The Deaf-World in the United States has major roots in
a triangle of New England Deaf communities that flourished early in
the nineteenth century: Henniker, New Hampshire; Marthas
Vineyard, Massachusetts; and Sandy River Valley, Maine. The social
fabric of these communities differed, a reflection of language and
marriage practices that were underpinned, we hypothesize, by differences
in genetic patterning. In order to evaluate that hypothesis, this
article uses local records and newspapers, genealogies, the silent press,
Edward Fays census of Deaf marriages (1898), and Alexander
Graham Bells notebooks (1888) to illuminate the Henniker
Deaf community for the first time and to build on prior work concerning
the Vineyard community.
[End Page 17]
Henniker, New Hampshire
The first great American Deaf leader was Thomas Brown (18041886),
who was born in Henniker, New Hampshire, thirteen
years before the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb opened
in Hartford, Connecticut, and who died in Henniker six years after
the Congress of Milan. We begin with his story.
Thomas Browns grandfather, also named Thomas, lived
in Stow, Massachusetts, with his wife, eight daughters, and a son,
Nahumthe first, as far as anyone knew, Deaf-Mute in the
family (see Figure 1).1 The senior Thomas
Brown was the grandson
of Jabez Brown, who emigrated from England and settled in Concord,
Massachusetts. Jabezs son, Joseph, moved to Stow,
where his son, Thomas, was born and raised, took up the trade of
blacksmith, and in 1763 married Persis Gibson.
In 1785, fearing debtors prison, Thomas Brown set out by
himself for Henniker, a virtual wilderness some hundred miles away
where his wifes family, former residents of Stow, had moved.
Thomas had contracted a hard currency debt that he was unable to
pay due to the rapidly depreciating value of colonial currency. His
troubles stemmed from an abundance of fiat money,
money printed by the colonies during the American Revolution that
was not backed by coin. Because too much of this money was
printed, Thomass money lost its value. According to his son,
Nahum, he once took a bushel of fiat money and dumped it into a
grain bin in the attic (Thwing 1868). Increasingly lenders wanted
repayment in British gold, pounds, or other hard currency. Thomas,
not being able to repay his debt, fled to Henniker.
On arriving, Thomas made a clearing and built a log cabin that
stood for nearly a century and came to be known as the Brown
House. Then, according to one account, he sent word to Nahum,
his 13-year-old Deaf son, to hitch two yoke of oxen to a sled, load
the furniture and food, bundle his mother and sisters atop the load,
and, armed with a goad, prod the oxen 100 miles through the snow
to Henniker (it is not clear how he would have told Nahum to do
this) (Thwing 1868). According to another account, Nahum preceded
his father to Henniker and was living with his uncle; it was his
[End Page 18]
father, Thomas, who brought the family (Braddock 1975; Cogswell
The contemporaries of Thomas Brown Sr. described him as
smart, energetic, and fond of books; in later years he held minor
elected posts. His eight daughterstall, blue-eyed, and good
lookingwere said to be brilliant, witty, and well educated;
most became teachers. Neighbors and relatives had a harder time judging
Nahums intellect since he was Deaf; he was called
plucky, skillful as an axeman and hunter, a model farmer, and a first-
rate teamster of oxen and horses. Of course, no one thought of his
becoming a teacher or even of his going to school.
Curiously, the first deed of land to the Browns that is recorded
was 100 acres to Nahum, who was only 17 at the time. Perhaps his
father could not afford to buy land some four years after moving
to Henniker, and it was Nahums mothers family that
bought the land and gave it as a gift to Nahum, endeavoring to provide
for their Deaf grandchild. The elder Thomas Brown died when
he was 82old enough to outlive two of his three wives; to
attend the marriage of his son Nahum to Abiah Eastman, a hearing
woman of the town; to witness the birth of their daughter, Persis, in
1800, and their son, Thomas, in 1804, both Deaf; and to hear of the
opening of the first school for Deaf studentsin Hartford in
1817. His grandson Thomas would enroll there five years later.
As a young man in Henniker, Nahum did not wear shoes; in
order to chop wood, he stood on warm planks in the doorway of his
family cabin. The many chores he performed as the sole male child
with eight sisters prepared him for a life of responsibility and hard
labor. According to his son Thomas, he worked hard from dawn to
dusk and was known as a good parent and neighbor (T. Brown
1860). He never learned to read or write, however, and communicated
in pantomime or natural sign. His wife served
as his interpreter and aided him in such activities as buying and selling
Like his father, Nahum had a long life, dying at age 88. He raised
his two Deaf children, Persis and Thomas, saw them marry and raise
his five grandchildren, three of them Deaf. The following generation
brought nine great-grandchildren, five of them Deaf. In an era when
[End Page 19][Begin Page 21]
being born Deaf was most often attributed to maternal fright (Groce
1983), Nahum and his family must surely have been puzzled.
Nahum saw his son Thomas become educated, among the first
Deaf-Mutes in the nation to do so, and emerge as a preeminent Deaf
leader, beginning at midcentury. Five years before Nahums
death, a group of Thomass friends gathered in the Brown
household to draft a constitution for the first enduring Deaf organization
in the United States, the New England Gallaudet Association of
Deaf Mutes. Nahums sight had begun to fail. He suffered
severe headaches and became blind first in one eye and then the
other. During his helpless and blind situation, son
Thomas related, he would sign for [us] to come
and see what he wanted. With his arms moving slowly, he understood
the movement of our hands (T. Brown 1860, 12;
Swett 1859). Just before his death, he signaled for his wife to come
near; with her hands upon him, he passed peacefully away.
