|Somewhere in the eighteenth century, before the year 1797, there appeared in the eastern portion of Tennessee, at that time the Territory of North Carolina, two strange-looking men calling themselves Collins and Gibson. They had a reddish brown complexion, long, straight, black hair, keen, black eyes, and sharp, clear-cut features. They spoke in broken English, a dialect distinct from anything ever heard in that section of the country.
They claimed to have come from Virginia and many years after emigrating, themselves told the story of their past.
These two, Vardy Collins and Buck Gibson, were the head and source of the Malungeons in Tennessee. With the cunning of their Cherokee ancestors, they planned and executed a scheme by which they were enabled to set up for themselves in the almost unbroken Territory of North Carolina.
Old Buck, as he was called, was disguised by a wash of some dark description, and taken to Virginia by Vardy where he was sold as a slave. He was a magnificent specimen of physical strength, and brought a fine price, a wagon and mules, a lot of goods, and three hundred dollars in money being paid to old Vardy for his likely nigger. Once out of Richmond, Vardy turned his mules shoes and stuck out for the wilderness of North Carolina, as previously planned. Buck lost little time ridding himself of his negro disguise, swore he was not the man bought of Collins, and followed in the wake of his fellow thief to the Territory. The proceeds of the sale were divided and each chose his habitation; old Vardy choosing Newmans Ridge, where he was soon joined by others of his race, and so the Malungeons became a part of the inhabitants of Tennessee.
This story I know is true. There are reliable parties still living who received it from old Vardy himself, who came here as young men and lived, as the Malungeons generally did to a ripe old age.
The names Collins and Gibson were also stolen from the white settlers in Virginia where the men had lived previous to emigrating to North Carolina.
There is, perhaps, no more satisfactory method of illustrating this peculiar race, its origin and blood, than by the familiar tree.
Old Vardy Collins, then, must be regarded as the body, or main stem, in this state, at all events.
It is only of very late years the Melungeons have been classed as families. Originally they were tribes, afterward clans and at last Families. From Old Vardy the first tribe took its first name COLLINSES. Others who followed Vardy took the Collins name also.
Old Benjamin Collins, one of the pioneers, was older than Vardy, but came to Tennessee a trifle later. He had quite a large family of children, among them Edmond, Mileyton (supposed to have meant Milton), Marler, Harry, Andrew, Zeke, Jordon. From Jordan Collins descended Calloway Collins who is still living today and from whom I obtained some valuable information.
But to go back a step. Benjamin Collins was known as old Ben, and became the head of the Ben tribe. Old Solomon Collins was the head of the Sols. The race was increasing so rapidly, by emigration and otherwise, that it became necessary to adopt other names than Collins. They fell, curiously enough, upon the first or Christian name of the head of a large family connection or tribe. Emigrants arriving attached themselves as they chose to the several tribes. After a while, with an eye to brevity, doubtless, the word tribe was dropped from ordinary, everyday use. The Bens and the Sols meant the Ben and Sol Tribes. It appeared that no tribe was ever called for Old Vardy, although as long as he lived he was recognized as head and
This is doubtless due to the fact that in his day the settlement was new, and the people, and the one name Collins covered the entire population. The original Collins people were Indian, there is no doubt about that, and they lived as the Indians lived until sometime after the first white man appeared among them. All would huddle together in one room (?), sleep in one common bed of leaves, make themselves such necessary clothing as nature demanded, smoke, and dream away the good long days that were so dreamily delightful nowhere as they were on Newman’s Ridge.
The Collins tribe multiplied more and more; it became necessary to have names, and a most peculiar method was hit upon for obtaining them.
Ben Collins children were distinguished from the children of Sol and Vardy by prefixing the Christian name either of the father or mother to the Christian name of the child. For instance; Edmund Ben, Singleton Ben; Andrew Ben; Zeke Ben, meant that Edmund, Singleton, Andrew, and Zeke were the sons of Ben Collins. Singleton Mitch; Levi Mitch, and Morris Mitch , meant that these men were the sons of Mitchel Collins. In the next generation there was a Jordan Ben (a son of old Benjamin Collins) who married Abbie Sol, had a son, who is called (he is still living, as before stated) Calloway Abby for his mother. The wife before marriage takes her father’s Christian name; after marriage that of her husband. Calloway’s wife, for instance, is Ann Calloway. It is not known, and cannot by any possibility be ascertained at what precise period other races appeared among the Collinses. For many years they occupied the Ridge without disturbance. The country was new, wild, and few straggling settlements were glad of almost any new neighbors. Moreover, these strange people, who were then called the Ridgemanites, the Indians, and the Black Waterites (because of a stream called Black Water, which flows through their territory, the bed of which was, and is, covered with a peculiar dark slate rock which gives the black appearance to the stream), had chosen the rocky and inaccessible Ridge, while the fertile and beautiful valley of the Clinch lay open and inviting to the white settler. The Ridgemanites were not striving for wealth evidently, and as land was plentiful and neighbors few, they held their bit in the creation without molestation or interruption for many years. They were all Collinses, as I said; those who followed the first-comers accepting the name already provided them. There was no mixture of blood: they claimed to be Indians and no man disputed it. They were called the Collins Tribe until having multiplied to the extent it was necessary to divide, when the descendants of the several pioneers were separated, or divided into clans. Then came the Ben clan, the Sol clan, the Mitch clan, and indeed every prominent head of a large relationship was recognized as the leader of his clan, which always bore his name. There was, to be sure, no set form or time at which this division was made. It was only one of those natural splits, gradual and necessary, which is the sure result of increasing strength.
