The Melungeon Mystery: The Making of Myth?
|from The Tennessee Alumnus/ Summer 1977 Vol. 57/ number 3/ Summer 1977
By Pam Vallett
“…shiftless, idle, thieving, and defiant of law, distillers of brandy almost to a man…they are not at all like the Tennessee mountaineer either in appearance or characteristics….Their complexion is a reddish brown, totally unlike the mulatto. The men are very tall and straight, with small, sharp eyes, high cheek bones, and straight black hair, worn rather long. The women are small, below the average height, coal black hair and eyes, high cheek bones, and the same red-brown complexion.”
Will Allen Dromgoole, 1891
A sociology professor at the University of Tennessee at Nashville says that the Melungeons of East Tennessee, a people thought for many years to possess unique racial and cultural characteristics, may not be so unique after all.
“People have been asking the wrong question all along,” said C. McCurdy Lipsey, associate professor of sociology at UTN. “Instead of asking, ‘Who are these strange people and where do they come from?’ they should be asking, ‘Are these really a strange people? Do they, in fact, possess unique racial and cultural characteristics?'”
“According to my interpretation of the evidence, they are not and do not.”
Lipsey says the term Melungeon became a derogatory label for all the people who lived on Hancock County’s Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater Valley, and that the basis for the myth which now surrounds them can be traced to the period between 1889 and 1891 when a wealth of material was published about the Melungeons.
“The single most damaging article from among this proliferation of misinformation, and the one most commonly referred to by other writers in the perpetuation of the myth about the Melungeons, was written by a young Tennessee literary figure by the name of Will Allen Dromgoole,” he says.
“Published in The Arena in 1891, it asserted that the records of the constitutional convention of 1834 show that John A. McKinney, a delegate to that convention, used the term Melungeon to refer to free persons of color. In checking the journal of the constitutional convention of 1834, I found the McKinney quotation, but the term Melungeon was not mentioned.”
|Practically all subsequent articles, with few notable exceptions, adopted the assumptions of these early articles, Lipsey said. “It is in this manner that the myth of the Melungeons has been perpetuated. Nobody has conducted a thorough investigation. Researchers only go as far back as the articles published between 1889 and 1891 and stop there.
“Information contained in Dromgoole’s article to support the claim that the Melungeons are a unique racial group can be used to show just the opposite. If the Melungeons had been designated as free persons of color at the constitutional convention of 1834, then, according to the Southern custom which did not permit Negroes to participate as citizens, they would not have been able to own or buy land, receive land grants from the state of Tennessee, or conduct other legal business. While it’s true that some of the people on Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater valley were refused these rights, public records show that by no means were all of them refused.”
In a forthcoming article, Lipsey turns to the history and settlement patterns of the Eastern United States to further support his alternative theory to the existing Melungeon belief. He maintains that by the nineteenth century, there had already been over 300 years of American history which included lost colonies and mixed groups. “The eastern seaboard and the western frontier – that is, Kentucky and Tennessee – provided fertile ground out of which grew romantic stories and ballads, legends, and myths,” explained Lipsey. “Not surprisingly, when Will Allen Dromgoole ‘found’ the Melungeons on Newman’s Ridge, the available and handy myths were tested for their ‘fit’ and the speculators were off and running. What you had, in essence, were legends waiting for groups to explain.”
|Lipsey also said that it was not unusual during the nineteenth century for groups of outcast Indians and “half-breeds” to attach themselves to migrating groups of English, Scotch, and Germans and to take their surnames.
“Evidence reveals that this was the case of the people who came to settle on Newman’s Ridge. L.M. Jarvis, a long time resident of Hancock County, maintained that the term ‘Melungeon’ was coined in derision during the 1800s and given the Indians on account of their color.”
“Lipsey said other evidence supports his theory. “The reputable History of East Tennessee by Goodspeed, which was published in 1887, before the Dromgoole articles, does not mention the existence of a race of people called the Melungeons, although the author does refer to people with a mixture of white and Indian blood living on Newman’s Ridge.”
