Carmel Melungeons 1
by John Kessler and Donald Ball
|Paper presented Saturday, 20 May 2000, Third Union, University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Wise, Virginia.
Abstract. Recent research into the history, origins, and lifeways of the Carmel Indians of Highland County, (south-central) Ohio, has produced the most comprehensive study to date of this little known Melungeon-related settlement since the studies of Berry (1963), Gilbert (1949), Morgan (1946; 1955), and Price (1950a; 1950b). This effort draws upon archival sources, firsthand observations of the group as it existed in the 1940’s and early 1950’s, and more recent fieldwork. The present comments have been extracted from a more detailed study of this group scheduled to be released by Mercer University Press in late 2000.
Notice: The present summation of research on the Carmel Melungeon settlement of southern Ohio is released and made available with the express permission and authorization of Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia. This material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any manner for other than personal use.
|Ladies and gentlemen, it is truly a pleasure to be here today and share with you the results of a portion of our research on one of the lesser known Melungeon settlements. By way of introduction, I am Don Ball, archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Louisville, Kentucky, and with me is my collaborator and co-author, John Kessler, who was raised on a farm near Carmel and interacted on an almost daily basis for nearly 20 years with the folks we will be discussing. The present observations represent but an extended extract of the information presented in a book-length study of the Carmel settlement scheduled for release later this year by Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia.
To the casual tourist and many area residents alike, the countryside surrounding the small, sleepy crossroads settlement of Carmel nestled at the very edge of the Appalachian foothills in Highland County, southern Ohio, may seem an unlikely place to initiate research into an obscure group which originated in the mid-Atlantic seaboard. As is the case with the majority of the estimated 200 such mixed-blood groups recorded throughout the eastern United States, relatively little scholarly attention has been specifically directed to the study of the Carmel Melungeons. The earliest published reference to this group appears to be but a simple, brief mention of its existence in a general guide to the State of Ohio prepared by the Ohio Writer’s Program (1940:509). Such historical and ethnographic information as is available appears principally in the studies of Price (1950a; 1950b), Morgan (1946; 1955), Gilbert (1949:426-427), and a scattering of comments in other sources (e.g., Ayers 1971; Berry 1963; 1978; McBride and McBride 1990). Though insightful, none were either intensive or systematic.
As will be discussed in much greater detail herein, it is a working premise of this effort that the settlement commonly known as the “Carmel Indians” is related to, and derived from, the better known Melungeons of southern Appalachia, themselves the subject of some investigation and much speculation since the late 1800’s. Tracing the long and winding route traveled by the ancestors of the Carmel natives as they crossed the rugged Appalachian mountains and ultimately came to settle in the Ohio hill country, the present comments will focus on the history, lifeways, and current status of this settlement. The Carmel group has been traditionally viewed as “Indian” by area Whites and, indeed, made claims to Indian inheritance on its own behalf.
For present purposes, it is more than appropriate to clarify the identification of the Carmel enclave as “Melungeon”. A number of scholarly and popular writers alike have restricted the area of occupation of the Melungeons to a relatively limited portion of Appalachia generally consisting of Hancock and Hawkins counties, Tennessee, and Lee, Scott, and Wise counties, Virginia. Such a perspective ignores the residency of genetically comparable and similarly named families throughout an area covering at least 29 adjacent counties variously located in northwestern North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, northeastern Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky. Accordingly, this paper takes the position that the population scattered across this broad area is de facto Melungeon, be they derived from the “core” area of Melungeon occupation or, alternately, from the same source areas in the mid-Atlantic coastal region. It is ill founded to presume that any given family named Gibson or Collins two “core” surnames encountered within both the “classic” Melungeon heartland and Magoffin County, Kentucky, the source area for the Carmel population are necessarily unrelated. Were, for example, one of these families to move from Magoffin County to Hancock County, they would promptly be deemed “Melungeon”. Merely living in an outlying county within this region makes them no less so. Simultaneously, it would be erroneous to assume that genetic variation of particular population pockets did not occur within this region. Thus, the Melungeons living along the Tennessee-Virginia border were genetically similar but not identical to those living elsewhere.
Situated at the foot of Long Lick Hill, the small crossroads settlement of Carmel (pronounced “Car’-mul”) is located in Brush Creek Township in the southeastern corner of Highland County, (southwestern) Ohio. This hamlet is literally at the edge of the Appalachian escarpment. To the south and east, heavily dissected, forested hill country predominates. To the north and west, the gently rolling topography is more influenced by till plain formations. Hillsboro, the county seat, is approximately 50 miles east of Cincinnati and an equal distance southeast of Dayton. It is situated less than 30 miles due north of the Ohio River.
Never formally platted as a town, Carmel as a community has always been small and rural in nature. Settled as early as 1823 by the holders of land grants for Revolutionary War service, the community was granted a post office in 1856 (closed 1921). A mercantile store was established on the southwestern corner of the crossroads as early as 1870. In addition to the post office, in its “heyday” in the 1890’s and turn of the century, this trading center had grown to a population of 80 persons and hosted four retail establishments (grocery and general stores), a resident attorney, two blacksmith shops, a Methodist Church, and a flour mill situated on nearby Rocky Fork Creek.
By the 1940’s, electricity and telephone service was available during this period but many persons had neither. Water was from individual wells. The store was the social center for the immediate area. Other local attractions were the church on Sunday, the occasional tent revival which used the field next to the school, and election day. The years have witnessed the continuing decline of Carmel’s role in the affairs of the adjacent countryside. The settlement’s population was estimated to be but 30 persons in 1970 (Ayers 1971:289).
Situated about 0.8 mile south of Carmel along SR 753 was a small settlement referred to locally as Coon’s Crossing. This was an aggregation of houses and shanties, many of which were occupied by Melungeons. This small settlement at the proverbial “wide spot in the road” remains little changed with the exception that many early “shanties” have been replaced with used mobile homes.
|The first concentration of persons classified as “Mulatto” in Brush Creek Township appear in the 1870 census. As recorded for that year, these residents consisted of six households varying from 3 to 14 individuals in size with a total population of 40 individuals. Three households represented two surnames each. The surnames present at that time (with number of individuals) were: Gipson (17); Jackson (1); Matthews (9); Nichols (5); Perkins (4); Philips (3); and Wairmine (1) (Breakfield 1995:1, 3-5). Both the appearance of multiple surnames within households and the general proximity of these households to one another serve to suggest that these persons represented extended families of related individuals.|
The correlation of age and place of birth information as extracted from the census schedules is of particular utility in documenting the appearance of the group in Ohio. The general migration of the Brush Creek mixed-bloods is clearly shown by virtue of six out of seven of the oldest residents (50+ years) having been born in Tennessee or Virginia (the implications of these states in the history of the group will be discussed below) while 23 of 33 individuals under the age of 50 stated their place of birth as Kentucky. Of the nine persons born in Ohio, seven were under the age of 10 years while only two individuals over the age of 10 were born in that state. The oldest of these, Margaret Gipson, was 21 years old. This information suggests that various families in the group may have experimented with living in other areas of the state as early as 1849 prior to moving to Highland County. As shown by the census schedule, some families had apparently moved to Ohio, returned to Kentucky, and once again decided to move across the Ohio River. Within the cluster of young persons under 10 years born in Ohio, the oldest child was six years old at the time of the census further suggesting the likelihood that the group had settled in Brush Creek Township as early as ca. 1864.
