Author Archives: mha

Lewis M. Jarvis article from Hancock County Times, 1903

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Lewis Jarvis article

As transcribed by William Grohse, historian of Hancock County, Tennessee

from the Hancock County Times
Sneedville, Tennessee, 17 April 1903

Much has been said and written about the inhabitants of Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater in Hancock County, Tenn. They have been derisively dubbed with the name “Melungeons” by the local white people who have lived here with them. It is not a traditional name or tribe of Indians.

Some have said these people were here when the white people first explored this country. Others say they are a lost tribe of the Indians having no date of their existence here, traditionally or otherwise.

All of this however, is erroneous and cannot be sustained. These people, not any of them were here at the time the first white hunting party came from Virginia and North Carolina in the year 1761– the noted Daniel Boone was at the head of one of these hunting parties and went on through Cumberland Gap. Wallen was at the head of another hunting party from Cumberland County, Virginia and called the river beyond North Cumberland Wallen’s Ridge and Wallen’s Creek for himself. In fact these hunting parties gave all the historic names to the mountain ridges and valleys and streams and these names are now historical names.

Wallen pitched his first camp on Wallen’s creek near Hunter’s Gap in Powell’s mountain, now Lee County, Virginia. Here they found the name of Ambrose Powell carved in the bark of a beech tree; from this name they named the mountain, river and valley for Powell, Newman’s Ridge was named for a man of the party called Newman. Clinch River and Clinch valley–these names came at the expense of an Irish man of the party in crossing the Clinch River, he fill off the raft they were crossing on and cried aloud for his companions to “Clench me”, “clench me”, and from this incident the name has become a historic name.

About the time the first white settlement west of the Blue Ridge was made at Watauga River in Carter County, Tennessee, another white party was then working the lead mines in part of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge. In the year 1762 these hunters turned, coming through Elk Garden, now Russell County, Virginia. They then headed down a valley north of Clinch River and named it Hunter’s Valley and buy this name it goes today. These hunters pitched their tent near Hunter’s gap in Powell’s Mountain, nineteen mile from Rogersville, Tenn. on the Jonesville, Va. road. Some of the party of hunter went on down the country to where Sneedville, Hancock County, now stands and hunted there during that season.

Bear were plentiful here and they killed many, their clothing became greasy and near the camp was a projecting rock on which they would lie down and drink and the rock became very greasy and they called it Greasy Rock and named the creek Greasy Rock Creek, a name by which it has ever since been known and called since, and here is the very place where these Melungeons settled, long after this, on Newman’s ridge and Blackwater.

Vardy Collins, Shepherd Gibson, Benjamin Collins, Solomon Collins, Paul Bunch and the Goodmans, chiefs and the rest of them settled here about the year 1804, possibly about the year 1795, but all these men above named, who are called Melungeons, obtained land grants and muniments of title to the land they settled on and they were the friendly Indians who came with the whites as they moved west. They came from the Cumberland County and New River, Va., stopping at various points west of the Blue Ridge. Some of them stopped on Stony Creek, Scott County, and Virginia, where Stony Creek runs into Clinch river.

The white emigrants with the friendly Indians erected a fort on the bank of the river and called it Fort Blackmore and here yet many of these friendly “Indians” live in the mountains of Stony Creek, but they have married among the whites until the race has almost become extinct. A few of the half-bloods may be found – none darker – but they still retain the name of Collins and Gibson, &c. From here they came to Newman’s ridge and Blackwater and many of them are here yet; but the amalgamations of the whites and Indians has about washed the red tawny from their appearance, the white faces predominating, so now you scarcely find one of the original Indians; a few half-bloods and quarter-bloods-balance white or past the third generation.

The old pure blood were finer featured, straight and erect in form, more so than the whites and when mixed with whites made beautiful women and the men very fair looking men. These Indians came to Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater. Some of them went into the War of 1812-1914 whose names are here given; James Collins, John Bolin and Mike Bolin and some others not remembered; those were quite full blooded. These were like the white people; there were good and bad among them, but the great majority were upright, good citizens and accumulated good property and many of them are among our best property owners and as good as Hancock county, Tenn. affords. Their word is their bond and most of them that ever came to Hancock county, Tennessee, then Hawkins County and Claiborne, are well remembered by some of the present generation here and now and they have left records to show these facts.

They all came here simultaneously with the whites from the State of Virginia, between the years 1795 and 1812 and about this there is no mistake, except in the dates these Indians came here from Stoney Creek.

Notes from William Grohse

L. M. Jarvis – Honorable Lewis M. Jarvis the leading lawyer of Sneedville was born in Scott County, Va. October 26, 1829. He was the son of Daniel Jarvis (born 3/15/1799) and Mary Jarvis, nee Mary Collins, of English and Irish descent. Daniel was born in Giles County, Va. His wife Mary was born in Botecourt County, Va. They were married in 1813. Daniel Jarvis died near Sneedville July 29, 1885.

“The Melungens,” Littel’s Living Age article, 1849

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The Melungens

Note: Littel’s Living Age was a popular magazine of the early nineteenth century that reprinted articles from other publications for national distribution. This article may have been published in Louisville, Kentucky, as early as 1847. It appeared as an unsigned article in the Knoxville Register of September 6, 1848, and was published in Living Age in March 1849. Thanks to Bill Fields and Under One Sky for this copy.

We give to-day another amusing and characteristic sketch from a letter of our intelligent and sprightly correspondent, sojourning at present in one of the seldom-visited nooks hid away in our mountains.

“You must know that within ten miles of this owl’s nest, there is a watering-place, known hereabouts as ‘Black-water Springs.’ It is situated in a narrow gorge, scarcely half a mile wide, between Powell’s Mountain and the Copper Ridge, and is, as you may suppose, almost inaccessible. A hundred men could defend the pass against even a Xerxian army. Now this gorge and the tops and sides of the adjoining mountains are inhabited by a singular species of the human animal called MELUNGENS.

The legend of their history, which they carefully preserve, is this. A great many years ago, these mountains were settled by a society of Portuguese Adventurers, men and women–who came from the long-shore parts of Virginia, that they might be freed from the restraints and drawbacks imposed on them by any form of government. These people made themselves friendly with the Indians and freed, as they were from every kind of social government, they uprooted all conventional forms of society and lived in a delightful Utopia of their own creation, trampling on the marriage relation, despising all forms of religion, and subsisting upon corn (the only possible product of the soil) and wild game of the woods. These intermixed with the Indians, and subsequently their descendants (after the advances of the whites into this part of the state) with the negros and the whites, thus forming the present race of Melungens. They are tall, straight, well- formed people, of a dark copper color, with Circassian features, but wooly heads and other similar appendages of our negro. They are privileged voters in the state in which they live and thus, you will perceive, are accredited citizens of the commonwealth. They are brave, but quarrelsome; and are hospitable and generous to strangers. They have no preachers among them and are almost without any knowledge of a Supreme Being. They are married by the established forms, but husband and wife separate at pleasure, without meeting any reproach or disgrace from their friends. They are remarkably unchaste, and want of chastity on the part of females is no bar to their marrying. They have but little association with their neighbors, carefully preserving their race, or class, or whatever you may call it: and are in every respect, save they are under the state government, a separate and distinct people.

Now this is no traveler’s story. They are really what I tell you, without abating or setting down in aught in malice. They are behind their neighbors in the arts. They use oxen instead of horses in their agricultural attempts, and their implements of husbandry are chiefly made by themselves of wood. They are, without exception, poor and ignorant, but apparently happy.

Having thus given you a correct geographical and scientific history of the people, I will proceed with my own adventures.

The doctor was, as usual my compagnon de voyage, and we stopped at ‘Old Vardy’s’, the hostelrie of the vicinage. Old Vardy is the ‘chief cook and bottle-washer’ of the Melungens, and is really a very clever fellow: but his hotel savors strongly of that peculiar perfume that one may find in the sleeping-rooms of our negro servants, especially on a close, warm, summer evening. We arrived at Vardy’s in time for supper, and thus despatched, we went to the spring, where were assembled several rude log huts, and a small sprinkling of ‘the natives, together with a fiddle and other preparations for a dance. Shoes, stockings, and coats were unknown luxuries among them–at least we saw them not.

The dance was engaged in with right hearty good will, and would have put to the blush the tame steppings of our beaux. Among the participants was a very tall, raw-boned damsel, with her two garments fluttering readily in the amorous night breeze, who’s black eyes were lit up with an unusual fire, either from the repeated visits to the nearest hut, behind the door of which was placed an open-mouthed stone jar of new-made corn whiskey, and in which was a gourd, with a ‘deuce a bit’ of sugar at all, and no water near than the spring. Nearest here on the right was a lank lantern-jawed, high cheekbone, long-legged fellow who seemed similarly elevated. Now these two, Jord Bilson (that was he,) and Syl Varmin, (that was she,)were destined to afford the amusement of the evening: for Jord, in cutting the pigeon-wing, chanced to light from one of his aerial flights right upon the ponderous pedal appendage of Syl, a compliment which this amiable lady seemed in no way to accept kindly.

‘Jord Bilson,’ said the tender Syl, ‘I’ll thank you to keep your darned hoofs off my feet.’

‘Oh, Jord’s feet are so tarnel big he can’t manage ’em all by hisself.’ suggested some pasificator near by.

‘He’ll have to keep ’em off me,’ suggested Syl, ‘or I’ll shorten ’em for him.’

‘Now look ye here, Syl Varmin, ‘ answered Jord, somewhat nettled at both remarks, ‘I didn’t go to tread on your feet but I don’t want you to be cutting up any rusties about. You’re nothing but a cross-grained critter, anyhow.’

‘And you’re a darned Melungen.’

‘Well, if I am, I ain’t nigger-Melungen, anyhow–I’m Indian-Melungen, and that’s more ‘an you is.’

‘See here, Jord,’ said Syl, now highly nettled, ‘I’ll give you a dollar ef you’ll go out on the grass and right it out.’

Jord smiled faintly and demurred, adding–‘Go home Syl, and look under your puncheons and see if you can’t fill a bed outen the hair of them hogs you stole from Vardy.’

‘And you go to Sow’s cave, Jord Bilson, ef it comes to that, and see how many shucks you got offen that corn you took from Pete Joemen. Will you take the dollar?’

Jord now seemed about to consent, and Syl reduced the premium by one half, and finally came down to a quarter, and then Jord began to offer a quarter, a half, and finally a dollar: but Syl’s prudence equalled his, and seeing that neither was likely to accept, we returned to our hotel, and were informed by old Vardy that the sight we had witnessed was no ‘onusual one. The boys and gals was jist having a little fun.’

And so it proved, for about midnight we were wakened by a loud noise of contending parties in fierce combat, and, rising and looking out from the chinks of our hut, we saw the whole party engaged in a grand me lee; rising above the din of all which, was the harsh voice of Syl Varmin, calling–

‘Stand back here, Sal Frazar, and let me do the rest of the beaten of Jord Bilson; I haint forgot his hoofs yit.’

The melee closed, and we retired again, and by breakfast next morning all hands were reconciled, and the stone jar replenished out of the mutual pocket, and peace ruled where so lately all had been recriminations and blows.

After breakfast, just as the supper had been at old Jack’s, save only that we had a table, we started for Clinch river for a day’s fishing where other and yet more amusing incidents awaited us. But as I have dwelt upon this early part of the journey longer than I intended, you must wait till the next letter for the concluding incidents.”

“The So-Called Moors of Delaware,” 1895 article

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The So-Called Moors of Delaware

by George P. Fisher

Milford Herald, 15 June 1895

Reprinted by the Public Archives Commission of Delaware, 1929

When I was a boy and young man, the general impression prevailing in the several parts of this State where this race of people had settled was that they had sprung from some Spanish Moors who, by chance, had drifted from the southern coast of Spain prior to the Revolutionary War and settled at various points on the Atlantic Coast of the British colonies; but exactly where and when, nobody could tell.

This story of their genesis seemed to have originated with, or at any rate, was adopted by the last Chief Justice, Thomas Clayton, whose great learning and research gave semblance of authority to it, and, like almost everybody else, I accepted it as the true one for many years, although my father, who was born and reared in that portion of Sussex County where these people were more numerous than in any other part of the State, always insisted that they were an admixture of Indian, negro and white man, and gave his reason therefore–that he had always so understood from Noke Norwood, whom I knew when I was a small boy. Noke lived, away back in the 20’s, in a small shanty long since removed, situated near what has been known for more than a century as Sand Tavern Lane, on the West side of the Public Road and nearly in front of the farmhouse now owned by Hon. Jonathan S. Willis, our able and popular Representative in Congress.

I well remember with what awe I contemplated his gigantic form when I first beheld him. My father had known him as a boy, and I never passed his cabin without stopping. He was a dark, copper-colored man, about six feet and half in height, of splendid proportions, perfectly straight, coal black hair (though at least 75 years old), black eyes and high cheek bones.