Dr. Lipsey first became interested in the Melungeons when he was living in Kingsport during the 1960s.
“I had read an article in the local paper which told about this strange-looking group of people with peculiar habits who lived 75 miles further west in Hancock County.
“Interestingly enough, it subsequently became necessary for me to make monthly trips to Vardy, which is at the foot of Newman’s Ridge in Blackwater Valley. I went there expecting to find a strange- looking, strange-acting group of people. What I found was a people who were, in appearance, general Anglo-Saxon types, the majority being of Scotch and Irish descent.
“This aroused my curiosity. Where had all the information about the Melungeons come from? Why had something so obviously not true – as evidenced by the appearance of the people in and around Vardy – been allowed to be perpetuated?”
|In 1971, Dr. Lipsey was a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. With encouragement and support from the late Dr. Norbert Reidl of the anthropology department, he decided to undertake the study of the Melungeons. He conducted interviews with folklorists, attorneys, historians, other authors who have written on the subject, and people in Hancock County.
“Interviews with persons who are of Melungeon-designated families have been almost impossible to obtain because of the intense resentment to the implications of the term,” said Lipsey. “I have talked with long-time residents of the county about the Melungeons, including the mayor of the county seat in Sneedville, public school teachers and local historians.
“My most significant contact is Bill Grohse, who has lived in Vardy since 1930. Interestingly enough, he fits the description of a Melungeon better than most of the residents of the Ridge. Unfortunately for the proponents of the Melungeon myth, he was born and raised in New York City.
“Bill Grohse has collected a fantastic amount of material on families of Newman’s Ridge which he has shared with me. He has researched court records, conducted library research and done a number of genealogical analyses. The information he has uncovered also supports the theory that the history of the Melungeons is a myth.
“In fact, he married a woman from a Melungeon-designated family whose maiden name was Mizer. He has traced her genealogy back to Germany through Virginia. This has been the case in other genealogical analyses he has conducted. Evidence such as this certainly doesn’t support the theory of a unique racial group.”
In addition to conducting numerous interviews to collect information on the Melungeons, Lipsey has compiled an extensive bibliography. “Compiling a comprehensive bibliography has been no small task,” said Lipsay. “It has required long hours in archives and extensive correspondence with libraries throughout the United States. Much time has been spent reading nineteenth-century newspapers which, whether on my subject or others, are fascinating to read.”
Future research of the Melungeons will include a more thorough investigation into cultural indicators such as architectural structures. Dr. Lipsey thinks such indicators will be the same for both the Ridge and the rest of Appalachia rather than different, which they would need to be to support the present theory of the Melungeons being a unique cultural group.
Seeks Origins of Word
|Additional research will need to be done on the term “Melungeon” itself. There are several theories as to its origin and meaning. “I am suggesting the possibility that the term was derived from the Middle English term ‘mal engine’ which meant deceitful, tricky, treacherous, wicked. It may have been a generally derogatory term used in reference to persons or groups who were threatening or who were considered wicked or evil.
“The term could easily have made the transition from adjective (a malengine person) to noun (a malengine), especially if applied to readily identifiable persons or groups which, in turn, could provide racial overtones to the word.” A third area of study involves a more thorough investigation of the account by Louis Shepherd of a trial which took place in Chattanooga in 1872.
“In his memoirs, Judge Shepherd recounts the details of an 1872 trial in which he successfully defended a young woman’s right to inherit property with the argument that she was of Melungeon ancestry, not Negro, and that the Melungeons were descendants of the Moors. Further research is needed on this topic in order to clear up many unanswered questions.”
The last phase of Dr. Lipsey’s research will be to publish a book on the myths which have evolved in the east Tennessee area. His research has been partially supported by a grant received during the past year from the UT National Alumni Association. He presented his findings to the Southern Sociology Society in April.
“I am writing a short article for publication in the near future,” said Lipsey. “I don’t think there is any evidence to support the myth that the Melungeons constitute a unique racial group or a unique cultural group. I hope to be able to set the record straight and clear up eighty-seven years of misconception