“The Graysville Melungeons” by Raymond Evans, 1979 article

The Graysville Melungeons

from Tennessee Anthropologist, Vol IV, No. 1, 1979.

by Raymond Evans


Located approximately 30 miles north of Chattanooga, the community of Graysville, Tennessee contains one of the most stable Melungeon settlements in the state. Field work in the community conducted in conjunction with archival research demonstrates that the Melungeons, who now compose more than half of the local population, came from Hamilton County durning the latter half of the nineteenth century. Census records and other archival sources indicate that prior to comming to Hamilton County they had lived in Virginia and North Carolina. In Graysville, the Melungeons strongly deny their Black heritage and explain their genetic differences by claiming to have Cherokee grandmothers. Many of the local Whites also claim Cherokee ancestry and appear to accept the Melungeon claim.The racist discrimination common in Hancock County and in other Melungeon communities is absent in Graysville. Here, the Melungeons interact in all phases of community life,and exogamy with local Whites is common practice.- Goins- and the term “Melungeon” is not used by the people or by their neighbors. Recent field observations of the Graysville Melungeons differ in no way from that of any other small southern Appalachian community.


No people in Tennessee have been subjected to more romantic speculation than have the so-call “Melungeons” These dark-skinned people, living in a White world,strongly denied their Black ancestry and attempted to explain their color by saying they were of Portuguese decent (Burnett 1889:347-349) Popular writters have elaborated on this theme (c.f.Willis 1971:2-8;Zuber n.d.)They have been claimed to be descendants of the “Lost Tribes of Isreal (Bible1975:74-80), old world Gypsies (Bell1975:21), mythical “Welsh Indians”(Bible 1975:81-82; Willia 1971: 5) or Arabs (Ball 1945: 5-7;1975 22); others have attempted to link their origin with established historical events. Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” and the DeSoto expedition are two examples (c.f.Peters 1970). In what is possibly the least plausible claim, it is a matter of legal record that the Tennessee courts have excepted “proof” that Melungeons are descendants of settlers from ancient Carthage (Shepherd 1915).

The actual ethnic background of the Melungeons and their place of origin is far less dramatic. Modern genetic studies (c.f.Gilbert 1946:438-477; Pollitzer and Brown (1969:388-400;Pollitzer 1972: 719-734 ) have demonstrated that Melungeons are a tri-racial people with Indian, African, and European ancestry. Similarly, there is no mystery as to their origin. In a momumental study of tri-racial peoples of eastern United States, (Price 1950a:182-190) has used census records and other archival sources to demonstrate that the Melungeons are but one of many groups of loose societies of marginal mixed- bloods which came into being durning the latter part of the eighteenth century.Far from being unique, the Melungeons are but one of the some of two hundred documented tri-racial peoples (Beal1957:187-196;Berry 1963:15).

In Tennessee, public attention has usually focused on the Melungeon communities of the upper East Tennessee. In particular, Hancock and Hawkins Counties are usually regarded as the Melungeon homeland. There are, however, well documented Melungeon communities in Virginia (Bell 1975) and Kentucky (Price 1950) as well as other parts of Tennessee (Walraven n.d.);Brazelton.Roan County, Tennessee; in the Bell’s Bend area of the Cummberland River west of Nashville (Price 1950; and in Werner 1973:44-45).

Regarding the Graysville community, a recent researcher (Bible 1975:29) has observed: “The Graysville aggregate is probably one of the most stable of all Melungeon communities today.” This community is the subject of the present study. The purpose of this paper is not to perpetuate the popular myth of an exotic Melungeon race, but rather to provide an ethnographic description of the culture background and contemporary life of the Graysville Melungeons.The term “Melungeon” is used solely for the purpose of defining the study group and is not intended as a negitive reflection on the ethnic background of any member of the community. The data presented herein were obtained by the author durning an extended study of the community from November 1976 through August 1977, and are based on personal observations, 83 informal interviews with 36 residents of the community and surrounding areas, and a review of available documentary and published material.

Geographic Background

Graysville is a small semi-urban community similar to the hundreds of other country towns characteristic of the Appalachian area. As is often the case in the southern Appalachians, Graysville has no clearly defined boundary between the urban and the rural. There are no paved streets and there is no real busness district. Sprinkled haphazardly among the fading frame dwelling houses are two general purpose “grocery” stores, a TV repair shop, a small community library, a barber shop, three automotive repair shops, and one service station. The community has a school and eight Protestant churches—-four of which are Baptist. There is no local industry. The economy of the area is geared toward small scale farming, mining, and pulp-wood cutting, supplemented with sporadic industrial employment outside the area.

