Welcome to Chilmark Library's historical archive about the Deaf Community in Chilmark, Massachusetts. Chilmark is a small rural town on the Atlantic Ocean side of Martha’s Vineyard Island, which is located off the coast of Cape Cod.
The town of Chilmark was once known for an unusually high percentage of deaf citizens. There was a deaf population in all five towns on the island, but Chilmark had the highest concentration. For instance, in the Squibnocket area of Chilmark as much as a quarter of the population was deaf.
The Chilmark Deaf Community is famous in Deaf Culture because both deaf and hearing people knew and used sign language everyday. Everyone in the community worked together in one way or another. Furthermore, there could be multiple deaf members in nuclear and extended family networks.
Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was very important in the development of American Sign Language (ASL). The American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford CT was founded in 1817 for Deaf people from New England states.There were many students from Martha’s Vineyard who used MVSL as their primary form of communication. MVSL was a unique blend because island residents continued to use the older British two handed alphabet and older forms of French and possibly British signs longer than other places in the United States and also developed their own signs for things particular to Martha’s Vineyard
There are no fluent signers of MVSL today. The last deaf person born into the island's sign language tradition, Eva West, died in 1950. However, there were a few elderly residents still able to recall MVSL when researchers started examining the language in the 1980s. We are lucky to have documents of their evocative memories, and to enjoy their stories of how children signed behind a schoolteacher's back; adults signed to one another during church sermons; farmers signed to their children across a wide field; and how fishermen signed to each other from their boats.
By 1854, Chilmark had a deaf population of one in every 25 people, while the national average was one deaf person in 5728. The cause of the deafness was genetic, and first appeared on Martha’s Vineyard by 1714. This genetic heritage is thought to have originated in the Weald, a region in the English county of Kent, prior to immigration, and was brought over when groups of Kentish citizens migrated to New England. The old Kentish Sign Language is thought to be the basis of MVSL.
Genetic deafness on Martha’s Vineyard eventually disappeared in the 20th century. As the local economy began to depend more on tourism and less on sheep farming and fishing, new blood began to enter the genetic pool. Over time, the island population grew more diverse and incidents of genetic deafness declined.