by Bonnie Ball
|from Historical Society of Southwest Virginia Publication 2 – 1966, p. 47-52.
A generation ago census records of certain mountainous counties of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Carolina, and others proved somewhat confusing. This was due to the presence of a strange group of people whose origin was, and has remained, one of the deepest and most fascinating mysteries of American ethnology.
The “Melungeons” who were called “ramps” in certain areas by their neighbors, have characteristics that range from those of the whites and American Indians to Orientals or Negroes. This variation prevented a definite race classification, and has also given rise to numerous theories concerning their origin.
Some had dark, oily skin, kinky hair, upturned noses and dark stoic eyes. Others, even in the same family had coarse bronzed skin, with straight black hair. Still others, close relatives, differed little from their white neighbors, perhaps having brown or light, fuzzy hair, fair or medium skin, and dark blue or gray eyes. Then there were others among them that had smooth, yellowish skin, curly brown or black hair, and dreamy, almost Oriental eyes.
It would be impossible to make any accurate estimate of how many such people were scattered throughout the mountains of the Southern Appalachians, but it can be assumed that their number fifty years ago would have run into at least five digits.
According to Bruce Crawford, a former newspaperman, and leading student of ethnology of the Appalachian area, the Melungeons were officially recognized about 1887 and given a separate legal existence under the title of “Croatan Indians” on the theory of their descent from Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke Island (North Carolina), a convenient means of disposal, but hardly satisfying to the inquisitive historian.
The older Melungeons insisted that they were Portuguese. I have known the Melungeons from childhood, when three families lived as tenants on my father’s farm in Southwestern Virginia. Their children have been my pupils, and I have done first-hand research on their traits, customs, and past, but can give here only the proposed theories of their origin.
Mr. Crawford’s research revealed that when John Sevier organized the state of Franklin (Tennessee) there was a colony of “dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people supposed to be of Moorish descent.” They were neither Indians nor Negroes, but claimed to be Portuguese.
There is a doubtful theory that the Melungeon was a product of frontier warfare when white blood was fused with the Indian captor’s and that of the Negro slave.
There also persist stories (that are recorded in history) that DeSoto visited Southwestern Virginia in the sixteenth century by way of a long chain of mountain leading into Tennessee. One ridge known as “Newman’s Ridge” (which could have been “New Man’s Ridge”) was once the home of a teeming colony of Melungeons who were strongly believed to have descended from members of DeSoto’s party lost or captured there.
In both Carolinas Melungeons were denied privileges usually granted to white people. For that reason many migrated to Tennessee where the courts ruled that they were not Negroes.
Traditions still persist that the Melungeons were descendants of the ancient Phoenicians who migrated from Carthage to Morocco, whenced they crossed the Atlantic before the American Revolution and settled in North Carolina. If this theory can be accepted, they were pure Carthaginians, and not a mixed race.
In weighing this last statement it is interesting to note that the Moors of Tennessee called themselves Portuguese, that the Moors of North Carolina came from Portugal, and that a generation ago the Melungeons called themselves Portuguese.
Yet there are factors that are puzzling in these assumptions. Such common surnames among them as Collins, Gipson (Gibson), Sexton, Bolen, Goins, and Mullens suggest no Phoenician background. And there is nothing about the word “ramp” to suggest a shy, usually inoffensive race of people. Neither is there any known reason for usage of the word “Melungeon” which is believed to have been derived from the French word “melange,” meaning mixture.
The Melungeons were sometimes shy and reticent toward outlanders, but amiable with neighbors. They were loyal to their kin and employers. While they were fond of whiskey few were boisterous or malicious. I recall a story often told by my father, who was reared only a few miles from Newman’s Ridge, about “Big Mahala Mullens” who lived on the Virginia-Tennessee state line. She grew so obese that she was unable to leave her house, and sat at the door all day selling whiskey to travelers. When she discovered the approach of revenue officials she waddled over to the Virginia side of her house if they approached from the Tennessee side, and vice versa if from Virginia. The act was probably unnecessary, since the authorities could not have removed her from the house. When Mahala died the chimney was torn away in order that she could be removed for burial.