When Thomas Brown was 18a slender, powerful man
with a large head, gray eyes, and a facial tic from a childhood encounter
with an oxhe enrolled at the American Asylum. The
town of Henniker annually voted funds to assist Thomas in paying
his educational expenses until the state legislature undertook to pay
for Deaf-Mute pupils from New Hampshire (T. L. Brown
1888). Thomas and his sister Persis, four years older, were both
brightThomas was shrewd, wild but not viciousand
both could no doubt have attended the
school, but Persis was bound by a marriage contract to a hearing
carpenter from Henniker, Bela Mitchell Swett, and was not free to
go (Childs 1861).
Thomas studied under the founders of American Deaf education,
the Deaf Frenchman, Laurent Clerc, and hearing American, Thomas
Gallaudet, and under an intellectual leader of the profession, Harvey
Peet, who would later direct the New York School for the Deaf
(Lane 1984). Thomas, we are told, was an excellent student; at the
completion of his five-year course, he agreed to stay on for two years
as monitor and carpentry instructor. However, at the end of that period,
25 years old, he declined to become a teacher at the Ohio
School for the Deaf and returned instead to Henniker to help his
parents work their 123 acres. (After the death of his father and a
protracted family wrangle over the settlement of Thomas Sr.s
[End Page 21]
upon his third wife, Nahum had sold his house and land in
what later became the center of town and had moved to a farm in
West Henniker in 1825 while his son Thomas was away at school in
In view of Thomass tireless efforts in later years to organize
Deaf people, to honor their leaders past and present, and to
promote their interests, one wonders to what extent and in what
ways his years at the American Asylum developed his early consciousness
of Deaf people as a distinct social group. The Central Society
of the Deaf in Paris, with its annual banquets honoring Deaf
language, history, and leaders, began shortly after Thomas left school,
so he could not have learned about it while he was a pupil of
Clercs, although no doubt he learned of it subsequently, for it was
clear to American educators of Deaf students that their methods derived
from the French, and transatlantic visits were made in both
Perhaps the sense of Deaf people as a distinct group was in the
very air at the American Asylum in the 1820s. After all, a single language
was emerging that connected Deaf people despite wide differences
among them in region, family circumstances, isolation, and
former methods of communication; with it, a sense of we-who-use-
this-language might naturally have emerged. Indeed, the first initiative
for creating a Deaf state was organized by a group of seniors at
the American Asylum just two years after Thomas left (Chamberlain
1858). It was, however, short lived.
One of the scattered enclaves of Deaf people that were gathered and
to some extent amalgamated by the schooling of their number at
the American Asylum was the Deaf community of Marthas
Vineyard; it was indeed the largest single source of pupils at the asylum
for several years. While at school, Thomas met Mary Smith,
whose family came from the Vineyard, where Deaf peopleespecially
in some remote communities up island, such
as Tisbury and Chilmarkwere quite common. Three years
after his return to his fathers farm in Henniker, Thomas made
the journey to the coast, where he took a boat for the Vineyard, six
miles off the Massachusetts shore, and then traveled a day on horseback
to arrive at the village of Chilmark,
[End Page 22]
where he and Mary were
married (April 1, 1832) in the presence of her many Deaf and hearing
relatives and friends.
Mary Smiths mother, Sally Cottle, was hearing; she was
the daughter of Silas Cottle (hearing) and Jerusha Tilton (Deaf; see
Figure 2 for Marys maternal ancestry). Jerushas mother
and father (Marys great-grandparents) were cousins and descendants
of Governor Thomas Mayhew, who bought Marthas Vineyard in 1640
from the two patentees under royal charter
then disputing ownership of the island. Jerushas father, a Tilton,
also traced his island ancestry back to one Samuel Tilton, who
had come to the Vineyard in 1673. Because the Tiltons early intermarried
with the Skiffes, Mary was also descended from James Skiffe, who
in 1699 purchased land on the Vineyard, settled in Tisbury, and sold
the remaining tracts there to friends. Jerushas maternal great-
grandmother was James Skiffes daughter.
Marys father, Mayhew Smith, was hearing, but her paternal
grandfather, Elijah Smith, was Deaf and married a hearing
woman; he was descended from the islands first Smith, John
Smith, who arrived in 1653 (see Figure 3 for Marys paternal
family tree). Mary had eight hearing siblings and one older Deaf sister,
Sally, who also attended the American Asylum. Sally married a
hearing cousin, Hariph Mayhew, who had seven Deaf and three
hearing siblings. Marys brother, Capt. Austin Smith, married
Levinia Poole (she was hearing and also descended from Samuel Tilton);
they had four children, two hearing and two Deaf. One of
their Deaf children, Freeman, married a Deaf cousin, Deidama West.
(There is no record of the other three children marrying.) Deidama
had three Deaf siblings and four hearing. Deidamas parents
(mother, Deaf; father, hearing) were distant cousins, both descended
from Gov. Thomas Mayhew, and her father was descended from the
first recorded Deaf person on the island, Jonathan Lambert, a carpenter
who arrived from Barnstable in 1694.
In her work on the Vineyard Deaf population, Groce identified
72 Deaf individuals, of whom 63 could trace their ancestry to James
Skiffe, 32 to Samuel Tilton, and 9 to Jonathan Lambert (Groce 1985).
