Mixing in the Mountains
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.” 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). 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.” 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.
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.
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. 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.'”
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.
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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’!)
. 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.