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American Sign Language Until 1816

Laurent Clerc is often referred to as the "First" teacher of the Deaf in America. There was a growing movement to teach the Deaf before Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc sailed for the mainland. 

Before the settling of European immigrants to the New World, native American Indians inhabited New England and used American Indian Sign Language. It was created by hearing people and would have been in use long before settlers arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts.


Deaf individuals have populated America since the earliest times. Signing in America is known to have taken place dating back to the 1600's. It is suggested that Deaf children will develop their own language naturally.  It is believed that residents of Martha's Vineyard had been signing for a hundred years before Laurent Clerc stepped foot on the shores of America. The first recorded Deaf person there was recorded in 1694. The frequency of deafness there was 1 in 155 citizens. A section of the island, Chilmark, begot its own sign language which later became Martha's Vineyard Sign Language . Members of this community would later attend the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, CT and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language was likely absorbed into the American Sign Language that was evolving there.

The Deaf Community In America: History In The Making, Nomeland and Nomeland, 2012 (1)

1774.06.21 A Fredericksburg, VA planter Samuel Edge paid to have his son attend a hearing classroom. This may make the teacher, John Harrow, the first teacher of the Deaf in America. (1)

1780 Deaf children born to hearing parents of financial means often were enrolled in schools in Europe, such as Charles Green with his attendance at the Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the same time in Virginia when a wealthy landowner

named Thomas Bolling decided to sent his Deaf children to school with Charles. (1)

1790-91 Charles father, Francis Green apparently traveled to the National Institution in Paris to see Sicard's methods. He would later translate l'Epee's book, Education of the Deaf, into English. He was an advocate for free education in America and hoped to open a school after doing the first known census of Deaf citizens, but died before he was able realize his dream. (1)

1805.08.31 Alice Cogswell, the third daughter of Doctor Mason F., and Mrs. Mary A. Cogswell, of Hartford, was born.

1807 Alice contracts spotted fever, when about two years and three months old. And before she was four years of age she had lost the power of articulation, except to a very limited.

1812 Thomas Bolling's hearing son, the Colonel William Bolling, attempted to open the first school for the Deaf in America. He felt lucky that John  Braidwood II, grandson of our Thomas Braidwood was living in America. The younger Braidwood had been approached by our very own Dr. Mason Cogswell of Hartford but it is unknown what transpired. Braidwood ran foul of the law at some point and was bailed out of jail by Col. Bolling. He hired the Scotsman to open the first school dedicated for teaching the Deaf in the United States. However, this school lasted only 1 and a half years and closed due to Braidwood's poor management and drinking problem.

Date Unknown A voluntary association was formed in Hartford through the energy of Dr. mason Cogswell, consisting of gentlemen They are as follows: Mason F. Cogswell, M. D., Ward Woodbridge, Esq., Daniel Wadsworth, Esq., Henry Hudson, Esq., the Hon. Nathaniel Terry, John Caldwell, Esq., Daniel Buck, Esq., Joseph Battel, Esq., the Rev. Nathan Strong, D. D., and the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet.

1815.04.15 a meeting was held of seven subscribers who created a fund to defray Mr. Gallaudet's expenses to Europe, to find the best method of teaching the Deaf. The meeting was opened with prayer by the Rev. Nathan Strong, D. D.  Dr. Cogswell and Mr. Woodbridge were appointed to a committee to solicit further subscriptions for this object.

1815.05.25 Mr. Gallaudet embarked for Europe.


1816.05 The committee procured an act of incorporation from the Legislature of Connecticut. This act was passed in accordance with the petition of sixty-three individuals, inhabitants of Hartford, who with their associates were by it formed into, constituted and made a body politic and corporate by the name of the Connecticut Asylum, for the education and instruction of deaf and dumb persons," with the rights and powers usually granted to incorporation for educational purposes.

1819.05  The Connecticut Assembly changed it's name to The American Asylum at Hartford, for the Education and

Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb.

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