Friday, March 16, 2012

Sitha James Matson - a Bit of Deaf History in America

          I looked at the 1850 US Census and was, quite literally, dumbstruck.  America has not always been in the vanguard of political correctness, and that doesn’t really bother me.  And while I know, intellectually, that words we find ugly and hurtful didn’t carry the same depths of cruelty 150 years ago, it was still pretty nasty to see.  Especially since it was my family they were talking about.
          Do you see what I saw?
          It’s a big enough jolt to see Sitha, a six-year-female casually labeled “deaf and dumb” on a federal document.  But what shocked me was the label on Joel.  The thirty-six-year old is labeled an “idiot”.  The other options, besides deaf and dumb, were blind, insane, pauper, or convict.  Interesting that being poor was considered to be an affliction equal to blindness, or criminal behavior.
          The historian in me knows that the census regularly changes what sort of questions it asks.  For a while we worried about incompetents.  Then we worried about aliens versus naturalized citizens versus native-born citizens (but not Native Americans!)  Then we tracked who had a radio and then who had a television.  If you remember the hullaballoo from the 2010 census (and I do because I worked it) the burning question was “are you Hispanic?”  Each time the census shifts its focus we learn what America fears:  is our new nation being filled up with the dregs of Europe?  are we being over-run by immigrants?  are we keeping up with the Russians when it comes to wealth and technology?  are we being over-run by immigrants?  (hey!  didn’t we do that one already?!)
          But still, that’s my family you’re talking about there.
          Turns out that label on Sitha was one of the best things that happened to me in my researches of the James family tree[1].  (Sadly, there isn’t much to learn about Joel.  The 1850 Census is the first one to list every family member by name, so we don’t know anything about him prior to 1850 and he is dead by the 1860 Census.)
          As I read through the 1860, 1870, and 1880 Census reports I got more and more confused.  Which were the children of James and which were the children of Matson?  Did Matson have more than one wife?  And did Sitha really get married and become a widow between 1870 and 1880?
          Remember I said way back at the beginning that the Census tells us what we fear?  And for a while we were afraid we might be less-than-the-best?  Well, by 1880 we were starting to worry about being over-run with foreigners coming in with their outlandish ways, but we were still worried about incompetents living here. 
          We were so worried that we had begun to do a governmental study on deaf people in America and their procreation habits and abilities.  The result was a special Census (U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895).  And I, for one, am thrilled that this was done.  Mostly because it helped me out immensely.
          This is a four-page document with only a few written lines but each one is filled with information.
          Page one tells me that Sitha L. James married Stephen M. Spencer on 25 August 1872 in Millfield, Athens Co., Ohio and the marriage was conducted by the Rev. William Kidwell.  There were no children from this marriage.
          On page two I learned that Stephen’s father was Oscar Spenser and his mother was Amanda, who remarried Mr. Robert Register.  Stephen (middle name “Miles”) was born on 14 March 1844 and had a brother, Nelson and two half-sisters, Larua A. and Clara I. Register.  Stephen was the only deaf child in the family, and his deafness occurred at the age of five due to an “inflammation of brain”.  He attended the “O” (“Ohio”?) school or institution for the deaf between 1857 when he was 13, and 1962.
          We learn from page three that Sitha’s parents were Matson and Rebecca James.   Sitha was born 20 May 1845, and had the following siblings:  John Wesley, John, Nancy Jane, William Henry, and Lewis Lee who was born 6 November 1848 and was deaf at six months due to a brain inflammation.  He and Sitha were the only two deaf children.  Sitha’s deafness was due to some sickness which occurred in her infancy, and she, too, attended the “O” school from 1858 (at age 13) to 1865.[2]
          The final page of the report simply tells us that the report was written in 1889 by Mr. B. Talbot.
          You never know what kinds of documents are out there.  I knew there was a special Census taken of Civil War veterans at this same time, but I was surprised to see one pertaining to deaf people.  This has been a good lesson for me – it’s a reminder to keep looking for as much information as possible when doing research.  And it’s kind of fun to know that there may still be things out there that surprise me.
          And just to tidy up things with Sitha James Spencer, I was able to trace her, now living with Lewis, Mary, and Charles in 1920.  There is no record of her after that, so I assume that she died sometime between 1920 and 1930.

[1] Part of the reason that Sitha’s disability helps me with family research is that she had an Aunt Sitha, born in 1811 and a second cousin named Sitha, born in 1845.  Sitha, daughter of Matson, is easy to find based on the labels that are attached to her in various documents.
[2] Since the family originally lived in Bedford County, PA and only moved to Athens County, OH in 1850, I like to think that Matson picked up his entire family and moved to the closest place that had an institution for educating the deaf and dumb.  There was such a place in Philadelphia, but there was most likely more opportunity for Matson to purchase farmland in Ohio than in the Philadelphia area.


  1. What a Fantastic information. You did dig it well! I put your link on Cheers!

    1. Thank you Peter! I hope that this is of interest to folks in the Deafgenealogy community. Thank you for adding a link to this blog - much appreciated!

  2. I found in the 1880 Census below Sitha's name that she has a 6-month-old son named Johnson, born November 1879.