Mattie Ruth Johnson presentation, 2005

Ruth’s Four Branches

Presented by Mattie Ruth Johnson

When I first started researching my family history I did not know all the good and bad stories that were out there about us.

Since my ancestors were called Melungeons I became more interested in, what is a Melungeon? We were told as small children we were kin to the Melungeons. Who were they, and, where did they come from? That was my adventure. I wanted to know just who they all were.

As everyone knows by now they were, and are, in all walks of life, and descend from many nationalities here and abroad.

We know there is an English line, Irish, Scotch-Irish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and many different Indian Natives from this country. They weren’t all descendants of the Cherokee’s who descend from the Northern Iroquois Tribe. Die Indians weren’t all brown skinned like the movie westerns portray them.

A lot of these Native Americans married foreigners who were whiter than most Indians, and as the lines come on down became a whiter nation in the United States.
A lot of people will look at me and say, “You don’t look like a Melungeon”. They come in all different shades of color. Most of us have a Melungeon heritage, which to me is a connection to an American Native which seems to have been here before a majority of people showed up in the Carolina’s, Kentucky, and Tennessee from foreign countries.
A few generations back I see dark skinned ancestors with white wife or husband.

I definitely do know that some of my people were descendants of some Cherokees. I have a Gibson line Joseph “Fisher” Gibson who could only speak Cherokee, and his son Keener Gibson had to interpret for him. Keener spoke both English and Cherokee. By the time we get to my great great-grandfather, and my grandparents they all spoke English. My great grand mother here was a Massengill of English heritage, from England.

Another of my 4th generation grandfathers Solomon Collins was said to be highly esteemed and venerable patriarch Later stories surfaced that he crossed into Tennessee because he was afraid the chief would kill him. Don’t know what he did that was so wrong, but he married a Goins and had a large family, and he was referred to as a “thrifty farmer”, and honest. These two ancestral 4th “great-great-grandfathers were Cherokee according to affidavits filed by their grandchildren.

J.G. Rhea in his 80’s wrote a letter in 1918 to his niece Martha Collins that ran the bank in Sneedville, stating that Navarrah “Vardy” Collins was a fine Old Patriarch, said to be of Portuguese Notality (nationality), coming to this country with DeSoto.

He settled on Blackwater near Sneedville and owned Mineral Springs. He sold mineral water, and ran a boarding house, and founded a Church “Vardy Church” He said both Vardy and Solomon Collins were highly respected in their time and both had a fine set of children, and the boys were his churns when he was a young, boy. He goes on to name all the children of both families, stating he visited their homes often.

Vardy’s wife was Margaret Peggy Gibson. She was known as “Spanish Peggy”. There was an invasion of the French and Spanish in the Carolina’s in 1706. Peggy’s father was John Gibson and her grandfathers are said to be Spanish Pirates that came to Tennessee to escape the hangman’s noose. These people were dark skinned like Spaniards and spoke a broken English. There were Scotch-Irish settlers in the area at that time.

This area was first a Territory, then became Virginia, then North Carolina, and then Tennessee.

Then we have the Mullins lines that go back to James “Jim” Mullins, also known as “Hair Lip Jim, and Irish Jim”. Said to be English. One line of Gibson’s I have are from Court County Ireland.


There are many more branches. The Natives weren’t all Cherokee. Most of the men joined the wars of the state they lived in. They only wanted to make a living for themselves and their families.

So it was a big surprise when I read the stories that Dromgoole wrote to find out that the people she was writing about good or bad was some of my ancestors. No matter what she said about them be it good or bad I immediately loved, and understood all of them. I came to realize there is good and bad in all our earlier-settlers for they certainly had a different existence back then than we have had the past 100 years. Most of the Melungeons lived to a ripe old age back then.

Many had moonshine stills and this was one way they made a little extra money. Many fights and shootings occurred. They weren’t all bad though. They had large families. So many that a lot had the Christian name of one of their parents attached to their Christian name in order to designate which family they were from. Still today one of my great-grandmothers is known as Cora “Bum” Collins, named so after her father Morgan “Bum” Collins, so she was called “Cora Bum.”

A lot of the earlier groups weee called Colonies, Tribes, Ridgemanites, later clans.

