Edmund W. Booth: Deaf Forty-Niner
Standing over six feet tall, brawny and ingeniously self-sufficient, Edmund Booth epitomized the “rugged individual” of the frontier west, except for one distinguishing characteristic – he was deaf.
Born on a farm in Chicopee, Mass. in 1810, he was left partially blind and deaf by illness as a five-year-old child. Three years later, he became totally deaf, although he retained his ability to speak. In later years, he wrote of his childhood:
“I have a dim recollection of my mother taking a straw from the broom, setting me on her lap and pointing to each letter of the alphabet and naming it. This was soon after my father’s death or when I was four or five years old. . . . Mother afterwards said she sent me to school but the teachers said they could not teach me, so she took me on her lap and taught me the one-syllable words, ba, be, bi, bo, etc. I could hear a little in the left ear at the time, and until eight years, when my hearing left me in a night.”
He was sent to a school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, where he made great progress, and was soon asked to teach at the school. While teaching there, he met Mary Ann Walworth, a deaf-mute student at the school.
In 1839, he traveled to Iowa where he helped establish the fledgling town of Anamosa, near Dubuque. He married Mary Ann Walworth, there, the following year. He held several positions with the county and territorial governments.
Drawn to California in 1849 by the prospects of wealth and adventure, he left his wife in Iowa and traveled overland through the mountains. He described his decision this way:
“In 1848 gold was discovered in California. Of course I had the newspapers and noted the growth of the excitement throughout the country. In the winter following, teams went by daily on the Military road bound for the modern Eldorado and as the spring of 1849 came I began to feel like falling in with the throng. I had grown a little tired of the round of farm life and small profits. And so, in April or May of that year, I placed my family with my brother Henry; and, with another man, a wagon and three yokes of oxen, started for the land of gold.”
He remained in California for five years and his journal and his letters to his wife paint a fascinating picture of his life on the trail and in the camps. And he was taken with the different kinds of people he encountered.
“Sunday, 23rd Sept. We arose as soon as light this morning to look for the cattle, knowing we were among Indians. We have not for 3 or 4 nights pastured our animals. Fortunately, they were all safe. Compton explored for grass to cut for hay, and 4 Indians came into camp while we were at breakfast. We, as usual, gave them bread, meat and coffee. One of them undertook to guide us to grass. In a half hour we came to a good running stream 2 or 3 yards wide with abundance of tall fine grass—the best I have seen on the river yet. Here we found a camp of six wagons and the famous Indian chief Truckee. He understands English enough to be understood and let us know we were already near the sink and gave directions for the route to the Truckee river. Some 20 of his tribe are among us and are the most civilized Indians I ever met. It is evident they are familiar with the whites. Saw lumps of gold among them. Cut hay and remained in camp all day to prepare the animals for the journey to the next (Truckee) river.”
“Left for Stockton…First day out met two Chinamen going the same way. They carried their baggage, pot, kettle, etc., suspended from the ends of poles resting on their shoulders. We all three walked leisurely along. At night came to an open shanty, a sort of stopping place for goods, lumber and teams and no owner visible, but a team had come in. The driver appeared intelligent and good natured. I ate my supper. The Chinese cooked and ate theirs, making tea. Lay down and slept in perfect security. . . “Went on. No buildings and met nobody till reaching Stockton late in afternoon. Small city. Bought some crackers and went out a mile or so. It was a city like Sacramento, of a few scattering shanties and big and little tents. We camped under a sycamore tree. Took supper. The Chinese offered me tea and boiled rice. Took the tea, but one taste oi the rice was enough. They had cooked it in lard. Shouldered up and started on. I had told them I was going to Sonora and they said by signs, ‘We too.’ I walked at my usual natural gait, and they at theirs. I invariably passed far ahead, stopped and waited for them to come up. On reaching me they both told me in urgent signs to not go ahead but to keep by them. I inferred they were afraid of being attacked and robbed, for we passed now and then a traveller or team coming from the mines. On one occasion I met a Mexican. Kept an open eye on him as he was about to pass. He stopped suddenly and spoke. I made the sign of not being able to hear. He understood and pointed to his open mouth, meaning he wanted food. I swung around my pack, took out three or four big square crackers and gave him. He looked hungry. As he took the crackers he made the sign of the cross, pointed slightly upward and then to me. I interpreted it to mean, ‘The Holy Virgin bless you.’ It was rather a pleasant adventure and I sat down to see what he would do on meeting my Chinese friends. He passed them with no sign. When they came up they scolded me in their way for going so fast. It was evident they regarded me as a protection to them. The next day we reached Sonora, and I lost track of them that night.”
Edmund Booth returned to Iowa, via Nicaragua, in 1854. After a brief stint as a farmer, he became an editor of a newspaper, The Anamosa Eureka, which he purchased two years later in 1858. He and his son, Thomas, published this newspaper for thirty-seven years, until his retirement. A staunch abolitionist, he was highly influential as a newspaperman and also championed the causes of the hearing-impaired. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Iowa State School for the Deaf. In 1880, he attended the convention in Cincinnati at which the National Association of the Deaf was founded. That same year, he was granted an honorary Master of Arts degree from the National Deaf-Mute College, now Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC.
Edmund W. Booth died in 1905 in Anamosa, Iowa. A book called Edmund Booth (1810-1905) Forty-Niner was published in 1953 by the San Joaquin Pioneer & Historical Society, of Stockton, California. It contains his diary and letters chronicling his overland journey, his time in the mining camps, his visits to Sacramento and Coloma, and his return to Iowa. A second book, Edmund Booth: Deaf Pioneer was published in 2004, at the urging of Booth’s descendants, by Harry Lang, who is also deaf. Dartmouth College has a collection his material.
Anamosa Eureka, “Jones County Newspapers,” on-line at http://iowajones.org/news/news.htm
Boston Journal, 31 March 1905, on-line at www.genealogybank.com
Edmund Booth (1810-1905) Forty-Niner, Stockton, CA: San Joaquin Pioneer & Historical Society, 1953.
Lang, Harry G., Edmund Booth: Deaf Pioneer, Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2004.
“Papers of Edmund W. Booth at Dartmouth College” description on-line at http://ead.dartmouth.edu