A silent, century-old mystery in Fisher Cemetery

“Neither could speak. Neither could hear. Silent on earth. More silent here.”

 These couplets, carved into twin headstones in the Fisher Cemetery, located in Spring Valley near Glenwood Springs, mark the graves of Nancy J. Gibbons (July 3, 1837 — September 23, 1894) and her husband, Fielden T. Gibbons (February 27, 1838 — February 26, 1894).

The words touched me. I lost much of my hearing to a high fever in infancy while living in rural Illinois, far from medical care. How much more difficult, I reflected, the lives of deaf-mutes would have been in an isolated frontier town. Glenwood, then called Defiance, was more a mining camp than a town during the Gibbonses lives. I wasn’t fully deaf; I could speak. But I still struggled in school in Denver in the 1950s. For a deaf-mute a century earlier, Defiance must have been utterly daunting.

Today, 15 percent of American adults have some hearing loss; roughly three of every 1,000 children are deaf. The rates were higher during the Gibbonses lives, before modern medicine curtailed many non-congenital causes of hearing loss: scarlet fever, meningitis, mumps and measles.

Even so, before special schools were founded, and before the electric hearing aid was invented in 1892, the deaf were profoundly isolated not only from “oral” society, but also from each other. Some never spoke to a single soul across an entire lifetime.

Early deaf education was motivated by a desire to save souls, and it began in this country with Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Congregationalist minister. Seeking to help his neighbor’s deaf, 9-year-old daughter, Gallaudet traveled to Paris in 1814 to meet Catholic priest Abbe Sicard and to learn Sicard’s sign language. In 1817, Gallaudet began to teach signing in America. Gallaudet’s son, Edward, established the nation’s first deaf college in 1864 with a charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Researcher Edward Fay documented only 10 marriages between deaf partners between 1801 and 1830, but 37 between 1831 and 1840, as special schools were established and the deaf began to meet. It’s likely that Nancy and Fielden met at a deaf school — but not in Colorado. This state’s first K-12 school for the deaf wasn’t established until 1874, when Nancy and Fielden were in their mid-30s.

So where did they meet?

Census records, an out-of-print book and research done by the Church of Latter-Day Saints provide some clues: Fielden was born in Indiana. Nancy Jane (Van Cleve) was born in Illinois. They married in 1886, in Morgan, Illinois.

A book called “Progressive Men of Western Colorado,” published in 1905, mentions Nancy as the daughter of Philip Van Cleve, who moved from Illinois to Glenwood Springs in 1879. Philip trapped and hunted on Cattle Creek in the 1880s, later working in Aspen and Leadville and prospecting near Carbondale “without success.”

But by the time her father moved to Glenwood, Nancy was 42. She was married, and the mother of at least four children.

It seems likely that Nancy, who was born in central Illinois, attended the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. That school, the nation’s seventh deaf school, opened in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1846, when Nancy was 9.

Since Jacksonville is located in Morgan County, where Nancy and Fielden were married, my guess is that they met at the school. They were living in Illinois when the youngest of their children was born in 1873. They likely moved to Colorado and established a homestead near Cattle Creek in the 1880s.

But why? What prompted two deaf-mutes to set out for a Wild West town filled with saloons, brothels, outlaws and gunfights? Why put down roots so close to the territory of the Fisher Gang, infamous local cattle rustlers and thieves? Does the Fisher-Van Cleve reservoir, located near Fisher Cemetery, indicate a family connection?

How did the deaf couple cope on the frontier, where survival would have required communication with oral neighbors?

Was it James Y. Van Cleve, who is buried next to the Gibbonses, who brought them here? Since no wife rests by James (April 3, 1813 — March 20, 1891), perhaps he was an older, bachelor brother or an uncle — a relative who lent Nancy and Fielden a helping hand.

What happened to the Gibbonses’ children? One record shows four offspring — Thomas, James, Mary and Susan — who all died in 1885. How? Did the Gibbonses lose all their children? Another archive mentions a younger child named Addie. Did she survive?

And how did Nancy and Fielden come to die within six months of one another in 1894?

Perhaps family descendants know. So far, the records I have found remain as mute to the answers as the Gibbonses remained a century ago.

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This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on June 21, 2018.