When I became Attorney General of the State it fell to my lot to investigate the pedigree of this strange people, among whom was Norwood. At that day Norwood was held in great reverence as being one of the oldest of his race. This I learned from my father, who knew him for many years, when they both lived in the neighborhood of Lewes, in Sussex County.

I have spoken of this race as a strange people, because I have known some families among them all of whose children possessed the features, hair and eyes of the pure Caucasian, while in other families the children would all be exceedingly swarthy in complexion but with perfectly straight black hair, and occasionally a family whose children ranged through nearly the entire racial gamut, from the perfect blond to at least a quadroon mulatto, and quite a number who possessed all the appearance of a red-haired, freckle-faced Hibernian.

My investigation of their genealogy came about in the trial of Levin Sockum, one of the race, upon an indictment found by the grand jury of Sussex County, against him, for selling ammunition to Isaiah Harmon, one of the same race, who was alleged in the indictment to be a free mulatto.

The indictment was framed under the 9th Section of Chapter 52, of the Revised Statutes of the State of Delaware, Edition of 1852, page 145, which reads in this wise: “If any person shall sell or loan any firearms to any negro or mulatto, he shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be fined twenty dollars.”

The proof of the sale of a quarter of a pound of powder and pound of shot to Harmon was given by Harmon himself; and in fact, admitted by Sockum’s attorney. So that the only fact I had to establish, in order to convict Sockum, was to identify Harmon as being a mulatto, and to do this I had to establish my proof, by a member of his family, Harmon’s pedigree. To do this, Lydia Clark, who swore that she was of blood kin to Harmon, was permitted to testify as to the traditions of the family in respect to their origin. Harmon was a young man, apparently about five and twenty years of age, of perfect Caucasian features, dark chestnut brown hair, rosy cheeks and hazel eyes; and in making comparison of his complexion with others, I concluded that of all the men concerned in the trial he was the most perfect type of the pure Caucasian, and by odds the handsomest man in the court room, and yet he was alleged to be a mulatto. The witness, Lydia Clark, his kinswoman, then 87 years old, though only a half-breed, was almost as perfect a type of the Indian as I ever saw. She was as spry as a young girl in her movements, and of intelligence as bright as a new dollar; and this was substantially the genealogical tradition she gave of her family and that of Harmon.

About fifteen or twenty years before the Revolutionary War, which she said broke out when she was a little girl some five or sex years old, there was a lady of Irish birth living on a farm in Indian River Hundred, a few miles distant from Lewes, which she owned and carried on herself. Nobody appeared to know anything of her history or her antecedents. Her name she gave as Regua, and she was childless, but whether a maid or widow, or a wife astray, she never disclosed to anyone. She was much above the average woman of that day in stature, beauty and intelligence.

The tradition described her as having a magnificent complexion, large and dark blue eyes and luxuriant hair of the most beautiful shade, usually called light auburn. After she had been living in Angola Neck quite a number of years, a slaver was driven into Lewes Creek, then a tolerable fair harbor, and was there, weather-bound, for several days. It was lawful then, for these were colonial times, to import slaves from Africa. Queen Elizabeth, to gratify her friend and favorite, Sir John Hawkins, had so made it lawful more than a century prior to this time.

Miss or Mrs. Regua, having heard of the presence of the slaver in the harbor, and having lost one of her men slaves, went to Lewes, and to replace him, purchased another from the slave ship. She selected a very tall, shapely and muscular young fellow of dark ginger-bread color, who claimed to be a prince or chief of one of the tribes of the Congo River which had been overpowered in a war with a neighboring tribe and nearly all slain or made prisoners and sold into perpetual slavery. This young man had been living with his mistress but a few months when they were duly married and, as Lydia told the court and jury, they reared quite a large family of children, who as they grew up were not permitted to associate and intermarry with their neighbors of pure Caucasian blood, nor were they disposed to seek associations or alliance with the negro race; so that they were so necessarily compelled to associate and intermarry with the remnant of the Nanticoke tribe of Indians who still lingered in their old habitations for many years after the great body of the tribe had been removed further towards the setting sun.

This race of people for the first two or three generations continued principally to ———– of Sussex County and more particularly in the neighborhood of Lewes, Millsboro, Georgetown and Milton, but during the last sixty or seventy years they have increased the area of their settlement very materially and now are to be found in almost every hundred in each county in the State, but mostly in Sussex and Kent. From their first origin to the present time they have continued to segregate themselves from the American citizens of African descent, having their own churches and schools as much as practicable.

With very rare exceptions these people make good citizens. They are almost entirely given up to agricultural pursuits, but they have managed to pick up sufficient knowledge of carpentry and masonry to enable them to build their own homes. They are industrious, frugal, thrifty, law abiding and respectful. During my long practice at the bar I have never known but two instances in which one of their race has been brought into court for violations of the law.

One of these was the case of Sockum, tried in Sussex in 1857, and the other was that of Cornelius Hansor of Milford Hundred, tried at Dover in 1888 or 1889. Sockum’s case originated in the private spite of envious Caucasian neighbors, and Hansor in the envy and malice of one of his neighbors who charged him with an attempt to commit murder by shooting his accuser.

I defended Hansor against the charge and it was shown by the testimony of several of the most respectable men in the vicinage that Hansor was a man of exemplary character for peace and good order, a truthful and estimable Christian, and that instead of being the aggressor his accuser was shown to have attempted to shoot Hansor. Such was the opinion of the jurors who tried the case. I suggested to Hansor that he had better go before the grand jury at the next term of court and make complaint against his persecutor. But he replied, “With thanks to you for your advice and my acquittal, I most respectfully decline, as the Good Book teaches us to pray for those who despitefully use and persecute us; and I shall leave Mr. Loper to God and his conscience, praying myself that he may become a more peaceable man and Christian.

Some years ago, I received a note from a lady in Philadelphia stating that she had heard of the trial of Levin Sockum, and that it had developed the origin of the yellow people, the so-called Moors of Delaware, and requesting me to give an account of it, which I did. In her letter thanking me for it she gave me the following story:

“Mrs. ***, whom you mentioned, a New Jersey lady, was an English woman by birth, highly connected, of refined associations and superbly educated. As a young girl she fled from her friends whom she was visiting in this city with ***, whose acquaintance she made at a dancing school, and who was represented to her as being a Spaniard of wealth and good family. Fair as a lily and as pure, she did not discover until after the marriage either the occupation or real condition of her husband as a man tabooed by his fellow men for supposed taint of African blood. She believed him to be of Moorish descent and one of the best and noblest of human kind; his ostracism and her own (she was even denied a pew in the Episcopal church in which she was educated and confirmed) surely though slowly killed her.

“Desdemona,” as her friends who knew her well called her, died suddenly of heart disease brought on by mental suffering, leaving three or four children, all golden haired, blue-eyed, flower-like little ones to be educated in France, where their origin, even if known, would never affect their standing socially. They remained until the Franco-Prussian was broke out and were, I think, sent to England. Mr. *** with great self-denial, voluntarily accepted for himself a life of loneliness in a country where his pecuniary interests compelled him to remain. He is highly esteemed, but still socially ostracized.”

The father of this gentleman I knew very well many years ago. He was a resident of Kent County. The gentleman himself I knew by sight only. He seemed to me to be quite a shade fairer in complexion than myself. He has, since the letter I quoted was written, filled a very high and responsible position under the Federal Government with great credit to himself and satisfaction to the Government.

Walter Plecker Controversy with NAACP (1925 article)

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Walter A. Plecker

Walter Ashby Plecker was the head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics for most of the 20th century. He believed “there is a danger of the ultimate disappearance of the white race in Virginia, and the country, and the substitution therefor of another brown skin, as has occurred in every other country where the two races have lived together.” Plecker believed this “mongrelization,” resulted in the downfall of several earlier civilizations. He used the 1924 Racial Integrity Act to classify Virginia Indians and mixed-race individuals as “colored,” and therefore denied basic civil rights under Virginia’s system of segregation.

Source: University of Albany, SUNY, Estabrook, SPE,XMS 80.9 Bx 1 folder1-32. Used by permission


“Plecker Aroused by Blow Aimed at Racial Law,” NAACP criticism of W. Plecker’s “propaganda” pamphlets, Richmond Times Dispatch (3/31/1925)

Plecker Aroused by Blow Aimed at Racial Law

Denies Literature Questioned in Letter to Davis Was Offensive.

Ready to Quit Dollar-A-Year Job

Makes Warm Answer to Attack of Northern Negro Organization.

Charges by the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People, headquarters New York City, with “using the government franking privilege to spread propaganda derogatory to the negro race” and with steps said to have been taken to cancel his appointment as special agent for Virginia of the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. Dr. W. A. Plecker, Registrar of the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, said yesterday:


Denies Literature Insulting.

“It is untrue that any of the literature that I have sent out is insulting or offensive, as the propaganda letter sent out by the press bureau of the association relates. The pamphlets which have been termed offensive deal with educational and health matters and are designed to helpful to the negro. But supersensitive persons seem to have found them objectionable. Very well. We shall continue to educate against misceganiation and the mixture of negro blood with the white race in Virginia and elsewhere. If they want to dismiss me, let them go ahead. I suppose they will take the salary away from me, too. The salary is $1 a year.”

The State Registrar of Vital Statistics exhibited some of the pamphlets issued, which are credited on the title pages as being sponsored by “the Bureau of Child Welfare and the State Board of Health, co-operating with the Children’s Bureau, Department of Labor, U.S.A.”

One of these little booklets, “Help for Midwives,” carries the picture of a smartly uniformed negro woman, a midwife. Another pamphlet it “Bread for the New Family,” another “Feeding the New Family,” another “Eugenics in Relation to the New Family.” The last named carries also the Virginia racial integrity law.


Davis Writes to Association.

The Associated Press yesterday carried under a New York dateline the following news story relating to the protest made to Secretary of Labor Davis and the result of it:

“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced today the receipt of a letter from Secretary of Labor Davis saying that steps had been taken to cancel the “nominal appointment” of Dr. W. A. Plecker as special agent in the Children’s Bureau for distributing bulletins which the association charged, cast reflections on the negro race.

“Dr. Plecker is Registrar of Vital Statistics in Virginia, in addition to his connection with the Children’s Bureau.

“The association quoted the bulletins as containing references to the negroes’ ‘inferiority’ and other derogatory statements. Secretary Davis in his letter said that issuance of the bulletins by Dr. Plecker was ‘entirely without the scope of his authority.”

“Land of the Malungeons” by Will Allen Dromgoole (1890 article)

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1st American Article

“Land of the Malungeons”

Nashville Sunday American, August 31, 1890

Away up in an extreme corner of Tennessee I found them – them or it, for what I found is a remnant of a lost or forgotten race, huddled together in a sterile and isolated strip of land in one of the most inaccessible quarters of Tennessee. When I started out upon my hunt for the Malungeons various opinions and vague whispers were afloat concerning my sanity. My friends were too kind to do more than shake their heads and declare they never heard of such a people. But the less intimate of my acquaintances cooly informed me that I was “going on a wild-goose chase” and were quite willing to “bet their ears” I would never get nearer a Malungeon than at that moment. One dear old lady with more faith in the existence of the Malungeons than in my ability to cope with them begged me to insure my life before starting and to carry a loaded pistol. Another, not so dear and not so precautious [sic], informed me that she “didn’t believe in women gadding about the country alone, nohow.” Still, I went, I saw and I shall conquer.

How I chanced to go and how I first heard of the Malungeons was through a New York newspaper. Some three years since I noticed a short paragraph stating that such a people exist somewhere in Tennessee. It stated that they were rather wild, entirely unlettered and largely given to illicit distilling. It spoke of their dialect as something unheard of , but failed to locate the human curiosities. I had bu tone cue by which to trail them – voz: they were illicit distillers. After repeated inquiry, and no end of laughter at my expense, I went to Capt. Carter B. Harrison, who was once United States marshall and did a good deal of work in this district.

“The Malungeons?” said Capt. Harrison. “O yes; you will find them in _______ county [I will give the county later], and Senator J_____, of the state senate, can tell you all about them.”

I trailed Senator J_____ for six months, and with this result:

“Go to _____,” said he, “and take a horse forty miles across the country to _____, Tenn. There strike for _____ ridge, the stronghold of the Malungeons.”

I have followed directions faithfully, and just here let me say if any one supposes I made the trip for the fun it might afford, he is mistaken. If any one supposes it was prompted by a spirit of adventure, or a love for the wild and untried, he is grievously in error. I have never experienced more difficulty in traveling, suffered more inconvenience, discomfort, bodily fatigue, and real dread of danger. It required almost superhuman effort to carry me on, and more than once, or a dozen times, was I tempted to give it up.