Most of the Deaf people on the island had all three of these colonists
in their pedigrees. Remarkably, Groce found that all three families
were linked before they arrived on the Vineyard. In 1634 a minister
[End Page 23][Begin Page 26]
named Lothrop and some 200 members of his congregation and their
servants, all from parishes in an area in the English county of Kent
known as the Weald, arrived in Boston harbor. They made their way
to Scituate, where half the population was from the Weald, and then
to Barnstable on Cape Cod. In 1670 several of these families moved
to the Vineyard when James Skiffe, who was from Kent, sold land in
Tisbury. In the ensuing decades, more of these familiesTiltons,
Lamberts, and othersmoved across Vineyard Sound, settling
in the Chilmark area (Banks 1966). Because of the very early
appearance of Deaf people on the island and because not all the
known Deaf Vineyarders can be traced to a common Vineyard ancestor,
Groce concludes that the islands Deaf heritage, and
thus Mary Smiths, originated in the Weald and arrived on the
island with the colonizing families.
The colonizers were drawn to the Vineyard by availability of farmland,
the long growing season, the surrounding sea that abounded in
lobster and fish, and the numerous ponds, where game birds were to
be found, along with fish and shellfish of vast variety. The sandy soil
was adapted to sheep raising. The Indians were friendly and taught
the islanders how to catch whalesnearly every family on the
Vineyard had a member aboard a whaler by the time of Thomass
wedding there (Freeman 1807; Poole 1976; Mayhew 1956).
In 1700, 400 people lived on the Vineyard; the population stopped
growing about 1800 at some 3,000. Not surprisingly for this relatively
isolated community whose ancestors were from the same parishes,
most people married someone to whom they were already related
and who was from their own village on the island (Groce 1980). A
symptom of this practice was the proliferation of the same family
names: An 1850 census counted 132 Mayhews and 87 Tiltons in Tisbury
and Chilmark (Groce 1985). In 1807, 32 names composed
three-fourths of the island population! (Groce 1981).
Mary Smiths marriage to a man from off-island was thus
an anomaly, one brought about by the opening of the American Asylum
and the desire of families on the Vineyard to see their Deaf
children educated. The number of Deaf people gradually rose, peaking
at 45 around the time of Thomass marriage. Groce (1985)
[End Page 26]
later in the nineteenth century, 1 in every 155 people
on the Vineyard was born Deaf (0.7 percent), almost 20 times the
estimate for the nation at large (1 in 2,730, or 0.04 percent). An 1830
census found 12 Deaf people in Chilmark; no doubt Mary Smith was
one of them. The towns population was 694; hence 1.7 percent
of the town was Deaf, whereas only 0.01 percent of the population
in the neighboring islands was Deafa ratio of more than
100 to 1 (Burnet 1835; Deaf and Dumb 1895).
The marriage of Thomas Brown and Mary Smith was anomalous
in a second sense: Unlike the practice on the mainland, most Deaf
people on the island married hearing people. On the mainland only
about 20 percent of Deaf peoples marriages were to hearing
people; on the Vineyard it was closer to 65 percentand it was
even higher before the opening of the American Asylum (Groce
1985). The high rate of mixed marriages on the Vineyard was probably
a reflection of, and contributor to, a broader feature of life on the
islandthe blending of Deaf and hearing lives.
Like Mary Smith (and her Deaf grandmother, Jerusha), most children
born Deaf on the Vineyard had two hearing parents, as well as
many hearing siblings, the more so as birth rates were high on the
island (Groce 1980). Another reflection of, and contributor to, this
blending was the widespread use of a sign language among both Deaf
and hearing people (no doubt with varying degrees of fluency [Bahan
1998]). The language may have originally been
British Sign Language brought over by the colonizers: When Marthas
Vineyard signs elicited from elderly hearing residents in
1977 were presented to a British Deaf signer, he identified 40 percent
of the signs as British Sign Language cognates. (An ASL informant
found 22 percent overlap [Bahan and Poole-Nash 1995].) There
have been twelve generations since Jonathan Lambert
settled on the Vineyard, so Marthas Vineyard sign language
has had lots of time to diverge from its origins, the more so because
most Deaf children, like Mary Smith, were sent to the American
Asylum, where they encountered other sign language practices, and
most, unlike Mary, returned to the island.
Bahan and Poole-Nash maintain that Deaf people on the Vineyard
were thoroughly assimilated and, as with Deaf people in the
[End Page 27]
Mayan community studied by Johnson (1994), they valued their village
more than they valued the company of other Deaf people: Being Deaf
itself is irrelevant, as Deaf people have access to
everyone in the village (Bahan and Poole-Nash 1995, 19).
In accord with this village-first value in assimilative
societies, the Mayan villagers, according to Johnson, tended to identify
first with their family, then with the village, and then with Mayan
society. When Johnson gave a party for all the Deaf people in the
village and their families, he learned that it was the first event in the
village that singled out Deaf people. Similarly, Groce relates that on
the Vineyard All these [Deaf] people were included
in all aspects of daily life from their earliest
childhood. . . . One of the most striking aspects of this
research is the
fact that rather than being remembered as a group, every one of the
Deaf islanders who is remembered is remembered as a unique
(Groce 1980, 95).
Mary Smith would find her life quite changed when she took up
residence on the mainland in the intensely Deaf Brown family, far
from her hearing family, numerous relatives, and friends on the island.
She decided to take with her some remembrances of her island
homea whalebone, some big beautiful seashells, and shark
teeth with scrimshaw sailor carvings on them (Colby 1961). And then
Mary and Thomas began the trek to Henniker. Their descendants
would have the combined Deaf heritage of the Vineyard, some six
generations deep, and of the Henniker Deaf enclave, merely a generation
old at that time.