Though speculative and circumstantial, such a settlement date is supported by the events surrounding the Civil War. Southern Ohio was little affected by the comings and goings of clashing armies. Indeed, through the war years the farm economy of Ohio prospered in response to feeding an ever increasing Union military force (Jones 1962:5). The likely resultant need for farm labor in Brush Creek Township (and other areas) and the point of origin of the mixed-bloods in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, an area not known for strong Confederate sympathies, served to foster an environment which would at least tolerate their movement into the economically marginal hill country.
Their occupancy in the foothills of Highland County simultaneously afforded a desirable juxtaposition of familiar rugged terrain of little economic use to local farmers and access to construction material, food, fuel, and sources of paid employment. Area farmers in turn gained a source of labor which did not demand higher wages and, indeed, may not have sought or desired steady work (Price 1950b:285). Price (1950a:193) estimated the population of this diffuse group in the Carmel vicinity to be approximately 150 in the late 1940’s. For the same time period, Beale’s examination of the 1950 Federal census schedules revealed a total population of 450 individuals distributed through three counties; specifically, this figure included Champaign County (60; classified as White and Negro), Hardin County (260; classified as White, Indian, and Negro), and Highland County (130; classified as White) (Beale 1957:194).
|Though the reasons for their migration specifically to Highland County remain both obscure and conjectural, the roots of the Carmel colony in Magoffin and adjacent parts of Floyd counties, Kentucky, are well established on the basis of both documentary and oral historical evidence (cf. Price 1950a; 1950b). As suggested by available census schedules, marriage records, and interviews conducted by Price in the 1940’s, movement between the two areas had long been prompted by a desire to seek employment opportunities north of the Ohio River while maintaining their familial ties to the Kentucky mountains.
Price’s examination of applicable census schedules and other records revealed that the ancestors of the Magoffin County (established 1860) group were present in Floyd County (which then included Magoffin County) by 1810. The 1820 Floyd County census listed several of these families as “Free Person[s] of Color” while in the 1850 and subsequent schedules they were variously enumerated as White, Mulatto, and Indian. In general, their racial mixture was evidently a matter of long standing and had occurred prior to their entry into Kentucky. As noted in the census schedules, these mountaineers were variously born in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee (Price 1950b:288).
Within Magoffin County, the major concentration of the mixed-blood population was formerly (1940’s) reported to reside along Big Lick, a branch of Middle Creek in the eastern part of the county, and nearby portions of Middle Creek, a tributary of the Big Sandy, which extends into adjacent portions of Floyd County (Price 1950a:201; 1950b:286). In the past, other members of the group were reported to live along Mason Creek (a tributary to the Licking River) about 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Salyersville, the county seat. Various Gibson, Gipson, and Nichols families resided along Mason Creek.
The predominate names encountered along Big Lick were Cole and Perkins. Price observed that: the Big Lick, in reality a short narrow branch, is the only concentration of them. It contains six houses and some very poor sites for farms, but a map of 1915 showed 16 houses in addition to the school. A former teacher at the school said that it had 68 pupils in 1925, some of them grown, but none advanced beyond the third grade; the school’s enrollment of 23 in 1947, over half of whom actually lived on the Big Lick, also indicated the population decrease. This area was dominated by the Cole family and is yet known as the “Cole Nation” (Price 1950b:286-287).
Aside from Price’s observations, the only other description of the Magoffin County enclave encountered in the literature reviewed was a short commentary by Jean Patterson Bible. She remarked that:
Of the Magoffin County Melungeons, a friend from Gifford, Kentucky, writes that “All of the old timers here are of the opinion that the first Gipsons came to Magoffin County from Virginia in the early 1800’s. There are about two hundred in the county today [i.e., ca. 1975], I would guess. The most prominent family name is Gipson and then there are the Coles, Mullinses, Fletchers, and Nicholses. All of them are usually referred to locally as “Gipsons” rather than Melungeons. They are still a very dark and handsome people. They are clannish through necessity but warm up to anyone who will treat them fairly and without prejudice Many have moved away and intermarried. They go to Michigan and Ohio mostly, and some of them are very skillful in trades of carpentry and bricklaying” (Bible 1975:31).
All of the areas discussed by Price (Big Lick, Middle Creek, and Mason Creek) have become increasingly developed and reflect predominately modern (post-World War II era) homes intermixed with sporadic small business establishments. One vestige of the mixed-blood presence in the area is a sign reading “Gibson Hollow Road” adjacent to Mason Creek Road about two miles south of Salyersville.
During the 1940’s, Price estimated their numbers within Magoffin and Floyd counties to be approximately 200 (1950a:200). However, based upon a surname analysis of the 1950 census schedules for Kentucky, Beale (1957:193) documented a total of 670 (classified as White and Negro) in Magoffin County and 1,680 (classified as White) in Floyd County.
|It is of note that the remnant “Indian” population of Magoffin County is but one link in a long and virtually unbroken chain of such groups spanning much of southern Appalachia and occupying parts of four states. Numbering in excess of 15,000 individuals according to the 1950 census (cf. Beale 1957), the Melungeons are broadly dispersed throughout many Appalachian counties. Within Kentucky, their numbers reside in Lawrence, Johnson, Magoffin, Floyd, Pike, Knott, Perry, Letcher, Owsley, Knox, and Bell counties. In Tennessee, they have been recorded in Hancock, Carter, and Sullivan counties. Virginia hosts their numbers in Lee, Scott, Wise, Russell, Washington, Smythe, Giles, Patrick, and Henry counties. In North Carolina, they reside in Ashe, Watauga, Surry, Stokes, and Rockingham counties (cf. Beale 1957; Holliday 1998; Price 1950a:136a; 1951:257). Significantly, this broad area encompasses Hancock County, Tennessee, and Lee, Scott, and Wise counties, Virginia, long considered the heartland of the Melungeons.