The Malungeons are a most peculiar people. They occupy an isolated and, except for horse or foot passengers, inaccessible territory, separated and alone, not mixing or caring to mix with the rest of the world. There are, however, a few, a very few, exceptions. I went one day to preaching on Big Sycamore, where the people are more mixed than on their native mountains. I found here all colors – white women with white children and white husbands, Malungeon women with brown babies and white babies, and one, a young copper-colored woman with black eyes and straight Indian locks, had three black babies, negroes, at her heels and a third [sic] at her breast. She was not a negro. Her skin was red, a kind of reddish-yellow, as easily distinguishable from a mulatto as the white man from the negro. I saw an old colored man, black as the oft-quoted ace of spades, whose wife is a white woman. I am told, however, the law did take his case in hand, but the old negro pleaded his “Portyghee” blood and was not convicted.

Many Malungeons claim to be Cherokee and Portuguese. Where they could have gotten their Portuguese blood is a mystery. The Cherokee is easily enough accounted for, as they claim to have come from North Carolina and to be a remnant of the tribe that refused to go when the Indians were ordered to the reservation. They are certainly very Indian-like in appearance. The men are tall, straight, clean-shaven, with small, sharp eyes, hooked noses and high cheek bones. They wear their hair long, a great many of them, and evidently enjoy their resemblance to the red man. This is doubtless due to the fact that a great many are disposed to believe them mulattos, and they are strongly opposed to being so classed. The women are small, graceful, dark and ugly. They go barefooted, but their feet are small and well shaped. So, too, are their hands, and they have the merriest, most musical laugh I have ever heard. They are exceedingly inquisitive, and will ask you a dozen questions before you can answer two.

The first question that greets you at every door is – even if you only stop for water – “Whatcher name?” the next is, “How old yer?” and then comes the all-important – “Did yer hear an’thin’ o’ ther railroad cumin’ up ther ridge?”

They look for it constantly and always, as if they expect to see, some glad day, the brunt of the iron track, the glorious herald of prosperity and knowledge, come creeping up the mountains, horseback or afoot, bringing joy to the cabin even of the outcast and ostracised Malungeon; ostracised indeed. Only the negroes, who have themselves felt the lash of ostracism, open their doors to the Malungeons. They are very dishonest, so much so that only a few, not more than half a dozen, of the best are admitted into the house of the well-to-do native.

During the war they were a terror to the women of the valley, going in droves to their homes and helping themselves to food and clothing, even rifling the beds and closets while the defenseless wives of the absent soldiers stood by and witnessed the wholesale plundering, afraid to so much as offer a protest. After the war the women invaded their territory and recovered a great deal of their stolen property. They are exceedingly lazy. They live from hand to mouth and in hovels too filthy for any human being. They do not cultivate the soil at all. A tobacco patch and an orchard is the end and aim of their aspirations. I never saw such orchards, apples and apples and apples, peaches and peaches and peaches, and soon it will be brandy and brandy and brandy. They all drink, men, women and children, and they are all distillers; that is, the work of distilling is not confined to the men. Indeed, the women are the burden-bearers in every sense. They cook, wash, dig, hoe, cut wood, gather the fruit, strip the tobacco and help with the stills. There is not so much distilling now among them as there was a few years back. Uncle Sam set his hounds upon their trail, and now they are more careful of the requirement of the federal law at all events, as their miserable little doggeries, dotted here and there, go to prove.

They wondered very much concerning my appearance among them. Yes, I am right in the midst of them, and such an experience is almost beyond my power to picture. My board rates 15 cents per day. (Let the Maxwell blush.) Thank fortune, my purse and my destiny have at last “met upon a level.” No, do not say I am swindling my poor hosts. (I go from place to place.) Wait until I tell you. After I really struck their settlement, I entered upon a diet of cornbread and honey. Coffee? Oh yes, we have “lots” of coffee. It sets (or stands according to its age) in a tin pot in the shed (or under it), between the two rooms. There are never more than two rooms. Any one who is thirsty helps himself to coffee. Cold? Aye, cold as this world’s charity and as comfortless. But it saves a walk to the spring and so we drink it. I had some trouble in getting board, because I asked “for board.” And let me say, I have never drawn a good easy breath since I landed and found a dozen pairs of little black Indian eyes turned upon me. Always they are at the cracks, the chimney corner, “window hole,” the door, peeping through the chinquapin and wahoo bushes, until I feel as if forty thousand spies were watching my movements. I had not dared to take out a pencil for three days, except last Monday night after I went to bed. I tried to write a letter in the dark, by a streak of light which fell through a chink in the door. But the next morning, when my hostess – a little snap-eyed, red-brown squaw – flung open my door (the room had but one, and she had removed the fastening, a wooden button, the night before) and sung out:

“You Joe! – time you’s up out’n ther,” and a little, limp, sleepy-looking Indian crawled out from a pallet of rags in the corner. I felt pretty sure the boy had been put there to watch me, and so didn’t try that kind of writing again. They are exceedingly suspicious and are as curious about me as can be. They received an idea that I am traveling for my health, as quite a number come from the valley to drink the mineral water with which this magnificent country abouts. Still, they suspect me, and they come in droves to see me. Seven little brown women, with bare feet and corncob pipes, sat on the doorstep yesterday to see me go out. I stopped a moment to speak to them; told them my name (which is the greatest puzzle to them, not one daring to try it), my age, and was informed that if I wasn’t married “it wair time.” And then one grizzle face old squaw kindly offered me a “pull at her pipe.”

I visited one house of two rooms – Mrs. Gorvins’. She was out in the orchard gathering apples to dry, and out to the orchard I went. The prettiest girl I ever saw came to meet me with her lap full of apples. She pointed to a seat on a rude bench and poured the apples into my lap, at the same time calling, “Mai! Mai! Come er-here!” (Please call that word Mai as it is called in hair or after.) Mai came, and the saints and hobgoblins! The witch of Endor calling dead Saul from sepulchral darkness would have calked her ears and fled forever at the sight of this living, breathing Malungeon witch. Shakespeare would have shrieked in agony and chucked his own weird sisters where neither “thunder, lightning nor rain” would ever have found them more. Even poor tipsy, turvy Tam O’Shanter would have drawn up his gray mare and forgotten to fly before this, mightier than Meg Merrilles herself. She was small, scant, raw-boned, sharp-ankled, barefoot, short frock literally hanging from the knee in rags. A dark jacket with great yellow patches on either breast, sleeves torn away above the elbow, black hair burnt to an unfashionable auburn long ago, and a corncob pipe wedged between the toothless gums. A
flock of children came in her wake, and full one dozen more (indeed I am telling the unvarnished truth) came from bush and brake. I never saw as many, seventeen by actual count, and two missing “count o’ bein’ dead.”

Mrs. Gorvins was silent until I spoke to one of the children, and then, let me tell you something, I never saw an uglier human creature, or one more gross-looking and unattractive, and I never saw a gentler, sweeter, truer mother. She called up her children – little brown
fellows, bearing the unmistakable mark of the Indian, all but one, a little white-headed boy with blue eyes and dimpled chin, who seemed as much out of place among them as a lily in a dungeon. One was Maggieleny (Magdeline), and one was Ichabady (Ichabod), and one was Archivale (Archibald). Another was Kat (Kathleen), another Hanny (Hannah), and the baby – names giving out, as the mother told me, she “had jes’ been plumb erbliged ter name one over twict,” and so the baby was called Katty (Kathleen).

They lived on corn bread and honey, coffee without cream or sugar, and found life full and glad and satisfactory.

I could run on forever telling you of these queer, queer people, who are a part of us, have a voice in our politics and a right to our consideration. They are a blot upon our state. They are ignorant of the very letters of the alphabet, and defiant (or worse, ignorant) of the very first principles of morality and cleanliness. It is no sensational picture I have drawn; it is hard truth, hard to believe and hard to understand. They are within five miles of one of the prettiest county seats in Tennessee. In politics they are republican to a man, but sell their votes for 50 cents and consider themselves well paid. They are great “charmers” and “herb doctors.” I have a
string of “blood beads” I bought of an old squaw, who assured me they would heal all “ailmint o’ the blood.” They are totally unlike the native Tennessee mountaineer, unlike him in every way. The mountaineer is liberal, trustful and open. The Malungeon wants pay (not much, but something) for the slightest favor. He is curious and suspicious and given to lying and stealing, things unknown among the native mountaineers.

I must tell you of a sermon I heard down in Black Water swamp. I do not know what the text was, but the preacher, a half-breed, was telling of the danger of riches. He told them of Mr. Vanderbilt, “the riches’ man et ever trod on God a-mighty’s yearth,” he said. And then he told how, when he came to die he called his wife and asked her to sing, “Come, Ye Sinners.” He drew his point: the rich man wanted the beggar’s song sung over him. And he lamented that it was “tu late, tu late” for Mr. Vanderbilt. He died and went to torment , “an wher uz all his money?” I took it upon myself to tell him where a good slice of it was. I could not call myself a Tennesseean and sit by and hear Mr. Vanderbilt slandered, and right here in Tennessee, too, preached right into hell by the people his wealth was given to bless. So when the service was over I went to the preacher and I said: “Brother, you are doing the memory of Mr. Vanderbilt a great wrong. He was a good man, if a rich one, and Tennesse is indebted to him for the grandest school she has.”

He looked at me a minute, and then he said:

“He uz a Christian?”

“Yes,” I said, “and had a Christian wife.”

His face brightened. “Waal,” he said, “I air glad to know that; I’ll tell ‘em so nex’ time I preach.”

I hope he did.

Will Allen

“A Strange People” by Will Allen Dromgoole (1890 article)

Published by:

“A Strange People”

Nashville Sunday American, September 1, 1890

Habits, Customs and Characteristics of Malungeons.

Little Given to Social Intercourse With the Neighbors.

A School Teacher Who Can Neither Read Nor Write – Dancing the Favorite Pastime

I have made a careful study and inquiry as to the name Malungeon, but have been unable as yet to place it. It has an Indian sound, but the Malungeons themselves have no idea as to its origin or meaning.

These people, of whom so little is known, inhabit an isolated corner of the earth, known as Newman’s ridge, in Hancock county. They are within five miles of one of the prettiest county seats in Tennessee. They mix very little with the natives of the county, and seem to care very little about the world beyond their isolated habitation. Their homes are miserable hovels, set in the very heart of the wilderness. There is not, I am told, a family on the ridge other than the Malungeons.

At one house where I stopped I was put in a closet to sleep. The room had no windows and the door opened into my landlady’s room. The latch was removed before I retired. My bed was made of straw and I was not its sole inhabitant, not by an overwhelming majority. My food consisted of corn bread, honey and bitter coffee. At another place, I climbed a ladder to the roof-room, which had neither windows nor floor. I did not meet a man or woman in the ridge who could read.

At the foot of the ridge in what is known as Black Water swamp, the country is simply magnificent. I boarded there for several days and found the people exceedingly kind. The ridge proper is the home of the Malungeons.

I visited one house where the floors were of trees, the bark still on them, and the beds of leaves. The owner was a full-blooded Indian, with keen, black eyes, straight black hair, high cheeks, and a hook nose. He played upon his violin with his fingers instead of a bow, and entertained us with a history of his grandfather, who was a Cherokee chief, and by singing some of the songs of his tribe. He also described the Malungeon custom of amusements. The dance is a favorite pastime consisting of a two, four or six-handed reel. Whiskey is a very popular guest at their entertainments, and fights are not an uncommon result. In a fight each man’s friends are expected to take sides and help, and the fight continues until one side at least is whipped.

At another house I visited (if I may call it a house) I found the family, nine in number, housed in one room of a stable. There were three rooms to the establishment. The stock (belonging to some one else) was fed in one department and the family lived in the next. The living room was about 12 feet square and had neither chinking or daubing. There were two beds, and one of them stood alongside the partition where there were cracks large enough for a child of 5 years to step through the hay rick on the other side. The space unoccupied by the beds was about 1 feet [sic], and there being no chairs, and old quilt was spread upon the floor, and three poor old women were scattered upon it arranging their Indian locks. The third room was the cooking department, although several dirty-looking beds occupied space here and there. I forgot to mention a heap of white ashes in the living room, which the women utilized for spitting upon. The Malungeons are great lovers of the weed and all chew and smoke – men, women and children.

I also visited the cabin of a charmer, for you must know these people have many superstitions. This charmer can remove warts, moles, birth-marks, and all ugly protuberances by a kind of magic known only to herself. She offered to remove the mole from my face for 10 cents, and became quite angry when I declined to part with my lifetime companion.

“Tairsn’t purty, nohers,” she said; “an ‘t air ner sarvice, nurther.”

