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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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as an “ingenious mechanic, a man of strong will and indomitable energy.”33 He married Hannah (Sharpless) Neal, a widow, and learned the trade of cabinet making. More details are available about Jacob’s deaf brother, Joseph:
[Joseph Moore] dreamed where to go and find a wife, and going by his dream, found the place and the young woman [Jane Smith] he had seen in the vision; which resulted in a suitable companionship for life. Their children all had their hearing and speech, and in his anxious desire to know if they could hear he would sometimes make a loud noise, and then intently watch if they would notice it. He kept bees, and at one time had some stolen, and early next morning went to one of the neighbors, tapped one of the thieves on the shoulder, and by signs charged him and some others with the theft; which proved to be correct, and all of whom Joseph pointed out.34
Joseph Moore moved to Cecil County, Maryland, where he owned a farm and sawmill and was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). He attended services whereby he would “gaze intently at the minister, as if he gathered something of what was delivered. Various instances might be mentioned of his finding out circumstances, and of his pointing upward, intimating that he had great faith and confidence in the way of truth and right.”35

Jeremiah Moore, born in 1775, married Phebe Jones of Columbia, Pennsylvania. Passmore writes that “Jeremiah being a deaf mute, could not be married by [The Society of Friends], so they were married by a magistrate.36 Jeremiah entered millwrighting as an occupation and kept his own account book, which has been described this way: “It was a model of ingenuity; when he had difficulty spelling a word, as for instance ‘Plow,’ he would make the drawing or representation of it.”37

The description of the deaf members of the Moore family reveals that deafness was not necessarily an impediment to a full and rewarding life, even before the educational opportunities of the nineteenth century were available. Here were three deaf men, all married and holding respectable occupations as well as taking care of their own business dealings. Most likely, Joseph’s wife was also deaf (his “suitable companion”), particularly because he felt compelled to test their children’s hearing through making loud noises. Moreover, the family account that Joseph was “apt in making himself understood by signs, and in understanding others in the same way,” indicates that the use of signs was accepted by his neighbors and that they had learned some to communicate with him.38 There are no details available on the sign language the Moores used, but such records not only of signing but also of marriages and business being conducted with signing neighbors show the beginnings of community in areas other than Martha’s Vineyard.

More information about the use of both sign language and gestures in the seventeenth and eighteenth century American colonies may become available through further research, as is suggested by a study of American Indians and sign language:

That we find no positive evidence [in contemporary historical chronicles] of the existence and use of gesture speech does not necessarily show that there was none, as is shown by the following notable examples. Circumstances forced Lewis and Clarke in their exploration of the then unknown West to spend the winter of 1804–5 with the Mandans, Gros Ventres, and Arickarees in their village on the Missouri, only a short distance below the present site of their camp at Fort Berthold. During the winter the Cheyennes and Sioux visited this village, and there can be do doubt that gesture speech was daily and hourly used by the members of these tribes as it is to-day when they meet, but no mention is made of the fact, and not until these explorers met the Shoshones near the headwaters of the Missouri do we find any note made of signs being used. If these explorers who entered so minutely into the characteristics of the Indians in their writings failed to make a record of this language, I do not think it very surprising that earlier investigators should have, under less favorable auspices, also neglected it.39
In addition to this work by William Philo Clark in 1884, detailed accounts and analyses of the use of sign language among Native Americans have been published by other researchers, including Garrick Mallery, who compared the signs of North American Indians with those of deaf people in his 1881 book, Sign Language Among North American Indians;40 and, more recently, in 2006, Jeffrey E. Davis examined the linguistics of Indian signs.41

In fact, the gestures and signs used by deaf people in the various American colonies and the French signs brought to America by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc likely merged with the various existing sign language varieties, especially those brought to the school by the first students. In 1835, Frederick A. P. Barnard referred to such a melting pot in describing his early teaching experience at the American School for the Deaf:

Each pupil brings with him, on his arrival, the signs of reduction which he has been accustomed to employ among his friends. But he readily lays aside his own signs for those of the community.42

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