Sons of the Legend
by William Worden
|Saturday Evening Post, October 18, 1947
Surrounded by mystery and fantastic legends, the Malungeons live on Newman’s Ridge, deep in the Tennessee Mountains. The story of a colony whose background is lost in antiquity.
About the people of Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater Swamp just one fact is indisputable: There are such strange people. Beyond that, fact gives way to legendary mystery, and written history is supplanted by garble stories told a long time ago and half forgotten.
Today, even the legend is in the process of being forgotten, the strange stories are seldom remembered and the people are slipping away to cities and to better farms, there to tell anyone who ask s them, all they can about where they came from, but never to tell who they are. Because they do not know.
Newman’s Ridge lies beyond Blackwater Swamp, and Blackwater lies beyond Sneedville. Sneedville, war-swollen to a population of about 400 persons, is the county seat of Hancock County, Tennessee, just below Virginia, in the mountains through which no principal highway runs, no railroad has tracks, and only a single, insecure telephone line with five or six connections straggles. To get to Sneedville, on outsider can drive up the wandering bank of the Clinch River from Tazewell though Xenophon, which can be missed if the traveler is not looking carefully; or he can go over the switchbacks of Clinch Mountain from Rogersville to Kyle’s Ford and down the river from the east. Either pinestudded route is beautiful. Neither has ever been used by very many people who did not live in Sneedville.
Nothing much ever happened in Sneedville. There is no industry, no mining now. Only once did the town ever get its name into newspapers farther away than Knoxville, when once some years before the war, Charlie Johns, a lank mountaineer, married Eunice Winstead, who was certainly not more than thirteen years old and was variously reported as being only nine. Their pictures and story made most of the United States newspapers in a dull news period.
Charlie and Eunice still live near Sneedville, but nothing has been written about them for a long time. They do not want anything more written.
From Sneedville, a few small roads lead northward toward the swamp and the ridge. One is passable, when the weather permits, through Kyle’s Ford all the way to Vardy, where Presbyterians maintain a mission school. But weather does not permit with any regularity. There are in Rogersville a few tall, olive-skinned people with dark eyes and high cheekbones, small hands and feet and straight black hair, the men gaunt, the young women often remarkably beautiful.
In Sneedville on a “public day” when a lawing of some interest is under way in the county courthouse, many country people come to town from the rich farms along the Clinch River bottoms. Walking among them along the one muddy main street or leaning against the stone wall around the courthouse square will be other dark people — old women withered or excessively fat, inclined to talk very fast in musical voices, old men spare and taciturn, thinlipped, rather like Indians, but not quite like them. Either they have some Latin characteristics or the effect of the legend is to make the stranger think they have. Some few of them — the daughters of these people are very often lovely, soft and feminine, in striking contrast to the bony appearance of most mountain women — live in the town. Of them, their neighbors will say, “Well, they don’t talk about it, but I happen to know her pappy used to make whiskey up on the ridge;” or “He might not tell you, but he never came to town from Vardy until he was growed.”
But for all that some of them live there, these are strangers in Rogersville, strangers in Kyle’s Ford and Sneedville. They are not fully at home where the telephones are or the highways go. The small roads lead up out of Sneedville across the swamp and end at the base of Newman’s Ridge, nearly twenty miles long, a mile or so across at its most narrow point, virgin except for small clearings which dot its high slopes — clearings with log houses in them, corn patches growing beside the doors. That is, those houses that have doors. Many have no floors and some have no doors; only burlap hanging across the openings in cold weather.
Here, beyond where the roads end, in the clearings on the ridge, the dark people are at home. This is the Malungeon country. This is the country where no one ever uses the word “Malungeon.” As a matter of fact, nobody is entirely sure what the word is. Perhaps “Melungeon,” from the French “melange,” meaning “mixture;” perhaps from melas, a Greek word meaning black. Its origin, like that of the people it specifies, is lost now. Already, it is entirely meaningless to most people even within a few dozen miles of Newman’s Ridge; and presently, like the people of the ridge, who are constantly drifting away, intermarrying outside, never going home, saying nothing of the little ridge history they may know, it may be entirely forgotten. Except for a few curious people who like mysteries without answers.
The mystery of the Malungeons is basically simple. When the first Yankee and Scotch-Irish mountain men drifted down the Clinch River from its sources in Virginia toward the place where it meets the Holston to make the Tennessee River, they found in the rich farmland of the Clinch valley a strange people already settled. They were dark, tall, not exactly like Indians, certainly not at all like the escaped Negroes lurking on the outskirts of white slave-holding settlements. Even then they kept to themselves, had little to do with Andy Jackson’s men and the others, the trappers, adventurers and farmers who came down the line of the river.