The community is located in the southern part of Rhea County, Tennessee approximately two miles north of Hamilton County line and one mile west of US Highway 27, rugged ridges, typical of eastern Tennessee Valley (Burchard 1913:16-17) surround the town. Lone Mountain in the north, and Black Oak Ridge to the east from two sides of a rough triangle in which Graysville is located. The third side of the triangle is formed by Walden’s Ridge on the west. The Cumberland escarpment, which forms the eastern edge of the ridge, is cut by many streams heading directly against the rim (Nelson1925:18). One of these, Roaring Creek, flows along the southwestern side of Graysville. The central portion of the community sprawls between the base of Walden’s Ridge on the west and the tracks of the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad to the east.

The town takes it’s name from William GRAY, one of it’s earliest and best known residents, who arrived there after the Civil War.The real beginning of the community was marked when by the comming of the railroad. It then experienced an influx of population from all directions. The post office was established in 1875 with William Gray as the postmaster. In 1884 Henry and William FOX organized the Fox Coal Company, which opened it;s mines in the side of Walden’s Ridge west of town. In addition to coal, a large deposit of tile clay was also mined from an adjoining range of hills and shipped to markets in other areas.A bank was organized and two hotels were established (c.f.Campbell 1940:78-79) In 1835 , an additional demand for coal was created in the area by the establishment the Dayton Coal and Iron Company a few miles to the north. Funded by European investors, the Dayton Coal and Iron operated 375 coke ovens in which coke was made from coal to fuel two large blast furnaces with an annual production capacity of 90,000 tons of foundry and forge pig iron (anonymous 1889:46). After 1900 the Fox Coal Company at Graysville was acquired and expanded by the Durham Coal and Iron Company, and a large coke oven complex was established near Roaring Creek. After an initial period of intense prosperity, the industrial development of Graysville entered a decline following World War 1 and was completely crushed by the economic depression of the 1930’s. Most of the mines were closed. The bank was consolidated with the Dayton Bank, the hotels were closed, and the people began to leave.The present population is less than one thousand persons.

Ethnically, with the exception of the Melungeons component, the community is largely composed of persons of Anglo-Scotch-Irish-descent who have lived in the area for at least three generations. There are no Blacks in the community, and most of the residents, including the Melungeons, tend to express strong racist attitudes in their conversation.

Social cleavage is along religious rather than ethnic lines in Graysville. In 1891, several families of Seventh Day Adventists settled in Graysville. A year later a religious academy was established by the group. A sanitarium was also set up and enjoyed a wide patronage. While these facilities were later moved to Collegedale in Hamilton County, Tennessee, many of the people remain in Graysville and still tend to hold themselves apart of the rest of the community.

The most common surname among the Graysville Melungeons is Goins, being prevalent that the Whites in the surrounding area call all the Graysville Melungeons “Goinses” rather than Melungeons. In fact, the term “Melungeons”is rarely used anywhere in lower East Tennessee.(c.f.Fort 1971) The Goins family are so well known in Rhea County that any dark skinned person, not reguarded as Black ,is said to look like a Goins. Researcher has demonstrated that Goins is also the most common surname found among many tri-racial groups other than Melungeons(Price 1951: 263 and 1953:150).

The name Goins seems to be a peculiar marker of these mixed-bloods. It has already been mentioned in connection with the Melungeons and certain strains in North Carolinas. It is prominent among the mixed-bloods of Darke Co. Ohio, and was associated with the Redbones in what is now Calcasieu Parish. It is a monor name among the Croatans and is the chief name among a mixed -blood group with a special school in Williamsburg County South, Carolina. Further, Goins is a unusual name; though many whites are named Goins, it occurred with much greater frequency among “free persons of Color” on 1830 than among the population at large in 1790 in six populous Southern and middle states..Over a hundred free colored families named Goins were well scattered in 1830 through the South and southern parts of the Northern border states. The two greatest concentrations occured in the Melungeon area and the North Carolina-Virginia Piedmont where so many are found today.

