Martha’s Vineyard, Deaf People, and a Shared Sign Language

An old sea shanty encapsulates some of the pains and pleasures of Arctic whaling that took men from New England on lengthy trips from their homes. They travelled south through the Atlantic Ocean, rounded Cape Horn, and turned back north to traverse the mighty Pacific Ocean, sometimes reaching into the Arctic in search of the precious oil and baleen used to light peoples’ homes and shape women’s figures.  Nantucket and New Bedford were  the major whaling ports, but after the American  Revolutionary War ended in 1783 inhabitants of another island off the coast of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard, joined with their neighbors sending out whaling ships or joining the crews of ships from neighboring ports.

Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket island off Massachussetts.

Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket island off Massachussetts.

Martha’s Vineyard was settled in the mid to late 17th century by inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Many of the original settlers of Martha’s Vineyard were part of a community that had immigrated to Massachusetts from England; specifically a part of Kent known as the Weald.  These early settlers got along well with the indigenous people already on the island (native peoples related to the Wampanoag tribe) and made their living on the island primarily by fishing and farming.  As farming practices slowly depleted the soil, residents turned to whaling to earn their living.

Abandoned whale ships in Edgartown Harbor, Martha's Vineyard. From the Photography of Richard Shute,

Abandoned whale ships in Edgartown Harbor, Martha’s Vineyard. From the Photography of Richard Shute,

One of the first residents, Jonathan Lambert, was a deaf man who moved to the island with his wife in 1694. Lambert’s will indicates that two of his seven children were also deaf.  Apparently deafness ran in his family.  Over time deafness became common on Martha’s Vineyard, even among people who were not direct descendents of the Lambert family.  Anthropologist Nora Ellen Groce, who researched the deaf of Martha ’s Vineyard, traced the genealogies of families with deaf people in them and found that they descended from the settlers who had immigrated from the Weald.  She concludes that a common ancestor had mutated a recessive gene for deafness. The isolation of the island resulted in intermarriage between families causing this gene to be expressed.

Passing of a recessive gene. All children receive a gene from each parent. Two recessive genes are required for the genetic trait to be expressed.

Passing of a recessive gene. All children receive a gene from each parent. Two recessive genes are required for the genetic trait to be expressed.

In the 19th century, one in every 5,728 Americans was born deaf; on Martha’s Vineyard it was one in every 155 people!  Deafness was so prevalent that all the inhabitants of the island, deaf and non-deaf, were conversant with sign language.  The communication barriers that exist for deaf people who live as minorities in a society which does not know their language did not exist on the island. Therefore deaf people functioned in Martha’s Vineyard society just like the other residents. Towns on Martha’s Vineyard like Chilmark were bilingual and fully integrated communities where deaf people owned farms, ran businesses, and served in local government.

The town of Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard. [Photo Credit: SweetgrassAdventures.]

The town of Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard. [Photo Credit: SweetgrassAdventures.]

Although all the communities of Martha’s Vineyard benefited from “whale oil money”, there are no records of deaf people participating in whaling. None-the-less, people who knew some of the deaf folks on the Vineyard do not remember them as having a disability. The same phenomenon is seen in other isolated communities with a high incidence of deafness where a commonly shared sign language develops, such as the Bedouin Al-Sayyid tribe in the Negev desert of Israel or the village of Adamorobe, Ghana.

All of this raises an interesting question about deafness.  Twenty-first century America sees deafness as such a devastating handicap that we attempt to cure it with an expensive and invasive surgery on very young children to lessen their hearing loss.  Yet on Martha’s Vineyard and like communities, where a signed language was commonly shared, deaf people were not as isolated and pushed to the margins as they often are in our culture. Does the disability lie solely in the hearing loss? Or is the concept of disability a social construct that differs from one society to another?

One thing is for sure, deaf and undeaf alike, we all sail through life together on one ship. Recall that Fleece, the half-deaf cook on Captain Ahab’s fateful last encounter with Moby Dick, went down with the whaler Pequod as did everyone else … except Ishmael.


Groce, N. E. (1985).  Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

17 responses to “Martha’s Vineyard, Deaf People, and a Shared Sign Language

  1. A very profound posting; thank you. It brought to mind a seminal moment in my own life as I like to collect old books, the sort that most people throw away. The starting point for my getting the bug of such collecting was buying a copy of Moby Dick, of The White Whale by Herman Melville, my copy of which had been published 1953 with an introduction by J.N. Sullivan. Right now I am reading English Seamen in the XVIth Century by James Anthony Froude, which was originally a series of lectures delivered at Oxford in the Easter Terms of 1893 and 1894, my copy published 1934. The latter opens a completely new view of the run up to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. A wonderful read which I fully recommend.