Back to Henniker
Thomas and Mary settled on his parents farm; his father was
60, his mother 66, and strong hands were sorely needed. More than
that, Thomas brought to the task many natural gifts. He was a good
horseman. He drove his own oxen and won prizes at the county fairs
in Concord, New Hampshire, for drawing a load with a large boulder,
over a ton, the allotted distance. He won awards for plowing
and for his colts, and Mary drew a premium of $2 for a nice lot of
cheese she had prepared (Anon. 1869a). Thomas raised cattle and
poultry and grew fruit, wheat, and hay. He divided the large farm
into lots of pasturage, tillage, orchard, woodland, and so on, and each
lot had a
[End Page 28]
name. Those that have come down to us were figures in
Deaf education such as Gallaudet, Clerc, and Peet (Chamberlain
1886). He kept his accounts carefully and was frugal, practical, and
methodical (T. L. Brown 1888; Anon. 1861). Some years were
very hard: At times early and severe frosts killed the crops; some
seasons were extremely dry, and then small fruit withered and fell
from the trees and clouds of grasshoppers settled on the fields, devouring
everything (Cogswell 1880).
The close-knit family and Deaf community made the hard times
bearable, even rewarding. In addition to his father, Nahum, and sister,
Persis, the family included Persis and Belas two Deaf sons,
Thomas B. Swett (called Nahum in honor of his grandfather), born
the year Thomas went off to school, and William B. Swett, two years
older. In 1837 Thomas B. Swett went to the American Asylum, and
Mary gave birth to a hearing daughter, Charlotte, but illness took the
infants life within a year. Then, two years later, William
Swett went off to school, and Mary gave birth to a Deaf son, Thomas
Lewis Brown. On return from Hartford, the Swett boys took Deaf
wives. William married Margaret Harrington, a Deaf woman from
Ireland, whose Deaf brother had also married into a large Deaf family.
William had a colorful career as an explorer, showman, mechanic,
writer, and artist before settling down. William and Margaret had
three hearing children, two of whom died quite young, and two
Deaf daughters, who married Deaf men. Williams brother,
Thomas Swett, and his wife Ruth Stearns had four childrenthree
Deaf and one hearing.
Joseph Livingstone, a Deaf carpenter who owned the blind and
sash company where William worked, lived with the Swetts. Sometimes
Deaf workmen would live on the Brown farm (for instance,
Joel Lovejoy, one of the Deaf Lovejoys from Concord, New Hampshire,
and Josiah Smith, who had Deaf relatives in Hillsboro). In addition,
a nearby Deaf couplethe Goveswere close
friends. (Abigail Clark Gove was from two towns away, New Boston,
home of the Deaf Smith clan, who were good friends of the Browns.)
So it was quite a little community that worked, celebrated, and
prayed together at the interpreted services in the Congregational
Church (Colby 1961). However, the Deaf community extended beyond
[End Page 29]
Henniker and into contiguous towns. Thomas Brown socialized
with Thomas Head and his family in Hooksett and George Kent
and others in Amherst (both two towns away from Henniker); Mrs.
Head was from a large Deaf family in nearby Francestown, one town
away from Henniker (Anon. 1869b, 1874; Turner 1880). In his notebooks
devoted to genealogical studies of Deaf people, Alexander
Graham Bell lists all the Deaf people in New Hampshire according
to the Seventh Census of the Deaf and Dumb, conducted in 1880
(Bell 1888). Including only towns that are contiguous to Henniker,
or at one remove, we find an additional 13 Deaf residents, for a total
of 27, including Henniker itself.
A different gauge of the size of the Deaf community in and
around Henniker may be had from the 1887 publication of cumulative
enrollments at the American Asylum since its opening in 1817.
Six children from Henniker enrolled, as did an additional 38 from
townships contiguous or at one remove, for a total of 44. Both the
census and enrollment measures are in one respect underestimates of
the Henniker Deaf enclave because participants could certainly live
more than two towns away and, indeed, with the coming of the
railroads, could live a considerable distance away. On the other hand,
presumably not all Deaf people within easy reach of Henniker chose
to participate in its social life.
As midcentury approached, an idea germinated in Thomass mind that
would prove epochal: the largest gathering of Deaf
people to be assembled anywhere, any time in history. Brown proposed
that the mutes of the United States should gather to show their
gratitude to Thomas Gallaudet (who had retired from the American
Asylum in 1830) and Laurent Clerc (who, at 65, was still teaching).
Later events would reveal that Brown likely had a political agenda
that went beyond gratitude and sought to counteract the inherent
diaspora of Deaf people by gatherings that could also serve as a basis
for improving their lot. When Brown, no doubt leveraging off his
standing in the New Hampshire Deaf community, suggested a tribute
to Gallaudet and Clerc and asked for contributions, the flame
of love ran like a prairie fire through the hearts of the whole Deaf-
Mute band, scattered though they were through various parts of the
country and $600 was soon raised (Rae 1851, 42).
[End Page 30]
Two hundred Deaf peoplesome from as far away as Virginiaand
two hundred pupils of the American Asylum gathered
in Hartford for the ceremony in which beautifully engraved
silver pitchers were presented to the founders of American Deaf education.