Based upon his analysis of census data referable to the history and origins of the Melungeons, Price observed many years ago that the early appearance of a limited number of surnames notably (but not restricted to) Collins, Gibson, and Goins as early as the 1790’s tended to “suggest that several households with these names were involved in the original migrations from North Carolina and Virginia” (Price 1953:141). In terms of reported surnames, there is no clear one-to-one correlation between and among many of these enclaves in general or the Magoffin County and Carmel settlements specifically with the “classic” Melungeon settlement area. There is a sufficient overlap of surnames within these groups particularly in the mountainous areas to the west of Hancock, Lee, and Wise counties to surmise that some areas in northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky were simultaneously settled over an extended period of years by individuals from both the traditional Melungeon heartland and related mixed-blood families from the ancestral homelands of the Melungeons situated to the east along the Virginia-North Carolina border and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic coast region. Research undertaken and recently published by Elder (1999:201-294) has led her to separate typically Melungeon related surnames into three broadly defined categories. Her studies suggest that the earliest “core-group surnames” associated with the first settlers along the Tennessee-Virginia border are Collins and Gibson/Gipson. These were subsequently followed by those with the “secondary core-group surnames” of Bell, Bolling (and variant spellings), Bunch, Denham (and variant spellings), Goins (numerous variant spellings), Miner/Minor, Mullins, and Williams. The third group of surnames including (but not limited to) Barnes, Cole, Delp(h), Fields, Freeman, Gorvens/Gorvan, Graham. Hale/Haile, Lawson, Maloney/Melons, Moore, Nichols, Noel, Piniore, Sexton, and Wright are interpreted as families who later moved into the area and married members of the “core” families or who were erroneously designated as Melungeons by earlier researchers. Significantly, the association of the Collins and Gibson/Gipson surnames with both the Tenneessee-Virginia border area and the Floyd (later Magoffin) County settlements further strengthens the familial and genetic ties between these two spatially removed populations.
As it relates to a correlation between Magoffin County and the principal Melungeon settlement area, the following surnames are held in common: Collins; Gibson; Gipson; and (possibly) Barnett. Significantly, a comparison of Melungeon surnames with the rolls of Cherokees residing on reservation lands (cf. Blankenship 1992a; 1992b) prompted Price to observe: “there is no reason to believe that the Melungeons are Cherokee Indians who left the tribe” (Price 1950a:186) thus serving to reinforce the mid-Atlantic rather than Appalachian origins of these widespread settlements.
|Of the 33 known or possible Melungeon surnames examined in our study, eight could be potentially linked to spatially removed mixed-blood populations, predominately situated in the coastal states of Delaware, Virginia, and both Carolinas. Specifically, these names are: Bunch, Collins, Gibson, Goins, Harmon, Nickols, Perkins, and Williams. The geographic location of the various groups with similar surnames is of note. The simple fact that two or more groups bear a similar name does not necessarily indicate a movement of people from one to another. Rather, it may suggest that these groups received members from an outside source.
Indeed, an examination of but a sampling of surnames associated with numerous mixed-blood populations in the southeastern United States generally (and mid-Atlantic coast specifically) reveals many surnames held in common and provides a reasonable foundation to interpret the westward dispersal of some members of these groups as but a manifestation of massive pioneer movements both preceding and following the American Revolution. Though the term “Melungeon” has typically been restricted by students of the region to those mixed-bloods localized in Hancock County, Tennessee, and Lee, Scott, and Wise counties, Virginia, the numerous yet spatially dispersed mixed-blood communities ultimately established throughout a broad and unbroken multi-state region may be viewed as the interrelated products of both westward migration and resettlement within the mountains of Appalachia.
The implications appear rather clear. Of the eight surnames presently traceable to other mixed-blood populations, six (75%) are associated with various, generally smaller, settlements within the mid-Atlantic coastal states of Delaware, Virginia, and both Carolinas. Specifically, these names are Bunch, Collins, Gibson, Goins, Harmon, and Williams. Proceeding for the moment on the assumption that the core Melungeon population resulted in part from direct migration by members of these groups, available evidence points toward two surnames which stand out as restricted in their appearance to but a single mid-Atlantic coast parent group: Gibson, associated with the Occaneechi-Saponi of North Carolina, and Williams, also known among the Brass Ankles of South Carolina. While this possible and indeed likely connection between the Brass Ankles of South Carolina (cf. Berry 1945; 1963; Gilbert 1946:439; 1949:421-422; Price 1950a:293; Taukchiray et al. 1992) and the Melungeon population at large deserves further attention, the present effort will focus on groups which may have specifically contributed to the ancestry of the Magoffin County, Kentucky, and Carmel, Ohio, enclaves. In this regard, only one surname appears to be potentially traceable to a single point of potential origin Gibson, one of the more widely dispersed and frequently encountered “classic” Melungeon family names. This name is known to have been associated with the Occaneechi and Saponi along the Virginia-North Carolina border as early as the 1750’s (Hazel 1991).
Based upon his analysis of documentary sources referable to the origins of the Melungeons in Hancock County, Tennessee, Price studied the geographic distribution of three frequently encountered group surnames: Collins, Goins, and Gibson. Indeed, the observable concentration of these three names associated with a sizable “free colored” population in the region to the east of the Tennessee mountains, prompted him to remark:
on the basis of those [Melungeon surname] data and the Virginia and North Carolina birthplaces of many of the Melungeons, I am inclined to believe that the chief Melungeon source area lies in the Virginia-North Carolina border counties of the Piedmont. Further study in this direction is strongly indicated. The possibility that a general society of marginal mixed-bloods circulated in the southern Seaboard states, touching most of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain groups, cannot be rejected (Price 1950a:190; emphasis added).
Indeed, between the years 1790 and 1816, an estimated 200,000 North Carolinians alone joined the exodus into the newly opened western lands (Cathey 1966:18). Mixed-bloods amongst this number were simultaneously drifting with the western bound tide of humanity and, as suggested by Heinegg (1997:1-26), attempting to escape from an ongoing series of increasingly repressive laws passed by the state assemblies along the mid-Atlantic coast.
Though Price appropriately observed the concentration of these and many other mixed-blood populations along the old colonial boundary line, he did not attempt to explain the cause of this phenomenon. Historically, there was good reason for such a peculiarly configured settlement area (recall the Goinses being distributed over a 150 mile length of the border). In actuality, there were two distinct borders between the colonies (later states) of Virginia and North Carolina. Upon their creation, each colony had been granted a Crown charter specifying its boundary. Though the error may plausibly be attributed to the quality of the maps available to Crown officials, the mandated points which established the legal border between the two colonies began at two overlapping points some 30 miles apart on the Atlantic coast and extended due west. This 30 mile wide “no man’s land” was claimed by both and effectively administered by neither (the history of this long standing dispute is discussed in greater detail in Boyd 1967). Throughout its length, the area provided a refuge to many of the region’s socially displaced and economically disadvantaged residents. The authority of sheriffs and other public officials was heeded or not dependent upon whim and circumstance. An excellent early account of this area and its occupants appears in William Byrd’s report of a 1728 survey along the length of the border from the Atlantic shore into the mountains (Byrd 1967). Indeed, even deep in Appalachia, continued proximity to the Virginia-Tennessee (then North Carolina) border may well have been a significant factor in the selection of an area for settlement by the first Melungeons in the region.
