The history of American Sign Language didn’t truly begin until 1814 when deaf education was introduced to the U.S. 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.
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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.
Photo courtesy of
the American School for the Deaf
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.!