Dromgoole (1891:749) states that among the Hancock/Hawkins County Melungeons the “African branch” of ancestry was introduced by a man named Goins who entered the area shortly after the formation of the state of Tennessee. While she called him a “negro,” it is more likely that he was of mixed black/white ancestry and termed in the language of the day a “mulatto.” This contention is somewhat substantiated by early land records (Werner 1970: 60). Dromgoole indicates that the Goins mentioned came from North Carolina. Both North Carolina and Virginia had several mullatto’s named Goins (spelled Gowen and Goin), who were vetrans of the American Revolution, and it is possible that the individual in question came to Tennessee as the recipient of a land grant for his military service. Colonial records show three men named Gowen serving in a mullato militia unit in 1754, and land records from 1718 show Mihill Gowen as a property owner in James County, Virginia. The same unusual name, Mihill Gowen, was born by a colored servant who gained his freedom in 1657 (Price1953:151). Going back futher, we find the first person named Goins/Gowen is a Thomas Gowne, arriving in Virginia as a passenger on the “Globe” in 1635 (Hotten:1953:151). The spelling of the name suggests that Thomas probably was of Welch origin. Presumably he founded the Goins family in the new world by fathering children with a Black slave or bond servant.

Historical Backgound

Both local tradition and documentary sources agree that the Graysville Melungeons entered the community from Hamilton County, Tennessee sometime after 1880. Census reords show that prior to 1880 there were no perons with Melungeon surnames living in Rhea County (Price 1950:183). There were, however, such persons among the earliest non-Indian settlers in Hamilton County. In 1830, when Hamilton County reported less than 400 families total in the census records, there were four Goins(spelled Gowan, Gowin, or Goens) families present. Each of these families listed colored members (total of 13) and three of them also had white members (total of 6) The most prominent of these first Melungeon settlers in Hamilton County was David Goens, a veteran of the American Revolution. David Goens was born in Hanover County, Virginia. Durning the war he served in the company commanded by a captain Rodgers of Halifax County ,Virginia. After moving to Grainger Co. Tennessee. From Grainger County he moved to Hamilton County, Tennessee where he died in 1834. His younger brother, Laban Goen, came to Hamilton County with him (c.f.Armstrong1931:195-196).

The Hamilton County census of 1840 listed 13 “free Persons of Color” families as residents of the county,8 of which were named Gowin with a total of 53 persons. in 1850, there were 16 “Mullatto”families named Goins(spelled Goins, Gozen, or Gowens) Of this group two members were born in Virginia and one in North Carolina. The rest, some as old as 50, were born in Tennessee.

After the 1850 census the Melungeons in Hamilton County are no longer listed as “free persons of color” or “mullatoes.” A few were reguarded as Black but most were listed as white. Other Melungeon surnames present in the early records are Bolden, Bolin, or Bolton and Collins. Following 1880 there is a decrease in Melungeon names listed for Hamilton County,accompanied by the appearance of them on list from Rhea County (Price1950: 182-183).

With the exception of David and Leban Goens, there is no record of where the individual Melungeons who moved to Hamilton County originated. It is probable, however, that most of them came from the upper East Tennessee area where
Melungeons were numerous by the end of the eighteenth century. While unable to directly trace individuals, Price (1950: 190) has established that the Melungeons came into being around that time as one of several loose societies of marginal mixed bloods, with most of their members entering Tennessee from the Virginia-North Carolina Piedmont area.

There is no record that the early Melungeon settlers in Hamilton County formed a separate community or reguarded themselves as a distinct ethnic group. Many of them settled in the northern end of the county in the Sale Creek area, only about 5 miles from the present town of Graysville. Here there was some intermarriage with the HICKS and FIELDS families who were a European-Cherokee mixed blood group(Werner1973:39-41). Today Sale Creek has few families who call themselves “Black Cherokee” but are reguarded as Blacks by their White neighbors. The Graysville Melungeons emphatically deny any relationship with this group, but it is probable that such a relationship does, in fact, exist.

Some of the Hamilton County Melungeons seem to have been reported as Indians. A newspaper article, appearing in the Chattanooga Times, March 31, 1894, relates to a man names William Bowlin described in the sub-heading as a “half witted Melungeon” and in the text as a ” half witted Indian”. Further in the text he is reffered to as “belonging to that peculiar people called the Melungeons.”

Also in Chattanooga, in 1872, there was a widely publicized court case involving a Melungeon. The case involved a lawsuit challenging the inheritance of some property by a girl whose mother had been a Melungeon named Bolton. The contention was that the girl could not legally inherit the land due to the fact, as she was a Melungeon, her mother had been part Black and since interracial marriages were illegal in Tennessee, the girl was therefore illegitimate. Her attorney, S.L. Shepherd ,won the case by convincing the court that Melungeons have no Black ancestry, but are rather derived from ancient Carthaginians who come from North America by way of Portugal (Shepheard1915: 89-90;Rodgers 1936 and 1941; Mynder 1945).