Practically all Melungeons preferred a care-free existence with members of their own clan. For many generations they seldom married outsiders, and virtually all families in each area were related. Nearly all Melungeons, young and old chewed tobacco. They lived largely on bacon, corn pone, mush, and strong coffee. In early spring they gathered “crow’s foot” from the woodlands, and “bear’s lettuce” from spring branches, and ate them raw with salt. They liked wild fruits and berries to eat from the bush, but cared nothing for canning and preserving them. The holiday for Melungeon men was a week in late summer, after the crops were laid by, to be used for a ginseng expedition. No camping equipment was taken along except a water pail, knives, and a frying pan. They slept under the cliffs.
No fisherman could compete with the Melungeons. He simply waded into the stream, shoes and all, and searched with his fingers for fish hiding under stones. It no time he emerged with a nice string of fish.
Theirs was a hardy race, and seldom did they rely on a doctor. They applied many home remedies for injuries and brewed herb teas. Childbirth was a casual matter, usually attended by mountain midwife. Babies, as a rule, grew and thrived without any pretense of comfort or sanitation.
Their religion was of the simple Protestant type. They often attended their neighbors’ churches, and occasionally had a patriarch-preacher in their group. They learned some of the old ballads and gospel songs from memory, for few of them could read or write. They accepted attendance at school, in most cases, an “unnecessary evil.” Church picnics were always attended by Melungeon boys, but my mother once had a difficult time persuading young Willie that he must have a bath and wear a suit in order to participate in a children’s day program. So he appeared, grinning broadly, in my brother’s hand-me-down.
Then came industry to the Appalachians – coal, timbering, and railroads. The change was slow. World War I drew Melungeons into industry as well as military service. Coal towns grew up rapidly, and the Melungeon, like other tenant farmers, loaded up his few belongings on a wagon and headed for the “public works.” A few remained behind and bought little hillside farms. For some reason their number appears to have decreased sharply in the past three decades, probably a result of long intermarriage, or perhaps many have been lost in white blood. Soon they may become just a legend – a lost race.
Ohio Valley Folk Research Project. Publications released in 1960 as of June 15, 1960. (1) “Sage’s Purple Passon” by Ben Hayes, New Series No. 37 (2) “Hair Balls and the Witch” by Melissa Hughes, New Series No. 38 (3) “Uncle Remus in Syracuse” by Lawrence S. Thompson, New Series No. 39 (4) “Hewitt, the Hermit” by James Emmitt, New Series No. 40 (5) “Tobacco Folklore” by Lawrence S. Thompson, New Series, No. 41 (6) “Ox, Capon and the Hare” by Yancy Yadkin, New Series, No. 42 (7) “Hugh Mosher, the Fifer” by Robert L. Walden, New Series, No. 43 (8) “Control of Grasshoppers” by Raymond Embree, New Series, No. 44 (9) “The Lost Silver Mine” by Dr. Carl R. Bogardus, New Series No. 45 (10) “Hog Drive to Evansville, 1879” by Elmer S. Elliott, New Series No. 46 (11) “Johnny Appleseed” by Rosella Rice, New Series, No. 47 (12) “Squirrel Broth” by Merrill C. Gilfillan, New Series, No. 48; (13) “The Undertaker’s Revenge,” by Jean Dow, New Series, No. 49 (14) “The Jackson County Madstones” by Dr. Gwyn Parry, New Series No. 50. (15) “The Feast of Rosea” by Adlyn Keffer, New Series, No. 51 (16) “Song, Legend of PA and WV” by Keysner and Whiting, New Series, No. 52 (17) “Lazy Tom” by Ellen Margolis, New Series No. 53 (18) “The Story of Nelson T. Gant” by Norris F. Schneider, New Series, No