When they were first seen is doubtful. One Tennessee history notes that the journal of an expedition down the Tennessee River in the 1600’s recorded an Indian story of a white settlement eight days down the river. The Indians said the whites lived to themselves, had houses and owned a bell which they sounded often, especially before meals, when all of them bowed their heads toward it. The journal was not clear about whether the location was on what is now the Clinch River. It could have been. These people could have been the Malungeons. But there is no record that any white man saw them.
Certainly they must have been there fairly early in the eighteenth century. Hale and Merritt’s History of Tennessee and Tennesseans says a census of the settlements in 1795 listed 975 “free persons” in the East Tennessee mountain area, distinguishing between them and the white settlers. As there never was any considerable number of Negroes in the mountains, these must have been the strange people of the Clinch valley.
But the other settlers apparently were unwilling to admit that they dark people were Caucasians, and the dividing line between “whites” and “Malungeons” began to be drawn — by the whites. Forty years later the division became serious. In the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1834, East Tennesseans succeeded in having the Malungeons officially classified as “free persons of color.” This classification was equivalent to declaring them of Negro blood and preventing them from suing or even testifying in court in any case involving a Caucasian. The purpose was fairly obvious and the effect immediate. Other settlers simply moved onto what good bottom land the Malungeons had, and the dark people had no recourse except to retire with what they could take with them to the higher ridge land which no other settlers wante d and where no court cases could arise. Some may have been on Newman’s Ridge previously, but now the rest climbed the slopes to live, taking with them their families, a few household possessions, some stock and a burning resentment of this and other injustices, such as the fact that their children were not welcome in the settler’s schools, only in Negro schools, which they declined to attend.
On the ridge they built their small houses — log shacks without floors and sometimes even without chimneys — planted corn, and distilled whiskey. Now and then moving in he night in Indian fashion they descended on the richer farms of the valley. Now and then when strangers approached the ridge too closely or ventured into Blackwater swamp, they used the long rifles which seemed almost like parts of their bodies, so naturally were they carried. Now and then, valley farms lost cattle or hogs or chickens and never found any trace of the missing stock. Now and then, strangers failed to come back from the ridge or the swamp.
When the Civil War split the border states county against county and family against family, few of the Malungeons went to either army. They stayed home, brooding on their mountainside.
In the valleys, farm women told their youngsters, “Act purty or the Malungeons’ll get ye.” There is no record that they ever “got” any children, but old men still live who remember when no wandering hog was safe and few chicken yards secure.
What happened after the war is not entirely clear; nor the reasons for it. Revision of the state constitution took care of the old segregated status of the Malungeons, but nobody now seems certain exactly what made them welcome in the towns again.
Hale and Merritt, in their history, have the most fantastic explanation. They say, without giving any authority, that the Malungeons struck gold. Just when and just where are difficult to decide. The history declares flatly that the strike was made somewhere on Straight Creek, where ovens were built for refining the metal and for manufacture of technically counterfeit twenty dollar double eagles. But the counterfeit coins, the history continues, actually had nearly thirty dollars worth of gold in them and were welcomed by most storekeepers in the area. The storekeepers gave face value, more or less, for them, then sold the coins as gold by weight. Naturally, Malungeon business was more than welcome.
The only catch to the story is that nobody except Hale and Merritt ever seems to have heard of it. No other history mentions it and no trace of the coins remains in East Tennessee — at least, not in any of the expected places. Nor does Straight Creek appear on available maps. Milum Bowen, storekeeper at Kyle’s Ford, says he has known the Melungeons all his life and “they’re real friends if they’re your friends, but will do you some kind of dirt at night if they don’t like you.” He has traded constantly with them during most of his seventy-some years, but never saw or heard of any such coins.
Only one ghost of a clue is in the memory of anyone in the area. That is a rumor — no on of the dozen people who will tell it as a rumor seems to know where it comes from — that there is silver — not gold, but silver — somewhere in the lowering mountains which ring Hancock County, somewhere in the half-mapped, heavily wooded ridges. “People say,” they tell a stranger, “that it’ll be found again someday.”
Whether there was gold or whether there was none, the Malungeons, after the Civil War, seemed to enter a new phase of their lonesome existence. Bushwhacking declined, some few Malungeons came off the ridge to go to school, many more turned to distilling for their principal source of livelihood. Of all the stories of moonshining in the Hancock County mountains, the best seems to be the often-retold tale of Big Haly Mullins, a very real woman who became a legend herself. Milum Bowen testifies to the fact that Big Haly really did exist, really did make whiskey and most certainly weighed 600 or 700 poounds.