I cannot spell their dialect as they speak it. It is not the dialect of the mountaineers, and the last syllable of almost every word is omitted. The “R” is missing entirely from their vocabulary. There is also a witch among them who heals sores, rheumatism, “conjures,” etc. They come from ten miles afoot to consult her

They possess many Indian traits, that of vengeance being strongly characteristic of them.

They, likewise, resemble the negro in many things. They are sticklers for religion, and believe largely in water and the “mourner’s bench.” They call themselves Baptists, although their form of worship is really that of the Dunkard. They are exceedingly illiterate, but are beginning to take some interest in educational matters. I visited one of their schools, taught by a native Malungeon. He could not read, and his pronunciation of the words given to the spelling class was exceedingly peculiar, as well as ridiculous. Mr. Thomas Sharpe, of Nashville, made an excellent sketch of this teacher while he was busy with his class and unconcious that he was “being tuk fur a pictur.”

There are but three names among them – real Malungeon names – Collins, Mullins, Gorvens. Lately the name of Gibbins has found a way among them, but the first three are their real names. They distinguish each other in a most novel manner. For instance, Calloway Collins’ wife is Ann Calloway, his daughter is Dorous Calloway, and his son is Jim Calloway.

How they live is a mystery. Their food is the hardest kind, and their homes unfit shelter for man or beast. In many cases they are extremely immoral and seem utterly unconscious of either law or cleanliness. Their voices are exceedingly sweet, and their laugh the merriest, most musical ripple imaginable, more like the tinkle of a happy little brook among beds of pebbles than the laugh of a half civilized Malungeon. Even the men speak low and their voices are not unpleasant. The women are quick, sharp, bright. The men are slow, lazy, shiftless and shirking, and seem entirely unacquainted with work, God’s medicine for the miserable.

Their dress is ordinary calico, or cotton, short blouse, without buttons or other fastenings than brass pins conspicuously arranged, or narrow white strings tacked on either side the waist and tied in a bow knot.

These strange people have caught, however, the fever raging throughout the south, and especially through Eastern Tennessee, the iron fever. They believe their sterile ridges to be crammed full with the precious ore. If it is, the rocks give no sign, for there are no outcroppings to be found as yet.

At one place I staid to dinner. No one ate with me except my own guide, and the food and shelter were given grudgingly, without that hearty willingness which characterizes the old Tennessee mountaineer, who bids you “light and hitch, feed your critter and be ter home.” I was invited to eat, to be sure, but the family stood by and eyed me until my portion of bread and honey almost choked me. Corn bread, thick, black, crusted pones, steaming hot, and honey sweet enough and clean – aye, clean, for the wild bees made it from the wild flowers springing straight from God’s planting. I paid 15 cents for my dinner. A mountaineer would have knocked you down had you offered money for dinner under such circumstances. Bah! The Malungeon is no more a mountaineer than am I, born in the heart of the old Volunteer state.

Will Allen

“The Malungeons” by Will Allen Dromgoole (1891 article)

Published by:

“The Malungeons”

The Arena, March 1891

Were you ever when a child half playfully told “The Malungeons will get you?” If not, you were never a Tennessee child, as some of our fathers were; they tell all who may be told of that strange, almost forgotten race, concerning whom history is strangely silent. Only upon the records of the state of Tennessee does the name appear. The records show that by act of the Constitutional Convention of 1834, when the “Race Question” played such a conspicuous part in the deliberations of that body, the Malungeons, as a “free person of color,” was denied the right of suffrage. Right there he dropped from the public mind and interest. Of no value as a slave, with no voice as a citizen, what use could the public make of the Malungeon? When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tenessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks, and who called themselves Malungeons, and claimed to be of Poruguese descent. They lived to themselves exclusively, and were looked on as neither negroes nor Indians.

All the negroes ever brought to America came as slaves; the Malungeons were never slaves, and until 1834 enjoyed all the rights of citizenship. Even in the Convention which disfranchised them, they were referred to as “free persons of color” or “Malungeons.”

Their condition from the organization of the State of Tennessee to the close of the civil war is most accurately described by John A. McKinley, of Hawkins County, who was chairman of the committee to which was referred all matters affecting these “free persons of color.”

Said he, speaking of free persons of color, “It means Malungeons if it means anything. Although ‘fleecy locks and black complexion’ do not forfeit Nature’s claims, still it is true that those locks and that complexion mark every one of the African race, so long as he remains among the white race, as a person doomed to live in the suburbs of society.

“Unenviable as is the condition of the slave, unlovely as slavery is in all its aspects, bitter as is the draught the slave is doomed to drink, nevertheless, his condition is better than that of the ‘free man of color’ in the midst of a community of white men with whom he has no interest, no fellow-feeling and no equality.” So the Constitutional convention left these the most pitiable of all outcasts; denied their oath in court, and deprived of the testimony of their own color, left utterly helpless in all legal contests, they naturally, when the State set the brand of the outcast upon them, took to the hills, the isolated peaks of the uninhabited mountains, the corners of the earth, as it were, where, huddled together, they became as law unto themselves, a race indeed separate and distinct from the several races inhabiting the State of Tennessee.

So much, or so little, we glean from the records. From history we get nothing; not so much as the name, – Malungeons.

In the farther valleys they were soon forgotten: only now and then and old slave-mammy would frighten her rebellious charge into subjection with the threat, – “The Malungeons will get you in you ain’t pretty.” But to the people of the foot hills and nearer valleys, they became a living
terror; sweeping down upon them, stealing their cattle, their provisions, their very clothing, and household furniture.

They became shiftless, idle, thieving, and defiant of all law, distillers of brandy, almost to a man. The barren height upon which they located, offered hope of no other crop so much as fruit, and they were forced, it would appear, to utilize their one opportunity.

After the breaking out of the war, some few enlisted in the army, but the greater number remained with their stills, to pillage and plunder among the helpless women and children.

Their mountains became a terror to travelers; and not until within the last half decade has it been regarded as safe to cross Malungeon territory.

Such they were; or so do they come to us through tradition and the State’s records. As to what they are any who feel disposed may go and see. Opinion is divided concerning them, and they have their own ideas as to their descent. A great many declare them mulattoes, and base their belief upon the ground that at the close of the civil war negroes and Malungeons stood upon precisely the same social lfooting. “free men of color” all, and that the fast vanishing handful opened thier doors to the darker brother, also groaning under the brand of social ostracism. This might, at first glance, seem probable, indeed, reasonable.

Yet if we will consider a moment, we shall see that a race of mulattoes cannot exist as these Malungeons have existed. The race goes fromt mulattoes to quadroons, from quadroons to octoroons, and there it stops. The octoroon women bear no children, but in every cabin of the Malungeons may be found mothers and grandmothers, and very often great-grandmothers.

“Who are they, then?” you ask. I can only give you their own theory – If I may call it such – and to do this I must tell you how I found them, and something of my stay among them.

First. I saw in an old newspaper some slight mention of them. With this tiny clue I followed their trail for three years. The paper merely stated that “somnewhere in the mountains of Tennessee there existed a remanant of people called Malungeons, having a distinct color, characteristics,and dialect. It seemed a very hopeless search, so utterly were the Malungeons forgotten, and I was laughed at no little for my “new crank.” I was even called “a Malungeon” more than once, and was about to abandon my “crank” when a member of the Tennessee
State Senate, of which I happened at that time to be engrossing clerk, spoke of a brother senator as being “tricky as a Malungeon.”

I pounced on him the moment his speech was completed. “Seantor,” I said, “what is a Malungeon?”

“A dirty Indian sneak,” said he. “Go over yonder and ask Senator _____; they live in his
district.”

I went at once.

“Senator, what is a Malungeon?” I asked again.

“A Portuguese nigger,” was the reply. “Representative T____ can tell you all about them, they live in his county.”

From “district” to “county” was quick travelling. And into the House of Representatives I went, fast upon the lost trail of the forgotten Malungeons.

“Mr. ____,” said I, “please tell me what is a Malungeon?”

“A Malungeon,: said he, “isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a white man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Reublican ticket.” I merely mention all this to show how the Malungeons to-day are regarded, and to show show I tracked them to Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, where within four miles of one of the prettiest county towns in Tennessee, may be found all that remains of that outcast race whose descent is a riddle the historian has never solved. In appearance they bear a striking resemblance to the Cherokees, and they are beleived by the people round about to be a kind of half-breed Indian.

Thier 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. The hands of the Malungeon women are quite shapely and pretty. Also their feet, despite the fact that they trravel the sharp mountain trails barefoot, are short and shapely. Their features are wholly unlike those of the negro, except in cases where the two races have cohabited, as is sometimes the fact. These instances can be readily detected, as can those of cohabitation withthe mountaineer; for the pure Malungeons present a characteristic and individual appearance. On the Ridge proper, one finds only pure Malungeons; it is in the unsavory limits of Black Water Swamp and on Big Sycamore Creek,lying at the foot of the Ridge betweenit and Powell’s Mountain, that the mixed races dwell.

In Western and Middle Tennessee the Malungeons are forgotten long ago. And iundeed, so nearly complete has been the extinction of the race that in but few counties of Eastern Tennessee is it known. In Hancock you may hear them, and see them, almost the instant you cross into the county line. There they are distinguished as
“Ridgemanites,” or pure “Malungeons.” Those among them whom the white or negro blood has entered are called the “Black-Waters.” The Ridge is admirable adapted to the purpose of wild-cat distilling, being crossed by but one road and crowned with jungles of chinquapin, cedar, and wahoo.

Of very recent years the dogs of the law have proved too sharp-eyed and bold even for the lawless Malungeons, so that such of the furnace fires as have not been extinguished are built underground.

They are a great nuisance to the people of the county seat, where, on any public day, and especially on election days, they may be seen squatted about the streets, great strapping men, or little brown women baking themselves in the sun like mud figures set to dry.

The people of the town do not allow them to enter their dwellings, and even refuse to employ them as servants, owing to their filthy habit of chewing tobacco and spitting upon the floors, together with their ignorance or defiance of the difference between meum and tuum.

They are exceedingly shiftless, and in most cases filthy.They care for nothing except their pipe, their liquor, and a tramp “ter towin.” They will walk to Sneedville and back sometimes twice in twelve hours, up a steep trail though an almost unbroken wilderness, and never seem to suffer the least fatigue.

They are not at all like the Tennessee mountaineer either in appearance or characteristics. The mountaineer, however poor,is clean, – cleanliness itself. He is honest (I speak of him as a class) he is generous, trustful, until once betrayed; truthful, brave, and possessing many of the noblest and keenest sensibilities. The Malungeons are filthy, their home is filthy. The are rogues, natural, “born rogues,” close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and to use their own word, “sneaky.” They are exceedingly inquisitive too, and will traila visitor to the Ridge for miles, through seemingly impenetrable jungles, to discover, if may be, the object of his visit. They expect remuneration for the slightest service. The mountaineer’s door stands open, or at most the string of the latch dangles upon the “outside.” He takes you for what you seem until you shall prove yourself otherwise.

In many things they resemble the negro. They are exceedingly immoral, yet are great shouters and advocates of religion. They call themselves Baptists, although their mode of baptism is that of the Dunkard.

There are no churches on the Ridge, but the one I visited in Black Water Swamp was beyond question and inauguration of the colored element. At this church I saw white women with negro babies at their breasts – Malungeon women with white or with black husbands, and some, indeed, having the trhree separate races represented in their children; showing thereby the gross immorality that is practised among them. I saw an old negro whose wife was a white woman, and who had been several times arrested, and released on his plea of “Portygee” blood, which he declared had colored his skin, not African.

The dialect of the Malungeons is a cross between that of the mountaineer and the negro – a corruption, perhaps, of both. The letter R occupies but a smallplace in their speech, and they have a peculiar habit of omitting the last letter, sometimes the last syllable of their words. For instance “good night” – is “goo’ night.” “Give” is “gi’,” etc. They do not drawl like the mountaineers but, on the contrary, speak rapidly and talk a great deal. The laugh of the Malungeon women is the most exquisitely musicle jingle, a perfect ripple of sweet sound. Their dialect is exceedingly difficult to write, owing to their habit of curtailing their words.

The pure Malungeons, that is the old men and women, have no toleration for the negro, and nothing insults them so much as the suggestion of negro blood. Many pathetic stories are told of their battle against the black race, which they regard as the cause of their downfall, the annihilation, indeed, of the Malungeons, for when the races began to mix and to intermarry, and the expression, “A Malungeon nigger” came into use, the last barrier vanished, and all were regarded as somewhat upon a social level.

They are very like the Indians in many respect, _ their fleetness of foot,cupidity, cruelty (as practised duringthe days of their illicit distilling), their love for the forest, their custom of living without doors, one might almost say, – for truly the little hovels could not be called homes, – and their taste for liquor and tobacco.

They believe in witchcraft, “yarbs,” and more than one “charmer” may be found among them. They will “rub away” a wart or mole for ten cents, and one old squaw assured me she had some “blood beads” the “wair bounter heal all manner o’ blood ailimints.”

