On November 9, 1666, renowned diarist Samuel Pepys
wrote that he had seen politician Sir George Downing
using sign language to talk with a deaf employee of his spy network. Although Downing - for whom London's Downing Street
was named - was hearing, he grew up in an area of Kent
known as the Weald
. This region had a very large deaf population, and because of this all of the hearing residents learned sign language
. The high number of deaf people there was caused by a genetic mutation
early in the seventeenth century, which resulted in a recessive
gene for deafness being passed down for generations. It was Downing's contemporaries who eventually became the ancestor
s of a large deaf population on the Massachusetts
island known as Martha's Vineyard
When the Puritans began moving to the New World in the mid-1600s, one of the first groups to make the journey was the congregation of Reverend John Lothrop. Originally from the Weald, they landed at the Massachusetts town of Scituate in 1634. Following a disagreement within the congregation, some of the group moved in 1639 to a village known as Barnstable. At this time a few other families joined them, but most were still from County Kent. In the 1650s, families began moving to Martha's Vineyard, and a man named James Skiffe moved there in 1669. Many residents of the island were still Kentish through the 1680s. During the first generations of settlement on the island, the average family had 9.1 children. Many homes had ten to fifteen children, and families with twenty children were not unheard of.
The first recorded deaf person on Martha's Vineyard was a man named Jonathan Lambert, who arrived in 1692. He was mentioned in a 1714 diary entry made by Samuel Sewell, a judge from Boston visiting the island, who referred to Lambert as a deaf-mute. Although Sewell was offended because Lambert did not speak to him, Lambert was actually an active participant in island society, using a sign language that was probably related to one of the Kentish dialects of British Sign Language. He worked as a carpenter and farmer, and in 1694 bought an area of land from the Native Americans for just seven pounds; today that area is still called Lambert's Cove. Although most residents of Martha's Vineyard apparently enjoyed starting lawsuits with one another, Lambert was not involved in much litigation. He married a hearing woman, and had seven children - two of whom were deaf. He died, a reasonably wealthy man, at the age of 80.
Because the gene for deafness was recessive, for Lambert to be born deaf his parents must have had a common ancestor. Because two of his children were born deaf, he and his wife must also have had at least one ancestor in common - geneticists tend to regard the appearance of any type of recessive deafness as proof that the parents share a common ancestry. Records were not well maintained in poor and middle class England, but it is known that the Weald had a very high incidence of intermarriage and inbreeding because most people found spouses from the same town or one nearby. Three families that came on the boat with John Lothrop's congregation - the Lamberts, the Tiltons, and James Skiffe's family - produced most of the deafness on Martha's Vineyard, in fact most of the deaf people from the island had all three families somewhere in their family tree and could be directly tied to the original settlers that arrived between 1642 and 1710. According to kinship rules, half-siblings could not marry, and an uncle could not marry a niece nor an aunt marry her nephew. Any other extended relationships, however, were fair game. First cousins were considered closely related, yet they married frequently; in fact by the late 1700s, of those who married, over 96% were marrying a relative. All of this inbreeding, though, was unconscious. Members of a family insisted they were unrelated to another family with the same last name, even though they could be traced to the same ancestors.
For many years, Martha's Vineyard was extremely isolated. Immigration to the island essentially stopped after 1710, and travel between the island and the mainland was slow and difficult. The economy there was so self-sufficient that there was no boat service to the mainland until the 1800s, and until 1830 there was only one boat per day. They continued to use pounds and pence until the Civil War, and even today pronunciation on Martha's Vineyard is more like that used in Britain than that used in the rest of New England. Perhaps the greatest proof of the isolation is the word "housen." This term was used in England only between 1550 and 1700, but it was in use on Martha's Vineyard until very recently.
Most small towns did not keep good records because it was assumed everyone knew the information already. Martha's Vineyard has exceptionally good records because most people belonged to the church, but they rarely noted deafness. The federal census did not keep records of deaf Americans until 1830, and for that census and the next deaf people were not listed by name unless they were the head of the household. From 1850 on, names were always given, but it was not until the 1900 census that "the deaf" were finally listed separately from the category for "defectives."
The idea that deaf people were "defective" originated with Aristotle, who believed that if you could not hear, you could not learn. His beliefs were incorporated into Roman science, and eventually accepted as common knowledge for hundreds of years. Even the Justinian Code made a distinction between those born deaf and those who became deaf postlingually. The attitude toward deafness on Martha's Vineyard, though, was always very different. Deaf people there were never thought of as a group or as "the deaf," but were always considered individuals - a person's inability to hear simply didn't affect their status in the community. One major reason for this was the fact that the deafness was recessive and was present in a group of families. 85% of the deaf children born on Martha's Vineyard had hearing parents, and the deafness often skipped two or three - even up to six - generations. Because it appeared to strike at random, there was no stigmatization of deaf individuals - everyone knew it could happen to anyone, so there was no point in giving deaf people special consideration. One islander recalled a deaf boatman, Obed Parker, was "no more competent than anybody else." Most of society would have been pleased that Parker was no less competent than anybody else, but on the island that wasn't considered - of course he wasn't less competent, but he wasn't any better either.