They were still, however, we must observe, all Collinses, The main tree had not been disturbed by foreign grafting, and while all were not blood descendants of old Vardy they, at all events, had all fallen under his banner and appropriated his name.
The tree at last began to put forth branches, or rather three foreign shoots were grafted into the body of it; the English (or white), Portuguese, and African.
The English branch began with the Mullins tribe, a very powerful tribe, next indeed for a long time to the Collins tribe, and at present the strongest of all the several branches, as well as the most daring and obstinate.
Old Jim Mullins, the father of the branch, was an Englishman, a trader, it is supposed, with Indians. He was of a roving, daring disposition, and rather fond of the free abandon which characterized the Indian. He was much given to sports, and was always cheek by jowl with the Cherokees and other Indian tribes among which he mingled. What brought him to Newman’s Ridge must have been, as it is said, his love for freedom and sport, and that careless existence known only to the Indians. He stumbled upon the Ridge settlement, fell in with the Ridgemanites, and never left them. He took for a wife one of their women, a descendant of old Sol Collins, and reared a family known as the Mullins tribe.This is said to be the first white blood that mingled with the blood of the dusky Ridgemanites.
By marriage I mean to say (in their own language) they took up together having no set form of marriage service. So old Jim Mullins took up with a Malungeon woman, a Collins, by whom he had a large family of children. Sometime after he exchanged wives with one Wyatt Collins, and proceeded to cultivate a second family. Wyatt Collins also had a large family by his first wife, and equally fortunate with the one whom he traded her for.
After the forming of Hancock County (Tennessee) old Mullins and Collins were forced to marry their wives according to the law of the land, but all had children and grandchildren before they were lawfully married.
The Mullins tribe became exceedingly strong, and remains today the head of the Ridge people.
The African branch was introduced by one Goins (I spell it as they do) who emigrated from North Carolina after the formation of the state of Tennessee. Goins was a negro, and did not settle upon the Ridge, but lower down the Big Sycamore Creek in Powell’s Valley. He took a Malungeon woman for his wife (took up with her), and reared a family or tribe. The Goins family may be easily recognized by their kinky hair, flat nose and foot, thick lips, and a complexion totally unlike the Collins and Mullins tribes. They possess many negro traits, too, which are wanting to the other tribes.
The Malungeons repudiate the idea of negro blood, yet some of the shiftless stragglers among them have married among the Goins people. They evade slights, snubs, censure, and the law, by claiming to have married Portuguese, there really being a Portuguese branch among the tribes.
The Goins tribe, however, was always looked upon with touch of contempt, and was held in a kind of subjection, socially and politically, by the others.
The Mullins and Collins tribes will fight for their Indian blood. The Melungeons are not brave; indeed, they are great cowards and easily brow-beaten, accustomed to receiving all manners of insults which it never occurs to them to resent. Only in this matter of blood will they show fight.
The Portuguese branch was for a long time a riddle, the existence of it being stoutly denied. It has at last, however, been traced to one Denhan, a Portuguese who married a Collins woman.
It seems that every runaway or straggler of any kind whatever, passing through the country took up with abode temporarily or permanently, with the Malungeons, or as they were then called the Ridgemanites. They were harmless, social, and good-natured when well acquainted with one–although at first suspicious, distant, and morose. While they have never encouraged emigration to the Ridge they have sometimes been unable to prevent it.
Denham, it is supposed, came from one of the Spanish settlements lying further to the south. He settled on Mulberry Creek, and married a sister of Old Sol Collins.
There is another story, however, about Denham. It is said that the first Denham came as did the first Collins from North Carolina, and that he (or his ancestors) had been left upon the Carolina coast by some Portuguese pirate vessel plying along the shore. When the English wrested the island of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, some fifteen hundred Spanish slaves fled to the mountains. Their number grew and their strength multiplied. For more than a hundred years they kept up a kind of guerilla warfare, for they were both savage and warlike. They were called mountain negroes,or maroons. The West Indian waters swarmed with piratical vessels at that time, the Portuguese being the most terrible and daring. The crews of these vessels were composed for the most part of these mountain negroes. When they became insubordinate, or in any way useless, they were put ashore and left to take care of themselves. It is said the Denhans were put ashore on the Carolina coast. Their instincts carried them to the mountains, from which one emigrated to Newman’s Ridge, then a part of North Carolina territory.
