Martha’s Vineyard is an island in Massachusetts and was home to the world’s most famous Deaf community. Even though they were never more than a quarter of the population, nearly everyone used the local sign language which would go on to form the basis of ASL.
65 European settlers arrived in 1644, the area was bought from the local natives for £40 and a beaver hat. Immigration died down after 1710 when fertile plots of land ran out. After a century, the soil was depleted so most people turned to fishing and whaling for a living.
Local resident Gale Huntington, when asked about the relationship between the hearing and non-hearing people, replied:
“They didn’t think anything about them, they were just like everyone else. You see, everyone here spoke sign language… I used to speak it, my mother did, everybody.”
Deafness was so common that it was barely noticed.
Sign proved particularly useful for fishermen in boats when it was too far to hear each other.
One islander described how he used Sign to ‘talk’ behind the teacher’s back:
“Fred and I sat across the aisle from each other in school. His grandfather was deaf, so he could talk real good, and the teacher, she was from off-Island, she’d always yell “Stop talking.” If she’d said “Stop communicating,” she’d of had us there, but as it was, we’d just say, “We’re not talking” and go on doing it.”
Deaf churchgoers were allowed to sit at the front so everyone could see their prayers and confessions. Hearing islanders would sign even if there were no Deaf people around.
Fingerspelling was only used if a sign had been forgotten.
While there was only one illiterate islander by the 19th century, Deaf people hardly ever needed to write down what they were signing.
The earliest reference to a Deaf resident is from 1714: Jonathan Lambert plus two of his seven children.
Other areas with concentrations of Deaf people include the Grand Cayman Island, Nohya village in the Yucatan and Providence Island, Nicaragua. These are usually caused by iodine deficiency or recessive genes.
Before people understood genetics, bizarre theories were put forward to explain the local incidence of deafness. For some bizarre reason, Alexander Graham Bell (arguably the greatest enemy of Sign https://www.britishdeafnews.co.uk/manualism-vs-oralism-debate/) thought it was caused by clay under the soil.
Bell thought that marriage between Deaf people should be discouraged and that Deaf children should go to separate schools so that (according to his theory) deafness would die out. The islanders ignored this advice as they saw nothing shameful or harmful about deafness.
Unfortunately, many Deaf islanders were sterilised without their knowledge because of Bell’s eugenicist theories. One Deaf islander recalled the time a eugenicist came to study her child:
“Somebody came from off-Island, and wanted to come and see my child to see if she was deaf and dumb and retarded and asked my mother if they could. And I said “Go to heck! You can’t come!…It was somebody from away. I don’t know who it ’twas, don’t remember. It was years and years ago, but I was so mad!”
It is thought that the Deaf population were descendents of settlers from the Weald in southern Kent. We know this because there was no deafness amongst the original settlers until they intermarried with the Kentish settlers.
The Weald was landlocked with few rivers and massive forests which all encouraged inbreeding, as did living on islands like Martha’s Vineyard.
The theory is that the settlers from Kent already had their own Sign and that the recessive gene meant no one could tell if their children would be Deaf. Therefore, deafness was accepted as a normal fact of life and the children learned to sign at the same time as learning to speak.
The genetic isolation was so great that in 1807, three quarters of the population shared 32 surnames. Even today, inhabitants rarely leave the island.
To make matters worse, cousin marrying was socially acceptable and very common. By the late 18th century, 96% of married couples were already related. By 1850, 85% of the second cousins who married each other were also third or fourth cousins.
Males and females were equally affected. Only one Deaf child in 300 years was known to have had a parent whose family did not come from the island. This confirms that the deafness was genetic and nothing to do with disease or trauma. Only 15% of the Deaf children had a Deaf parent and virtually none had other unusual genetic traits. This suggests that the deafness was caused by a recessive gene. This confused 19th century scientists who thought that traits were inherited directly from parents, they had no understanding of recessive genes.
Bell could not understand why, in families with a history of deafness, only a quarter of the children were Deaf. Today we recognise this as evidence of a recessive gene.
Martha’s Vineyard is a perfect example of a society that fully includes disabled people.
Deafness was accepted so casually that one islander said:
“It was as if somebody had brown eyes and somebody else had blue…as if somebody was lame and somebody had trouble with his wrist.”
Islanders were astonished that anyone would find deafness fascinating and that it was rare in most of the world.
The reporter for the Boston Sunday Herald wrote that:
“The spoken language and the sign language will be so mingled in the conversation that you pass from one to the other, or use both at once, almost unconsciously. Half the family speak, very probably, half do not, but the mutes are not uncomfortable in their deprivation, the community has adjusted itself to the situation so perfectly.”
Historians have compared the tax records of the hearing and non-hearing people of Martha’s Vineyard. They show that the Deaf population earned roughly the same as everyone else for all those centuries.
Probably the best indication of how integrated the Deaf population was marriage. Before 1817, 73% of the Deaf people in Martha’s Vineyard married and 65% of them married hearing people. They tended to marry in their early 20s, same as the rest. Only two are known to have ever divorced. By contrast, in 1974, 80% of Deaf Americans married each other.
The Deaf population of Martha’s Vineyard had 5.9 children on average, just under the island’s average of 6.1.
Apart from whaling, the Deaf community participated in every economic activity. Whether this was a result of their deafness or just a coincidence is not certain. One Deaf person, Nathaniel Mann, was worth $250,000 when he died in 1924, one of the island’s richest people. His parents were neither rich nor hearing.
There were no restrictions on Deaf people voting or holding office as there were in most countries. Only one Deaf person in the whole history of the island was considered mentally incapable of handling money. We know this was nothing to do with his deafness because his Deaf brother was appointed his guardian.
It is also significant that there was never a need for Deaf clubs. Deaf and hearing people participated in social events together without a thought.
The end of the community
According to the census’ average 1830-1900, 1 in 5,728 Americans were Deaf. On Martha’s Vineyard it was 1 in 155. The Deaf population reached 45 in the 1840s before slowly declining due to an influx of outsiders diluting the local genes. By 1900, Martha’s Vineyard had just 15 Deaf people, four in 1925, one by 1945: Abigail Brewer, who died in 1952. The local Sign lasted a bit longer for communicating in church, telling rude jokes etc.
After 1817, all but one of the Deaf children went to the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut and this was the main reason deafness died out in Martha’s Vineyard. The children started marrying outsiders, immigration from the Azores was also a factor. It was at the American Asylum that ASL was created, almost certainly a combination of French Sign with the Martha’s Vineyard Sign (the most common version at the college). The second most common came from Sandy River, Maine. The inhabitants were descendents of migrants from Martha’s Vineyard a generation earlier. The parents of these two groups of children were in regular contact so probably had similar signs.
Alexander Graham Bell was the man most responsible for the banning of Sign from Deaf schools. He seems to have overlooked the fact that no one in Martha’s Vineyard ever learned lip-reading. In 1895, a reporter for the Boston Sunday Herald wrote that:
“There has never been any attempt made to send any of the congenitally deaf children to oral schools. The feeling, in fact, is so strong in favour of the prevalence of a non-speaking race that any one who should go and offer by the use of some magician’s wand to wipe out the affliction from the place and to prevent its recurrence, would almost be regarded as a public enemy and not as a benefactor.”