William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan
Finding aid for
Finding aid created by
Rowe-Curtis Family Papers, 1833-1851
Rachel K. Onuf, April 1998
Rowe-Curtis family papers
Curtis, Nancy E. Rowe, b. ca. 1813
Members of the Curtis and Rowe families attended the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, in Hartford, where they received an education and built lasting friendships. This collection includes correspondence among the family members that provides a fascinating glimpse into the thriving deaf-mute network of New England in the 1840s.
The material is in English.
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu
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Rowe-Curtis Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan
In 1819, George Curtis entered the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, in Hartford. This seventeen-year-old was from Leeds, situated about 20 miles west of Augusta, in what is now Maine, but at the time was still part of Massachusetts. He was one of twenty deaf-mutes who received the support of the Massachusetts government, and this was the first time the patronage of a state was extended to an institution of benevolence beyond its own borders. Once Maine became a state, legislators had to decide whether or not to continue to provide support for students at the Asylum. In 1825, the Maine legislature appropriated $1000 a year for four years for the education of the state's deaf residents. Of the 200 people officially reported deaf and dumb, only a handful applied for funding, and nine were sent to Hartford. One of those nine was Olive S. Curtis, George's 18 year old deaf-mute sister. As is often the case with congenital deafness, two other siblings were affected as well: Ann and Ebenezer, who both entered the Asylum in 1831. Ann was 18 and Ebenezer was 11.
The Curtis family came to know an even larger family of deaf-mutes from New Gloucester, about 20 miles north of Portland, Maine. There were seven deaf-mute Rowe children, and at least five attended the Asylum. Nancy entered in 1829, at the age of 13; Nathaniel E. also in 1829, aged 12; Benjamin in 1841, aged 18; Lucy A. and Samuel in 1843, aged 15 and 18, respectively. Sister Persis and brother Washington were probably the other two deaf-mute siblings. The families most likely met while in school, and their common affliction created lasting bonds. George Curtis and Nancy Rowe got married around 1840, and several siblings remained in contact long after they left the Asylum.
The American Asylum at Hartford opened in 1817, and served as the educational institution for deaf-mutes from all over New England. Students also came from other states, like South Carolina and Georgia, that had yet to make any provision for the education of their deaf residents. The founder and first Principal was Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851). He resigned in 1830, due to failing health, and was succeeded by former assistant teacher Lewis Weld, older brother of reformer Theodore Dwight Weld.
After they left the Asylum, some of the Rowes and Curtises returned to farm in Maine, but others worked as trades people in New Hampshire and Vermont, and even as factory workers at the new cotton mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. George and Nancy were two that did return to Maine, and they farmed and raised children in Leeds. Late in 1845, Nancy joined the Baptist Church, to the dismay of her old Congregationalist Church pastor, Samuel H. Shepley, whose congregation had been steadily eroding for years.
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."
- American Asylum, at Hartford, for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb.
- Congregational churches--Maine.
- Deaf--Asylums and education--Connecticut.
- Maine--Social life and customs.
- Curtis, George, b. ca.1802.
- Hutchins, Sarah.
- Rowe, Benjamin, b. ca.1823.
- Rowe, Judith.
- Rowe, Lucy Ann, b. ca.1828.
- Rowe, Samuel, b. ca.1825.
- Weld, Lewis, 1796-1853.
Additional Descriptive Data
- Curtis, Ann, b. ca.1813
- Curtis, Ebenezer W., b. ca.1820
- Curtis, George, b. ca.1802
- Curtis, Nancy E. Rowe, b. ca.1813
- Hutchins, Sarah
- Porter, Samuel, 1810-1901
- Rowe, Benjamin, b. ca.1823
- Rowe, Judith
- Rowe, Lucy Ann, b. ca.1828
- Rowe, Samuel, b. ca.1825
- Shepley, Rev. Samuel H.
- Weld, Lewis, 1796-1853
See also: Six letters by Lewis Weld in the Weld-Grimké papers, Clements Library.
Barnard, Henry. A Discourse in Commemoration of the Life, Character and Services of the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, LL.D., Delivered Before the Citizens of Hartford, Jan. 7th, 1852. With an Appendix, Containing History of Deaf-Mute Instruction and Institutions, and other Documents. (Hartford, Conn., 1854).
Clayton, W. W. History of Cumberland Co., Maine : with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers. (Facsimile reprint, Bowie, Md., 1994. Originally published Philadelphia, 1880).
The Twenty-eighth Report of the Directors of the American Asylum, at Hartford, for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. (Hartford, 1844).
American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb.Atlantic Cotton Mill.Baptism--Baptists.Baptists--Creeds.Baptists--Maine.Cabinetmakers--Vermont.California--Gold discoveries.Congregationalist churches--Maine.Cotton manufacture--Massachusetts--Lawrence.Courtship.
Curtis, Olive b. ca.1807.Deaf--Asylums and education--Connecticut.Deaf--Maine.Deaf--United States--Family relationships.Hagar & Whitcomb Company.
- 1847 January 23
- 1849 February 13
Maine--Church history.Maine--Social life and customs.Revivals--Maine.Revivals--Massachusetts.Shoemakers.Tailors.Van Doorn, Anthony.
- 1849 February 13
- 1849 May 16