They are limited somewhat as to names: their principal families being the Mullins, Gorvens, Collins, and Gibbins.

They resort to a very peculiar method of distinguishing themselves. Jack Collins’ wife for instance will be Mary Jack. His son will be Ben Jack. His daughters’ names will be similar: Nancy Jack or Jane Jack, as the case may be, but always having the father’s Christian name attached.

Their homes are miserable hovels, set here and there in the very heart of the wilderness. Very few of their cabins have windows, and some have only an opening cut through the wall for a door. In winter an old quild tis hung before it to shut out the cold. They do not welcome strangers among them, so that I went to the Ridge somewhat doubtful as to my reception. I went, however, determined to be one of them, so I wore a suit as nearly like their own as I could get it. I had some trouble securing boards, but did succeed at last in doing so by paying the enormous sum of fifteen cents. I was put to sleep in a little closet opening off the family room. My room had no windows, and but the one door. The latch was carefully removed before I went in, so that I had no means of egress, except through the family room, and no means by which to shut myself in. My bed was of straw, not the sweet-smelling straw we read of. The Malungeons go a long way for their straw, and they evidently make it go a long way when they do get it. I was called to breakfast the next morning while the gray mists still held the mountain in its arms. I asked for water tobathe my face and was sent to “ther branch,” a beautiful little mountain stream crossing the trail some few hundred yeards from the cabin.

Breakfast consisted of corn bread, wild honey, and bitter coffee. It was prepared and eaten in the garret, or roof room, above the family room. A few chickens, the only fowl I saw on the Ridge, also occupied the roof room. Coffee is quite common among the Malungeons; they drink it without sweetening, and drink it cold at all hours of the day or nights. They have no windows and no candles, consequently, they retire with the going of the daylight. Many of their cabins have no floors other than that which Nature gave, but one that I remember had a floor made of trees slit in half, the bark still on, placed with the flat side to the ground. The people of the house slept on leaves with an old gray blanket for covering. Yet the master of the house, who claims to be an Indian, and who, without doubt, possesses Indian blood, draws a pension of twenty-nine dollars per month. He can neither read nor write, is a lazy fellow, fond of apple brandy and bitter coffee, has a rollicking good time with an old fiddle which he plays with his thumb, and boasts largely of his Cherokee grandfather and his government pension. In one part of his cabin (there are two rooms and a connecting shed) the very stumps of the trees still remain. I had my artist sketch him sitting upon the stump of a monster oak which stood in the very center of the shed or hallway.

This family did their cooking at a rude fireplace built near the spring, as a matter of convenience.

Another family occupied one room, or apartment, of a stable. The stock fed in another (the stock belonged, let me say, to someone else) and the “cracks” between the logs of the separating partition were of such depth a small child could have rolled from the bed in one apartment into the trough in the other. How they exist among such squalor is a mystery.

Their dress consists, among the women, of a short loose calico skirt and a blouse that boasts of neither hook nor button. Some of these blouses were fastened with brass pins conspicuously bright. Others were tied together by means of strings tacked on either side. They wear neither shoes nor stockings in the summer, and many of them go barefoot all winter. The men wear jeans, and may be seen almost any day tramping barefoot across the mountain.

They are exceedingly illiterate, none of them being able to read. I found one school among them, taught by an old Malungeon, whose literary accomplishments amounted to a meagre knowledge of the alphabet and the spelling of words. Yet, he was very earnest,, and called lustily to the “chillering” to “spry up,” and to “learn the book.”

This school was located in the loveliest spot my eyes ever rested upon. An eminence overlooking the beautiful valley of the Clinch and the purple peaks beyond/illows and billows of mountains, so blue, so exquisitely wrapped in their delicate mist-veil, one almost doubts if they be hills or heaven.While through the slumbrous vale the silvery Clinch, the fairest of Tennessee’s fair streams, creeps slowly, like a drowsy dream river, among the purple
distances.

The eminence itself is entirely barren save for one tall old cedar, and the schoolmaster’s little log building. It presents a very weird, wild, yet majestic scene, to the traveller as he climbs up from the valley.

Near the schoolhouse is a Malungeon grave-yard. The Malungeons are very careful for their dead. They build a kind of floorless house above each separate grave, many oof the homes of the dead being far better than the dwellings of the living. The grave-yard presents the appearance of a diminutive town, or settlement, and is kept with great nicety and care. They mourn their dead for years, and every friend and acquaintence is expected to join in the funeral arrangements. They follow the body to the grave, sometimes formiles, afoot, in single file. Their burial ceremonies are exceedingly interesting and peculiar.

They are an unfogiving people, although, unlike the sensitive mountaineer, they are slow to detect an insult, and expect to be spit upon. But injury to life or property they never forgive. Several odd and pathetic instances of Malungeon hate came under my observation while among them, but they would cover too much space in telling.

Within the last two years the railroad has struck within some thirty miles of them, and its effects are becoming very apparent. Now and then a band of surveyors, or a lone mineralogist will cross Powell’s mountain, and pass through Mulbery Gap just beyond Newman’s Ridge. So near, yet never nearer. The hills around are all said to be crammed with coal or irton, burt Newman’s Ridge can offer nothing to the capitalist. It would seem that the Malungeons had chosen the one spot, of all that magnificent creation, not to be desired.

Yet, they have heard of the railroad, the great bearer of commerce, and expect it, in a half-regretful, half-pathetic way.

They have four questions, always, for the stranger: –

“Whatcher name?”

“Wher’d yer come fum?”

“How old er yer?”

“Did yer hear en’thin’ er ther railwa’ comin’ up ther Ridge?”

As if it might step into their midst any day.

The Malungeons believe themselves to be of Cherokee and Portuguese extraction. They cannot account for the Portuguese blood, but are very bold in declaring themselves a remnant of those tribes, or that tribe, still inhabiting the mountains of North Carolina, which refused to follow the tribes to the Reservation set aside for them.

There is a theory that the Portuguese pirates, known to have visited these waters, came ashore and located in the mountains of North Carolina. The Portuguese “streak,” however, is scouted by those who claim for the Malungeons a drop of African blood, as, quite early in the settlement of Tennessee, runaway negroes settled among the Cherokees, or else were captured and adopted by them.

However, with all the light possible to be thrown upon them, the Malungeons are, and will remain, a mystery. A more pathetic case than theirs cannot be imagined. They are going, the little space of hills ‘twixt earth and heaven alloted them, will soon be free of the dusky tribe, whose very name is a puzzle. The most that can be said of one of them is, “He is a Malungeon,” a synonym for all that is doubtful and mysterious – and unclean.

“The Malungeon Tree and its Four Branches” (Will Allen Dromgoole article, 1891)

Published by:

“The Malungeon Tree and its Four Branches”

The Arena, June 1891

Somewhere in the eighteenth century, before the year 1797, there appeared in the eastern portion of Tennessee, at that time the Territory of North Carolina, two strange-looking men calling themselves Collins and Gibson. They had a reddish brown complexion, long, straight, black hair, keen, black eyes, and sharp, clear-cut features. They spoke in broken English, a dialect distinct from anything ever heard in that section of the country.

They claimed to have come from Virginia and many years after emigrating, themselves told the story of their past.

These two, Vardy Collins and Buck Gibson, were the head and source of the Malungeons in Tennessee. With the cunning of their Cherokee ancestors, they planned and executed a scheme by which they were enabled to set up for themselves in the almost unbroken Territory of North Carolina.

Old Buck, as he was called, was disguised by a wash of some dark description, and taken to Virginia by Vardy where he was sold as a slave. He was a magnificent specimen of physical strength, and brought a fine price, a wagon and mules, a lot of goods, and three hundred dollars in money being paid to old Vardy for his likely nigger. Once out of Richmond, Vardy turned his mules shoes and stuck out for the wilderness of North Carolina, as previously planned. Buck lost little time ridding himself of his negro disguise, swore he was not the man bought of Collins, and followed in the wake of his fellow thief to the Territory. The proceeds of the sale were divided and each chose his habitation; old Vardy choosing Newmans Ridge, where he was soon joined by others of his race, and so the Malungeons became a part of the inhabitants of Tennessee.

This story I know is true. There are reliable parties still living who received it from old Vardy himself, who came here as young men and lived, as the Malungeons generally did to a ripe old age.

The names Collins and Gibson were also stolen from the white settlers in Virginia where the men had lived previous to emigrating to North Carolina.

There is, perhaps, no more satisfactory method of illustrating this peculiar race, its origin and blood, than by the familiar tree.

Old Vardy Collins, then, must be regarded as the body, or main stem, in this state, at all events.

It is only of very late years the Melungeons have been classed as families. Originally they were tribes, afterward clans and at last Families. From Old Vardy the first tribe took its first name COLLINSES. Others who followed Vardy took the Collins name also.

Old Benjamin Collins, one of the pioneers, was older than Vardy, but came to Tennessee a trifle later. He had quite a large family of children, among them Edmond, Mileyton (supposed to have meant Milton), Marler, Harry, Andrew, Zeke, Jordon. From Jordan Collins descended Calloway Collins who is still living today and from whom I obtained some valuable information.

But to go back a step. Benjamin Collins was known as old Ben, and became the head of the Ben tribe. Old Solomon Collins was the head of the Sols. The race was increasing so rapidly, by emigration and otherwise, that it became necessary to adopt other names than Collins. They fell, curiously enough, upon the first or Christian name of the head of a large family connection or tribe. Emigrants arriving attached themselves as they chose to the several tribes. After a while, with an eye to brevity, doubtless, the word tribe was dropped from ordinary, everyday use. The Bens and the Sols meant the Ben and Sol Tribes. It appeared that no tribe was ever called for Old Vardy, although as long as he lived he was recognized as head and
leader of the entire people.

This is doubtless due to the fact that in his day the settlement was new, and the people, and the one name Collins covered the entire population. The original Collins people were Indian, there is no doubt about that, and they lived as the Indians lived until sometime after the first white man appeared among them. All would huddle together in one room (?), sleep in one common bed of leaves, make themselves such necessary clothing as nature demanded, smoke, and dream away the good long days that were so dreamily delightful nowhere as they were on Newman’s Ridge.

The Collins tribe multiplied more and more; it became necessary to have names, and a most peculiar method was hit upon for obtaining them.

Ben Collins children were distinguished from the children of Sol and Vardy by prefixing the Christian name either of the father or mother to the Christian name of the child. For instance; Edmund Ben, Singleton Ben; Andrew Ben; Zeke Ben, meant that Edmund, Singleton, Andrew, and Zeke were the sons of Ben Collins. Singleton Mitch; Levi Mitch, and Morris Mitch , meant that these men were the sons of Mitchel Collins. In the next generation there was a Jordan Ben (a son of old Benjamin Collins) who married Abbie Sol, had a son, who is called (he is still living, as before stated) Calloway Abby for his mother. The wife before marriage takes her father’s Christian name; after marriage that of her husband. Calloway’s wife, for instance, is Ann Calloway. It is not known, and cannot by any possibility be ascertained at what precise period other races appeared among the Collinses. For many years they occupied the Ridge without disturbance. The country was new, wild, and few straggling settlements were glad of almost any new neighbors. Moreover, these strange people, who were then called the Ridgemanites, the Indians, and the Black Waterites (because of a stream called Black Water, which flows through their territory, the bed of which was, and is, covered with a peculiar dark slate rock which gives the black appearance to the stream), had chosen the rocky and inaccessible Ridge, while the fertile and beautiful valley of the Clinch lay open and inviting to the white settler. The Ridgemanites were not striving for wealth evidently, and as land was plentiful and neighbors few, they held their bit in the creation without molestation or interruption for many years. They were all Collinses, as I said; those who followed the first-comers accepting the name already provided them. There was no mixture of blood: they claimed to be Indians and no man disputed it. They were called the Collins Tribe until having multiplied to the extent it was necessary to divide, when the descendants of the several pioneers were separated, or divided into clans. Then came the Ben clan, the Sol clan, the Mitch clan, and indeed every prominent head of a large relationship was recognized as the leader of his clan, which always bore his name. There was, to be sure, no set form or time at which this division was made. It was only one of those natural splits, gradual and necessary, which is the sure result of increasing strength.

They were still, however, we must observe, all Collinses, The main tree had not been disturbed by foreign grafting, and while all were not blood descendants of old Vardy they, at all events, had all fallen under his banner and appropriated his name.

The tree at last began to put forth branches, or rather three foreign shoots were grafted into the body of it; the English (or white), Portuguese, and African.

The English branch began with the Mullins tribe, a very powerful tribe, next indeed for a long time to the Collins tribe, and at present the strongest of all the several branches, as well as the most daring and obstinate.