Mainland vs. Martha's Vineyard
There were vast differences between the deaf people on Martha's Vineyard in the 19th century and the deaf people in the rest of America at that time. In the entire country, one in 5,728 Americans was born deaf - the rate on Martha's Vineyard was one in 155. The marriage rate for deaf Americans was 45%, but on the island it was 80%, the same rate as for hearing people on the island. Of the few 19th century deaf Americans who married, 79% of them married another deaf person - but on Martha's Vineyard, only 35% of the deaf residents married another deaf person. Divorce at that time was rare and still considered scandalous, but many mainland couples with one deaf and one hearing partner divorced anyway. On Martha's Vineyard, only two couples with a deaf partner ever divorced. Deaf Americans off the island had an average of just 2.6 children, but on the Vineyard the average for deaf families was 5.9 children - not appreciably lower than the Vineyard average, 6.1 children per family. The rate for Massachusetts as a whole at the time was 4.11 children. In the 19th century, many deaf people in America learned a trade but made little money at it. On the island, the deaf were no richer or poorer than the hearing; in fact Nathaniel Mann, a deaf individual, was the wealthiest man in the town of Chilmark in his day. Most deaf people on the Vineyard were at least middle class, and none were on the welfare rolls of the "poor farm."
In nineteenth-century America, only 25 to 35% of deaf adults were literate, and many of those only partly so. At least 30% and up to 75% never attended school, and were regarded as brutish and animal-like by "polite society." Most people believed an educated deaf person was acceptable, but deaf education at the time was aimed at developing an adequate literacy level and enough knowledge to earn a living and become economically independent. Deaf people were not expected to be a part of the greater social community, and were only taught written English so they could perform necessary transactions. Education for deaf Vineyarders, though, was very different. It is unknown if they went to school in the 17th and 18th centuries, but most could at least sign their names so they were probably partly literate. Nearly all were literate in the 19th century, and after 1817 all but one of the island's deaf children attended the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, CT. When oral schools popped up after 1860, children from Martha's Vineyard continued to go to Hartford for school. Massachusetts paid for ten years of schooling, so when deaf children returned to the island they were even better educated than their hearing peers, who would often bring documents over to their deaf neighbors to have them explained.
Most people on Martha's Vineyard preferred to have hearing children, but didn't mind if they were deaf. Boys and girls were affected equally; one nineteenth-century census recorded 29 deaf boys, 34 deaf girls, and nine deaf children whose gender was not recorded. Hearing parents who had a deaf child already knew a lot about deafness from the society, and the child could learn sign language at an early age directly from their parents. It seems that most deaf Vineyarders didn't mind or were even proud of not being able to hear, and overall deafness was seen as a nuisance rather than an overwhelming problem.
Community and Work
Deaf people participated fully in town affairs, including holding offices and participating in the militia. They always attended community events, including chowder suppers, cards and checkers games at the general store, Tucker dance parties, and the county fair in West Tisbury. There were no deaf clubs on Martha's Vineyard, and the deaf residents there didn't participate in state or national organizations, in fact after returning to the island most lost contact with their friends from the school in Hartford. All of the deaf Vineyarders who married owned their own farms, and some sold products to the rest of the community. They were also frequently fishermen, but apparently no deaf men left on whaling expeditions. Women on the island did not generally work outside their own home and farm, but many - spinsters and widows in particular - took on odd jobs such as sewing and babysitting. Two deaf women in particular are known to have been seamstresses and one may have had a small dressmaking shop in a shed behind her house.
Another reason deaf people on the island were so integrated into society was the complete use of sign language in every situation. Note passing was not typically used, and it seems none of the deaf Vineyarders were only able to read lips. Hearing people were bilingual in both English and the island sign language (MVSL), and hearing children born to hearing parents usually learned signs bit by bit as needed until they became fluent. The hearing signers probably used a pidgin sign, which was apparently not a problem for the deaf people to understand. Deaf people did not switch into this pidgin when talking with hearing people as is commonly done today, but instead they just signed more slowly. Interpreters were only used at hectic town meetings and in church, but there was never a designated interpreter - the job was simply done by available family members and neighbors. Hearing people would even use sign language when there were no deaf people present. Children used it to talk behind a schoolteacher's back, and adults used it to talk during a sermon without disturbing the entire congregation. It was also used to communicate over large distances, and to keep a topic private hearing people would turn around and sign to each other. Frequently the punchlines to dirty jokes were told only in sign language.
