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An eighteenth century incident

On the recommendation of Lois McMaster Bujold, I got hold of the autobiography of Davy Crockett, and was stunned by this account of one of his uncles:
By the Creeks, my grandfather and grandmother Crockett were both murdered, in their own house, and on the very spot of ground where Rogersville, in Hawkins county, now stands. At the same time, the Indians wounded Joseph Crockett, a brother to my father, by a ball, which broke his arm; and took James a prisoner, who was still a younger brother than Joseph, and who, from natural defects, was less able to make his escape, as he was both deaf and dumb. He remained with them for seventeen years and nine months, when he was discovered and recollected by my father and his eldest brother, William Crockett; and was purchased by them from an Indian trader, at a price which I do not now remember; but so it was, that he was delivered up to them, and they returned him to his relatives. He now lives in Cumberland county, in the state of Kentucky, though I have not seen him for many years.
Presumably James Crockett was not actually deaf, but had a severe learning disability. In any case, it is extraordinary that the Cherokees decided to spare his life after killing his parents, and the mind boggles at the circumstances of his seventeen years as a prisoner/slave. I imagine that long-term captivity of whites by Native Americans wasn't that uncommon, but surely the captors would have generally preferred to take those they could communicate with more easily.

Note also that this account was written in the 1830s; James Crockett was still living then, almost sixty years after his parents were killed in 1777. He may have been very young at the time, of course, which makes it even more extraordinary that his brothers recognised him in 1795 (when his nephew David would have been nine, old enough to remember the discovery of a long-lost uncle); though I find one source suggesting that he was born in 1758 and died in 1830 (so David, writing in 1834, was not up to date with family news; or the source is wrong).

Anyway, it makes me realise how little I know about care for those with learning disabilities in the past. (See here for a much earlier period.)


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 20th, 2011 07:06 am (UTC)
Is there a particular reason you assume he was badly learning disabled rather than deaf, I wondered?

From what I've read about shamanism, it may not actually be that surprising that the Cherokee didn't kill him. There appears to be a fairly strong tradition in Native American cultures of recognizing the disabled as being more connected with the spirit worlds, and it may have simply seemed like bad luck to kill him. There might have been a perceived requirement to care for him once his parents were dead. Dunno. OTOH, they were willing to sell him back, so he probably wasn't considered of enormous spiritual importance by that time. :)

I'm not sure it's that extraordinary his brothers recognized him, though. There probably weren't that many deaf/disabled white kids kidnapped by Cherokee to recognize. :)
Sep. 20th, 2011 07:10 am (UTC)
Deafness was very common as a consequence of measles and before the mid nineteenth century dumbness was a given, but sign language was already in use and many families developed their own as well. I too second your questioning the diagnosis.
Sep. 20th, 2011 07:15 am (UTC)
My 'particular reason' is really that learning disabilities are much more common than profound deafness! And of course an inclination to look for parallels to my own family situation.

The idea of James Crockett being kept as a focus for shamanism is more attractive than some of the alternatives. Let's hope that was the case.
Sep. 20th, 2011 09:24 am (UTC)

Two out of three siblings in my own genetically unremarkable family, and my godson, would be completely deaf today without trivial surgery, and medication. You don't need dramatic illness or calamity or birth defects to be deaf - ear infections will do it quickly (and painfully) before the age of one, in an era without antibiotics.

I was completely deaf, and heading towards loss of speech, at four.

Sep. 20th, 2011 09:44 am (UTC)
That's now. Deafness used to be a lot more common. The decline in profound deafness has proved a challenge to the maintenance of the sign language community.

Sep. 20th, 2011 10:45 am (UTC)
The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos is a book about a particular instance of Indians kidnapping a bunch of children from coloinal New England after a raid on the settlement. The short version is, that when they finally found them, they'd assimilated into native life and didn't want to go back. (I've never had trouble figuring that out; I can't think of a less joyful environment to grow up in than the Puritan colonies).

From what I've read, Indians keeping their captives alive and letting them become part of their society was relatively common, and not always a bad option.

I've also got Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870 edited by
Frederick Drimmer
on my Wish List, so haven't read it and can't comment.
Sep. 20th, 2011 01:28 pm (UTC)
I am inclined to think that 'deaf and dumb' would generally mean exactly that, because I would credit our ancestors with the intelligence to distinguish between two very different phenomena neither of which was really unusual. Not only were there more deaf children because of infectious diseases, there were also fewer people with severe learning disability because more of them would have died at birth or in infancy or due to accidents caused by their lack of understanding of risk. Having said which, diseases which cause deafness sometimes cause brain damage as well.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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