Old Jim Mullins, the father of the branch, was an Englishman, a trader, it is supposed, with Indians. He was of a roving, daring disposition, and rather fond of the free abandon which characterized the Indian. He was much given to sports, and was always cheek by jowl with the Cherokees and other Indian tribes among which he mingled. What brought him to Newman’s Ridge must have been, as it is said, his love for freedom and sport, and that careless existence known only to the Indians. He stumbled upon the Ridge settlement, fell in with the Ridgemanites, and never left them. He took for a wife one of their women, a descendant of old Sol Collins, and reared a family known as the Mullins tribe.This is said to be the first white blood that mingled with the blood of the dusky Ridgemanites.

By marriage I mean to say (in their own language) they took up together having no set form of marriage service. So old Jim Mullins took up with a Malungeon woman, a Collins, by whom he had a large family of children. Sometime after he exchanged wives with one Wyatt Collins, and proceeded to cultivate a second family. Wyatt Collins also had a large family by his first wife, and equally fortunate with the one whom he traded her for.

After the forming of Hancock County (Tennessee) old Mullins and Collins were forced to marry their wives according to the law of the land, but all had children and grandchildren before they were lawfully married.

The Mullins tribe became exceedingly strong, and remains today the head of the Ridge people.

The African branch was introduced by one Goins (I spell it as they do) who emigrated from North Carolina after the formation of the state of Tennessee. Goins was a negro, and did not settle upon the Ridge, but lower down the Big Sycamore Creek in Powell’s Valley. He took a Malungeon woman for his wife (took up with her), and reared a family or tribe. The Goins family may be easily recognized by their kinky hair, flat nose and foot, thick lips, and a complexion totally unlike the Collins and Mullins tribes. They possess many negro traits, too, which are wanting to the other tribes.

The Malungeons repudiate the idea of negro blood, yet some of the shiftless stragglers among them have married among the Goins people. They evade slights, snubs, censure, and the law, by claiming to have married Portuguese, there really being a Portuguese branch among the tribes.

The Goins tribe, however, was always looked upon with touch of contempt, and was held in a kind of subjection, socially and politically, by the others.

The Mullins and Collins tribes will fight for their Indian blood. The Melungeons are not brave; indeed, they are great cowards and easily brow-beaten, accustomed to receiving all manners of insults which it never occurs to them to resent. Only in this matter of blood will they show fight.

The Portuguese branch was for a long time a riddle, the existence of it being stoutly denied. It has at last, however, been traced to one Denhan, a Portuguese who married a Collins woman.

It seems that every runaway or straggler of any kind whatever, passing through the country took up with abode temporarily or permanently, with the Malungeons, or as they were then called the Ridgemanites. They were harmless, social, and good-natured when well acquainted with one–although at first suspicious, distant, and morose. While they have never encouraged emigration to the Ridge they have sometimes been unable to prevent it.

Denham, it is supposed, came from one of the Spanish settlements lying further to the south. He settled on Mulberry Creek, and married a sister of Old Sol Collins.

There is another story, however, about Denham. It is said that the first Denham came as did the first Collins from North Carolina, and that he (or his ancestors) had been left upon the Carolina coast by some Portuguese pirate vessel plying along the shore. When the English wrested the island of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, some fifteen hundred Spanish slaves fled to the mountains. Their number grew and their strength multiplied. For more than a hundred years they kept up a kind of guerilla warfare, for they were both savage and warlike. They were called mountain negroes,or maroons. The West Indian waters swarmed with piratical vessels at that time, the Portuguese being the most terrible and daring. The crews of these vessels were composed for the most part of these mountain negroes. When they became insubordinate, or in any way useless, they were put ashore and left to take care of themselves. It is said the Denhans were put ashore on the Carolina coast. Their instincts carried them to the mountains, from which one emigrated to Newman’s Ridge, then a part of North Carolina territory.

So we have the four races, or representatives, among, as they then began to be called, the Malungeons; namely, the Indians, the English, the Portuguese, and the African. Each is clearly distinct and easily recognized even to the present day.

The Portuguese blood has been a misfortune to the first Malungeons inasmuch as it has been a shield to the Goins clan under which they have sought to shelter themselves and repudiate the African streak.

There is a very marked difference between the two, however. There is an old blacksmith, a Portuguese, on Black Water Creek, as dark as a genuine African. Yet, there is a peculiar tinge to his complexion that is totally foreign to the negro. He has a white wife, a Mullins woman, a descendant of English and Indian. If Malungeon does indeed mean mixture, the children of this couple are certainly Malungeons. The blacksmith himself is a Denhan, grandson of the old Portuguese emigrant and a Collins woman.

This, then, is the account of the Malungeons from their first appearance in that part of the country where they are still found, Tennessee.

It will be a matter of some interest to follow them down to the present day. Unlike the rest of the world they have progressed slowly. Their huts are still huts, their characteristics and instincts are still Indian, and their customs have lost but little of the old primitive exclusive and seclusive abandon characteristic of the sons of the forest.

“Mixing in the Mountains” by John Shelton Reed (1997 article)

Published by:

Mixing in the Mountains[1] 

                                                                John Shelton Reed

Southern Cultures, Winter 1997 v3 i4 p25.

  [Reproduced here by permission of the author and publisher. This material is made available for private educational purposes.  Further use, or transmission, of this material without the permission of the author or publisher is prohibited.]

               One January day in 1996, I picked up the Wall Street Journal to find a story headlined “Rural County Balks at Joining Global Village.”[2]  It told about Hancock County, Tennessee, which straddles the Clinch River in the ridges hard up against the Cumberland Gap, where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet.  This is a county that has lost a third of its 1950 population, which was only ten thousand to begin with.  A third of those left are on welfare, and half of those with jobs have to leave the county to work.  The only town is Sneedville, population 1300, which has no movie theater, no hospital, no dry cleaner, no supermarket, and no department store.

               I read this story with a good deal of interest, because the nearest city of any consequence is my hometown of Kingsport, 35 miles from Sneedville as the crow flies, but an hour and a half on mountain roads.  (If you don’t accept my premise that Kingsport is a city of consequence, Knoxville’s a little further from Sneedville, in the opposite direction.)

             The burden of the article was that many of Hancock County’s citizens are indifferent to the state of Tennessee’s desire to hook them up to the information superhighway — a job which will take some doing, especially for the one household in six that doesn’t have a telephone.  The Journal quoted several Hancock Countians to the effect that they didn’t see the point.  The reporter observed that the county offers “safe, friendly ways, pristine rivers, unspoiled forests and mountain views,” and that many residents simply “like things the way they are.”

               So far a typical hillbilly-stereotype story.  But the sentence that really got my attention was this: “Many families here belong to 100 or so Melungeon clans of Portuguese and American Indian descent, who tend to be suspicious of change and have a history of self-reliance.”

             Now, I picture the typical Wall Street Journal reader as a harried commuter on the Long Island Railroad, and I wondered what in the world he made of that.  What’s this “Melungeon” business?  And what are Portuguese doing up those remote east Tennessee hollers?  You might well ask.

                                                                   *         *         *

             Ethnic diversity is not what comes immediately to mind when we think of the American South — perhaps especially not when we think of the Southern mountains.  The historian George Tindall once characterized the South as “the biggest single WASP nest this side of the Atlantic,” and, in fact, all of the U.S. counties where over half the inhabitants claim only English ancestry are in the Kentucky hills (not far from Sneedville, actually).[3]  But there has been more diversity in the South than many people suppose.  Intermixed with these British whites, with West African blacks and the scattered remains of the South’s American Indian population, there are these odd. . . enclaves.  They’re mostly small, but there are a lot of them. Louisiana has its Creoles and Cajuns, of course, but also pockets of Hungarians and Canary Islanders.  Texas has its well-known German settlements, but also counties settled by Czechs and Poles.  You’ll find Greeks in Tarpon Springs, Florida.  Mississippi has Chinese in the Delta, and Lebanese here and there.  There are Italians in former truck-farming colonies in Louisiana, Arkansas, and eastern North Carolina.  And there are Druse in East Tennessee (also not far from Sneedville).

               Few of these exotic groups have been as little-known or poorly understood as the South’s so-called “little races.”[4]  Every Southern state except Arkansas and Oklahoma has at least one group like the Red Bones of Louisiana and Texas, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, the Issues of Virginia, the Lumbee and Haliwa and so-called Cubans of North Carolina, or the Cajans of Alabama.  The 1950 census identified over twenty of these populations in the South, numbering from a few hundred to a few thousand, often isolated in swamps or mountain coves.[5] 

             The Melungeons are one of the largest of these groups.  Estimates of their numbers are imprecise, for reasons I’ll get to, but they range from about 5,000 to about 15,000, scattered around east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and southeastern Kentucky, and concentrated in the area around Sneedville.[6]

             Like most of the other “little races,” the Melungeons have been stereotyped as inbred, violent, and degenerate.  The threat that “The Melungeons will get you” was once widely used to frighten small children.[7]  In one of the earliest journalistic accounts of the group, published in 1891, Miss Will Allen Dromgoole described them as “shiftless, idle, thieving, and defiant of all law, distillers of brandy, almost to a man”; “a great nuisance,” “exceedingly illiterate,” “unforgiving,” and “in most cases filthy.”  She deprecated their “habit of chewing tobacco and spitting upon the floors” and “their ignorance or defiance of the distinction between meum and tuum.”  She observed that “they are exceedingly immoral, yet are great shouters and advocates of religion.”  She called them “`born rogues,’ close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and, to use their own word `sneaky.'”[8] 

               And Miss Dromgoole’s was a sympathetic treatment.  Forty years later, a compilation of east Tennessee folklore implied even worse:

             Folks left them alone because they were so wild and devil-fired and queer and witchy.  If a man was fool enough to go into Melungeon country and if he come back without being shot, he was just sure to wizzen and perish away with some ailment nobody could name.  Folks said terrible things went on, blood drinking and devil worship and carryings-on that would freeze a good Christian’s spine bone.[9] 

            Like many stereotypes, this one had a few elements of truth in it, mixed with outright slander, grotesque exaggeration, and a good deal of self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is known that the Melungeons began to move into east Tennessee in the 1790s from western Virginia and North Carolina.  It appears that they came simply to be left alone, to escape the contempt and persecution of their neighbors in Virginia and Carolina.  As east Tennessee began to fill up with Scotch-Irish settlers, they moved on once again, this time from the fertile bottomlands up the hollers and onto the ridges.  By the 1840s they were poor farmers on poor land — “poor as gully dirt” as their neighbors put it.  Remote from a civil authority that was indifferent if not hostile, they were viewed as pariahs and largely a law unto themselves.  Like some of the other “little races,” they turned to a variety of illegal activities to support themselves:  among them moonshining (as we’ve heard), thievery, and counterfeiting.

             One widely told story has it that the Melungeons were skilled metal-workers, who used to produce fine counterfeit silver pieces — very popular because they had a higher silver content than the federal issue.[10]  That may be apocryphal, but it’s a matter of record that during the Civil War the “Melungeon Marauders” raided Confederate supply trains and, it’s said, the homesteads of absent Confederate soldiers.[11]  This was more a matter of fighting against the Confederacy than fighting for the Union — it’s also said that they raided an occasional Union supply train — but it reinforced the suspicion and fear that already existed and left a legacy of bitternesss that lasted well into this century.

             Who are these people?  The adjective that occurs again and again in connection with the Melungeons is “mysterious.”  When Miss Dromgoole asked their Republican state representative about them, he told her, “A Malungeon [sic] isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a white man.  God only knows what he is.  I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket.”[12]  At one time or another it has been argued that they’re descended from ancient Carthaginians, the Lost Tribes of Israel, 12th-century Welsh explorers, the DeSoto and the Pardo expeditions, the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, and shipwrecked mariners from several different swarthy nations.[13]  One unflattering theory (from that same folklore compilation) has it that Satan was driven from Hell by his henpecking wife and settled in east Tennessee because it reminded him of home.  The Melungeons, by this account, are descended from “Old Horny” and an Indian woman.[14]  The Melungeons themselves always accepted the Indian part, but as for the rest they have consistently told outsiders what they told the Wall Street Journal reporter:  that they are Portuguese, or (as it used to be pronounced) “Porty-gee.”

               And, incidentally, until recently they have resented the word “Melungeon,” which was used by outsiders as a derogatory epithet — although nobody knows its origins or original meaning.[15]  Some say it’s from the French mélange, or from the Greek melan (black), or from “malingerer,” or from some corruption of the common surname Mullins, or from the Portuguese melungo, which means “shipmate.”  As Brewton Berry concluded thirty years ago, however, “The truth is nobody has the faintest idea where the name came from.”[16] 

            For my purposes, what the group’s remote connections may have been is less important than what they’ve become over the years.  Recent anthropometric and genealogical studies have made it clear that the Melungeons, like most of the other “little races,” incorporate genetic material from a combination of whites, blacks, and Indians — that they are, in other words, what anthropologists call a “tri-racial isolate.”            