The first Melungeon to settle in the Graysville Community was George Goins who has children still living in the area. He was born in Hamilton County around 1865. His wife, Cordie, was born in 1876. Her maiden name and place of birth are not known, but her children recall that she claimed to be Cherokee. The children of George and Cordie Goins, Alvin (also known as Albert) and Gracie Goins Patton are the oldest Melungeons living in the community today. Alvin was born in 1903 and his sister was born a few years earlier.

In Graysville, the Melungeons are fully accepted and participate fully in all phases of community life. When schools were segregated, their children attended White
schools without question. Intermarriage between Melungeon and White non-Melungeons individuals in the community is a common pattern.

A less tolerant attitude was reported by an earlier observer (Price 1950: 157-158), who states:

The Melungeons here are characterized by a single surname, GOINS, though several others have been aquired, apparently by intermarriage with the Goins. The group consists mostly of miners and farm laborers and form 30-40 percent of the population of the town.

These people are grouped under the general term “the Goins” and the better known term “Melungeon” is applied by the relatively few who link them with the broader group. Some of these people are distinctly dark in skin and claim to be Cherokee Indian ancestry; probably more appear White and belong to the sort of hereditary proletariat elsewhere described. The fringes of Graysville are frayed with small painted and unpainted houses and shacks which are occupied by this class of people.

The Graysville residents make it clear that the Goins people are shiftless and thriftless, slow and unambitious, but not objectionable. If they fight, they fight with each other; when they are put in jail, it is usually for drunkeness, never for serious social crimes. They form a rather docile laboring group, never making trouble or trying to push their own cause. This lack of interest, noticeable even in the children, irritates their teachers, and their lack to thrift, as usual, justifies those who would say “You can’t do anything to help people like that.”

Occasional families are found in Dayton or in other parts of the county. Their residence in Graysville goes back as far as anyone can remember. There is no obvious reason for this concentraction, though some of the Goins have given the local welfare office the report that they moved from Hamilton County because they were excluded from white schools there. Right to attend white schools in Rhea County is said to have been established in a lawsuit of the 1890’s when a Melungeon ancestry was shown not to be negro. Some have been employed on farms for a long time, and some of the older people remember certain Goinges as mountain-dwellers and expert hunters.

Additional observations on the Graysville community were made by Warner (1973:44-45) as follows:

Oral tradition in Rhea County holds that the Melungeons first came there because in Hamilton County they were classified as non-White and were not allowed to attend white schools. Another story, which may variation of this one, states that they came there, not from Hamilton County but from North Carolina and South Carolina, because they were not allowed to vote. The first of these stories is partly supported by the fact that the town of Graysville, which once had a very large Melungeon population (30-40 percent at the time of E.T. Price’s writing) is extremely close to the county line dividing Hamilton from Rhea County,as if the people had moved no farther than absolutely necessary. The dates,however, are inconsistent. If the Goins in Hamilton County ceased to be classified as non whitein 1850, that would not give them a reason to move to Rhea County shortly before 1880. A possible explanation is that the census classification did not conform to every day practice, or that Melungeons were present in Rhea County before 1850 but for some reason were not recorded in
the census.

The most resent researcher to comment on the community (Bible 1975:29-30):

Still others settled in Hamilton County, Tennessee, but mainly today have intermingled with the non Melungeon population to such extent that they can no longer be identified. A sizable number moved from there several generations ago to Graysville, a small village in Rhea County at the foot of Walden Ridge, reportedly because they did not want their children to go to school with negroes.

Largely Goinses sprinkled through with a few additional names from intermarriage, they are generally considered Melungeons, although they do not refer to themselves by the name. Usually they speak of their mixed Indian and white ancestry. Even though smaller than it formerly was, the Graysville aggregate is probably one of the most stable of all Melungeon communities today. While a number go from time to time to the North and East in search of better paying jobs in industry, quite a few have returned to Graysville to settle down when they reached retirement age.

Each of the above quoted writers included the comment on the Graysville Melungeons as a part of their broad study on Melungeons, or Triracial groups in general. While they briefly visited the community, they derived most of their data from non-Melungeon whites, many of whom were not residents of the community and whose personal contact with Melungeons was limited to social work, teaching, etc. This over-reliance on indirect sources has resulted in a few misconceptions which will be considered below.

While the Goins families, as noted by Price, do in fact make up the majority of the easily recognized Melungeons in the community, they do not have the single traditional Melungeon surname. In addition to the Goins families, well established Melungeon surnames gained through exogamous marriage include HAMBRICK, LEFFEW, PATTON, and HENDERSON.

