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18th Century Martha’s Vineyard – A Lively Deaf Community

by Garnet Clarke – 12/01/2015


A remote island known as Martha’s Vineyard played host to a Deaf utopia for a brief time in the early 18th century. The island’s geographically isolated location played a key role in the containment and propagation of a Deaf community. Signed language was just emerging in the Americas in the early part of the 18th century and Martha’s Vineyard island uniquely had its own variation. A deaf gene found in a large percentage of the island’s population contributed to the rapid growth of a strong, closely-knit Deaf population. This article will highlight those key components that led to a culturally rich, linguistically diverse place unlike anywhere else in America in the early 18th century.

Let me take you to early America, just off the coast of Cape Cod, where a thriving, Deaf community is living on an island called Martha’s Vineyard. During this time, the nation’s new participation in public life had a huge influence on the long-term impacts of the development of America. Having no ties to royal lineage to decide their fate, citizens of the new nation had the opportunity to seek out any desires they dreamed of to make the most out of their new life. Raw ambition to make it in America harvested a lively community of new politics, budding entrepreneurs, and societal women who made issues of liberty and equality important. The importance of these new values were the gears for a well-functioning society. The influence of direct trade made Martha’s Vineyard a commercial hub for whale and fish hunting. This seemingly utopian community made life harmonious and happy for its new residents.

Martha’s Vineyard is an isolated island only able to be accessed by boat. The geographical coordinate 41°24′N, 70°37′W positions Martha’s Vineyard just 31 kilometers southeast off the coast of Massachusetts. It comprises only one hundred square miles. Englishman, Bartholomew Gosnold led the first English documented exploration of this area. Originally home to the Wampanoags tribe, it is claimed that Gosnold named the island, “Martha’s Vineyard,” after his deceased daughter consequent to seeing all the wild grapes growing on the island (Zacek). After a short visit, Gosnold and his men returned back to England where he would travel back to America again and spend his last days in Jamestown. 

After the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, it became home to English settlers in 1642 when Thomas Mayhew, a merchant, bought the rights to the land (“Martha’s Vineyard”). “A number of families from a puritan community in the Kentish Weald emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the United States in the early 17th century, many of their descendants later settling on Martha’s Vineyard. The first deaf person known to have settled there was a carpenter and farmer Jonathan Lambert, who moved there with his hearing wife in 1694” (Vickrey). These early deaf pioneers of the island would soon develop a unique variation of signed language to communicate with their community.

During this colorful time in history, Martha’s Vineyard was a place where languages thrived with equality. It was very common at the time for everyone on the island to communicate using signs, even those who were hearing, and without Deaf relatives. “Many of these emigrants moved to Martha’s Vineyard, and over time, a sign language developed on the island, used by both deaf and hearing islanders. As in the colonies, deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard married and raised families. But on this island, they also held public office and conducted business in sign language at town meetings”(D. H. Hurd). This American Victorianism mentality lent to the success of the deaf community. Individuals were based on their merits, and not by the circumstances of their birth.

 “The ancestry of most of the deaf population of Martha’s Vineyard can be traced back to a forested area in the south of England known as the Weald— specifically the part of the Weald in the county of Kent Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language may be a descendant of from a hypothesized sign language of that area in the 16th century, now referred to as Old Kent Sign Language”(Groce). Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language is unique because it was never static, similar to any linguistic progression today the language changed with different influences. During this amazing time, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was constantly changing and adapting to the progress of education for the Deaf in America. When the schools started to be opened, it allowed those who lived on the island a chance to leave and bring back what they had learned with the influx of learned French Sign Language being taught at the residential schools. This created a new blend of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language that was practiced by most of the residents. It should be noted that American Sign Language is derived from French Sign Language with modifications and has been a product of the development of residential Deaf schools in America.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an educator in the early 18th century was instrumental in bringing American Sign Language to the new world. His interest piqued when he could not catch the attention of the neighbor’s young daughter, Alice Cogswell. Her father asked Gallaudet to help develop her ability to communicate by educating her. Gallaudet knew he would have to travel overseas in order to learn different techniques. In England, Gallaudet was unsuccessful in learning a technique from the Braidwood Academy. They employed an oral method which Gallaudet felt would not heed positive results. He then went to a French school that had been founded in 1755 by Abbé de l’Epee. It is he who is said to have been the inventor of sign language. The Abbé’s system of sign language was based primarily on natural pantomime, but many signs were purely arbitrary. Dr. Gallaudet spent some time at the French school with Abbé Sicard, who was in charge of the school and studied their methods of teaching the Deaf to learn their sign language. 

Dr. Gallaudet was then under the mentorship of Laurent Clerc, who he considered to have the finest sign language. Being so impressed with the intelligent, young deaf Frenchman he begged him to accompany him back to Hartford, Connecticut. Not only did Dr. Gallaudet foresee the need for an assistant in the school he proposed to establish, but he realized that there was nowhere on American soil with more of such a convincing example of the benefits of education to the Deaf. Laurent Clerc sailed with Gallaudet on June 18th, 1816, accepting Gallaudet’s offer only after much hesitation to leave his native land, which had done so much for him, and risk the uncertain fortunes of the New World. 

