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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf History Reader

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Other writers have recognized that the “roots” of the American deaf community took hold in the nineteenth century. Harlan Lane and his colleagues have described three New England deaf communities at Henniker, New Hampshire; Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; and Sandy River, Maine, from which they examined genetic patterning, language, and marriage practices.4 The subsequent founding of residential schools and the gradual empowerment of deaf people as they took increasing control over their own destiny in the nineteenth century have resulted in not only a deaf community today but also a rich cultural tradition. The American Deaf culture we now experience is the flowering plant that has grown from the seeds and roots of past generations.

In contrast with roots, seeds, in their gestational state, manifest fewer obvious outward signs of life. Their germination may be influenced by both internal and external factors, and subsequent growth may be affected by cultivation and tolerance. It is in such isolated episodes of cultivation and tolerance that we find the earliest evidence of germinating seeds, or the genesis, of the American deaf community. Isolated clusters of deaf people, particularly deaf marriages and deaf families, were the seeds of small communities in themselves.

A second indication of genesis may be the cultivation and tolerance of visual and gestural communication in a world dominated by spoken communication. As this paper will show, since the early 1600s there have been numerous reports of sign language varieties, gestures, and even tactile communication (for deaf-blind persons) in the American colonies.

Third, genesis may be evidenced by examples of deaf people experiencing life in varied contexts, sometimes seemingly oppressed, other times apparently enjoying a full life despite their differences from the majority. Deaf people owned land, married, conducted business, and joined religious organizations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The search for the deaf experience in the American colonies provides substantial evidence of the genesis of the deaf community.

The Seventeenth Century

From the earliest documented times in American history, there were reports of deafness among the indigenous Indians. In 1618, the Jesuits in America wrote to church officials inquiring whether a “deaf-mute Indian” could be admitted to the church.5 In seeking clarification of the church’s stance on the ability of a deaf person to learn and to demonstrate acceptance of the word of God, the pioneer Jesuits must have believed there was such potential. Two decades later, Roger Williams, a church leader and founder of the colony of Rhode Island, noted that among the Wampanoag Native children, “some are born deaf and so dumb.”6

Faith in the spiritual capability of deaf persons is also found in the story of Andrew Brown, who had embarked for America in 1636. Brown was involved in a reformation movement in Larne, county Antrim, Ireland. Having attended the monthly meetings led by George Dunbar, a minister of the Irish Presbyterian church at the parish of Larne, the “deaf and dumb” man had been administered communion. According to an American writing in the nineteenth century, it was a “singular, and almost solitary, case of a mute professing spiritual religion, previous to the recent successful efforts of giving them instruction” in Spain.7 Brown was described as “deeply affected, and had given satisfactory evidence, by signs connected with a godly life, of having been truly converted.”8 On September 9, 1636, Brown set sail on the 150-ton vessel Eagle Wing with 140 emigrants seeking freedom to practice their Protestant faith. The Eagle Wing weathered terrible storms near Lough Ryan and after almost foundering off Newfoundland with a master joist broken by fierce wind, the ship returned to Ulster, never having landed in New England.9

Although Brown did not land in New England, the story of an educated, signing, deaf man attempting to emigrate to the colonies in the early 1600s suggests that other deaf people did successfully emigrate from various countries at this time. Both deaf and hearing emigrants may also have carried deafness genetically from their homelands. Historian Nora Groce has speculated that the occurrence of hereditary deafness among many people who lived on Martha’s Vineyard can be traced to about 200 inhabitants of the Weald in the English county of Kent, who followed Jonathan Lothrop, another minister, on the Hercules and Griffin in 1634. The first known deaf man on the Vineyard was born on Cape Cod in 1657 and moved to the island in 1692. Family records from the seventeenth century reveal that, in other colonies, there were various cases of children also born deaf.10

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