Deafness on the Vineyard – Part III

In Parts I and II of this series on the deaf community of Martha’s Vineyard, we learned that there were recessive genes for deafness that came over to Massachusetts on the various ships in the “great migration” of themv7 Puritan Separatists from England.

The area of Weald, County of Kent, England, was well known for having many deaf residents because, we now know, because of recessive genes that had been passed down for generations.   

One couple carrying those genes were Thomas Lambert  (Lombard  or Lumbard) and his wife Joyce.  One of their ten children, Joshua Lambert (Lombard, Lumbard), married Abigail Linnell and the couple made their home in Barnstable, Massachusetts.

Since there was a limited gene pool and many of the families in the Pilgrim communities had come from the Kent, England area, the incidence of deafness was unusually high in these communities.  As is typical of families with recessive genes for deafness, some of the mv4children were deaf, some were born with normal hearing, and some were carriers of the recessive gene.  Born to  Joshua and Abigail in 1657, Jonathan was deaf. He worked with his father on the farm in Barnstable until he became interested in Elizabeth Eddy, a young lady from Martha’s Vineyard. 

Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard was first discovered by the Norsemen in about the year 1000, who named it Vineland.  In 1524, the Italian explorer Verrazano sighted the island and called it Claudia after the mother of the Queen of France. 

Probably the first discoverer to leave any account of the island was Bartholomew Gosnold, of Falmouth, England. In 1602 he sailed for Virginia. According to Lang (2014), Gosnold  encountered contrary winds that put him on a path a bit north of west across the Atlantic. As a result, he was the first Englishman to sail directly to the American coast and, in the process, saved nearly a thousand miles in distance and at least a week in sailing time.

Gosnold landed on a capmv6e which he named Cape Cod for the abundance of codfish that he found there. Then, doubling back around the cape and sailing southward he landed on an island. After exploring it and finding it large, well wooded, and with many beautiful lakes and springs of the purest water, he named it Martha’s Vineyard, in honor of his first-born daughter, who had died in infancy, and after the  luxuriant grape vines that grew on the island

Developed by Thomas Mayhew and his successors, Martha’s Vineyard became a refuge for many, as it abolished slavery in 1783 and allowed land holdings by anyone who could afford them.  Later it became a major whaling center. By 1870 whaling had ceased, and eventually it became popular with tourists and with people who wanted summer vacation homes.  

During the Colonial period and in the 19th century connections between the mainland and the Vineyard were minimal.  Getting to the island was so difficult that once there, most people stayed on and married within the small, not very genetically diverse population. 

Lambert’s Cove

Elizabeth’s father, John Eddy came to the Vineyard with his father, Samuel, who had been delegated to develop the island by the Plymouth Colony. John was an important landowner in the Tisbury area of the island.  Jonathan Lambert and Elizabeth were married in 1683 and it is thought that this led to his eventual move to the Vineyard. 

Jonathan fought in the continuing war between France and England anmv5d in 1690 became part of Sir William Phipps’s ill-fated expedition to take Quebec City, then the capital of New France (now capital of the Canadian Province of Canada). While he received a share of Narragansett township (now Gorham, Maine) for his service, he became disillusioned with the military and moved his family to Martha’s Vineyard in 1692 and took up residence in the Tisbury area close to his inlaws.

In 1694 he bought a tract of land bordering on Great James pond from the Indian Sachem Josias Wampatucke (a member of the native Wampanoag tribe). Ever since then the name of Lambert’s Cove has memorialized his residence in that region.

Strangely, Jonathan Lambert’s life has been described by Lang (2014) as “uneventful as he was a deaf mute, and the records give but little to indicate any public activities.” Yet Lambert was brought back to military service for a short time as the master of the brigantine Tyral, a slave ship, to bring slaves back from the Quebec area.  Jonathan lived with his family in Lambert’s Cove and worked as a carpenter until his death. His sons and grandsons remained on the paternal acres and, thus, the area became thoroughly identified with the Lambert family. 

The Rise of the Deaf Population on Martha’s Vineyard

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  was developed on the island, which both deaf and hearing islanders learned and used. As elsewhere, 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.  

19th Century Sign Language Class

Two of Jonathan and Elizabeth’s children had congenital deaf mutism, the first known cases on the Vineyard.  This began a cycle that lasted for 200 years.  Burke (2014) summarizes the prevalence of deafness and how it increased during the 19th century: “Some of the censuses taken of the 19th century Vineyard population reveals the extent of the deafness. In 1817 two families had deaf members with a total of 7 deaf.  In Chilmark [on the southwest part of the island] just a few years later 1827 there were 11 deaf.   The 1850 Chilmark census identified 17 deaf out of 141 households, in Hammett, Lambert, Luce, Mayhew, Tilton and West families.  In 1855, it was 17 plus 4 in nearby Tisbury.  The 1880 Chilmark census had 19 deaf in 159 households.  New deaf families included the Nobles and the Smiths.  

 To put this into perspective, compared to the mainland U.S. where frequency of deafness was about 1 in 6000 people, on the Vineyard it was as high as 1 in 155. It was 1 in 25 in Chilmark, and 1 in 4 in the town of Squibnocket.

 The mode of communication for these deaf residents was a combination of the French Sign Language and the Kent Sign Language from Kent, England.  The early residents of Martha’s Vineyard used sign language communication routinely even if there were not deaf people present. Interpreters were used in church, town meetings and other gatherings.  Deafness was so common that deaf people were truly integrated into the community as equals and included in conversations by the use of sign language. In Chilmark people were required to learn sign language to be integrated into the community.

If it had not been for the rise of Deaf Education in the United States the cycle might have continued. But as new educational opportunities for the deaf became available on the mainland, many deaf families left Martha’s Vineyard and the deaf population dwindled.  The first integrated deaf population in the United States, while it lasted, had been a Utopia for the Deaf .



Banks, C. (1911). The History of Martha’s Vineyard, Dukes County, Massachusetts:  Town annals.  Retrieved December 8, 2014:,+martha%27s+vineyard,+1680&source=bl&ots=_SKHObS53s&sig=4GVWl2jgznAo0fqbZ9qTxdYTa7U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qzmGVJbCKtLdoAST_4GACg&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=elizabeth%20eddy%2C%20martha’s%20vineyard%2C%201680&f=false

Everything2. (2014).  Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard.  Retrieved December 8, 2014:

Lang, H.  (2014).  The Deaf History Reader.  Gallaudet Press.  Retrieved December 9, 2014:

Johnson, S., (2010). The Chilmark Deaf Community on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  Retrieved December 9, 2014:

Norton, H. & Pyne, R. (1923).  History of Martha’s Vineyard. Retrieved December 9, 2014:

Burke, J. (2014).  Deaf History:  Martha’s Vineyard.  About Health. Retrieved December9, 2014:


101 Travel Destinations (2014). Retrieved December 9, 2014: 

American Speech Language Association (2014).  Genetics of Auditory Disorders.  Retrieved December 9, 2014:

Geni (2014).  Thomas Mayhew.  REtrieved December 10, 2014:

Info Guides (2014).  Rochester Institute for the Deaf. Retrieved December9, 2014:

To 10 World (2014).  10 defunct languages or writing systems.  Retrieved December 9, 2014:

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.