Although Price and Bible appear to feel that the Graysville Melungeons are declining in numbers through migeration and assimilation, this is not altogether an accurate picture. While the community is affected by out-migration, largely for economicreasons, the numbers of people leaving are consistent with that found in any other Appalachian group. Furthermore, most of those who leave Graysville eventually return. Neither does the well established practice of exogamy diminish the population. If, for example, a Goins brother and sister each have children, the off-spring of both will be equally Melungeon even though her’s will have a non-Melungeon surname, while his retain the name Goins. This being the case, it is presently estimated that approximately two-thirds of the population of Graysville have some degree of Melungeon ancestry, or are related to the Melungeons through marriage.

The physical characteristics noted among the Graysville Melungeons vary greatly. While precise ethnic categorization is beyond the capabilities of the author, a few general observations may be noted. Based on appearance, it appears that the strongest genetic factor in the background of the Graysville Melungeons is northern European. About half of them have very fair skin, with light brown hair or blond hair. Some have blue eyes. This is particularly true of the younger members of the community. Some have dark skin, but no more so than many non-Melungeons who spend much of their time outdoors. There are a few with slight negroid features such as wide nose, thick lips, etc., and some who have a somewhat similar appearance to Cherokee-White mixed bloods. Two women in the community exhibit Cherokee-like features. As a general statement, however, it may be said that few of the Graysville Melungeons would be noticably different from residents of any Appalachian community.

The Graysville Melungeons apparently feel no special kinship with other Melungeon communities in the state. When asked directly if they had relatives in Hancock or Hawkins Counties most responded that they did not. One, however, did state that she had heard of “some people up thar with the same name as us,” Goins, but was unaware of the degree of relationship. None of the people in the surrounding area associate the Graysville Melungeons with any other older Melungeon communities.

Most of the Graysville Melungeons interviewed by the author, including those who are currently “on the welfare,” have performed exceedingly hard manual labor most of their lives. Furthermore, they ususally express a willingness to do so again if job opportunities with decent pay present themselves. those who are currently employed in regular jobs in instudtry have a remarkable record of low absenteeism. One man interviewed remarked he had worked at a particular manufactoring plant in Chattanooga for more than ten years without missing a single scheduled workday, and had been late for work only two times. This record is made even more remarkable by the fact that this man did not own a car and depended on” hitching a ride or walking” to make the daily round trip of sixty miles.

Regardless of their source of income, most Melungeons are unable to follow any form of savings program. Food is a major expense item. Food items purchased on a routine basis include such staples as flour, meal, diied beans of the pinto variety, chunks of pork fat called “sowbelly” or “fat back” processed animal fats called lard, potatoes, and commercially canned foods –ususally corn and beans. In season they grow numerous vegetables and melons for their own consumption and also supplement purchased foods with a variety of wild plants.

There are three other types of regulary purchased items which, while not food, are reguarded as essential by most Melungeons. These are tobacco, coffee, and alcoholic beverages.In the nineteenth century it was noted that they were addicated to “their filty habit of chewing tobacco” (Dromgoole 1891: 474) and a more recent writer (Yarborough 1972) quoted a melungeon woman as saying “We both chew tobacco. I do because I don’t what to smell his (her husband’s) breath.” Among the Melungeons the use of tobacco is almost universal. One one occasion, while visiting a family, the author was asked for a cigarette by a nine year old child. Both parents were present and assured me it was alright, adding that he had been smoking for two to three years. While the younger Melungeons smoke cigarettes, the older people prefer to take their tobacco orally. Powered tobacco called “snuff” is favored by most women, and is considered to be more refinded and “lady-like” Men usually use chewing tobacco which has been pressed into a compact, rectangular cake called a “plug”, or a few leaves of tobacco twisted together called a twist”. Most homes have an ash-filled containter for spitting location in the room where guests are recieved. It is also a common practice for individuals to carry a small tin can filled with ashes with them for the same purpose. It is a sure sign of social acceptance when a Melungeon man produces his “plug” or “Twist” and ask “Wud ye keer fer a chew?”

All Melungeons regardless of sex or age are fond of coffee. Dromgoole (1891: 476) observed that: “Coffee is quite common among the Melungeons, they drink it without sweetening, and drink ir cold at all hours of the day or night.” In Graysville is is still the case. Every home has a large coffee pot which is filled in the morning and kept on the stove all day. Neither cream or sugar is used.

