents as attending the Rhode Island School for the Deaf during the mid 1890’s. My great-grandfather’s family had recently emigrated from Germany. It would be interesting to discover if the schooling for their oldest child was a factor in the move.

  6. With your suggestion, I found a 4th great aunt (lived 1808-1897) who was deaf. The only information I previously had for her came from her gravestone. The info I’m finding may end up in a blog post!

    • I haven’t posted anything specifically about researching those who were institutionalized. A couple of posts you might want to check out are “Do You Have a Defective Ancestor?” (about using the 1880 DDD schedule, which could have information) and “The Disgusting Words in Genealogy” (about the language that you will find in those records).

      Institutional records tend to be closed (due to overly restrictive privacy concerns), but they are worth looking for. If it was a state institution, check with the state archives. If it was a county home, check with the county genealogy society to see if they know where the records are.

      State institutions usually published annual reports, much like the state Deaf schools did. They usually don’t list the patients, but they can give insight into conditions. Look for them online and at state libraries and historical societies.

      Another avenue of research would be court records. Check the probate court in the county where the person was living to see if there was a court action that resulted in the person being institutionalized.

      • Hi Amy!

        Thank you for another great article! I have a question. Why would a court action resulting in a person being institutionalized be in county probate court(s)?

        I have several women in my tree that were institutionalized, and I would love to find any court action.

        Thanks!

        • Hi, Kris — Having someone institutionalized often involved some sort of court order. Which county court would depend on the state and the time period. (In Ohio, for example, it was often part of the function of the probate court). As for why they would be institutionalized, there could be any number of reasons, including what we would recognize today as postpartum depression, Alzheimers, epilepsy, PTSD, etc.

  7. Great reminder to look beyond the basic census information. Checking the 1880 DDD answered a question I had about my 2nd great grand uncle, Peletiah Rackliff. Sadly, his twin, Levi, younger brother Henry, and a friend drowned while ice skating in 1838 Maine. Later census reports mentioned Peletiah was deaf. I wondered if it was a result of this accident or if he simply wasn’t with other young men. Most likely the latter since 1880 DDD reported Peletiah was deaf from birth.

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