While appropriately noting various well established surnames (Collins, Gibson, Goins, etc.) within the Melungeons as a group, Price (1950a; 1951) did not specifically attempt to account for their presence. Recent significant research by Paul Heinegg (1997) has done much to explain the origins of both these surnames and at least a substantial portion of the parent Melungeon population. Drawing upon voluminous primary sources, Heinegg has documented the genealogies of numerous free African American families from the late 1600’s until ca. 1800. Indeed, a number of frequently encountered Melungeon surnames and eight of the nine surnames specifically associated with the Magoffin County enclave may be traced to free African American families in Virginia, North Carolina, and other mid-Atlantic colonies (Table 6). Heinegg’s research has clearly demonstrated that these families not only grew rapidly but also tended to move extensively throughout much of the mid-Atlantic coast region. It is this group that likely constituted the “general society of marginal mixed-bloods [which] circulated in the southern Seaboard states” hypothesized by Price (1950a:190).
But be the result of such first generation unions Black-White, White-Indian, or Indian-Black, they were increasingly little welcomed into “proper”, racially segregated society in either the colonial (cf. Morgan 1952; Watson 1975) or Ante-bellum (cf. Avirett 1901; Burwell 1895; Hundley 1860; Page 1897) era south. Effectively unwanted by the economically and socially dominate White society around them, such individuals had little choice but to align themselves with Indians, freed Blacks, or form their own communities based on mixed blood lines. The disputed border area offered a place to do just that.
|The historical and anthropological evidence discussed herein suggests that in general a significant portion (though not necessarily all) of the ancestry of the Magoffin County, Kentucky, and Highland County, Ohio, enclaves originated principally from an admixture of African Americans and Whites in the early colonial period (from the late 1600’s until about 1800) and secondarily from an admixture with presently unknown Native American groups in the mid-Atlantic coast region. Though African American and White ancestry is clearly demonstrated by the presently known genealogy of Stephen Perkins (Table 7), one of the earliest mixed-blood arrivals in Floyd County, Kentucky, the specific degree of genetic inheritance in any given individual or family was likely subject to a high degree of variation (cf. Pollitzer 1972) but in general reflected (in this order) White, African American, and Native American genes. As some of these families (e.g., Bunch, Gibson, Goins, Moore, and Williams) are known to have originated as early as the middle to end of the 17th century, there was ample time for their numbers to have both increased and moved into the mountain homeland of the core Melungeon settlement area as early as
1802 (cf. Everett 1999:361) and Floyd County, Kentucky, prior to 1810.
In light of eight of the nine surnames associated with the families comprising the “core” of the Magoffin County enclave having ties to known free African American families originating in the mid-Atlantic coast region during the colonial era (cf. Table 6), there can be little doubt that the classification of those families present in Highland County as “Mulatto” at the time of the 1870 census was essentially correct in accordance with the racial criteria of that period. This contention is further supported by the undated (but likely late 19th century) burial of “a colored child named Nichols” in the Mull family cemetery located generally south of Carmel.
The specific degree of Native American genetic presence within the group remains unknown but is likely minimal. Elder (1999:162-169, 180, 295, 352, 353) has attempted to tie the early Collins and perhaps Gibson families in the Tennessee-Virginia border area to the Monacan/Saponi of western Virginia. The relationship of similarly named families in Floyd and Magoffin counties, Kentucky, to these or other tribes is presently unknown. There is presently no evidence to support the origins of the Carmel settlement among any remnant Shawnee which may have remained in southern Ohio nor does a comparison of Cherokee and Melungeon surnames in general provide any evidence that either the Magoffin County or Carmel populations received any significant degree of genetic input from that tribe.
Established in Carmel about 1864, this mixed-blood settlement was always rather small and maintained ongoing contact with the parent population in Magoffin County, Kentucky, throughout its existence. At an unknown date but likely beginning relatively early in the 20th century there was an outmigration from Carmel to Hardin and Champaign counties, Ohio, and (later) Michigan further to the north.
Historical data, however, is but a skeleton upon which is overlain the flesh and blood of living people. John will now present a series of firsthand observation drawn from his long association and personal observations of the Carmel Melungeons.
|Located at the edge of the Appalachian escarpment, the portion of Highland County, Ohio, in and around Carmel was curiously insular and atavistic with the effects of the depression continuing in the area until well into World War II and beyond. For example, during that war one couple (non-Melungeon) living in the hills between Carmel and Fort Hill, while aware that the nation was at war, was under the impression that “Kaiser Bill” was again the source of hostilities. The idea of Japanese participation was completely outside their comprehension. Electricity and indoor plumbing in many homes (including ours) was absent, education was generally eighth grade or less, and with the exception of religion or superstition, activities were pragmatically rather than abstractly motivated. A surprising percentage of the roads were unpaved. Store bought bread was a treat; dry (soup) beans and cornbread were staples; and most people went “to town” only once a week (if then), usually on Saturday night. Law enforcement was minimal. In consequence of this isolation, local mores, old stories, legends, and associated lore tended to persist. It is noteworthy that the culture and mores of the area were more southern than might have been thought to prevail in a “Yankee” state and though the county seat (Hillsboro) in the neighboring “flatlands” was a scant 15 miles west-northwest of Carmel, little was known there of the Melungeons who lived in the area including adjacent portions of Pike County.
Most of my childhood and adolescence – excluding a period during World War II – was spent in the Carmel area. I lived on the family farm near Fort Hill and Carmel or in the nearby village of Sinking Spring. My observations and experience extend from the late 1930’s into the late 1950’s. My parents, both born in 1893, were for all practical purposes lifelong residents of the township as were their antecedents. This provided me with knowledge of the group extending from the 19th century into the post-World War II era. Many of my observations of the group are contemporaneous with the work of Gilbert (1949), Morgan (1946), and Price (1950a; 1950b). The Melungeons were a familiar part of my personal landscape as they were with my parents (especially my mother during her formative years) and throughout their lives.
My mother’s familiarity with and knowledge of this group support the idea that it had resided in the area for a long time and that its social status had been established prior to her birth. Further, her tales and personal recollections lend credence to Price’s (1950a; 1950b) proposal that the settlement was established about the time of the Civil War.