Many earlier writters have stressed the Melungeons fondness for alcholic beverages (c.f.Dromgoole 1891:474; Ball 1975:68; Cole and Looney 1934:25; Peters 1970) and they are frequently described as being involved in the distilling or selling of illegal whiskey commonly refered to as “moonshine” (c.f.Hale and Merritt 1913:182; Dabney 1974:138-139; Price 1951:258; Ivey 1975:1-8). In the Graysville community the use of alchol has somewhat ambiguous position.On the other hand, most of the Melungeons are members of religious sects which strongly damn any use of alchol as a heinous “sin,” and the term “drunkard” or “sot” is considered hightly derogatory.

In the purchase of clothing the Melungeons patronize the lower priced discount stores that specialize in cheap material or factory seconds. The most common costume for a woman is a cotton print dress. The men prefer trousers made of denim material or bibed overalls with a brightly colored shirt. Woman and children frequently do not wear shoes, especially in their home areas durning summer.

Major electric items such as stoves, refrigerators, wash machines and television sets are usually used when purchased. Most Melungeons have learned to be fix-er-uppers.

For understandable reason few Melungeons have bank accounts and even fewer are eligible for conventional loans. Nevertheless, most have a charge account at the local store for groceries. On several occasions after becoming familiar with the community, the author was asked for the loan of a dollar er two. On each of these occasions a particular date was suggested for repayment and in every instance the loan was repaid.

Family Structure

Melungeon families, as have been observed in other areas, are commonly rather large. In Hancock County it has been said that Melungeons start having sexual relations as soon as they are old enough, regardless of blood kinship, marry at an early age, bring into the world as children as nature allowes, then in the end to die no better off than their parents who lived before them .

Melungeons are extremely fond of children and there is no such thing as an unwanted child among them. Many regard their children as their hope for security when they grow old. One Melungeon woman has been quoted as saying “I have 6 living children and I had ten mishaps….It don’t hurt me much anymore. Well, a body just has to have children and say nothin about it. Why I don’t care if I have that many more. If you have a lot of children when you get old you have somebody to take care of you.” (Cole and Looney 1934:22-23)

Relationships between extended family members and in-laws are friendly. A typical house-hold may contain the husband and wife with 5-6 children, the the husband’s mother; the wife’s younger sister with two illegitimate children, and one to two of the wife’s brothers who stay from time to time.

The Melungeon male is quick to announce that he is the “boss” of his household. He is customarily served first at meal times and frequently has a special chair which other family members relinguish when he is present.In most cases, however, when it comes to practical matters, it is the wife who primarily controls the family.

Melungeon children recieve little to no encouragement from their parents in reguard to their school work. The parents are functionally illiterate in many cases. Few homes subscribe to publications of any kind, and in most homes the only book will be the ever-present Bible, and it is reguarded more as a cult object than an example of literature. The young child is praised when he learns to count to one hundred and write his name, but beyond that the parents show little interest. This lack of interest in education is similar to that mentioned by other observers of mother Melungeon communities (c.f.Ball 1975:68; Dromgoole 1891:477).

Popular writers like to dwell on the gross sexual immorlity of the Melungeons. In a typical example, Cole and Looney (1934:24) state: “Euraka, the oldest daughter of Amos Gibson is pregrant. Her brother who is a year older than she is is supposely the father of the child.” Similar stories are told regarding some of the Graysville Melungeons by persons outside the community. However, none of the stories can be substantiated. A check with the county authorities in Dayton reveals the fact that in the past five years there have been five criminal prosecutions for incest in the county. None of these cases involved the Melungeons and none occured in Graysville.

There is, however, a somewhat casual attitude toward marriage on the part of some of the Melungeons, and illegitimate births are fairly common. In these incidents there is no social stigma attached to either the mother or child. As she grows older, it is customery for the neighbors of the woman with a illegitimate children to call her a “widow” without reguard to whether or not she has been previously married. In addition to the universal reason for extra-marital sex, the situation in Graysville is further complicated by the fact that in the past years many males were forced to spend a great deal of time outside the community for economic reasons. The great love Melungeon women have for children is another factor. Cole and Looney (1934:23) quote the neighbors of one such woman as saying “she never had no husband–she had to get her young’uns the best way she could.”

Transition to Oral Culture

VOCAL TRAITS…..The eariliest writer to publish personal observations on Melungeon speech (Dromgoole 1891:475) remarks that “they do not drawl like the mountaineers but, on the contrary, speak rapidly and talk a great deal.” She further added “the laugh of the Melungeon women is most exquisitely musical jingle, a perfect ripple of sweet sound”.