Dromgoole stated that they married outside their clan. What did she expect? They certainly weren’t marrying each other. She stated the English began with the Mullins “Old Jim Mullins”, a trader with the Indians stumbled upon the ridge settlement, fell in with the Ridgemanites and never left. The Mullins became the head of the Ridge People. They were social, good natured and harmless.

When John Sevier was trying to organize the state of Franklin there was living in Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark skinned reddish brown-compexioned people supposed to be of Moorish descent they were listed as “Free Men of Color”. The earlier Cherokee ancestors of mine were listed as “free persons of color” and white. I feel like moonshine took it’s toll on a lot of them causing fights, and killings.

Dromgoole wrote a pretty bad story of the Melungeons she visited in May 1891, for she got mad at them for charging her the enormous fee of 15 cents a day board. She retracted her story in June 1891. So-in a month they turned from bad to pretty good people.

Some were very poor during those times, while others were pretty well off. All of them did not have mattresses and shoes. They had to go barefooted. They did not have buttons and bows. Those days were hard times for them.

Then came poor old Mahala – a daughter of old Solomon Collins that married one of the Mullins boys. She, like a lot of other Melungeons and people on the mountain had plenty of apple orchards to make moonshine. They sold what they could, and would fight to save their stills.

The story goes how she lived in one house that was on the line of Tennessee and Virginia. When law makers came to arrest her she just moved to the other side of the house. As time went on Mahala had medical problems, and grew so large she wasn’t able to go in and out of the house. She was estimated to be about 500 to 600 pounds.

The Hancock County sheriff sent his deputies to arrest Mahala for making moonshine, knowing good and well she was to big to get out of the house. ‘When the deputy filed his report it stated “she was catchable, but not fetchable”. There are stories of taking her to town before she became unable to get out the door. Her sons hitched two horses to a sled, put her on it, and headed down the ridge to town. Her body was,, so large it took up most of the sled.

Some day I would love to try and paint a picture of Aunt Mahala with a fancy dress, and hat with a blanket thrown across her legs WITH A BIG SMILE riding to town. It makes me laugh, she had such a spirit, then again it makes me sad. She is my third
great aunt x 2.

Around 1730-1740 a lot of these people migrated from North Carolina, and Virginia, coming to East Tennessee (Research by Jack Goins). The Melungeons were said to be the friendly Indians who came with the whites as they moved west. This was noted by Lewis M. Jarvis in 1829. Many old records establish their credibility after many years of being classified as anything else. They were classified as white in the 1840 Hancock county census.

People sometimes used the word Melungeon to discredit someone else. I think this is one reason a lot of people back then weren’t as proud of the name as we are today. Their identity has been diluted by generations of marriages with new coiners, and going to other towns to find jobs. This is the way it should be.

Most of the Melungeons lived off the land. They grew their own vegetables, fruits, raised chicken’s, hogs, and when their meat supply was low they went hunting for more. They did not just have small gardens. They had fields of everything, and had unique ways of preserving foods. They were good at drying and canning foods.

This really meant working year in and year out with the exception of Church and school days. The whole family would participate in the fanning, and chores. Things like feeding the animals, milking, churning butter, chopping cords of wood to last year in and year out.

They didn’t have access to plants, factories, or market places like we have today. The stores carried mostly grain, tools, farming supplies with a few commodities like salt, pepper, coffee, or sugar. We did have a dress shop that carried material. People did not have a lot of money to buy things with. Our mother taught us how to sew at a early age making skirts and blouses. Occasionally we got a ready-made dress. After fanners sold their tobacco crops near Christmas time we could afford to buy a few things. You took care of what you had, and learned to appreciate it.

There were ways of making do with everything. Can you imagine no electricity, no running water, or no refrigeration in the house!

Early ancestors’ ways have certainly passed. You carried water from a well or spring. Had coal oil lamps for light at night!, You cooked your meals the day you needed them!


Mattie Ruth Johnson with then-MHA president Wayne Winkler and Claire Winkler, holding a painting by “Aunt Mattie Ruth” – June 2004

Milk was placed in the edge of a spring, or dairy to keep from from spoiling. Dairies were where your can goods were stored and a handy place to take cover if there was an impending cyclone to your area. They are partially built under the edge of a hill partially under the earth. Nice cool place to make kraut. Back then we did not have plastic bags or push button items. We did have brown paper bags everyone called “Pokes”.

