“A Note on the Melungeons” by Burnett, 1889 article

1889 Burnett Article

A Note on the Melungeons

This article was published in the American Anthropologist 2, (October 1889): 347. The lecture was given to the American Antropological Society in February 1889.

Legends of the Melungeons I first heard at my father’s knee as a child in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, and the name had such a ponderous and inhuman sound as to associate them in my mind with the giants and ogres of the wonder tales I listened to in the winter evenings before the crackling logs in the wide-mouth fireplace. And when I chanced to waken in the night and the fire had died down on the hearth, and the wind swept with a demoniac shriek and terrifying roar around and through the house, rattling the windows and the loose clapboards on the roof, I shrank under the bedclothes trembling with a fear that was almost an expectation that one of these huge creatures would come down the chimney with a rush, seize me with his dragon-like arms, and carry me off to his cave in the mountains, there to devour me piecemeal.

In the course of time, however, I came to learn that these creatures with the awe-inspiring name were people somewhat like ourselves, but with a difference. I learned, too, that they were not only different from us, the white, but also from the Negroes–slave or free–and from the Indian. They were something set apart from anything I had seen or heard of. Neither was the exact nature of this difference manifest even in more mature years, when a childish curiosity had given way to an interest more scientific in its character. There was evidently a caste distinction as there was between the white and Negro, and there was also a difference between them and the free Negroes. No one seemed to know positively that they or their ancestors had ever been in slavery, and they did not themselves claim to belong to any tribe of Indians in that part of the country. They resented the appellation Melungeon, given to them by common consent by the whites, and proudly called themselves Portuguese.

The current belief was that they were a mixture of white, Indian, and Negro. On what data that opinion was based I have never been able to determine, but the very word Melungeon would seem to indicate the idea of a mixed people in the minds of those who first gave them the name. I have never seen the word written, nor do I know the precise way of spelling it, but the first thought that would come to one on hearing it would be that it was a corruption of the French word melangee—mixed.

It was not, however, until I had left East Tennessee and become interested in anthropology–chiefly through my membership in this Society—that the peculiarities of this people came to have any real significance for me, and I was then too far away to investigate the matter personally to the extent I desire. I have, however, for several years past pursued my inquiries as best I could through various parties living in the country and visiting it, but with no very pronounced success. I have thought it well, however, to put on record in the archives of the Society the rew notes I have been able to obtain, trusting that some one with better opportunity may be induced to pursue the matter further.

It appears that the Melungeons originally came into east Tennessee from North Carolina, and the larger number settled in what was at that time Hawkins County, but which is now Hancock. I have not been able to hear of them in any of the lower counties of east Tennessee, and those I have seen myself were in Cocke county, bordering on North Carolina. At what time this emigration took place in not known, but it was certainly as long ago as seventy-five or eighty years. One man, “Old Sol. Collins,” in Hancock County, claims that his father fought in the revolution.

They are known generally by their family names, as the “Collinses,” &c., and on account of the caste restriction, which has always been rigorously maintained, they do not intermarry with the Negroes or Indians. As stated before, they are held by the whites to be a mixed race with at least a modicum of Negroes blood, and there is at least one instance on record in which the matter was brought before the courts. It was before the war–during the time of slavery–that the right of a number of these people to vote was called in question. The matter was finally carried before a jury and the question decided by an examination of the feet. One, I believe, was found to be sufficiently flat-footed to deprive him of aright of suffrage. The others, four or five in number, were considered as having sufficient white blood to allow them a vote. Co. John Netherland, a lawyer of considerable local prominence defended them.

It should be stated, however, that there is a disposition on the part of the more thoughtful of those among whom these people live to give some credence to their claim of being a distinct race, a few inclining to the Portuguese theory, some thinking that they may possibly be gypsies, while yet others think that they may have entered the country as Portuguese or gypsies and afterward some families may have intermingled with negroes or Indians or with both. So far as I have been able to learn, however, there was not at any time a settlement of Portuguese in or near North Carolina of which these people could have been an offshoot. Those that I have seen had physical peculiarities which would lend plausibility to any one of the foregoing theories.

They are dark, but of a different hue to the ordinary mulatto, with either straight or wavy hair, and some have cheek bones almost as high as the Indians. The men are usually straight, large, and find looking, while one old woman I saw was sufficiently hag-like to have sat for the original Meg Merriles. As a rule, they do not stand very high in the community, and their reputation for honesty and truthfulness is not to be envied. In this, however, there are said to be individual exceptions.

It is perhaps characteristic of them that, since a revenue tax has been placed by the Government on the manufacture of spirituous liquors, these people have been engages largely in illicit distilling; but, whatever may have been their origin, it is still a fact of interest that there has existed in East Tennessee for nearly a hundred years a class of people held both by them selves and by the people among whom they live as distinct from the three other races by whom they are surrounded, and I trust that these few imperfect notes may cause a study of them to be made by some one more competent than myself. For assistance in getting information I am particularly indebted to Dr. J. M. Peirce, of Hawkins county, Tennessee, and to Dr. Gurley, of the Smithsonian Institution.

Since the above communications was read before the Society I have received from several sources valuable information in regard to the Melungeons; but the most important contribution bearing on the subject, as I believe, is the little pamphlet published by Hamilton Mc Millan, A. M., on “Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony” (Wilson, N.C., 188). Mc Millan claims that the Croatan Indians are the direct descendant of this colony. What connection I consider to exist between the Melungeons and the Croatan Indians, as well as other material I have accumulated in regard to the Melungeons, will be made the subject of another communication which is now in preparation.