These traits are present, at least to a degree, in the Graysville Melungeons.There is considerable difference in vocal habits used by individual Melungeons– in particular those who have lived in other parts of the country. Most have a tendency to be somewhat laconic in the presence of strangers. However, when this natural reserve is broken down, or when the individual becomes excited or emotional, the speech becomes very rapid. The “musicial” quality of female laughter as noted by Dromgoole is also present among the Melungeons of Graysville Melungeons. It is, however, more usually found among the younger women. The laughter of some of the older ones could better be described as a harsh cackle.


In Melungeon folkspeech vowel substitution is common. This trait has been noted among the upper Tennessee Melungeons by a recent writer (Davis 1976:172) who observed:

They was always three in her vocabulary, and yonder was Yander. Potatoes was taters, and Maryland, where one of her daughters lives was Murland.

These, as well as numberous other examples of vowel substitution, are to be found among the Graysville Melungons. Thus far “Fer” or”Fur” , while fire becomes “far”. Had is pronounced “hed”; just becomes “jist”; itch becomes “eetch;” come is “cum;” iron is “arn;” whip is “whup;” brush is “brash;” etc.

When two vowels sound are joined in a single syllable to form what is called a diphthong, the Melungeons will usually drop one of the sounds all together. Thus pronouncing hair as “hear;” bear as “bar;” boil as “bile;” chair as “cheer;” etc.

While not as common as vowel substitution, consonant sounds are also frequently interchanged with others. For some reason the “th” sound is occasionally replaced with “f”. Thus, thunder becomes “funder;” teeth is teef;” three is “free;” etc.

The dialect of the Melungeon is a cross between that of the mountaineer and the negro–a corruption, perhaps of both. The letter R occupies but small space in their speech, and they have a pecular habit of omitting the last letter, sometimes the last syllable of their words. For instance “good night” is “goo night, “give” is “gi,” etc. Their dialect is exceedingly difficult to write, owning to their habit of curtailing their words.

In addition to this obmission of final sounds in words, the Graysville Melungeons are also prone to omitting the beginning sounds. For example despise is often pronounced “spise;” except becomes “cept;” examine becomes “zamine;” etc.

It should be emphasized that the above peculiarities in pronounciation are uniformally used by the Graysville Melungeons. In fact, most Melungeons are perfectly aware of the conventional pronounciation of any given word. It is possible to hear the same individual, at different times, pronounce the word “just” as “jest,” “jus.” “jist,” or correctly as “just.” There is an apparent unconcious attempt to modify one’s speech to conform to that of a particular listener, in much the same manner that an American-born child of Italian parents will speak correctly in English in school, mixed Italian and English slang in the streets, and broken English with many Italians words in the home.


The grammer of the Melungeon folks speech is especially rich in verbs. Many of these are created directly from nouns or adjectives. Thus, when a man is going hunting he will frequently announce that he is going “squirrelin’.” A girl who is developing promiscuous habits is said to be “mannin’,” and when a man puts away his money, he “pockets” it. When a man takes a woman to bed , it may be said that he has “bedded” her. Going to shop for food is called “marketin’.”

Many verbs taken on an unusual form in the past tense. Thus drank becomes “drunk;” stank is “stunk;” swam is “swum;” dropped is “drapt;” etc.

The use of double negatives or triple negatives are very common. When one is short of funds, he would say “I ain’t got no money.” A girl who is chaste is said to be one who “ain’t never done nothin’ yet.”


The claim has been made that the Melungeons speak with Elizabethian English (Ball 1975:70), and while this is an obvious exaggeration, there are numerous archaisms to be found in Melungeon speech. Some of these are recognizable as Elizabethian or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucertain words or terms. For example the pronound “hit” (it) dates English itself, being defined as early Anglo-Saxon neuter of “he” (Kephart 1976: 687). Other early English words include “ax” (ask) and “kag” (keg). A few additional words or expressions in everyday life of the Graysville Melungeons that were also used by Chaucer are “afore” (before), “atwixt” (between), “awar” (aware), “heap”(large quanity), “peart” (lively), and “stout” (strong).

The author encountered only two words in use among the Graysville Melungeons which are of non-English origin. Both of these words relate to foods. The first of these is “Kraut” which is German and applies to a concoction made from cabbage. The second one os “okra” which is the name of a vegetable and is of African in origin.

Some common words take on a different meaning when used by Melungeons, as “ruin” for injure, “sorry” for bad, “favor” for resemble, or “stump” for stumble. When a Melungeon asks to be “carried” somewhere, a ride in your car is what he desires.