My father once told me that members of the group were initially “brought up here to build the Milt Cartright place”. Situated southeast of Carmel, this house (now gone) was reputed to be a station on the underground railroad. My father also said that when the original group was “brought up” (indicating southern origins) they were considered to be Indians, indicating Seminoles; I have no knowledge of the basis for his statement. It is possible that, as his forebears were somewhat removed from the Carmel area, his information was in error or skewed. Unfortunately, my mother, who grew up more locally, never commented on the origins of the group.
Although mentioned by Price (1950a:195-197, 205-206; 1950b:284) as a convention, I actually never heard of intercourse between the community of Carmel and Salyersville, (Magoffin County) Kentucky, until the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. This, however, is somewhat mitigated by the fact that at times and to escape the results of some transgression one of the group would be said to have “run off to Kentucky”. I suppose, granting Price’s accuracy, this would have been Salyersville. Running off to Kentucky was not necessarily confined to this group. Many of the area residents were from Kentucky. Beginning about 1900 (or before), there had been an influx from there of persons having varying degrees of respectability; thus, some of those not considered to be members of the group also “ran off to Kentucky”. It was rumored that certain of these people used the Ohio River as a barrier to pursuit, either by interests in Kentucky or Ohio.
Racial Origins. The group was considered to be a mixture of Indian, Caucasian, and possibly Negro. Those of the group who expressed a preference opted for Indian. To the best of my knowledge, no reference was made to any specific tribe. Interaction with the Black community (located primarily in Hillsboro) appeared to be non-existent. Nothing I heard or saw indicated any cultural relationships with Negroes.
Physical appearance of group members varied. The usual was dark (swarthy) skin, dark eyes, straight dark hair, and (for males) slender to medium build. The women were sometimes stocky. Cheek bones were often prominent and some individuals had prominent noses. With some exceptions, male facial hair appeared to be sparse. Light and wavy hair was also represented as was light skin. For example, Robert Gibson with whom I spent considerable time was slender, light skinned with light wavy hair and high prominent cheek bones. He had green eyes. His wife was slim and dark skinned with dark eyes and straight black hair. Norman Gibson, with whom I also associated, was slender and swarthy. He had high prominent cheek bones, straight black hair, and a prominent nose. His wife was lighter skinned and stocky with brown hair and eyes. Her nose was less prominent and her face was round.
I never really discussed with or heard reference to origins from group members. There were a few indications that the group considered themselves to be Indian. Non-Melungeon residents variously used the terms “Carmelite” and “half breed” as descriptive epithets for group members. Discussions of Negro origin took place away from group members. I really doubt, however, that locally anyone really believed there was a preponderance of African ancestry in this group.
The gross physical characteristics considered to be Negroid by the layman were minimal to lacking. It is my opinion that it would have been very difficult for a group member to pass as Black and that if a portion of their ancestry was Negro, the incidence thereof must have been minimal. Whatever their genetic inheritance, these people simply were not phenotypic Africans.
Social Organization. Although they were most likely forced to be cohesive due to their perceived ancestry, they appeared to be generally more comfortable within their group than without it. The close knit nature of the group was reasonably apparent. To exemplify, during the 1920’s a pig was clubbed to death and stolen from our farm by persons unknown but group members were suspected. According to family accounts, the group “patriarch” (known to the community as “Sugar Grant”) was jailed by the county sheriff with the result that three group members confessed and produced the meat from the butchered hog.
The term “patriarch” as used herein is thought to be a reasonably appropriate descriptor. So far as I know, the person so considered was not chosen through ceremony. Rather, he (and in the case of one “matriarch” within the group, she) was an older member whose combination of family relationship, age, and experience conferred a degree of status and informal influence which combined respect, mentorship, and protection.
Social Position. Although group members were perceived to be different primarily because of their ancestry, their economic status and folkways guaranteed their position at the bottom of the social ladder. In many instances, the core Melungeon group was the standard by which the actions of others were measured – i.e., “no better than”, “worse than”, or “the same as”. The group was always considered to be a separate population similar, for example, to contemporary cultural colonies of Vietnamese refugees in many larger American cities (though not with the same degree of resentment at their presence). Persons who interacted on their social level were still considered to be separate. If these persons interacted on that level and with the group they were “the same as”. This did not indicate identity, it merely indicated comparison. This lends weight to the contention that the basis for comparison was primarily ancestry.
Note on Folkways and Mores. It is difficult to isolate or restrict activities to the local Melungeon group. Many of the activities, beliefs, and vernacular ascribed to the Melungeons were, in fact, shared by others in the area. Regardless, the group was probably the most atavistic in a generally backwards area. However, of a certainty, such things common to the group as subsistence living, thievery and other illegal activities, acceptance of common superstitions, and illiteracy were neither restrictive nor unique. In truth, I have often suspected that the only things truly unique to the Melungeons were their origins and tendency toward cohesiveness. For every action or belief of a Melungeon, I believe that I could have found its local analog in a non-Melungeon individual.
Group Names and Population. The surnames firmly associated with this group were: Nichols (established); Gibson or Gipson (both pronounced “Gip’-son”; well established; these family represented the most individuals); Perkins (established; two families); Gilmore (later, during my experience – new arrival); and Fuget (later, during my experience – new arrivals?). Of these, Gibson/Gipson, Nichols, and Perkins were the most common and quite possibly represent the earliest migrants. I also heard the name Jackson mentioned by members of my family. However, as I knew no Melungeons so named, I suspect this was a family which disappeared locally before my time. Although a few Wisecups and Crums were also included; these names were primarily non-Melungeon. Their inclusion was the result of fairly recent inter-marriage. Without recourse to census schedules, I would estimate the population about 1950 as less than 100 individuals and probably less than 50. There were also some later arrivals from eastern Kentucky whose status was unclear. They lived in the Carmel area, interacted with the group to a slight degree, yet seemed to be economically and socially advanced compared to the core group.
Speech/Folk Lexicon. The speech norm used by the group could only be described as “southern hillbilly”. In addition to a brogue and phraseology which seems to have been indigenous to the area (for example, “crik” for “creek”), the group members tended to put their own construction on common words exemplified as follows: ain’t / “haint”; pretty near / “pertinear”; hair / “har”; can’t / “caint”; if / “iffin”; haunt / “hant”; flower / “flare”; wife / “wuman”; yellow/ “yaller”; and ran / “run”. “Yell” and “hollow” were both rendered as “holler”. Additionally, there was a tendency to sound the vowel “I” as a nasal “a”, a characteristic noted in persons from eastern Kentucky. Words of this nature, however, were not restricted to the group; others – myself included – used some or all of them. Use of the nasal “a”, however, appeared to be restricted to some of the later Melungeons and other arrivals from Kentucky.