To be sure, they are markedly “whiter” than most other tri-racial groups.  In the 1960s, one research team estimated the European contribution to the Melungeon gene pool at something between 82 and 94 percent — probably nearer the latter — and they drew this conclusion from a sample of identified group members, obviously excluding any who had chosen to “pass” into the larger white community.[17]  As it turns out, some sort of Iberian contribution isn’t out of the question; in fact, it looks more likely now than most outsiders would have guessed thirty years ago.[18]  But that’s a lengthy and still largely speculative excursion that I’ll pass up here.            

This research also found clear genetic evidence for the Melungeons’ Indian ancestry, although the genealogical thread is elusive.  One student of this matter, Virginia DeMarce, concludes that the Indian strain came to east Tennessee with the original Melungeon settlers, who acquired it in the surprising fluid racial matrix of the 17th-century Virginia Tidewater.[19]  That may well be, but it could also have been reinforced since then through intermarriage with sociologically “white” neighbors, many of whom are proud to claim Indian blood (usually Cherokee).  In 1995 I slipped a question into a national public opinion survey, asking the respondents whether they had any American Indian ancestors.[20]  I thought the numbers would be high, but they surprised even me.  Half of all black Americans claim Indian ancestry, and so do 40 percent of native Southern whites (twice the rate for non-Southern whites).  White Southerners these days (especially young ones) are more likely to claim an ancestor who was an Indian than one who was a Confederate soldier.  Make of that what you will.            

Anyway, the Melungeons’ problems, historically, haven’t been due to their Indian heritage.  Like the South’s other tri-racial groups, they have been ostracized and discriminated against because their neighbors suspected that they were, as one told Miss Dromgoole, “Portuguese niggers.”  (Do not imagine that the absence of racial diversity in the mountains means the absence of racial prejudice.)  Until recently most Melungeons have vociferously denied any African-American connection, and simply refused to accept the attendent legal restrictions.  As one mother told Brewton Berry, “I’d sooner my chilluns grow up ig’nant like monkeys than send ’em to that nigger school.”[21]  But those neighbors were probably right: DeMarce has now established clear lines from several Melungeon families back to 18th-century free black families in Virginia and the Carolinas.              

This genealogical research is recent, however, and, as the anthropometric data suggest, most Melungeons are physically indistinguishable from the general white population.  Consequently, after the Tennessee constitution of 1834 disfranchised “free persons of color,” many east Tennesseans who had been “FC” (free colored) in the 1830 census turned up in 1840 as white, and the vast majority of Melungeons have been white for purposes of enumeration and segregation ever since.[22]  On those rare occasions when the question wound up in court, the Melungeon view prevailed.  In an 1872 decision, for example, the Tennessee Supreme Court accepted the argument that the Melungeons were descended from the Carthaginians, thus legalizing the marriage of a Melungeon woman to a white man and legitimizing their child.[23] 

            If the Melungeons escaped the more rigorous forms of legal discrimination during the Jim Crow period, however, that isn’t to say that they haven’t faced other sorts of stigma and exclusion, as my earlier quotations suggest.  But most could escape even those impediments by moving to communities where their origins weren’t known — and it seems that many did.  Given the group’s documented high birth rates and the relative stability of their population count, it must be the case that over the years a great many have simply slipped away and joined the general white population.

             Moreover, apparently love conquers all.  There’s undeniable evidence of more or less constant intermarriage (not to mention less formal liaisons) between Melungeons and their white neighbors.  Just one indicator:  To the half-dozen original Melungeon names and their dozen or so variants, one recent list of “Melungeon-related surnames” adds over a hundred others, most of them English and Scotch-Irish names common in the Southern Appalachians, obviously acquired by intermarriage.[24]  It probably helps that to the extent that there’s a distinctive Melungeon “look” it’s a strikingly attractive one, among both men and women.

               Anyway, one result of this race-mixing (to use the old-fashioned term) is that the Melungeon population must be even “whiter” than it used to be.  Another is that a great many natives of present-day east Tennessee and southwest Virginia must have Melungeon cousins, if not Melungeon ancestors.

               And here we come to autobiography.

               When I was growing up in east Tennessee, I heard about the Melungeons, these strange folk who lived back in the hills and had olive complexions.  My father, a doctor, also told me that they often have six fingers.  (Now, the literature I’ve been reading lately doesn’t mention that.  Some tri-racial groups like the Wesort of Delaware do have a tendency to “polydactylism,” but if the Melungeons do, it hasn’t made the papers.[25]  Nevertheless, as a child I believed what my father told me.)

             Dad also told me a story.  It seems there was this Melungeon woman who sold whiskey from her cabin and was so enormously fat that when the revenue agents came to arrest her they couldn’t get her out the door.  When she died they had to knock out a wall to remove her body.

               This story has been widespread.  It turns up in east Tennessee folklore, it figures in a novel by Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart, and it turns out that it’s true.[26]  The woman was Mahala “Big Haley” Mullins.  Born in the 1820s, she married a son of the Melungeon patriarch “Irish Jim” Mullins (also known as “Hare-lipped Jim”), and bore him some 19 or 20 children.  Her weight apparently never approached the 700 pounds of legend, but it did suffice to confine her to her Hancock County cabin, from which she sold high-quality moonshine until her death in 1902.  As one deputy sent to arrest her reported, she was “catchable” but not “fetchable.”

             Anyway, that was pretty much it for my youthful knowledge of Melungeons.  To the extent that they impinged on my consciousness at all, they weren’t figures that inspired fear or hatred.  Even as a child I hadn’t thought of them as bogeymen.  As far as I can recall, I had always thought of them as pitiful specimens or colorful exotics, although as far as I knew, I’d never met one.

              One fine day when I was 16 or 17 and newly armed with a driver’s license, my buddy Bill and I were out cruising the countryside.  We often did this, stopping along the way to examine old peckerwood lumber mills, buying soft drinks and 25-cent punches on illegal punchboards at country stores and filling stations, one time trying to find someone with something to trade for Bill’s broken-down motorcycle. . . .  This day, for some reason, we started sharing our ignorance about Melungeons.  Having nothing better to do, we decided to go find some, and we set a course for Sneedville.

             I wish this story had some drama to it, some fateful encounter or embarrassing discovery, but as a writer of non-fiction, I’m stuck with the facts.  What happened was that we cruised Sneedville’s down-at-the-heels main street, circumspectly eyeing the locals (we knew better than to stare).  We were checking for extra fingers, but we didn’t see any.  Nor did we see any “olive” skin, which we imagined to be green.  We stopped in a general store to buy some junk food — I was partial to Dolly Madison cream-filled cupcakes — and we made idle conversation with the man behind the counter.  We talked about this and that, but not about Melungeons.  Oddly, for a couple of bumptious teenage city boys, we were reluctant even to say the word:  it didn’t seem polite.  So we left Sneedville no wiser than we’d come.

             It must have been about that same time that the sociologist Brewton Berry went to Hancock County.  He was doing research for his book Almost White, and, of course, scientific inquiry licenses all sorts of bad manners.  But Berry didn’t learn much either.  Unlike Bill and me, he at least knew what his prey were likely to be named and what they actually tend to look like, but when he asked various likely prospects if they were Melungeons they invariably denied it — although they usually suggested that there were some living in the next holler.[27] 

             Some twenty years later, in the 1970s, my kid sister, a writer, also went to Sneedville to research the subject.  But herimpolite questions were no more fruitful than Berry’s.  People pretended not to know what she was talking about, or denied that there were any Melungeons left.  Even in the late ’80s, when the English-based travel writer Bill Bryson detoured to Sneedville on a tip from a London journalist, all he got was “Don’t know nothin’ about that.  You want your oil checked?”  As he drove away, discouraged, he writes, “High up the hill I began to encounter shacks set back in clearings in the woods, and peered at them in the hope of glimpsing a Melungeon or two.  But the few people I saw were white.”[28] 

            Now, of course, a decade after that, they’re coming out to reporters for the Wall Street Journal.  They’re back, and they’re proud.  You can read all about it in a book by a fellow named Brent Kennedy, who heads up an organization called the Melungeon Research Committee.  Kennedy’s book, published in 1994, is called The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People.  An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America.  As you might gather from its title, it’s a rather rum little book, a mixture of genealogy, autobiography, more or less reliable history, and special pleading — something like this essay, as a matter of fact.[29] 

               As I read it, I noticed something I found very peculiar.  Kennedy’s history of the Melungeons’ wanderings offered a striking parallel to the history of some of my own ancestors, who moved in the first decades of the 19th century from Ashe County in western North Carolina to mountains of east Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

             Yes, I thought:  very odd.  Then I encountered that list of Melungeon family names I mentioned earlier.  Although none of the half-dozen classic Melungeon names can be found in my family tree, nine others from Kennedy’s list turn up among the southwest Virginians on my father’s side.  Some of those names, like Hill, White, and Burton, are too common to signify, but Phipps and Reeves and Tolliver are rarer.  Swindall and Rasnick are rarer still, and anyone named Vanover is almost certainly kin to me.

              Finally, I took a close look at Kennedy’s own family tree.  Some of his ancestors’ names looked dimly familiar.  Later, my sister told me that there is a reason for that:  they’re ours, too — hers and mine.  If Kennedy’s right about their being Melungeons (and why would anyone make that up?), well. . . .   A few years ago, I spoke on a program with the poet and novelist Ishmael Reed, who comes from Chattanooga.  He talked about his mixed ancestry — African, Indian, and Scotch-Irish — and referred off-handedly to race-mixing in the east Tennessee mountains.  Since we share the same last name, I got a laugh when it came my turn to speak by referring to “my cousin Ishmael.”  Even then I wasn’t joking, but now, it seems, I’d have even less reason to be.

              In her pioneering article on the Melungeons, Miss Dromgoole reveals an interesting misconception:  “A race of Mulattoes cannot exist as these Melungeons have existed,” she wrote.  “The Negro race goes from Mulattoes to quadroons, from quadroons to octoroons and there it stops.  The octoroon women bear no children.”[30] 

            Think about that:  “Octoroon women bear no children.”  Like mules.  Who knows how many genteel Southern white women held that comforting belief — comforting, that is, to one who accepted the “one drop” rule of racial identification that was enshrined in the laws of many states.  But in one sense Miss Dromgoole was right.  Not only is there no word for people with one black great-great-grandparent; sociologically speaking, it’s almost true that there are no such people.

               After I read Kennedy’s book, I got out my old high-school yearbook, the Maroon and Gray of the Dobyns-Bennett High School Indians.  (“Indians,” huh?)  With some trepidation, I opened the book.  I paged through it, looking up old friends and classmates and cousins whose privacy I’ll protect here, but who bear the classic Melungeon family names.  As often as not, the features that looked back at me resembled those in the photographs in Brent Kennedy’s book.  Of course they were the same kids I’d always known — it didn’t matter at all — but how about that yearbook title?   Gray, of course, mixes black and white. And the noun “maroon,” as Webster’s tells us, can mean “a fugitive Negro slave” or the descendant of one.  . . .  No, just coincidence.  Surely.   (Give me six, bro’!)
 