The legend is that in the early years of this century, Federal revenue agents time and again followed the steep paths to Big Haly’s cabin, time and again found aging whiskey and the still for making it, and found Haly, peaceful and alone, waiting for them in her cabin. Each time she admitted ownership of the still and whiskey, and each time they officially arrested her.
There they stopped. Big Haly was in her cabin and was too fat to be got out the door. Even if they had been able to get her through the door, they had no method for getting her down the ridge to any court for trial. She was much too heavy for any combination of men who could go together down the trail, she was much too heavy for any mule, and she would not or could not walk.
So the revenuers went away and Big Haly resumed making whiskey as soon as the still could be repaired — that is to say, her myriad of relatives, who had vanished into the hills as soon as the Federal men left the highway, returned and began making whiskey again under Haly’s directions, shouted from inside the cabin.
At least one supporting fact is attested by Bowen. When Mrs. Mullins died, he says, Malungeon relatives knocked the fireplace out of the end of her cabin in order to get her body outside for burial. It just would not go through the door.
Toward the end of the 1800’s one person made an extended study of the Malungeons. This was a Nashville poetess, Miss Will Allen Dromgoole, who spent some months living with the dark people in the mountains and reported her findings in two articles in the Arena magazine, published in Boston in 1891.
Several peculiarities mar the poetess’ account of the dark people. One is that she changed her mind. In the Arena article of March, 1891, she rejected the theory that the Malungeons might be Negroid, basing her rejection on their appearance and on what she stated as a fact — that continuance of such blood would be impossible because octoroon women never have children, and Malungeon families were traceable for numerous generations. She said then that she did not know where the Malungeons had come from or of what blood they were, although she was inclined to believe they were basically Portuguese.
Three months later, however, Miss Dromgoole signed another article on the same subject in the same magazine. But this time she had decided, among other things, that octoroon women were not necessarily barren after all. She no longer found the Malungeons interesting, friendly or pathetic. In June they were dirty, thieving, untrustworthy, decadent and not mysterious at all. In June she knew their exact history. There had been, said Miss Dromgoole, two wily Cherokee Indians with a big idea. First, they borrowed names from white settlers in Virginia and called themselves Vardy Collins and Buck Gibson. Then, in the woods near a Virginia settlement, Vardy covered Buck with a dark stain, led him to a plantation and there sold him as a “likely nigger,” receiving in payment $300, some goods and a wagon with a team of mules. With this loot he promptly vanished into the forest again.
Whereupon Gibson made his way to the nearest fresh water, washed off the dark stain, then calmly walked off the plantation a free man protesting that he knew nothing of the sale of any “likely nigger” and certainly was not one.
In the forest, Gibson met Collins at a rendezvous where they split the loot and went their separate ways. Miss Dromgoole’s article gives no hint of her authority, but she states flatly that Collins came to Newman’s Ridge, Tennessee, where he begat a large family by a wife whose ancestry was not specified. Subsequently, an English trader named Mullins came to the ridge and married one of the Collins family. A free or escaped Negro, one Goins — this is still quoting Miss Dromgoole — married another daughter and settled in Blackwater Swamp; ansd a Portuguese, one Denham, arrived from no one knows where, married still another Collins to establish one more related family on the ridge.
Miss Dromgoole completed her estimate of the Malungeons by noting that the most common names among them wre still those four, along with Gorvans, Gibbens, and Bragans, or Brogan, and that all the families used a strange system of identifying their members, a system in which the wife of Jack Collins would be known as Mary Jack, his daughter as Sally Jack and his son as Tom Jack. She did not say what she thought this system proved, if anything.
Miss Dromgoole is gone and there is no practical method of checking her theories or even her facts now. But her final estimate of the Malungeons did not please them, and they had a sort of revenge. Milum Bowen remembers that the ridge people created a jingle about the poetess and repeated it endlessly to each other. “I can’t remember the rest of the words,” he says, “ but the last of it was ‘Will Allen Damfool.’”
Actually, Miss Dromgoole’s theory of origin for the dark people has as much to support it as any of the others, which is virtually nothing except that the dark people do exist. Many theories have been advanced. One, which the Malungeons themselves like especially, is that they are descendants of the lost Roanoke colony in Virginia — although the only plausible link with that colony is the English-sounding names the Malungeons now bear. They could be the Lost Colony, of course. But there is no real indication that they are.
Woodson Knight, a Louisville, Kentucky, writer, professed to find in 1940 an indication in these same names that the people might be Welsh, and was bemused by the possibility that those along the Clinch River might have descended from the retainers of a certain early Welsh chieftan, one Madoc, who with his ship “sailed from the ken of men into the Western Sea” in the days of the Roman Empire’s decline. Which could be, of course, but lacks any supporting evidence whatsoever.
