Rowe-Curtis family papers  1833-1851
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Collection Scope and Content Note

Eight letters in this collection are from members of the Rowe family, addressed to Nancy and George Curtis. There is a document, signed by Principal Lewis Weld, certifying that Nancy Rowe had attended the American Asylum for four years, where she "made good attainments in the knowledge of written language and other branches of a common education," and that she "now leaves the Asylum sustaining a good character for morality, industry and correct deportment" (1833 April 23). The other document is probably the confession of faith Nancy made when she joined the Baptist Church, and there is one letter from Nancy Rowe Curtis to her former Congregationalist pastor, explaining her conversion.

Although small, this correspondence provides a fascinating glimpse into the thriving deaf-mute network of New England in the 1840s. The letters, particularly the one by Nancy and those by her brothers Benjamin and Samuel, are evidence of the fine education they received at the American Asylum. The letters are also proof of the other important work of the Asylum: creating a community for people or families who would otherwise have remained isolated from other people like themselves.

The connections made between deaf-mutes lasted far beyond the years spent at the Asylum. Alumni shared news with each other, and tended to gravitate to the same places. Ebenezer Curtis lived with Nancy and his brother George for at least a couple years. Benjamin Rowe passed the word on to Nancy that her former classmate Elijah R. Davis "has two daughters who can hear & talking with us quick by fingers" (1847 January 23). Benjamin worked first as a shoemaker, and then moved to Brattleboro to work for Anthony Van Doorn, a cabinet maker who had a large shop and employed several journeymen. He was married to "the Vermont lady," -- possibly Lucy Read, a deaf-mute -- in April 1849. After the wedding, Samuel Rowe wrote, "What a blessing it is to converse with such a large number of deaf & dumb relatives!" (1849 May 16).

Samuel went to Keene, where he joined his sister Persis at the tailoring firm of Hagar & Whitcomb. There they associated with American Asylum alumns Adin T. Read, a printer, and his sister, Lucy M. Read, the possible "Vermont lady." Samuel also "fell in with" Nelson Kelley, who was working with brother Benjamin. Kelley had apparently made an "unfaithful offer to Ann," George Curtis's sister, in the past, and was setting his sights on Lucy Rowe, but Samuel considered him a "mischief fellow." On his way to Keene, Samuel had stopped in Boston, "and saw some former deafmutes, viz Homer Smith & some old ones I did not remember well" (1849 February 13).

Samuel did not stay long in Keene, "For I did not like to continue working at the poor & miserable tailoring trade, as you will think it right for me to leave off my trade, when you see that I did not get pay!" (1849 May 16). He moved on to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he worked at the Atlantic cotton mill: "I have got the good work here -- 75 cts a day for a few months -- Perhaps $1. a day, when I become a good workman." After telling his own news, Samuel moved on to others: "I have seen several deaf-mutes -- I will tell you all about them." He gave details about over a dozen people, including a number of people who lived in Lowell, presumably working in the mills. Samuel thought Mrs. John O. David, the wife of a former Asylum teacher who "left her two children under the care of her mother and went to Lowell to work in the factory, in order to clear the debts for their new house," was "smart and prudent." He expressed concern for the "unfortunate adventurers," Messrs. Mann and Dennison, "deafmutes both," who had struck out for California gold, and were expected back in two or three years, if they could avoid being "stabbed in such a dangerous enterprise."

By the late 1840s, the Massachusetts mills seemed to be a magnet for deaf-mutes. Sarah E. Hutchins, who was somehow related to Nancy, reported, "we had a letter from the children at Lawrence a short time since they are all well enjoying themselves in body and mind they have had a revival of religion in that place. Lucy wrote that Washington was there and many more deaf-mutes one Sabbath and Samuel explained some passages of Scripture to them" (1851 December 2). Although factory mill conditions were oppressive to anybody, deafness might have been an advantage when confronted with the unceasing roar of the pickers or the weave room.

In addition to information about the American Asylum's extended family of deaf-mutes, and the continual struggle to make a better living, several of these letters mention, in passing, the religious revivals that continued to flare up in New England into the 1850s. Nancy's letter to her former pastor, Rev. Stephen Shepley, is a full explanation of why she had joined the Baptist Church, and why she had permitted herself to be Baptized "again":

I am told that I was sprinkled when I was in my infancy, before I have any evidence that I had faith, or indispensable qualification, for obedience to the Gospel. Now dear Brethren, there seems to be an inconsistency, in sprinkling an infant before its mind is formed, or it is capable of judging between right and wrong, good and evil, and afterwards receiving it into the Church as a Baptised member (1846 April 16).

Nancy repudiated the sprinkling she received as an infant, stating strongly, "I have been Bapstised in the likeness of my Precious Redeemer, but only once, to my knowledge, What my Dear and Beloved Parents felt and performed as their duty I respect them but if my parents were so happy to do their whole duty that did not do mine." Nancy simultaneously expressed her continued respect for the elders of the Congregationalist Church, and her firm belief that she had done right, when she assured them, "I love my dear Brethren, and think I am walking in the way most pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ."

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