In retrospect: On the state of seeking Deaf Smith

By Jean F. Andrews

[Author’s Note: If you live in Texas, you know about Deaf Smith, a popular hero among deaf and hearing Texans alike. Dr. Steve Baldwin a prolific writer, presenter and trained historian, shares his Deaf culture research with deafinprison readers. Dr. Baldwin gives us a fresh perspective on Deaf Smith’s role in Texas history. (Jean Andrews)]

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In Retrospect: On the State of Seeking Deaf Smith by Dr. Steve Baldwin

Deaf Smith County Texas

Deaf Smith County Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the inaugural 17-part exhibit of Erastus “Deaf” Smith’s 225th birthday celebration on the ground floor of the Texas State Capitol rotunda from April 18 to 20, 2012 and subsequent tours across the state, which ended on October 25 in Dallas, I decided to sum up my experience as the primary exhibitor, researcher, and writer since I first seriously studied about Deaf Smith (1787-1817), the famous “Texian” spy, scout, ranger and pioneer about 32 years ago.

Of course, the method of studying, researching and theorizing evolved over time with the advent of technology, Internet, new information, accessible papers, better archives and libraries. To go from a thin folder of information about Deaf Smith in the Baker Library for American History that was renamed Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin to two standard file boxes of my personal collection testifies for hard work, dedication, focus and a passion that has not abated over time. One word of advice to sincere future researchers and writers: do not bother to locate Smith’s missing and unmarked gravesite in Richmond, Texas since early 1830s burial sites are difficult to pinpoint due to customs, pine coffins, unclear town maps and complicated legal issues.

English: I took photo with Canon camera in Chi...

From the Deaf Smith Museum in Childress, TX. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, my alarming concern now is the lack of quality research because of the onslaught of vlogs and blogs that appear to epitomize inaccurate historical information about Smith’s life and feats. The worst case of plagiarism from the book (1973) by the definitive biographer of Deaf Smith named Cleburne Huston (1894-1989) came from a national deaf magazine. None of the magazine writers, albeit no respective bylines, actually took the time to research and verify their material, visit archives, and even worst, give their citations the necessary documented credit. Consequently, my role went from historian to vigilant against blatant plagiarism and online piracy of published work and the lack of historical accuracy.

English: Deaf Smith Elementary School

Deaf Smith Elementary School. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Let’s move on from the wanton disregard for honest publishing and researching to the three most common questions that came from school-aged students during the fall exhibit tour. First query: “Was Deaf Smith really deaf.” Based on contemporary 2nd and third-party witnesses and other documented information, Smith was deafened and his hearing became progressively worst, as he got older. His speech shape was fraught with high-pitched sounds, but intellectual enough to be understood. Research shows that he was quite the loner, hunted alone with his hearing dog, and abhorred group discussions or social life on the frontier.

The second most common question was: “Why do we have very few written documents from Deaf Smith himself?” First of all, he was quite a busy backwoodsman, always hunting, surveying, exploring or defending a Central Texas town from marauding bandits and warring Comanches. Although he had a good command of English, spoken or written, he was not a consistent literary man. There are relatively very few first-person accounts on record. However, thanks to his historic legacy and many legends in Texas, his fame was well documented in periodicals, diaries, journals, newspapers, family history, historical paintings and biographies of his contemporaries.

The third common question was: “How was Deaf Smith able to achieve so many incredible military feats in a span of seven months?” Keep in mind that he was chosen personally by General Sam Houston because of Smith’s reputation as a proven scout in early 19th century Texas. Such an assignment speaks volumes about Smith’s reputation as being the “eyes of the Texian army.” Based on his visual acuity, Smith knew the land, rivers and critters of Texas by heart, mind and soul, albeit smelling and feeling. He proved his leadership by commanding a spy and scout company, which made pivotal decisions that tipped the war in favor of the Texas independence in April of 1836. That band of soldiers saved Houston’s troops more than once, numbering about five documented activities, including the destruction of a strategic bridge.

English: “Surrender of Santa Anna” by William ...

“Surrender of Santa Anna” by William Huddle (1847–92), 1886 The painting “Surrender of Santa Anna” by William Huddle, shows the Mexican strong-man surrendering to a wounded Sam Houston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If one would goggle the painting called “The Surrender of Santa Anna,” there is the evidence that Smith played a prominent and crucial role in the Battle of San Jacinto. In fact, the painter, William H. Huddle (1847-1892) literally interviewed the veterans who substantiated Smith’s role as the true hero of the victorious battle. In a nutshell, Smith was a seasoned soldier, determined person, proven survivor, courageous warrior and attitudinal barrier fighter.

In closing my special article for this website, I wish to announce that I intend to donate my Deaf Smith collection of documents, artifacts, research notes, photos, my filmed play, a monograph, and historic prints to the University of Texas at Austin. Such a collection in one of their libraries, be it the Briscoe Center or the Brockett Center, will allow future researchers to continue my passionate research and publish more new and accurate information about Texas’ most amazing military hero who was not “afraid of whizzing bullets” or “felt the bite before the bark of the dog.”