    • Books are a wonderful thing. They expand the mind and until you read something like Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn you will not understand how fascinating books truely are.

  2. I confess to collecting books, too. Not as a hobby; I just can’t bear to get rid of books I’ve read. I might want to read it again! If you haven’t run across it yet I recommend In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s the story of the actual whaling ship that was the inspiration for Moby Dick.

    • I am also one of the people that cannot throw away a book. I have every book that i have ever bought any of my childeren. I will donate them on occassons but this is also hard for me. I took a glimpse at In The Heart of the Sea and this looks very interesting i will be ordering this from the library.

  3. To give an idea of my book collecting; on my return from a trip to the North of England for the funeral of an old friend, I bought a copy of The Vegetable Garden, Illustrations, descriptions, and culture of the garden vegetables of cold and temperate climates by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux, of Paris. English edition, published under the direction of W. Robinson, published by John Murray, 1905. Then the next day, bought 13 more books including an addition to my growing collection of The Lonsdale Library, Vol. XVII, Sea Fishing. One of the books in front of me that caught my attention that day was small, faded blue and titled: South with Scott by Lord Mountevans. As usual, I had very little idea of the content, but it caught my eye.

    What a surprise! Wow! I have to assume that you polar explorers have already read it. My copy is the New and Revised 1948 edition. As with most, I have watched the films and TV movies of their journeys; but never before read anything of them. The passages that stand out to me were their return from Hut Point after 80 days without washing or a shave. And the resume of the conditions endured by the Northern party led by Campbell. Mountevans writes: “Concerning the igloo, the following are my impressions, taken from my diary:

    “Never in my life have I experienced such sensations as I did on this occasion. The visit to the igloo explained in itself a story of hardship that brought home to us what Campbell never would have told. There was only one corner of it where a short man could stand upright. In odd corners were discarded clothes, saturated in blubber and absolutely black with smoke; the weight of these garments was extraordinary, and how Campbell’s party ever lived through what they did I don’t know. Although the igloo was once white inside, blubber stoves had blackened it throughout. No cell prisoners ever had such discomforts. (Campbell’s simple narrative I read aloud to Bruce from Campbell’s diary. It was a tale of altruism and grit, so simply told, full of disappointments and privations, all of which they accepted with fortitude and never a complaint. I had to stop reading it, as it brought tears to my eyes and made my voice thick – ditto old Bruce.). After spending half an hour at the igloo, and after Pennell had done some magnetic work, picked up our ice anchors and steamed away”

    That was from the penultimate page of the book, written by a man that had, himself, endured similar hardships; yet showed how much he cared about the others and their similar experiences.

    A VERY thought provoking find on a book shelf. Now, perhaps, you can all see why I collect these old books; some of them turn out to be irreplaceable gems.

    • It is always intrieging when you read a real life book and then go to a location that was mentioned in a book. Especially when there are enthrilling events that transpire at that location.

  4. I think its cool how non-deaf people adapted to the deaf people ways.

    • It is cool to see how Deaf and non-Deaf people reached a way of communicating that worked for the community as a whole. I don’t think it’s an issue of the non-Deaf people making an accommodation for the Deaf people, though. I think if you have neighbors or family members who communicate using Sign Language then you learn to Sign. With the ratio of Deaf people being relatively high on the island, it was a very natural thing for people to acquire Sign Language just as they acquired spoken language.

      Thanks for reading the post.

      • Very true – this was a community who didn’t see the need to adapt TO anyone – the community found ways that worked for all. Signing wasn’t only for the Deaf folks either – hearing people who signed used it between themselves as well at times (as do those of us who are bilingual now – sign is a highly convenient language in many situations where spoken language just does NOT work).

  5. this story was very informational. its cool how they adapted to the deaf. i liked the story.

  6. marthas vineyard was a major port in the world today and through the early years before the revolutionary war.

    • I’m curious about why you call Martha’s Vineyard a major port. It is a lovely island; I was fortunate enough to spend a few days there last spring, and enjoyed the natural beauty and the friendliness of the inhabitants. I don’t know that it was ever considered a major port, though. Even when whaling was at its peak many more whaling ships were sailing out of Nantucket and New Bedford than out of Martha’s Vineyard. Now MV is primarily a tourist destination.

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    • How wonderful that you made the connection with Seeing Voices! It’s been years since I read it, and I had forgotten that he had been to Martha’s Vineyard and seen the Sign Language in use. I will have to go back and read it again.

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