The history of American Sign Language didn’t truly begin until 1814 when deaf education was introduced to the United States. There is virtually no information about American Sign Language history before this time.
Early in the 1800s, there were only a few thousand deaf Americans. No standard signed language existed at this time, but various signing systems were created in the deaf communities. These sign systems are now known as Old American Sign Language. The American Sign Language of today is actually related to this language.
The history of American Sign Language really started in 1814 with Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet was a minister from Hartford, Connecticut. His neighbor, Mason Fitch Cogswell, had a deaf daughter who was nine years old named Alice Cogswell. Dr. Gallaudet realized Alice was very smart despite the fact that she couldn’t speak or hear, and wanted to teach Alice how to communicate. Gallaudet had a little success teaching Alice reading and spelling, but he didn’t know anything about the most effective ways of educating the deaf. So, Gallaudet gained community support and enough money in order to go to Europe. Since there was a history of deaf education in Europe, Gallaudet knew he could learn the best educational methods there.
In Europe, Gallaudet met Abbe Sicard, Jean Massieu, and Laurent Clerc. Abbe Sicard was Abbe de l’Epee’s successor at the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes. Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu were once Sicard’s students and became accomplished deaf educators. Gallaudet studied the teaching methods of these instructors and even took private lessons with Clerc, who was one of the best teachers at the institute.
When Gallaudet was getting ready to travel back to America, he asked Clerc to accompany him. Clerc was one of Sicard’s best instructors and Gallaudet knew he would be a huge help in starting a deaf school in the U.S. Clerc agreed and joined Gallaudet on his journey. Gallaudet and Clerc’s school, which is now known as the American School for the Deaf, was established in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817 as the first public free deaf school in the U.S. This was a huge milestone in American Deaf history.
The school grew quickly and deaf students from all over the United States came together to attend this school. Just like it was at Abbe de l’Epee’s school, the students brought signs from home with them. American Sign Language stemmed from these signs as well as signs from French Sign Language that Gallaudet learned from Clerc. Gallaudet retired in 1830 and Clerc taught at the deaf school until the 1850s. By 1863, twenty-two deaf schools in the U.S. had been established. Most of them were founded by Clerc’s students. They continued to use Clerc’s deaf education methods in these schools.
The First College for the Deaf
When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet died in 1851, his youngest son Edward Miner Gallaudet continued his legacy in deaf education. Edward became a teacher at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford. Edward always wanted to establish a deaf college and in 1857, Edward was asked to be the superintendent of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind in Washington, D.C. Edward presented his idea for a deaf college to Congress and they passed legislation in 1864 permitting the Columbia Institute to issue college degrees.
In 1864 the Columbia Institute’s college division (the National Deaf-Mute College) opened. This was the first college for the deaf. In 1893 the college was renamed Gallaudet College to honor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. In 1986 the school was renamed Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University is known today for being the first and only deaf university in the world. And it’s in our very own Washington, D.C.!
In 1960, William Stokoe, a scholar and hearing professor at Gallaudet University, published a dissertation that proved ASL is a genuine language with a unique syntax and grammar and changed the course of the history of sign language.
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The Beginnings of Deaf Education in America
by Joseph Evans | May 18, 2018
Alice Cogswell was born on August 31, 1805. At the age of two Alice came down with an illness which took her hearing and speech from her. Sources have called this illness cerebral spinal meningitis, spotted fever and scarlet fever.
As a result of her deafness and inability to speak, Alice did not interact with other children. This was curious to a man who had moved into the house next door to Alice in the year 1815. A man named Thomas Gallaudet. Gallaudet began using pictures and letters to communicate with Alice, drawing them with a stick in the dirt.
Her father, Dr. Mason Cogswell, one of the best known surgeons in the country at the time, knew Alice was very intelligent and could benefit from a formal education. However, there was no school for the deaf. At the time there was not even a standardized form of sign language in the United States.
Dr. Cogswell asked Gallaudet to go to Europe, to learn teaching methods for deaf students. Cogswell asked Gallaudet to study the methods of the Braidwood family in England. The Braidwoods had established a school for the deaf in 1783. The problem was, the Braidwood’s did not want to share their methods with Gallaudet, and Gallaudet was not keen on the oral methods used by the Braidwoods.
While still in Great Britain, Gallaudet met Abbé Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard. The Abbé Sicard was the head of the Institution Nationale de Sourds-Muets à Paris (The National Institute for the Deaf and Mute of Paris). Sicard invited Gallaudet to Paris to learn the methods of teaching the deaf through manual communication. Gallaudet learned the teaching methods from Sicard and sign language from two of the schools graduates, Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu.
Gallaudet then convinced Clerc to come to America. It was there that the two, along with Dr. Cogswell, raised the money and established the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford Connecticut, now called the American School for the Deaf. It is the longest continually operating school for the deaf in the United States. It is also the first school for primary and secondary education to receive state aid, which it did in 1819. Two graduates of the school went on to found the Georgia School for the deaf in 1846, and the Iowa School for the Deaf in 1855.
The school honors both Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell with a statue at the entrance to the school.
This, however, is not the first school for the deaf in the US. In 1815, a member of the Braidwood family from England, John, and Col. William Bolling of Virginia, who had two deaf children of his own, established the Cobbs School of Virgina which used the oral method prefferd by Braidwoods. The school, however was short lived, closing in the fall of 1816.
In 1864, the Postmaser General Amos Kendall donated two acres of land for the establishment of a school and housing for 12 deaf children. These children were declared wards of Kendall by the courts. This school was incorporated by congress in 1857 as the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. The first superintendant of the school was Edward Gallaudet, son of Thomas Gallaudet. In 1864, the school began to confer college degrees as authorized by the US Congress.
In 1894 the name of the college portion of the school was changed to Gallaudet College in honor or Edward’s father. Gallaudet became a university in 1986. The campus is also home to an elementary school and secondary school. Gallaudet is the only liberal arts college for the deaf.
“Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Nov. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hopkins_Gallaudet
“Alice Cogswell.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 7 Jan 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Cogswell
“Mason Fitch Cogswell.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 21 Dec. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mason_Fitch_Cogswell
“About Our School.” American School for the Deaf. (n.d). Web. 2 Feb. 2018. https://www.asd-1817.org/
“Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Jan. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roch-Ambroise_Cucurron_Sicard
“Oldest School fro the Deaf in the US.” Connecticut Museum Quest. 2 Feb. 2018. https://www.ctmq.org/oldest-school-etc-for-deaf-in-us/
“History of Gallaudet.” Gallaudet University (n.d.). 3 Feb 2018. https://www.gallaudet.edu/academic-catalog/about-gallaudet/history-of-gallaudet
“History of Gallaudet. The First 100 Years.” 3 Feb 2018. https://www.gallaudet.edu/about/history-and-traditions/the-legacy-begins