Significantly, the engraving was rich in symbolism from Deaf
history: On one side of the pitcher, Gallaudet and Clerc are shown
leaving France; the ship is at hand, and beyond the waves their future
school can be seen. On the other side is a schoolroom with Deaf
pupils. On the front is a bust of Clercs teacher, Abbé
Sicard, and around the neck are the arms of the New England states
(Syle 1887). For the presentation, a procession made its way to
Center Church, in the presence of the Governor of
Connecticut, and then Brown, towering above the celebrants, his
red beard streaked with gray, gave the welcoming address, the first of
several orations in sign. In their replies, Gallaudet and Clerc reviewed
the progress of Deaf education from France to the United States. At
an evening gathering, there were toasts, addresses, and resolutions,
and many Deaf participants stayed on through the weekend in order
to enjoy a religious service interpreted into sign language.
As it turned out, the 1850 tribute in Hartford was the forerunner
of conventions and associations of Deaf people in the United States.
The following year Thomas Gallaudet died; at his funeral, Clerc announced
that Thomas Brown and others would form a society of
Deaf people and frame a constitution in order to raise funds for a
Gallaudet monument. In 1853 a convention was held for that purpose
in Montpelier, Vermont, with Deaf participants from that state,
as well as from Massachusetts and New Hampshire; many used free
passes provided by the railroads. Brown reported on successful fund-
raising for the monument and urged the formation of a permanent
society for the intellectual, social and moral improvement of
Deaf-Mutes (Convention of Deaf-Mutes 1853, 4). A committee
under Thomas Brown was appointed to organize such a society.
Accordingly, less than a year later, on January 4, 1854, Deaf
from each of the New England states gathered at the
Brown household in Henniker for a week to frame a constitution for
the New England Gallaudet Association. From the resolutions of
thanks for hospitality, it appears that some representatives were
[End Page 31]
lodged in the Brown home, others at the Swetts, and still others at
the Goves. The constitution the representatives drafted envisioned
the publication of a newspaper by and for Deaf-Mutes, the Gallaudet
Guide and Deaf Mutes Companion. Thomas Brown was chosen
president of the new organization, which was scheduled to convene
at the same time as the Gallaudet monument unveiling in Hartford
in September of that year.
In the fall, Deaf-Mutes from all parts of the union
gathered at Hartford for the unveiling of the Gallaudet monument.
Among other Deaf orators, whose sign was interpreted for hearing
members of the audience, Thomas Brown gave a speech reviewing
the history of Deaf education. Deaf artist Albert Newsam designed
the monument, and Deaf sculptor John Carlin created the panels.
Indeed, the whole monument was to be the exclusive product
of Deaf-Mute enterprise (Rae 1854, 19). As planned,
the Henniker Constitution was read and adopted, and
officers were elected with Thomas Brown president. Thus was the
first formal organization of and for Deaf people created in the United
States (Chamberlain 1854).
The second biennial meeting of the New England Gallaudet Association
took place in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1856 (Chamberlain
1857). A listing of the members that appeared shortly
thereafter showed 44 from Massachusetts (including 4 Mayhews and
3 Tiltons from Chilmark); 34 from New Hampshire (mostly from
towns close to Henniker); 30 from Connecticut; 19 from Vermont;
11 from Maine; 7 from Rhode Island; 1 from Illinois and 1 from
Louisiana. At this meeting the eminent Deaf minister and teacher,
Job Turner, dubbed Thomas Brown the mute Cincinnatus of
Americans because he was so ready to drop his plough and
come to the aid of his fellow mutes. The honorific, Mute Cincinnatus,
The construction of Deaf people as a distinct class had clearly
emerged. It was not too great a step to imagine an enclave of Deaf
people much larger than that to be found in the vicinity of Henniker
or, for that matter, at the American Asylum. The idea of a Deaf
debated at length at the 1858 meeting of the New England
Gallaudet Association, responded to the yearnings of many
(Chamberlain 1858). The following convention was held in 1860 at
the American Asylum, with some 300 attending (Anon. 1860;
[End Page 32]
Brown gave the presidential oration, and
Laurent Clerc took the assembly to historic sites in Deaf history, such
as the house in which he met the little Deaf girl Alice Cogswell, who
had inspired efforts to found American Deaf education. In the evening
the conventional Deaf banquet was held with its toasts, orations,
In 1860 Thomass friend and collaborator, William Chamberlain,
began the associations publication, the Gallaudet
Guide and Deaf Mutes Companion, one of the earliest periodicals
in the United States printed exclusively for Deaf readers. The
publication contained news of Deaf meetings, marriages, illnesses,
and deaths and discussions of Deaf issues such as education and of
broader social issues such as slavery and religion. (Prior to this
the proceedings of the Gallaudet Associations conventions
and their communications were judged sufficiently
important to be carried in the American Annals of the Deaf, and all
members of the association received a subscription to the Annals upon joining.)
Just at the time when his network of Deaf friends and associates
was the strongest yet, Thomas, age 56, suffered a series of personal
losses. The year before, he had lost his father, Nahum, age 87, who
gradually became blind and helpless. Then, two years later, his wife
Mary died, 61 years old, after an excruciating, year-long illness. Some
months later death took his mother, Abiah, age 85. Then Bela Swett
and Belas grandchildren, Addie and James, died. Belas
son, Thomass nephew, William B. Swett, deeply depressed at
the loss of his children to diphtheria, left to pursue the life of an
adventurer and guide in the White Mountains. Thomass son,
Thomas Lewis Brown, age 20, graduated from the American Asylum
and accepted a position as a teacher in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum
at Flint, Michigan. It was not uncommon in that era for a widower
to remarry; Thomass thoughts turned to the scion of one of
the large Deaf families in Southern Maine, Sophia Curtiss.