Traditional Material Culture

Melungeons are a very practical people, and as such see no value in preserving traditional crafts when there is an easier way to obtain the desired results. The home making of clothing is an excellent example to make all of her clothing in the home. This was usually done entirely by hand with nothing but needle, thread, and scissors. It was necessary to purchase the cloth, since even among the oldest women now living there is no tradition for spinning and weaving. A favorable source of cloth was “flour sacks.” It seems that at that time a company which processed flour sold their products in bags made of brightly colored “print” material designed for the use of clothing.

In making the dresses, formal patterns were not used. The woman simply estimated the desired size as she cut the material and sewed it together. Then additional folds were adjusted and sewed to make it fit snugly. In addition to dresses for herself and her daughters, the woman frequently made shirts for the men of the family out of the same material. As sewing accessories, every woman kept a button-box and a cloth-box for future use. The larger cloth box contained discarded clothing, scraps left over from dress makingand any other bits and pieces that could be found. This also served the women as sources of rags to be used for towels, wash cloths, and sanitary napkins. In another respect of home crafts, the scraps from the cloth-box were also used to make quilt tops. The quilts did not have decorative designs or geometric patterns. Scraps of cloths of various sizes and colors were merely sewed together til a rectangular section big enough to cover the bed was achieved. This was the quilt top which was then placed over a plain cloth bottom, usually made by sewing plain white flour sacks together, with a layer of cotton between. This was then streched over a rectangular wooden frame held in place with wooden pins. The frame was commonly suspended by cords from hooks in the ceiling of the room. When she had time she would lower the frame and “quilt” it together by sewing through the three layers. When other duties demanded her attention, she would raise the frame and have it out of the way. Completion of the quilt usually took several weeks.

Traditional Substinence and Medical Patterns

One form of tradition culture still unchanged in the Graysville Melungeons is the family vegetable garden. Almost every family, even those in a highly urban setting, is able to find space somewhere for a garden in which they grow corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, cabbage, and other vegetables and fruits for home use. All the work is done by hand. A heavy digging implement called a “mattock” is used to break up the soil in preparation for planting. This is done in the late winter, ususally by the men of the family. Once the garden has been dug-up, most men leave the actual work of planting and harvesting to the women and children. Planting occurs in early spring and is dictated by the phases of the moon. During the growing season, hoes are used to remove grass and weeds from around the plants. If the garden is large, there will usually be a hoe for each member of the family. Some of the food grown in this matter is preserved for future use in glass jars, but most is consumed fresh as it is harvested. It is customary to schedule the plantings in such a manner as to have small amounts of each item becomming ready for use throughout the summer.

Another traditional activity centers around the collection of wild plants for food and medicial purposes. The food plants consists of several varieties of wild greens, berries, and nuts.Durning the summer the Melungeons gather blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, and huckleberries. In the fall, they gather wild grapes,(often called fox-grapes) hickory nuts and black walnuts. These foods, with the vegetables from the family garden, make up the bulk of the diet during four or five months of each year. Most of the wild plants are collected from the uninhabited slopes of Walden’s Ridge. Typically,each family has a particular area on the mountain to which they return year after year,sometimes for generations, to collect these foods. These areas are not secret, since most of the members of the community know where each family goes to gather. It is, however, considered a matter of ethics not to collect foods from an area known to be used by another family.

Medical plants are available for almost every complaint. They are used with as much regularity, and probably with about the same success, as are non-prescription drugs used in contemporary urban society. Most of the plants used produce a tea or tonic, but some are simply chewed in the natural state. Most babies are given a tea made from boiling catnip leaves as a general purpose tonic and to induce better sleep habits. Two infants ailments, called “thrash” and “hives,” are treated with teas made from ground ivy leaves and “wahoobark”, respectively. There is a wide variety of remedies for stomach trouble,including teas made from boiling ginseng roots, butterfly roots, or leaves of the goldenseal plant. Similar results are said to be obtained by simply chewing dogwood bark or the leaves of the wintergreen plant. Colds are treated with a tonic made from the boneset plant;and pneumonia is said to respond to tea made from elderberries. Cuts and burns are treated very effectively with a salve made by crushing the buds of the Balm of Gilead tree. Chewing pine bark relieves diarrhea, while peppermint leaves pervent vomiting and poplar bark gives one a better appetite. Sassafras bark is chewed to help “stomach trouble,” and the roots of the plant are boiled to produce a popular “blood tonic”. It is felt that the blood of a person becomes thick durning the winter due to cold weather. This in turn, produces a lazy, sluggish feeling in the spring. Drinking the “blood tonic” made from sassafrass root will thin the blood and return the patient to his or her former self.

References Cited

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