Residences and Furnishings. In general, the cabins described by Price (1950a:192-193; 1950b:282, 284) were typical of the Melungeon residences found in the area. However, similar homes were extant in the Fort Hill area and occupied by families other than the subject group. In either case, most of these structures would have been considered sub-standard even by the standards of that era. Log construction, while represented, was probably atavistic; the more “modern” domiciles appeared to be of vertical board and batten (probably poplar) construction and unpainted. There was also a tendency for Melungeons to occupy Caucasian homes which had been vacated.
I was never personally inside a Melungeon home while same was occupied. Business was usually conducted outside of the house in the “yard” as a matter of course or at the visitor’s car. However, based on the economics of the area and visits to similar but non-Melungeon dwellings I would hazard the following observations. The cook stove was typically wood burning. Some lucky individuals might have had a kerosene cook stove which tended to produce less heat in the summer. The heating stove was also wood burning. These were not elaborate in nature but rather were of relatively simple cast iron construction or a lighter barrel type. I never heard much about fireplaces but have little doubt that they were used in the 1800’s and early part of this century. Most homes had but one or two kerosene (coal oil) lamps.
Beds were typically of the iron bedstead variety. Depending on the number of children, any additional beds were probably shared by as many as could be crowded in. Sometimes children slept with parents as well. I also suspect in some cases that bedding for some of the children was simply a “straw tick” on the floor. Bed bugs were not unknown in those days and I truly believe that they were to be found in many homes in the area. As they weren’t hard to come by but were very hard to eradicate, there is no reason to suppose that Melungeon households were not so blessed. As most cabins were short of or totally lacking in closet space, free standing clothes presses and/or bureaus were used. Tables and chairs/benches ranged from homemade to cheaper, possibly hand me down, manufactured furniture.
Laundry, Bathing, and Sanitary Facilities. The washboard was a functional aspect of most households but, contrary to contemporary images of mountaineers, it did not serve as a musical instrument. I believe this device was the predominate laundry contrivance in most Melungeon homes. The implications in terms of type of clothing and bedding and cleanliness thereof are fairly obvious. Wash water was heated and washings were done outside the cabin. During the winter, smaller amounts of material might be washed indoors and dried around the stove.
As there was no indoor plumbing, water had to be “packed in” from the nearest source. This was done by the bucketful and the water bucket served as the reservoir for potable and wash water. Thus, opportunities for bathing and personal hygiene were limited. Toilets were generally non-pit type privies.
Subsistence and Employment. The major forms of subsistence were hourly labor, sharecropping, and foraging. These activities were not unique to the group. Members of non-group families pursued largely the same methods. Seining fish and poaching with gun, snare, and deadfall were not sole Melungeon pursuits, nor were herb gathering, farm labor, sharecropping, timber work, or (later) welfare. Missing articles (for example: corn, gasoline, the contents of our fruit cellar, hunting dogs, and livestock) typically generated heavy suspicion on the part of the locals. In all justice, these suspicions were not without foundation; however, there were others who were equally capable of such depredations.
Most work was associated with either agriculture or timbering. The predominant occupation was agricultural labor which in my youth paid about $.75 per hour. The primary crops worked were corn, tobacco, and hay, with tobacco being the most labor intensive. Some individuals would raise tobacco “on the shares”, in other words the landowner provided the land and fronted some or all of the expenses and the tenant provided the labor. Following the stripping and sale of the crop (November through January), the proceeds were divided in accordance with the prior agreement. This meant that the tenant would have a windfall of cash sometime in the late fall or winter leading to a tendency toward profligate spending (“living high on the hog”) followed by the more normal destitution. It was my personal observation that with few exceptions they were good, cheerful, and dependable workers (when supervised) and possessed significant endurance. Few of them, however, actually operated farm machinery. To the best of my knowledge, going “up north” to work in such places as the Urbana, Ohio, onion fields as reported by Price (1950a:196; 1950b:284) did not achieve any significance until the late 1940’s/early 1950’s time frame.
Insofar as entrepreneurship went, the only business known to me (by word of mouth) was a bootlegging trade (i.e., illegal sale of liquor) engaged in by the wife in one household. The veracity of this is not provable; it was a “common knowledge” thing.
Recreation. Due to their position at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, most recreational pursuits were low cost and many were associated with subsistence. Fishing and hunting were popular. I suspect that some of the pilferage which was done had a recreational component. Drinking and “honky tonking” were desired activities but limited by income. Religious revivals (often of the “tent” variety) were also popular. Organized sports such as fast pitch softball (the number one outdoor game for athletic males in the area) were not popular with the group.
Most members of the group used tobacco both for smoking and chewing. This included many of the women as well as the males. “Alice” (aged 16 and married) was a confirmed chewer (she also smoked). Some of the older women were pipe smokers.
For a time, there was a weekly auction at Coon’s Crossing just south of Carmel. As I recall, it was held on Saturday night and the Melungeon community was well represented. The articles sold, in retrospect, had little value. The most expensive item I saw was a .22 caliber single shot rifle that had definitely seen better days. Other items included used clothing, some furniture (also used), old tools, and various bric-a brac.
Superstitions and Beliefs. Some individuals expressed belief in witches (e.g., “so-and-so’s wife is a witch”), tokens (i.e., “signs and wonders”, portents of dire happenings), ghosts, hair balls (supernaturally accelerated weapons constructed by witches and used as missiles), haunts, and various “things that go bump in the night”. Of these, the hair (“har”) balls were the only manifestation which appeared to be unique to the group.
Additionally, one of the group (Logan Gibson, a male of long residence) always wore a string tied around his head. The story was that his skull had been split in a fight (he was clubbed) and that it was permanently so, hence the string to hold it together. Whether this is true, an individual eccentricity, or acceptable in terms of group belief is unknown to me.
Health and medicine. Morgan (1946:29-30) makes note of a “doctor woman” within the settlement who was particularly knowledgeable of medicinal plants to be found in the surrounding hills. Otherwise, the legitimate local medical people were few and mostly of doubtful competence.
Based on the medical services available and group use of them, it is my opinion that any longevity of group members was the result of serendipity and perhaps natural selection rather than the application of medical science. Certainly the medical attention they received appeared to be of the “rough and ready” variety and probably more reminiscent of the 19th rather than the 20th century.
Religion. It is difficult to quantify the religious beliefs of the group. By default, when they participated the choice was fundamentalist and/or charismatic Protestant. They most probably all had a concept of an afterlife involving reward and punishment. It is perhaps noteworthy that most of the clergy to whom they were exposed were only slightly (if at all) better educated or trained than their parishioners. Therefore, blind faith and fear triumphed over intellectual or philosophical considerations.
Child Rearing. Children were viewed as a normal consequence of sexual activity. With few exceptions, the vast majority of families had but one to four children. Based upon limited personal observation, children were typically undisciplined and parental guidance was manifest only if the child became an irritation. I also noted that sometimes threats were made by reference to a third party; “You’d better be good or the booger man will get you” or “So and so will cut your ears off”. I suppose that slaps and switches were also used but I never witnessed same. Breast feeding was the usual method for sustaining infants and there was little to no hesitation about doing so in public when the need arose.
