About the Melungeons
by Wayne Winkler
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