Sandy River Valley, Maine
In the period after the American Revolution, several of the families
on Marthas Vineyardamong them, Tiltons, Smiths,
Mayhews, and Westsdecided to migrate to southeastern
Maine. They had had
[End Page 33]
enough of the despotic rule of Governor
Thomas Mayhew. Then, too, with the growing population, the extensive
land required for sheep raising was becoming scarce. The war
had crippled the whaling industry, which was increasingly centered
in the South Pacific. And Massachusetts offered free land in the province
of Maine (Poole 1976).
The first settlers from the Vineyard went to the Sandy River Valley,
abundantly forested with all sorts of game and streams that
teemed with fish such as trout and salmon. Other Vineyarders soon
followed, creating the towns of New Vineyard, New Sharon, New
Gloucester, and twenty-seven others. Intermarriage among the Vineyard
families continued on the mainland, while some of the settlers
gave up and returned to the island, and still others married into
Deaf families on the mainland. Twenty-seven Deaf pupils enrolled
at the American Asylum between its opening and 1887 who
gave one of these thirty towns as their residence. This includes large
Deaf families such as the Rowes and Campbells in New Gloucester,
Maine, and the Lovejoys in Sidney.
However, significant numbers of Deaf people lived in nearby
townshipsfor example, the Sebec branch of the Lovejoys; the
Jacks and Jellisons in Monroe; the Browns, Jellisons, and Staples in
Belfast; and the Berrys in Chesterville. The Lovejoy-Jellison-Berry
family of southeastern Maine has the distinction of being one of only
two early American Deaf families in the Northeast with three or
more consecutive generations of Deaf people (with the first born
before 1800); the Brown-Swett-Sanders family of central New
Hampshire was the other (Jones 1996). Sophia Curtisss family
was apparently from Leeds, Maine (two townships away from New
Sharon, three from Sidney), but moved to New Gloucester; she and
her parents were hearing, but she had four Deaf and two hearing
siblings, who intermarried with Deaf Rowes and Campbells. Perhaps
Thomas met Sophia through her brother George, who overlapped
with him at the American Asylum. The wedding notice in the National
Deaf-Mute Gazette (successor to the Guide) reveals both
Browns stature and the need to explain his mixed marriage:
Mr. Brown is too well known to need any notice at our
hands. His wife is a hearing lady whose relationship to and constant
intercourse with mutes enables her to
[End Page 34]
use their language
(Anon. 1867). Thomas and Sophia were married in Yarmouth,
Maine, in November 1864 and then took up residence in Henniker.
Thomas continued his life as a farmerand Deaf leader.
In 1866 the New England Gallaudet Association met in Hartford to
coincide with the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the American
Asylum. Some 500 people heard Brown give the presidential address,
in which he announced that, after twelve years of service, he would
resign in favor of his vice-president (Chamberlain 1867). Two years
later the Deaf-Mutes Friend (successor to the Gazette)
a letter from Thomas Brown, proposing a national convention
of Deaf-Mutes. According to an eminent Deaf teacher and journalist
who endorsed the suggestion in the following issue, Brown had first
made this proposal to the convention in Syracuse in
1865no doubt the meeting of the Empire State Association
of Deaf-Mutes (T. Brown 1869).
In the same year, 1869, Thomass sister, Persis, died, as did
Laurent Clerc (Chamberlain 1869b). Thomas, 65 years old, won
awards at the state fair and cattle show. His son, Thomas Lewis, came
home from Michigan to host a large birthday party for his father. Just
as the Gazette reassured its readers that Browns new wife
knew sign language, so the Friend explained to its readers that
the storytellers at the birthday party although a hearing man
is a very good sign-maker (Swett 1869, 123). In 1874 Brown
took on the presidency of the Clerc Monument Association (T. L. Brown
1888), and four years later he founded the Granite
State Deaf-Mute Mission and was elected president (Tillinghast
William B. Swett followed in his uncles footsteps in promoting
Deaf welfare: He published (with William Chamberlain) the
Deaf-Mutes Friend; he was a director of the Deaf-Mute Library
Association; he was business manager of the Boston Deaf-Mute Mission;
and he founded a school of industrial arts for Deaf adults, which
shortly added an educational program for Deaf children; it continues
today as the Beverly School for the Deaf (Swett 1874).
Thomas Brown was a trustee of his nephews school in
its early years (T. L. Brown 1888). In 1880 the first national
[End Page 35]
Deaf people in the United States was convened just
as Brown had proposedexcept for the venue: It was held in
Cincinnati, not Hartford, and Brown, 76 years old, could not attend.
He did, however, attend the meeting in New York in 1884 and then
traveled to the Vineyard with his son Thomas Lewis to visit the
friends of his late wife (T. Brown 1884). Thomas Brown died March
Assimilative and Differentiating Societies
The story of Thomas Brown and the emergence of the first American
organizations of and for Deaf people that he led can be seen as the
story of emerging class consciousness, which surfaced clearly in the
mid-nineteenth century. The formation of the numerous societies of
Deaf people over which he presided; the explicit goals of the first
enduring organization, the New England Gallaudet Association,
which he founded: We, Deaf-Mutes, desirous of forming a
society in order to promote the intellectual, social, moral, temporal
and spiritual welfare of our mute
community . . . [italics added];
the ritual-like rehearsal at meetings
of the great events in Deaf history; the raising of monuments to
important figuresall these testify that Brown and his associates
saw the Deaf community as a distinct group with a language and way
of life that should be fostered. That these conventions tend
to keep alive the feelings of brotherhood and friendship among the
mutes at large cannot be disputed, wrote William Chamberlain
(1869a). Consequently, he supported the gatherings of the children
of silence. In the silent press, Brown was
referred to as the patriarch of the silent tribe (David
1879), and his eulogist stated that Brown was always ready to do his
share for any plan which promised to promote the welfare of
his class (T. L. Brown 1888). (Class
here clearly refers to the tribe, i.e., the Deaf-World,
and in this article we use the term in this sense.)