Foraging. Several wild plants having economic, medicinal, or nutritional value grew in the area and were foraged by members of the group. My mother once described encountering women of the group foraging “wild onions” (in actuality, this would have been wild garlic). The explanation given was that the leaves were dried and used as a substitute for pepper. The root bark from sassafras trees was also one of the plant resources sought by the Melungeons. This was used to prepare a tea. At any rate, foraging was in earlier times an apparently significant (and not always legal) portion of their economy.
It is notable that the Great Depression, tradition, and perhaps other factors (for example, perennial poverty) resulted in a locally jaundiced view of fish and game laws and consequently “sportsmanship” took a back seat to subsistence. This attitude was at least as true of the Melungeons as it was with others in the area.
It remains a truism of our worldly existence that time is the most fleeting commodity known to humankind. Don will now present some brief comments on the current status of the Carmel settlement and some closing remarks.
|Fieldwork in and around the community of Carmel, Ohio, during September of 1996, in concert with information furnished by local historians and residents familiar with Highland County’s Carmel Indians, yielded several useful insights regarding their status of the since the era recorded by Berry (1963), Gilbert (1949), Morgan (1946), Price (1950a; 1950b), and personal observations presented herein. Though still very rural in nature with several active farms in the “flat” lands at the foot of the hill country (observed crops included corn, soybeans, and tobacco but apparently diminished from pre-1960 levels), field observations clearly revealed that the character and face of the landscape in and around Carmel have changed dramatically in the past half century. These changes include significantly diminished agricultural activities. Development of the nearby Fort Hill State Memorial and road improvements have done much to simultaneously reduce the area’s relative isolation and facilitate the intrusion of the prosperity and population of the era following the Second World War.
While sporadic older, more substantially built frame homes may yet be encountered in the region, the ramshackled log and frame “shacks” which traditionally served as homes to a relatively transient population are nowhere to be seen. Homes all along the network of area roads have been clearly and prominently marked with readily visible “street” numbers to facilitate locating residences in keeping with contemporary requirements for mail delivery and public services. Few mailboxes in the area, however, displayed the names of their owners. Of those which did, none were observed bearing the anticipated names of Gibson, Gipson, Nichols, or Perkins.
Conversations with local historians and area residents familiar with the group indicated that but a few families (apparently not over two or three) yet remain in the hill country in the vicinity of Carmel. One of their number is known to have moved to nearby Hillsboro and established a furniture store. Some have reportedly moved to various other communities in the nearby region (Chillicothe was specifically mentioned) seeking economic opportunities. Specific population figures for the disperse remnants of the Carmel “Indian” settlement are not available. An admittedly crude but still suggestive approach to determining their current numbers was undertaken by means of examining a commercially available electronic compilation (CD format) of residential telephone listings in the United States prepared by American Business Information (1995). A review of listings for the larger communities in Highland and the adjoining counties to the east (Adams, Pike, and Ross) revealed that a total of 98 households had published listings in the names of Gibson, Gipson, Nichols, and Perkins.
Though the simple listing of a telephone number in one of these surnames does not de facto indicate that all such individuals are related to the Carmel mixed-blood settlement, the known outmigration of their numbers in concert with reasonable proximity to the source area would reasonably argue that many of these telephones are in fact associated with the residences of group members. For present purposes, it is taken as a working assumption that unrelated individuals in this count of households are offset by those group members who do not have a telephone, have an unlisted number, or females who have married non-group spouses and now bear other surnames. A conservative estimate of three persons per household times 98 households yields a population of 294 or approximately 300 persons distributed over portions of four adjacent counties.
The matter of group identity poses several interesting questions. Among local Whites with whom the authors spoke, the group continues to be generally viewed as “Indian”. Further inquiry among area residents typically elicited the response that the enclave was derived from the Shawnee though few persons claimed any extensive knowledge of the group’s history. Conversely, passing conversations with individuals living in and near Salyersville, Kentucky, revealed that in that area the ancestry of the group was traditionally perceived as Black. None of the persons with whom we spoke in and near Carmel expressed any opinion or comment regarding Black genetic influence within the group; rather, it appears that in recent decades the Carmel population has been generally viewed by local Whites as reflecting Indian and White admixture.
Beyond purely genetic identification and history, contemporary social perceptions regarding the group varied widely. One lady in Hillsboro informed us that the group constituted a “proud people” while another tended to view at least some of their members personally known to her over a period of years as malingerers and basically lazy. The truth is likely to be found somewhere between these extremes. All area informants were in agreement that few of their numbers remain in Highland County and none were aware of any concentrated population of group members in or near Carmel or Brush Creek Township. Though the remaining members of the group continue to be viewed as genetically distinctive, culturally and socially they continue to be perceived as similar to if not indistinguishable from many poorer Whites in the same area.
It is worthy of note that a number of families with surnames associated with the mixed-bloods (cf. Price 1950b:282, 286) yet reside in and near Salyersville and adjacent Magoffin County. But a cursory examination of contemporary area telephone listings (Table 9) reflects a total of 85 such listings in the communities of Salyersville, Royalton, and Ivyton. In common with the estimates reported herein for the area surrounding Carmel, a conservative estimate of three individuals per household would yield a population of at least 255 individuals. Additional members of the group likely reside elsewhere in Magoffin County and adjacent Floyd County.
|The present comments have attempted to discuss but selected aspects of the history, origins, and lifeways of but one of many poorly documented Melungeon enclaves scattered throughout the vast expanses of Appalachia. In common with the paths traveled by other such groups across the landscape, the road leading the Carmel Melungeons to Ohio was long in the building. A brief review of that journey is appropriate. As based in large part on surname analysis as recorded in various public documents, available information suggests that at least the majority of the families who were to come to form the aggregate Melungeon and related mixed-blood populations predominately originated in the Mid-Atlantic states of (primarily) Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina as early as the mid- and late-17th century.
Families bearing surnames long associated with the Melungeons Bunch, Collins, Gibson, Goins, and others are known to have begun congregating along the Virginia-North Carolina border at least as early as ca. 1750 and it is likely that these families had begun to establish roots in that area dating to at least ca. 1700 as evidenced by their sheer numbers and the linear extent of their occupation along the disputed border land between these two colonies. Available genealogical and historical information and census schedule data supports their tri-racial (White, Negro, and Indian) origins though the specifics of admixture between and among their widely dispersed settlements would likely have exhibited marked degrees of variation by virtue of topographic constraints and the historical circumstances which likely brought together many unrelated mixed-bloods into a relatively restricted gene pool.