The New World was a young land with diverse populations of people colonizing around trade routes and geographic strongholds. Because the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard were stuck on a small island it caused them to mostly breed with the same family groups. A dominant deaf gene began to take hold with certain families which lead to a very unique culture on the island. “In 1854, when the island’s deaf population peaked, the United States national average was one deaf person in 5728, while on Martha’s Vineyard it was one in 155. In the town of Chilmark, where most of the deaf people lived, it was 1 in 25; in a section of Chilmark called Squibnocket, as much as a quarter of the population of 60 was deaf” (Berke). By 1710, the migration had virtually ceased, and the endogamous (marrying within one’s group) community that was created contained a high incidence of hereditary deafness that would persist for over 200 years. (Groce).

Deafness has always been a part of history and the need of these individuals to thrive and communicate has been a primary goal of survival. Deaf individuals were willing to travel thousands of miles overseas to new lands to escape oppression and hardship. Those who managed to embark on a journey to start anew in America would be pleasantly surprised if they landed up on Martha’s Vineyard.  These emigrants found themselves in a land of true opportunity. “The fact that the Puritans viewed affliction as God’s chastisement for sin did not completely prevent people with “afflictions” from functioning in society or participating in Church rites and ceremonies” (Vickrey). They were able to legally marry, own land, and earn as equals which led to the growth of families who were deaf and continuing to birth deaf babies.

Based on the complex society formed on Martha’s Vineyard there was a miraculous start for Deaf Education. During their fifty-three days spent on the shipboard, Clerc applied himself to the first task, which was the learning of the English language from Gallaudet. Gallaudet and Clerc both raised enough funds after three long years to open the first Deaf school in America, The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, later renamed The American School for the Deaf, on April 15, 1817, at 54 Prospect Street, Hartford, Connecticut. They chose to make Dr. Gallaudet its first principal, and Alice Cogswell was one of the first seven students to attend. By the end of the first year, thirty-three pupils were enrolled. The American School for the Deaf used sign language, the manual alphabet, and writing as the basis of instruction.

The Deaf utopia lives on in America as a result of the quickly growing number of Deaf people and their allies. There are wonderful residential Deaf schools all across America. Dr. Gallaudet went on to successfully open the first university for the Deaf, which was then divided into two departments. The two departments were the National Deaf-Mute College, (later renamed Gallaudet College, then in 1986, Gallaudet University) and the Columbia Institution. The first diploma holder of the Columbia Institution was John Carlin, who proudly expressed during his commencement speech, “I thank God for this privilege of witnessing the consummation of my wishes, the establishment of a college of deaf mutes” (Carlin). Speaking to the founders at the opening of the National Deaf-Mute College he said, “is a bright epoch in deaf-mute history. The birth of this infant college will bring joy to the mute community” (Carlin). Today there are strong, thriving Deaf communities all across the United States of America who owe their thanks to the humble beginnings of Martha’s Vineyard island.

Early 18th-century life on Martha’s Vineyard island was a place that hosted a unique set of circumstances that birthed a linguistically distinct and special culture of people. The geographic restrictions imposed by the island played as an incubator to the early settlers of the land. Those who arrived with specific genetic traits helped mold the makeup of the emerging community. That community would demand access to a language that was still in its early stages of development. Many key players contributed to the formation of signed languages. Their contribution to the Deaf community was profound and Deaf culture is more alive than ever in America. As you can see, the Deaf utopia of Martha’s Vineyard was a wonderful, thriving place for all its residents.

Primary Sources

Carlin, John. “Oration: A College for the Deaf and Dumb,” June 28,1864, published in Seventh Annual Report of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind (Washington, D.C.: n.p.,1864),28-33

Moran, John H., Alexander Gode, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Johann Gottfried Herder. On the Origin of Language. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1966. Print.

Young children learning sign language, n.p. Photo. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Secondary Sources

Berke, Jamie. “Deaf History – Martha’s Vineyard.” About.com Health. N.p., 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <http://deafness.about.com/cs/featurearticles/a/marthasvineyard.htm&gt;.

“Education: Essay.” Disability History Museum–: Disability History Museum. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. <http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=38&gt;. 

D. H. Hurd. History of Bristol County Massachusetts with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men.Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1883, 33. Print

Groce, Nora Ellen. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

“Martha’s Vineyard.” Dictionary of American History. 2003, and “Martha’s Vineyard.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed.. 2015. “Martha’s Vineyard.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 2003. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Marthas_Vineyard.aspx#2&gt;.

“Massachusetts.” Worldmark Encyclopedia of the States. 2007, “Massachusetts.” Dictionary of American History. 2003, “Massachusetts.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed.. 2015, “Massachusetts.” Cities of the United States. 2006, “Massachusetts.” World Encyclopedia. 2005, “Massachusetts.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S, and “Massachusetts.” Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. “Massachusetts.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 2007. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Massachusetts.aspx#2>.

Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf. Berkeley: U of California, 1989. Print. 

V., Van Cleve John, and Barry A. Crouch. A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet UP, 1989. Print. 1, 143-144

Vickrey, Van Cleve John. The Deaf History Reader. Washington, DC: Gallaudet UP, 2007. Print.

Zacek, Natalie. “Bartholomew Gosnold (1571–August 22, 1607).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 May. 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

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