Steve Baldwin and “Deaf Smith.” Courtesy Jean F. Andrews

Contact Dr. Steve Baldwin for his publications on Deaf Smith.

dfsmithtx@aol.com

Steve Baldwin Image courtesy of Jean F. Andrews

Lipreading: What It Is, What It Isn’t

By Jean F. Andrews

I read a children’s story about a deaf boy who purportedly was able to lipread a warning through a heavy snow and wind storm from the back of a ferry boat as he and his classmates were traveling to school on the mainland. The deaf boy was able to lipread the man at the dock who was saying, “Go back! Go back!” Of course, they did and he was declared a hero. There is also a story about a Texas hero, Deaf Smith who helped to win the Texas Independence War in a series of battles against the Mexicans in 1836. As the story goes, Deaf Smith was a spy for the Texans and amazingly lipread the Mexican soldiers’ battle plans while perched in a tree overlooking the Mexican’s camp. Deaf Smith’s heroic deeds lead to the capture of Santa Ana, the Mexican general. And recently, there was an article about Mexico hiring deaf policemen who, according to the hyperbole in the article, were hired as they were using their lipreading skills to catch drug dealers.

Image Courtesy of Shanna Groves, the LipreadingMom.

Such tales, though entertaining, are misleading. They create a public perception of the general public toward lipreading. They cause the public to think that lipreading or speech reading is an effective mode of communication for deaf persons and that it is almost as effecting as hearing.
The deaf boy on the boat used visual clues such as the man’s body language to tell the boat captain to turn back the boat. And of course there were the weather clues! As for Deaf Smith, he was an experienced spy who understood the movements of the Mexican army. According to the historian, Dr. Steve Baldwin who has studied and written extensively about Deaf Smith from oil paintings, letters and archival literature, the hero Deaf Smith was postlingually deaf, married a woman from Mexico so he spoke fluent Spanish, and often disguised himself as a drunk and went undetected into the Mexican’s camps to study their movements. While there are folk legends that he lipread the enemy, his expertise as spy overrode the so-called lipreading skills. Now as for the deaf Mexican police, I would assume that they were using more than lipreading but they understood the behaviors, movements and culture of the drug dealers. Thus, it is not lipreading abilities per se, but the surrounding body language and other areas of expertise the deaf persons’ bring to the communication event.
What is lipreading?

Erastus "Deaf" Smith was a scout for...

Erastus “Deaf” Smith was a scout for the Texas Army in the Texas Revolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lipreading is the ability to understand conversational speech visually and without sound as it appears on the lips in order to comprehend a message and carry on a conversation.
Why is it difficult?
Lipreading is difficult because 42 sounds (phonemes) that make up English are either invisible or look like other sounds on the lips. The vowels are the most difficult to lipread because they are formed in the mouth out of view. The other one-third of the 42 sounds must to grasped quickly as they soon disappear from the lips.
What are obstacles to lipreading?
For one, sounds appearing on the lips are ambiguous. In addition, people may move their heads while talking, they may have a beard or moustache, be chewing gum, have protruding teeth, or may be eating. The lighting may be poor in the room. Further the deaf person may be tired. Deaf students in our program tell us many times, that late in the afternoons or during evening classes, their eyes are very tired of looking at signing as well as trying to lipread.
Who are the successful lipreaders?
The deaf boy in the boat, Deaf Smith, and the deaf Mexican policemen would not win awards for their lipreading! Indeed, research has shown that it is not deaf people who have studied and relied on lipreading for 12 to 16 years who are the good lipreaders, but that it is hearing college sophomores who are the best lipreaders. Why is this so? It is because lipreading depends a lot on guesswork and filling in the gaps or missing words to make sense of the sentences. College hearing sophomores have a command of the English language so they can easily lipread. For deaf people who do not have a command of English, lipreading is most difficult.
Lipreading is not related to intelligence. Persons will vary on their aptitude to lipread. Lipreading is more useful for those who have residual hearing or are hard of hearing. It is not useful for persons with profound and severe hearing losses, particularly those whose losses are congenital. If a person can add lipreading to amplification then lipreading abilities will increase.
In sum, lipreading is an inadequate form of communication for deaf persons and for many hard of hearing persons. It can be of some use if the words are familiar and are used in a routine context such as, “coffee?” “cream and sugar?” However, when the communication exchange becomes more complex as when a deaf suspect is given the Miranda Warning, then lipreading is inadequate.

And of course it’s even harder to read lips with your face pushed into a car hood.
http://www.northcountycriminallawyers.com/ResistingArrest.html

Why do judges and prosecuting attorneys have difficulty with this concept? One reason is that when they view a videotape of a deaf person being interviewed by a detective or policeman, they hear the police and detective’s spoken language, see the questions in written form, look at the deaf suspects attempts and writing, and they assume that the deaf person with lipreading and written communication is understanding the interaction of being informed of their Constitutional Rights through Miranda. To further complicate the situation, when the deaf suspects nod and say yes, this further misleads the hearing officers and judges into thinking the deaf person is comprehending.
Such is not the case. Lipreading is not effective as a mode of communication by itself or even with writing, especially in cases involving Miranda and deaf persons.
Sources:
Simms, D. (2009). NTID Speechreading: CID Everyday Sentences Test. RIT: Rochester, NY.
Vernon, M. & Andrews, J. (1990). The Psychology of Deafness: Understanding Deaf and Hard of Hearing People. New York: Longman. (pp. 100-103).

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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