In stark contrast, the accounts available to us of the lives led by
Deaf and hearing people in Tisbury and Chilmark during the same
era are marked by an apparent absence of events and structures that
would set Deaf people apart from hearing people. These accounts do
not reveal any leader, any organization, any gathering place, any banquet
or other ceremony, any monumentsindeed anything at
all that suggests that Deaf people on the Vineyard had class
[End Page 36]
Now that we have made this bald claim, something contradictory
may well come to light, but it seems unlikely that the
difference in degree will be eliminated by future discoveries.
The pedigrees that we have constructed (of which excerpts appear
13), although they are incomplete, have led us to
the hypothesis that a difference in the genetic basis of the Deaf
in the two locations is responsible for the difference in the emergence
of class consciousness. Other possible explanations come to
mind, foremost among them, perhaps, differences between the two
locations in language and marriage practices. After presenting the genetic
hypothesis, we will argue that those differences are, like class
consciousness, heavily influenced by the genetic difference.
The hereditary difference between hearing and Deaf people can
be traced to any of numerous genes, most often acting singly. As a
result, the occurrence of Deaf and hearing people in the family tends
to follow the laws of heredity first spelled out by Austrian
botanist Gregor Mendel in the mid-nineteenth century (but not
widely recognized until the end of the century). Mendel identified
two main patterns of genetic transmission, called dominant and
The Brown family of Henniker exemplifies the dominant pattern
of inheritance (or transmission). To the best of our knowledge, none
of the twenty-three ascendants of Nahum Brown whom we found
was Deaf. But Nahum and some of his descendants in every generation
were Deaf, indicating that the genetic difference in this family
began with Nahum. If the pattern of genetic transmission was dominant
in Nahums family, then on average half of his children
would inherit that genetic difference and be born Deaf, whereas the
other half should be born hearing. Within a small margin of statistical
sampling, this is just what happened. Slightly more than half (nearly
57 percent) of Nahums descendants were Deaf: 12 out of 21.
All Deaf members of the family had a Deaf parent (except Nahum,
of course), and all Deaf members who married had at least one Deaf
The Mayhew, Tilton, Lambert, and Skiffe families of Marthas Vineyard
(Figures 2 and 3), who intermarried extensively
both before and after arriving on the island, exemplify the recessive
pattern of inheritance. In this pattern, many people in the family will
possess the critical gene and yet not be Deaf themselves (hence the
[End Page 37]recessive). If both parents have that gene, then one quarter of
their children will be Deaf, but if only one parent has it, none of
their children will be Deaf, unlike dominant transmission. Many
Deaf children will not have Deaf parents (because their parents must
be carrying the gene but may not be Deaf themselves). The odds of
both parents having exactly the same recessive gene are much greater
if they are related to one another. Intermarriage among relatives is
most likely in a community that is isolatedand Marthas
Vineyard is a prime example. Many Deaf children on the
Vineyard had no Deaf parents, and many Deaf parents, provided they
married hearing people, had no Deaf children (cf. Figures 2 and 3).
Consequently, far fewer than half the descendants of any progenitor
are Deaf; the families of Deaf people have many more hearing
In dominant transmission such as we believe occurred in Henniker
then, every generation is likely to have Deaf children: Each Deaf person
receives a Deaf heritage and may pass it along; each generation of
his or her parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren will
likely contain Deaf individuals. Marriage between relatives is not
for such generational depth to occur. In recessive transmission
such as we believe occurred on the Vineyard, on the other hand, a
Deaf person may have cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, or more
distant relatives who are Deaf, but it is less likely among the immediate
family when compared with dominant transmission. That Deaf person
may readily have hearing parents or hearing children, or both;
depth is less likely, and marriage among relatives is characteristically
required for any Deaf family members to occur at all.2 In such a
setting, the Deaf person may feel a part of a rather extended family
that includes hearing people because he or she is related to so many
people in the community. But that Deaf person may not feel like a
crucial link in the chain of Deaf heritage.
A clear result of the difference in genetic patterning in the two
communities is that the Henniker community necessarily had far
[End Page 38]
fewer hearing people as an integral part of the family structure compared
to the Chilmark community. The numerous hearing children
of Deaf parents (called codas) in Chilmark would be likely
sign language as a native language; they and their Deaf siblings would
thus form a critical mass within the family for sign language use. The
Deaf children of hearing parents would learn the language from their
parents, if they knew it, or, if not, from Deaf peers, elders, and codas,
and they would seek to use it with their own parents and hearing
siblings. Numerous hearing relatives in the community might also be
motivated to master the sign language, at least to some extent, to
communicate with their Deaf relatives. Thus the difference between
Henniker and Chilmark in the spread of sign language into the hearing
environment may be traceable, in part, to the difference between
them in genetic patterning.