With the opening of western lands for settlement soon after the early days of the American Revolution, a flood of pioneers including the numerically ever increasing mixed-blood population rushed into the vast mountainous domain of Appalachia along the border in route to the Cumberland Gap. In light of their social circumstances, it may be speculated that in their early participation in the western movement maintaining physical proximity to the border remained a very real consideration in their selection of the core Melungeon settlement area. Though the exact date of their arrival in what was to become Hancock County, Tennessee, is unknown, their presence in the area was well established by 1790.
Data derived from tax records and census schedules suggests that mixed-blood individuals had settled in Floyd County, Kentucky (which then included the area which was to become Magoffin County in 1860), prior to 1810. Price’s study of census records for several counties in southeastern Kentucky suggests population movements between and among enclaves within the region as well as the continued arrival (at least into the mid-19th century) of yet additional mixed-blood families from the east coast source area during these early formative years. Restless feet in concert with population pressure on limited local resources appear to have prompted some members of the Magoffin County group to explore the resources and job markets of Ohio at least as early as 1849. It is known that they were established in the Carmel vicinity prior to 1870 and possibly as early as 1864. Likely due to the availability of at least seasonal employment on some of the larger farms in the area, the locale selected as a place of settlement in Ohio effectively represented the last, northernmost bastion of Appalachian topography. Such an edge area environment afforded the opportunity to exploit both the natural resources with which they were familiar and provided access to both cash employment and manufactured goods in the immediately adjacent farm country.
The population pressures which prompted the establishment of the colony about the time of the Civil War continued unabated for many decades. The marginally productive farmsteads maintained in the mountains of Magoffin County could ill sustain an ever growing number of sons and daughters with no prospects for acquiring productive farms of their own in the area’s rugged, mountainous topography. Despite the comparative economic advantages afforded by Carmel, it, too, had a finite carrying capacity for an outflow of migrants for a period in excess of 80 years.
By the late 1940’s, Gilbert generally and Price specifically note an outflow of people from Carmel in the form of those individuals seeking employment not locally available. The extent of this outpouring from Carmel is clearly documented by Beale’s study of the 1950 census records which show but 130 members present in Highland County, a figure dwarfed by the combined total of 320 members residing yet further north in Hardin (260 members) and Champaign (60 members) counties. The relative size of these outlying settlements suggests a multi-generational emplacement of the group.
It may be speculated that the decline of the Agrarian Dominance era and the following economic depression prompted members of the group to establish these colonial outposts. This trend was probably exacerbated by an ongoing increase in the adoption of mechanized farming at the local level. As Carmel had apparently received the overflow population from its mountain homeland, so these settlements actively received the overflow of people from two source areas. Later in their history, members of the group are known to have settled in Michigan. The role and importance of these outlying northern settlements in the history of the Magoffin County and Carmel Melungeons has been significantly understated in the existing literature and deserves more detailed study.
Culturally, little but their physical appearance distinguished these racially mixed settlers in the hill country of Ohio from any other arrival from the mountains of Kentucky. In ways great and small, they were neither more nor less than relocated mountaineers attempting to adapt previously learned subsistence strategies to a piece of familiar natural environment while surrounded by a very unfamiliar cultural environment. The demise of the Carmel settlement may generally be attributed to two interactive sets of circumstances: those caused by others and those brought about by themselves. External factors such as the decline of agrarian pursuits and the impacts on society during and after World War II generated circumstances which by their very nature could only be coped with, not radically altered. Others, however, were at least partially self-inflicted. The fluctuating nature of wildlife populations coupled with increasing stress on habitat and depletion of local floral resources such as ginseng produced undependable situations which could not support unregulated exploitation to the degree that had perhaps previously been the case. As neither the land nor local farmers could or would support their numbers and they became increasingly aware of a “better world”, there was little viable option but to relocate. As they could not return to Magoffin County with any but meager prospects of earning a living, the only place to go was further north.
Despite vague allusions on the part of the Carmel Melungeons to Shawnee and Cherokee ancestry, available information reflects no firm, demonstrable historic affiliation between the Carmel and Magoffin County enclaves to any tribe currently recognized by the Federal government (cf. Bureau of Indian Affairs 1998). There is no readily available evidence to support either any social organization beyond the routine informal interactions of families related by kinship and marriage or the multiple criteria required for formal recognition (cf. Bureau of Indian Affairs 1994).
The central concept of racial identity rises paramount in the process of examining the Carmel community. While there is little question that the ancestry of the Carmel group is firmly rooted in the free African American population which developed in the colonial era (cf. Heinegg 1997), it is intriguing that such a background was patently ignored or understated both internally (emicly) and externally (eticly). It is a distinct possibility that the descendants of the earliest mixed-blood settlers in Carmel tended to seek out the lesser of two perceived “evils” in opting to espouse and emphasize their Native American genetic heritage as a means of social survival in a day and age of racial intolerance. In simple terms, in the area in which they lived it was better to be viewed as Indian than Black. By so doing, as both individuals and as a group they could internalize at least a small degree of the dignity and self-worth denied to them by their neighbors while deflecting speculation as to the totality of their actual lineage.
For all practical purposes, the Carmel “Indian” settlement has disbanded. Though minor numbers of the group apparently continue to reside in the general area near Carmel, they are an ever declining minority on the contemporary Highland County cultural landscape and represent but a pale vestige of their former presence in the region. Available information supports neither any degree of on-going social cohesiveness beyond the level of normal family interactions nor is it known if group members yet residing within the area have maintained their traditionally close ties with Magoffin County, Kentucky. In light of the degree and extent to which their numbers have dispersed across the Ohio landscape to as far afield as Michigan and likely out-marriage to a degree never before experienced as a group, it is reasonable to conclude that this small pocket of mixed-blood descendants is being rapidly absorbed into the general population of the region. Though the specifics of their genetic heritage may possess some continuing genealogical interest on a family by family basis, their identity as a “distinctive” group in the area has effectively drawn to a close and with it a tradition of living off the land has been supplanted by one which merely lives upon it.
We sincerely appreciate your kind attention and would be pleased to address your questions. Should we run short of time, please see us after we adjourn.
|Donald Ball is a native of middle Tennessee. He holds a B.S. degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University, and an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, where he first became interested in Melungeons. Previous publications have appeared in the Tennessee Anthropologist, Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, Ohio Valley Historical Archeology (of which he serves as editor) and other professional outlets. He works as an archeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Louisville.
John Kessler was raised in the Carmel community of southeastern Highland County, Ohio, where he attended school and worked with several of the Carmel Melungeons. He holds a B.A. in wildlife conservation from Ohio State University and worked for many years as a biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife and for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He has done private consulting work in the areas of endangered species and wetlands ecology. He is currently retired.
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