Unquestionably the oddest theory of all was advanced by J. Patton Gibson, a Tennessee writer, and given an odd twist by Judge Lewis Shepherd, of Chattanooga. Shepherd’s connection with the malungeons came through his employment as attorney for a half-Malungeon girl in a land case near Chattanooga. The land had been owned by a Caucasian who married a Malungeon woman who somehow had wandered far from her native Hancock County mountains. A daughter was born, and subsequently botht the mother and the father died, the latter in an asylum. His relatives sent the child away and claimed the land, basing their claims on the theory that the Malungeon woman had been of Negro blood, that the marriage therefore had been illegal under Tennessee statutes and that the child was illegitimate and wothout rights of succession to the property.
Shepherd was employed as attorney for the girl, by this time nearly grown, and brought back to Chattanooga by friends of the dead man. Like so many of the people who have written and spoken of the subject of the Malungeon mystery, Shepherd nowhere quoted his authorities, but what he told the jury was that the girl in question had no Negroid characteristics and that she, a Malungeon, was a descendent of a lost and hounded people, originally Phoenecians, who migrated to Morocco at the time the Romans were sacking Carthage. From Morocco, he said, they eventually sailed to South Carolina, arriving there before other settlers. But when lighter neighbors came, these people could not get along with them because the light South Carolinians insisted the Malungeons were Negroes, and even attempted to impose a head tax on them as such, as well as barring their children from Caucasian schools. So they fled toward the mountains and stopped only when they reached Hancock County, Tennessee. There was nobody then, and there is nobody now, to support in any way his theory or to argue with him on any basis except improbability. But he did win the court case.
One more theory is worth repeating along with the more curious. Among others, James Aswell, magazine writer and Tennessee history expert, has repeated it as a possible explanation for the Malungeons. This is: that about the time of the Portuguese revolt against Spain, numerous Portuguese ships were playing the Caribbean as pirates or near-pirates. A common method of disposing of unwanted crew members was to maroon them, sometimes on the Florida keys or coast. Some crews also mutinied, and one may well have burned its ship, attacked some small Indian village ashore and taken the women, then fled west to the mountains to escape Indian wrath.
That these Portuguese could have reached the Hancock ridges is obviously quite possible, especially if their marooning or mutiny should have taken place on the North Carolina coast. To say that they did reach the ridges is another matter. The only evidences of it are the dark and Latin features of the present-day Malungeons — the differences between Indian and Latin are often difficult to distinguish, the rumors of cross veneration and near-Catholic habits of burial, and the possibility mentioned by some writers that a name such as Bragans might as easily originally have been Braganza as Brogan.
Whatever they are — Welsh, English, Phoenician, Portuguese or just Indian — the Malungeons still are on Newman’s Ridge, in Hancock, Rhea and Hawkins counties of Tennessee, and a few across the border in Virginia. Many are scattered by ones or twos, miles from the isolated ridge to the occupied for so long. There are known to be hundreds and maybe thousands with variously diluted blood. And where they came from nobody knows. The old people left no records, no implements, books or relics to help in solving the mystery. They were uneducated, often illiterate people, and even what little the grandfathers knew or had heard of their own origin died with them, except for scraps of oral stories.
The descendants are still farmers, for the most part, still have occasional trouble about their color. Within the last dozen years, disputes flared briefly in certain Hancock County districts about whether Malungeon children should go to white or Negro schools and during both wars of this century, Malungeons have had color trouble upon reporting to Southern cantonments. They still make a certain amount of tax-evading whiskey somewhere up the dim ravines, and now and then are hauled into court for it. Generally, they still avoid schools, except for the mission at Vardy, from which the Rev. Chester F. Leonard sends a few on to the University of Tennessee or to church colleges. One such college, Maryville, has records of half a dozen entered, none graduated. Mr. Leonard, incidentally, says “The group is so intermingled that one cannot be sure of a typical specimen.”
In the small Tennessee hill towns, now and then, a dark man will talk to a stranger, tell a few incidents heard or seen on Newman’s Ridge or advise him, “See ___. If anybody knows, he will.” Only ___ never does. A lovely woman may even, looking straight at the visitor with gray eyes, say, “My own grandfather had some Indian blood and perhaps some Spanish. We don’t know much about the family, but there is a story that some of De Soto’s men…”
The lady may have small hands and feet, high cheekbones, straight hair and olive skin, and a regal carriage. She may talk for some time and tell much that is written in no books, some hearsay, some the most fanciful legend. But one word she will never say. She will never say,