[1]. This essay was originally presented as a paper to the Conference on Southern Autobiography at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas, 11-13 April 1996.
[2]Wall Street Journal, 4 January 1996, B1, B6.
[3]. George Brown Tindall, “The Ethnic Southerners,” in The Ethnic Southerners (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 8; James Paul Allen and Eugene James Turner. We the People: An Atlas of America‘s Ethnic Diversity (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 41.
[4]. Edgar T. Thompson, “The `Little Races’,” in Plantation Societies, Race Relations, and the South (Durham: Duke University Press, 1975), 162-82.
[5]. Calvin L. Beale, “American Triracial Isolates: Their Status and Pertinence to Genetic Research,” Eugenics Quarterly 4 (December 1957), 187-96.
[6]. Edward T. Price, “The Melungeons: A Mixed-Blood Strain of the Southern Appalachians,”Geographical Review 41 (1951), 256-71.
[7]. Ibid.  See also Swan M. Burnett, “A Note on the Melungeons,” American Anthropologist 2 (1889), 347-49.
[8]. Will Allen Drumgoole, “The Malungeons,” The Arena 3 (1891): 470-79.
[9]. Quoted in Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 60-61.
[10]. This story is repeated in Jean Patterson Bible, Melungeons Yesterday and Today(Jefferson City [?], Tennessee: privately printed, 1975), 105; see also James R. Aswell et al., God Bless the Devil!: Liars’ Bench Tales, rev. ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 211-12.
[11]. N. Brent Kennedy, The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1994), 15.
[12]. Dromgoole, “The Malungeons,” 473.
[13]. For most of these theories, see Bible, Melungeons Yesterday and Today.
[14]. “Old Horny’s Own,” in Aswell et al., God Bless the Devil!, 207-14.
[15]. Burnett, “Note on the Melungeons,” 347.
[16]. Berry, Almost White, 36.
[17]. William S. Pollitzer and William H. Brown, “Survey of Demography, Anthropometry, and Genetics in the Melungeons of Tennessee: An Isolate of Hybrid Origin in Process of Dissolution,” Human Biology 41 (1969): 388-400.
[18]. Although the current excitement is about some sort of possible Anatolian connection.  See note 28, below.
[19]. Virginia Easley DeMarce, “Looking at Legends — Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-racial Isolate Settlements,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly81 (March 1993): 24-45.  See also Virginia Easley DeMarce, “`Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-racial Isolate Families of the Upper South — A Genealogical Study,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 80 (March 1992): 5-35.
[20]. Southern Focus Poll, Fall, 1995, conducted by the Institute for Research in Social Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
[21]. Berry, Almost White, 19.
[22]. DeMarce, “Looking at Legends,” 39.
[23]. Bible, Melungeons Yesterday and Today, 61-66.
[24]. Kennedy, The Melungeons, 148.
[25]. Beale, “American Triracial Isolates,” 190.
[26]. “Six Hundred Honest Pounds,” in Aswell et al., God Bless the Devil!, 226-43; Jesse Stuart, Daughter of the Legend (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965); Bible, Melungeons Yesterday and Today, 100-102.
[27]. Berry, Almost White, 17.
[28]. Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America (London: Secker & Warburg, 1992), 90-91.
[29]. Since the publication of Kennedy’s book (now available in a second, expanded edition) there has been an astonishing proliferation of “Melungia” and related activities ranging from reunions to Melungeon heritage tours of Turkey.  For the latest catalog, seewww.clinch.edu/appalachia/melungeon, the Melungeon website.   

[30]. Dromgoole, “The Malungeons,” 472 (emphasis added).

John Shelton Reed is the retired William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee.  His undergraduate degree is from M.I.T. and his Ph.D. is from Columbia.  He is the author of many books and articles relating to the South; his most recent is Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue co – written with Dale Volberg Reed and William McKinney.

“About the Melungeons” by Wayne Winkler (2004 article)

Published by:

About the Melungeons

by Wayne Winkler
February 2004

A few generations ago, children in Tennessee, Virginia and surrounding areas were told, “If you don’t behave, the Melungeons will get you!” Many people grew up believing the Melungeons were simply an Appalachian version of the boogeyman – a fearsome and mysterious but mythical bit of folklore.

 

From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, occasional newspaper and magazine articles affirmed that the Melungeons were real and that they lived in isolation because of their mysterious ethnic heritage – presumed by non-Melungeons to be a mixture of white, black, and Indian. In the past decade, books, magazines, and (especially) the Internet have fed an increasing interest in Melungeons. Genealogists have traced many of the families, DNA studies have offered some tantalizing hints, but the story of the Melungeons remains – to use the term most often employed by journalists over the years – “mysterious.”

The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry first documented in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Similar groups of “mysterious” people, or at least remnants of these groups, are found all along the Atlantic seaboard. While these other groups have no known connection to the Melungeons, they have historically suffered similar problems due to the difficulty of placing them within an established racial category. Anthropologists called them “racial islands” or “tri-racial isolates.”

In 1946, William Gilbert, a researcher for the Library of Congress, presented the first comprehensive survey covering the phenomenon of “little races” or, as Gilbert considered them, remnant Indian groups in the eastern U.S. He estimated that there were at least 50,000 persons who were “complex mixtures in varying degrees of white, Indian, and Negro blood,” and listed, by their colloquial names, ten major tri-racial groups with several related groups. These included:

1. Brass Ankles and allied groups in South Carolina, including Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, Marlboro Blues, and others.

2. Cajans and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi.

3. Croatans of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

4. Guineas of West Virginia and Maryland. (Other names included “West Hill Indians, “ ”Cecil Indians,” and “Guinea niggers.”)

5. Issues of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia.

6. Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey.

7. Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians.

8. Moors and Nanticokes of Delaware and New Jersey.

9. Red Bones of Louisiana.

10.Wesorts of southern Maryland.

Like many of these tri-racial groups, the Melungeons are traditionally identified by family names. A few of the surnames are associated with the Melungeons include Collins, Gibson, Goins, Mullins, and Bowlin. The Melungeons have historically been associated with the region along the Virginia-Tennessee border east of Cumberland Gap, with Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee, receiving most of the attention from journalists. Newspapers and magazines have found the Melungeons a fascinating topic since the 1840s, but the Melungeons have resented most of the publicity they have received over the years. Most of the articles on the Melungeons speculated on the legends, folklore, and theories surrounding their ancestry.

Some of these legends and theories have suggested descent from Spanish or Portuguese explorers, from the “Lost Colonists” of Roanoke Island, from shipwrecked sailors or pirates of various nationalities, from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or from ancient Phoenicians or Carthaginians. More recent theories have proposed that the Melungeons descended from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern ancestors.

None of these theories originated with the Melungeons themselves. Early accounts reflect the Melungeons’ self-description as “Indians.” Some Melungeons reportedly described themselves a “Portuguese,” or, as many pronounced it, “Portyghee.” Most of their white neighbors considered the Melungeons a mixture of, as one Hancock Countian put it, “white trash, renegade Indians, and runaway slaves.”

There is no consistent definition of the word “Melungeon.” Some anthropologists have limited the term to a few families located near Newman’s Ridge, while lay researchers have attempted to expand “Melungeon” to include other mixed-race groups in the southeastern United States. At one time, the word was used as a racial epithet against a mulatto, at another time as a political epithet for east Tennessee Republicans. The common usage of the term had an element of socio-economic status attached to it; families who were financially successful were not necessarily considered Melungeon, no matter who their ancestors were.

The majority of researchers over the years have concurred with the theory that the word derived from the French melange, meaning mixture. Another proposed theory for the origin of “Melungeon” is the Afro-Portuguese term melungo, supposedly meaning “shipmate.” Yet another is the Greek term melan, meaning “black.”

Other researchers have speculated that “Melungeon” derives from the Turkish melun can, (meaning “cursed soul”), the Italianmelongena (“eggplant,” referring to one with dark skin), or the old English term “malengin” (“guile; deceit”).

Nearly everyone who has written about the Melungeons agrees that they fiercely resented the name. [Nearly all the tri-racial groups resented the names the were called by their white neighbors.] Even in the mid-20th century, to call a Hancock Countian a Melungeon was to insult him. The stigma attached to the name “Melungeon” leads most — but not all — researchers to the conclusion that the name was imposed upon the people, that it was not a name they ever used for themselves.

Over the years, many people have journeyed to remote Hancock County, Tennessee, to search for the Melungeons they have read about in magazine or newspaper stories. Most of them go away uncertain whether they have seen a Melungeon or not. Most Melungeons in Hancock County look very much like their “white” neighbors, many of whom are quite swarthy from a lifetime of outdoor work.

Observers differed in their accounts of Melungeon physical features. Some historic descriptions of Melungeons include:

They are tall, straight, well- formed people, of a dark copper color … but wooly heads and other similar appendages of our negro.

They are of swarthy complexion, with prominent cheek bones, jet black hair, generally straight but at times having a slight tendency to curl, and the men have heavy black beards…Their frames are well built and some of the men are fine specimens of physical manhood. They are seldom fat.

While some of them are swarthy and have high Indian cheekbones, the mountain whites, too, often display these same characteristics. Also, many of the Melungeons have light hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.

The color of the skin of a full-blooded, pure Melungeon is a much richer brown than an Indian’s skin. It is not the color of a part Indian and part white, for their skin is lighter. The full-blooded, pure Melungeon had more the color of skin of a person from India and Egypt.

Legend and folklore place the Melungeons in the Hancock County area prior to the arrival of the white settlers. The best evidence, however, indicates the first Melungeon families arrived in the region at about the same time as the first whites. As in most other aspects of Melungeon history, myth competes with documented fact for popular attention.

Not all the Melungeons moved to the vicinity of Newman’s Ridge, and not all of those who did move to that area moved at the same time. One important early Melungeon settlement is the Stony Creek area, near Fort Blackmore in present-day Scott County, Virginia. The Stony Creek Baptist Church records include several people with Melungeon surnames who joined the church between 1801 and 1804. These church minutes provide the first written record of the word “Melungeon” in 1813. Other Melungeon communities formed in the southeastern Tennessee counties of Hamilton and Rhea, in middle Tennessee, in eastern Kentucky, and even as far north as Highland County, Ohio.

During the Civil War, the loyalties of the Melungeons paralleled those of the neighboring whites; the majority fought for the Union, but a significant minority sided with the Confederacy.

After the war, the Melungeons were accused of bushwhacking and raiding white settlements, but these incidents likely exaggerated over the years.

In the summer of 1890, a young writer from Nashville made the journey of over 300 miles to Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County. Will Allen Dromgoole worked as an engrossing clerk in the Tennessee Senate and wrote poetry and feature stories. After reading about the Melungeons in a newspaper article, she began asking questions about them, and eventually traveled to Newman’s Ridge. After spending two weeks observing the Melungeons, she wrote two articles for a Nashville newspaper and later adapted the articles for the nationally-distributed Arena magazine.

Dromgoole’s comments reflected the racial attitudes shared by most white Americans of her day, and her descriptions of the Melungeons were far from complimentary. Unfortunately, Dromgoole’s articles were the foundation for most of what was written about the Melungeons for the next 100 years. Most writers have used her as a source, whether credited or not, and many have used her observations in lieu of traveling to Newman’s Ridge to collect their own.

The Northern Presbyterian Church established a mission in Vardy Valley, Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1899. This mission eventually grew into the Vardy School, which provided educational opportunities for Melungeons until the 1970s.

During the late 1930s and 1940s, the Melungeons were featured in several newspaper and magazine articles. Few of these pieces added any significant new information about the Melungeons; instead, most presented folk tales and increasingly fantastic theories of origin. While journalists found the Melungeons a source for interesting feature articles, scientists began the first serious academic research of the Melungeons and other tri-racials.

For nearly all the tri-racial groups, particularly those in the southern states, segregation was a daily reminder of their social status. There were exceptions; despite a few squabbles over whether Melungeons and whites should attend the same schools, most Melungeons were considered white. Legal acceptance is one thing, however; social acceptance is quite another. Even where tri-racials were considered black, the local customs and mores often differentiated between the two groups, granting the tri-racials a marginally higher status than blacks — but certainly lower than that of whites.

By the 1960s, the stigma of being a Melungeon was disappearing – but so were the Melungeons themselves. Rogersville, Tennessee attorney Henry Price said, “The pure Melungeon (if there is or was such a thing) is rare today. Only among the older folk – deep in the ridge – does one see what must have been the original skin color characteristics, experience the wary, ‘don’t tread on me’ atmosphere; hear the lament that young people are leaving the ridge in ever increasing numbers … The future for this remnant of the clan is not bright.”

However, an idea designed to bring tourism and economic opportunity to Hancock County began to engender pride in the once-hated name “Melungeon.” The Hancock County Drama Association produced an outdoor drama entitled Walk Toward the Sunset, written by noted playwright Kermit Hunter. Walk Toward the Sunset opened on July 3, 1969, and the first season closed with a total attendance of over 10,000. By 1976, however, the drama closed permanently due to lack of attendance. While ultimately unsuccessful, the play brought a sense of pride to the Melungeons. The name “Melungeon” itself — once an epithet — was worn by many with pride.

In the late 1980s, Brent Kennedy, a native of Wise, Virginia, began investigating his own ancestry. He tried to interest scholars and scientists in examining the ethnic background of the Melungeons, but to no avail. In 1992 he organized a group of researchers into the Melungeon Research Committee. Utilizing some of the research of the Committee, Kennedy published The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America in 1994. In it, he theorized that the Melungeons’ ancestors included Portuguese, Spanish, Turks, Moors, Jews, Native Americans, Africans, and various Europeans. He further contended that the population sharing this heritage is much larger than previously assumed.

Interest in the Melungeons spread via the Internet, where web pages and mail groups brought together people from all across the country who were searching for information about their Melungeon ancestry. In July of 1997, a gathering dubbed “First Union” brought more than 600 people to tiny Wise, Virginia. Later Unions were organized by the Melungeon Heritage Association, chartered in the summer of 1998.

These are the people who have been largely left out of America’s English-oriented history books. Though historical, genealogical, and genetic research has shed much light on the mystery of the Melungeons, many questions still remain. The European/Middle Eastern ancestors of the Melungeons arrived in America with the intention of establishing their families in a new land. Through intermarriage with Indians and African-Americans, they managed to do so; their descendants are at the forefront of the effort to find out who they were and how they eventually became the people known as Melungeons