At one time doors weren’t locked. My grand mother Mullins said her family kept having cakes and pies disappearing from their screened in back porch till one day she came home and found a bear there eating them. She ran and got inside the toilet and stayed there until the rest of the family came in from the fields.

Melungeons are like everyone else. They came here and there to make a living, and that is what they have done. No matter which line we go up to, everyone has to go up to some line. Whether they are part of the Lost Colony, Lost tribe, Irish, Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, German, English, French or the many different Indians- it took all of them to make up this country.

In 1998 I went with Dr. Brent Kennedy and a crew of us to visit Turkey. There I met many people that look a lot like a lot of people here. They were some of the most gracious, and generous people I have ever met. We saw one of the 10 wonders of the world, saw where Christians hid out during Biblical times. We got to walk down the original marble stone road that Jesus’ disciples James, and John walked at Efes (Ephesians) from the Bible. As you may know Turkey was originally Asia Minor from the Bible. While sitting on a boat being taken down the Bosphorus some men started asking me questions. Their interpreter told me what they were saying. One man with a tear in his eye said “Please tell Americans that we are not barbaric like some of our neighbors accuse us of being”, “we are good people and we love Americans”. He was right. I told him I would. Little did I know that I was surrounded by doctors and lawyers, and other town officials. They treated us like royalty. Dr. Turan Yazgan and Turker Ozdogan were our leaders. We passed the Ottomon original homes where some of those people were with groups that came to America. Never did I dream that I would be riding down the Bosphorus to the edge of the Black Sea, with one side being Asia, and the other being Europe, and on out in front of us was the Ukraine, the Black Sea was on out in front of that, and that goes out into the Mediterranean Sea where people came this way coining to America.

Before we left we were taken to Cesme’s Melungeon Mountain. Our Melungeon mountain is a little higher, but the feeling you get there touches your heart. To know the waters below this area is where a lot of people there left coining to America, never to return to their homes. The families came here and had vigils waiting for their brothers, husbands, and sons to return, but they never came back. They were called “the lost souls, people of the damned.” The ones who made it to America became Americans.

Now on our little Melungeon mountain sometimes school fights would break out. One teacher denied using snuff which products were certainly not allowed. When confronted by my sister Nellie she flat out denied it, and while Nellie proceeded to get her purse to prove it, she got after her with a switch. At this point my brother Gale intervened. Nellie grabbed her purse, and threw it against the wall and out popped snuff everywhere. There was no denying this now. She had a whole class full of witnesses.

My sister Gene says I have given you a perfect profile of myself. Of course she was referring to me holding her over the little stream of water near our house. In the center area it was a little deeper, about 2 feet. She was forbidden to go there, just sit on the sides and play in the water since she would not adhere to the rule. I held her over the center where the sun shined through large trees with beautiful sun rays, and you could see the heavens. I told her she would fall that far and would fall forever and ever. After she started crying I stopped. Of course this was to protect her. She was only about 2 years old.

We knew from an early age that the Bible was DAD’S WORD.
If you did something you shouldn’t, and he had it in for you. He would say “I’m laying up to give you a good one, which usually never happened, but this would hang over your head. You better have a good back-up. I did! I worked twice as hard, and all I had to do was ASK HIM A QUESTION ABOUT THE BIBLE. I had his undivided attention, and he forgot the threat.

If the Melungeons weren’t the “Great Mixture” before, they certainly are now. People are finding their ancestors all over the country, not just in America.

Foreign people had it rough too. Coming to America and finding a friendly Native to marry gave them a freedom they did not have in some of those foreign countries. A lot of these people help make America. They came here legally and they worked

The memories of life on Newman’s Ridge will always be precious in my heart. All the people I knew, and my family. Pictures and memories of all of them that I have are places and times I don’t want to fade away.

Time becomes a memory, but your pictures will keep alive those things that are important to you.

The Melungeons have scattered through-out, and most of the older ones have passed on through this world. Take care to preserve your history, and family. The Melungeons have come back strong now.