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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf History Reader

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Attitudes toward deafness and other physical disabilities varied in the colonies. Historian Margret Winzer has written that people with deafness, blindness, and physical disabilities were generally viewed by the colonists as the “natural concerns of the family, the local community, or the church rather than the state.”11 In 1641, Massachusetts adopted a code of laws protecting people who should be “exempted by any naturall or personall impediment, as by want of yeares, greatness of age, defect of minde, fayling of sences, or impotencie of Lymbes.”12 By the mid-seventeenth century, the generally mixed views about people who likely had mental disabilities were evident in the fact that those who might become a burden were expelled from some towns, even with public whippings, whereas in other areas there was public support. In 1676, for example, the Pennsylvania colony provided for the assistance of a mentally disabled individual.13

The Puritans’ theological beliefs shaped thinking about disability in seventeenth-century New England. In 1679, for example, Philip Nelson of Rowley, Massachusetts, already having “difficulties” in the church, was questioned by a council of ministers for “pretending to cure a deaf and dumb boy in imitation of our Savior by saying [Ephphatha].” This was a risky endeavor at this time due to the belief in witchcraft. The deaf person, Isaac Kilbourne, was brought before the church officials. “He was interrogated, but ‘there he stood . . . like a deaf and dumb boy as he was.’ They could not make him hear, nor could he speak.”14

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. Cotton Mather, the son of the zealous Puritan clergyman Increase Mather, was himself a strong clerical figure among early New England Puritans. He was also a stutterer who associated his speech impediment with the sins of pride and anger. But many Puritans also understood affliction as “God’s rod descended in loving concern.” Mather saw his own stuttering as something that would guide him to greater holiness, “yea, to make me more happy than other men.”15

The complexity of attitudes toward deafness in the Massachusetts commonwealth became evident in 1684 when deaf Isaac Kilbourne was permitted to marry Mary Newbury of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1685, church records report the baptism of their child, “Deaf lad’s [Kilbourne’s] daughter Elizabeth.” Thus, in a span of only a few years, Isaac Kilbourne appears to have become an accepted member of the church.16

A marriage between two deaf people occurred in Weymouth, Massachusetts, even earlier. Matthew Pratt, who was born in Plymouth Colony in 1629 and had been deaf since about the age of twelve, was taught to read and write, and he spoke “scarce intelligibly” and very seldom. In 1661, he married Sarah Hunt, a woman who had been deaf since the age of three, who also did not use speech. They had seven children and owned twenty acres of farmland in east Weymouth as well as eighteen acres on the west side of “Mill River.”17 Cotton Mather mentioned that Sarah “spoke with signs” and that her children learned to speak “sooner with eyes and hands than by their lips.” Evidence that an attempt was made to educate Sarah is found in the report that she was not raised a Christian but was later converted with the help of Matthew and several relatives, “who were able to communicate with her easily.”18

Other deaf people also owned land in the colonies.19 Among them was Jonathan Lambert, who, in 1694, bought from the Indian Sachem Josias Wampatucke a tract of land on Martha’s Vineyard bordering on Great James pond, and “ever since that date the name of Lambert’s Cove has been a memorial of his residence in that region.”20 In 1695, Lambert was dispatched to Quebec to bring back prisoners. A contemporary, Samuel Sewell, somewhat humorously referred to him during his visit in 1714 to the Vineyard: “We were ready to be offended that an Englishman . . . in the company spake not a word to us . . . itseems he is deaf and dumb.”21

Strangely, Jonathan Lambert’s life was described as “uneventful as he was a deaf mute, and the records give but little to indicate any public activities.” 22 Yet Lambert was master of the brigantine Tyral, a slave ship. He had been given a share in Narragansett township for his military service under Sir William Phips in an expedition to Quebec in 1690. The fact that he owned land, raised a family, interacted with visitors to the Vineyard, and was involved in transporting prisoners reveals a man whose life was as eventful as that of many hearing people of his time.

Two of Lambert’s children were also deaf, the first known cases of congenital deafness on Martha’s Vineyard.23 The influx to the New World of emigrants carrying a gene for deafness from the Weald in Kent to Scituate, near Plymouth and Cape Cod Bay, has been one of the better documented phenomena of the deaf experience in the American colonies. 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.24

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