The incidence of mixed hearing and Deaf marriages on the Vineyard
seems to have been more than triple that on the mainland, as
cited earlier. This difference may be attributable, at least in part, to
the more widespread use of the sign language among hearing people
because a common language greatly facilitates meeting ones
life partner in the first place and then developing a deep interest in
and affection for that person.
Finally, we hypothesize that the differences in language use and
marriage practice, which are underpinned in part by the differences
in genetic patterning, mediate in turn differences in class consciousness.
What we are suggesting is that it takes a them
for an us to develop, and the blending of hearing and
Deaf lives on the Vineyard, because of shared family life and language
(underpinned by genetics), discouraged the construction of hearing
people as them. Conversely, many members of the
Henniker Deaf enclave had Deaf parents, Deaf grandparents, and
Deaf great-grandparents, and the boundary with the surrounding
hearing community was relatively sharply demarcated. That said,
other factors may also have fostered Chilmark blending, such as a
sense of isolation on a remote island and an awareness of shared
Recent findings concerning Deaf people and hearing residents of
a village in Bali help to evaluate the notion that Deaf genetic
marriage and language practices, and class consciousness are
[End Page 39]
Of the 2,185 people in this village, 2.2 percent are Deaf
(Winata et al. 1995). Following Branson, Miller, and Marsaja (1996),
we refer to the village as Desa Kolok (Deaf Villagenot
its official name). The genetic patterning in Desa Kolok is
recessive as on the Vineyard, and, as on the Vineyard, marriages between
hearing and Deaf people are completely acceptable. There are
sixteen families in Desa Kolok with two hearing parents and at least
one Deaf child, so it is clear that there is more blending of hearing
and Deaf lives in the nuclear family than in Henniker, which had no
families with hearing parents and Deaf children. However, the blending
of hearing and Deaf lives in Desa Kolok may not have been as
great as on the Vineyard; in Desa Kolok, the twenty families with a
Deaf parent (or two) had 75 percent Deaf children. Thus, among
those families with Deaf children, more families than not had a Deaf
parent, and the children in those Deaf families were themselves
Beyond the blending of hearing and Deaf lives within the nuclear
family in Desa Kolok, cultural and social forces ensure widespread
contact between Deaf and hearing people. Of particular note, Balinese
villages are kin based, and Deaf people grow up in house yards
shared with their hearing relatives. Thus, with respect to the mixing
of hearing and Deaf lives, the extended family of the Desa Kolok
house yard may be more like Vineyard families than like Henniker
families. Perhaps for this reason, the use of a sign language in Desa
Kolok is nearly universal, and Deaf people are integrated in many
facets of social life including groups organized for work and for some
religious practices. Moreover, hearing attitudes toward Deaf islanders,
many of whom are relatives, are generally positive (Hinnant
1998, 1999; Branson, Miller, and Marsaja 1996). Thus, the evidence
from Desa Kolok suggests that the mixing of hearing and Deaf people
in the family determines their mixing in community life, as we hypothesize
was the case on the Vineyard.
It is not clear to us whether Deaf people in Desa Kolok lack class
(i.e., group) consciousness, as we hypothesize was the case on the
Vineyard. On the one hand, certain activities in Desa Kolok are associated
with Deaf villagers who also have specific roles with regard to
certain festivals, which might engender such group consciousness.
Moreover, being Deaf restricts ones prospects outside the village
[End Page 40]
participation in some skilled labor and in musical events
(Hinnant, personal communication). On the other hand, the
Deaf villagers interact freely and equally with other villagers
(Branson, Miller, and Marsaja 1996, 42). Perhaps the mixed evidence
for group consciousness is a reflection of an intermediate status for
Desa Kolok between Henniker and the Vineyard with regard to the
blending of hearing and Deaf lives.
We are grateful to the following people for their assistance in preparing
this article: Dr. Kathleen Arnos, Genetics Program, Department of Biology,
Gallaudet University; Dr. Ben Bahan, Department of Deaf Studies, Gallaudet
University; Dr. Jan Branson, National Institute for Deaf Studies and
Sign Language Research, La Trobe University; Dr. Nora Groce, School
of Public Health, Yale University; Mr. Ulf Hedberg, Gallaudet University
Archives; Dr. John Hinnant, Department of Religious Studies, Michigan
State University; Ms. Carole Mair, Librarian, Michigan School for
New England Genealogical Society; Dr. Don Miller, Department of
and Sociology, Monash University; Mr. Michael Olsen, Gallaudet
University Archives; Dr. Joan Poole-Nash, Newton, Mass.; Volta
Bureau, Alexander Graham Bell Association.
In this article, the authors use capital D in
Deaf throughout as they are writing
about people who are culturally Deaf.
Harlan Lane, Ph.D., is Matthews Distinguished University Professor
University in Boston. Richard C. Pillard, M.D., is Professor of
the Boston University School of Medicine. Mary French is a technical
Kenan Systems/Lucent Technologies.
1. The primary sources for the pedigrees of which figures
13 are excerpts
were Banks (1966); Gordon (1892); Cogswell (1880); Mayhew (1991);
E. A. Fays census of Deaf marriages (Fay 1898); the data forms
for Fays census
in the Gallaudet University Archives; and the records of the New England
Society. The pedigrees are incomplete and may contain inaccuracies,
sources occasionally contain conflicting information.
2. Recent studies have shown that mutations in the gene GJB2
are very common
among people who were born Deaf and as many as 1 in every 40 people in
the general population have at least one mutated copy of the gene (Green
1999). If this gene was widespread on Marthas Vineyard, marriage
relatives would not necessarily have been required for offspring to
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