Three major towns on Martha's Vineyard had most of the island's deaf population. The smallest group was in Edgartown, where fewer individuals had Kentish ancestry. As a port town, Edgartown had more contact with the outside world and was the first destination for outsiders when the whaling industry increased. The first deaf person in Edgartown was a woman named Sarah Harlock, who was born in 1723. The rate there kept increasing until the late 18th century, when it was four times the national average. In 1800 six of the 1,375 residents were deaf, and the rate dropped dramatically by 1830. The last deaf person in Edgartown died in 1880. Tisbury, a predominantly Kentish town, had a deaf-to-hearing ratio of one in 49. The first deaf person there was Beulah Lambert, who was born in 1704. The last deaf person in Tisbury died in 1937. But the town with the greatest number of deaf people by far was Chilmark, the most isolated town on the island, which happened to have a mostly Kentish heritage. By the mid-19th century the ratio there was one in 25, and in the 60-person neighborhood of Squibnocket one out of every four people was deaf.
At the time, some people claimed deafness ran in families, but more frequently heredity was confused with a phenomenon called maternal fright or "marking," which was supposedly the effects on the unborn infant of psychological distress to the mother. The first volume of the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb was published in 1847, and used Chilmark as an example of marking. Alexander Graham Bell, who did extensive research on Martha's Vineyard, disagreed with the theory but found many parents of deaf children believed in it. Bell suggested that the environment might be a more likely cause, suggesting the soil of the island or its hilly regions as having caused the deafness. Others suggested it was contagious, and one person thought it was the fact that the mothers wore corsets during their pregnancies. A man named Sanborn, secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity, thought there were "special cases" unrelated to genetics - he suggested one family had deaf children because the man was 20 years older than his wife, even though the couple shared a common ancestry. The residents of Martha's Vineyard themselves had no idea what caused the deafness, and saw no pattern to it, partly because there was no other apparent disease. Although scholars sometimes suggested divine retribution, the Vineyarders did not believe God was punishing them and completely rejected that idea.
Bell began his work on the island in 1883, and did extensive pedigree research but found nothing because Mendelian genetics was unknown at the time. Bell didn't understand why deaf parents sometimes had hearing children or why hearing parents sometimes had deaf children, but believed deaf people should not marry - this resulted in the practice of sterilization of deaf people in America, which continued into the twentieth century. Bell, who is renowned for his oralist beliefs, told the Royal Commission in England that sign language could not be used to help mix deaf and hearing people. He stated that only deaf people could use sign language amongst themselves, despite having seen evidence to the contrary on Martha's Vineyard.
End of an Era
The recessive deafness began to end on Martha's Vineyard for a number of reasons. After the 1840s, people were drawn to California, and during that decade 14 deaf children were born in Chilmark, which had a population of about 350. Thirty years later, the town's population was about the same, but only one deaf child was born there. The deafness also ended because the gene pools on the island finally expanded. After children started attending school in Hartford, some married classmates from there. Even if the newlyweds returned to the island, the classmate's deafness was not caused by the recessive genetics. In the late nineteenth century, "summer people" began vacationing on Martha's Vineyard after former President Grant had visited there, and Portuguese immigrants also began settling on the island. Members of the island community began marrying these off-Islanders, further expanding the gene pool. After 1900, modern conveniences, mass communication, and summer visitors - most of whom brought different attitudes about the deaf, though some did learn sign language - greatly upset the island's social patterns. At the turn of the century, there were 15 deaf people alive on the island, but by 1925 there were only four. By 1945 only Katie West survived, and she died in 1952; the sign language used on the island died out by the 1970s. In 1980 there were four deaf people on the island, none of whom had the hereditary deafness.
A recessive trait can spread in any isolated population. Recessive deafness has been seen on Providence Island, off the coast of Colombia, and in the Mayan village of Nohya, in the Yucatán. There have been signing communities in those places, in the Solomon Islands, on Grand Cayman Island, and among small groups in Surinam, Ghana, and New Guinea. Martha's Vineyard, though, is apparently the only population to have ever fully integrated its deaf members into the society, and is a unique case that will probably never be duplicated.
Baer, C., and Karen Flanders Eddy. "The Lambert Family." http://www.vineyard.net/vineyard/history/lambert.htm.
Groce, Nora Ellen. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Kageleiry, Jamie. "The Island That Spoke By Hand." Yankee Magazine, March 1999. http://www.mvy.com/spokehand.html.
Raymond, Midge. "A Silent Culture with a Strong Voice." Bostonia, Spring 2001. http://www.bu.edu/ALUMNI/bostonia/spring2001/deafstudies/.
eldritch has also written an excellent writeup about this, under the Martha's Vineyard node. With the above writeup, I am noding my homework - this was written for a class at Gallaudet University.