So we have the four races, or representatives, among, as they then began to be called, the Malungeons; namely, the Indians, the English, the Portuguese, and the African. Each is clearly distinct and easily recognized even to the present day.
The Portuguese blood has been a misfortune to the first Malungeons inasmuch as it has been a shield to the Goins clan under which they have sought to shelter themselves and repudiate the African streak.
There is a very marked difference between the two, however. There is an old blacksmith, a Portuguese, on Black Water Creek, as dark as a genuine African. Yet, there is a peculiar tinge to his complexion that is totally foreign to the negro. He has a white wife, a Mullins woman, a descendant of English and Indian. If Malungeon does indeed mean mixture, the children of this couple are certainly Malungeons. The blacksmith himself is a Denhan, grandson of the old Portuguese emigrant and a Collins woman.
This, then, is the account of the Malungeons from their first appearance in that part of the country where they are still found, Tennessee.
It will be a matter of some interest to follow them down to the present day. Unlike the rest of the world they have progressed slowly. Their huts are still huts, their characteristics and instincts are still Indian, and their customs have lost but little of the old primitive exclusive and seclusive abandon characteristic of the sons of the forest.
Mixing in the Mountains
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.
About the Melungeons
by Wayne Winkler
A few generations ago, children in Tennessee, Virginia and surrounding areas were told, “If you don’t behave, the Melungeons will get you!” Many people grew up believing the Melungeons were simply an Appalachian version of the boogeyman – a fearsome and mysterious but mythical bit of folklore.
From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, occasional newspaper and magazine articles affirmed that the Melungeons were real and that they lived in isolation because of their mysterious ethnic heritage – presumed by non-Melungeons to be a mixture of white, black, and Indian. In the past decade, books, magazines, and (especially) the Internet have fed an increasing interest in Melungeons. Genealogists have traced many of the families, DNA studies have offered some tantalizing hints, but the story of the Melungeons remains – to use the term most often employed by journalists over the years – “mysterious.”
The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry first documented in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Similar groups of “mysterious” people, or at least remnants of these groups, are found all along the Atlantic seaboard. While these other groups have no known connection to the Melungeons, they have historically suffered similar problems due to the difficulty of placing them within an established racial category. Anthropologists called them “racial islands” or “tri-racial isolates.”
In 1946, William Gilbert, a researcher for the Library of Congress, presented the first comprehensive survey covering the phenomenon of “little races” or, as Gilbert considered them, remnant Indian groups in the eastern U.S. He estimated that there were at least 50,000 persons who were “complex mixtures in varying degrees of white, Indian, and Negro blood,” and listed, by their colloquial names, ten major tri-racial groups with several related groups. These included:
1. Brass Ankles and allied groups in South Carolina, including Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, Marlboro Blues, and others.
2. Cajans and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi.
3. Croatans of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
4. Guineas of West Virginia and Maryland. (Other names included “West Hill Indians, “ ”Cecil Indians,” and “Guinea niggers.”)
5. Issues of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia.
6. Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey.
7. Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians.
8. Moors and Nanticokes of Delaware and New Jersey.
9. Red Bones of Louisiana.
10.Wesorts of southern Maryland.
Like many of these tri-racial groups, the Melungeons are traditionally identified by family names. A few of the surnames are associated with the Melungeons include Collins, Gibson, Goins, Mullins, and Bowlin. The Melungeons have historically been associated with the region along the Virginia-Tennessee border east of Cumberland Gap, with Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee, receiving most of the attention from journalists. Newspapers and magazines have found the Melungeons a fascinating topic since the 1840s, but the Melungeons have resented most of the publicity they have received over the years. Most of the articles on the Melungeons speculated on the legends, folklore, and theories surrounding their ancestry.
Some of these legends and theories have suggested descent from Spanish or Portuguese explorers, from the “Lost Colonists” of Roanoke Island, from shipwrecked sailors or pirates of various nationalities, from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or from ancient Phoenicians or Carthaginians. More recent theories have proposed that the Melungeons descended from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern ancestors.
None of these theories originated with the Melungeons themselves. Early accounts reflect the Melungeons’ self-description as “Indians.” Some Melungeons reportedly described themselves a “Portuguese,” or, as many pronounced it, “Portyghee.” Most of their white neighbors considered the Melungeons a mixture of, as one Hancock Countian put it, “white trash, renegade Indians, and runaway slaves.”
There is no consistent definition of the word “Melungeon.” Some anthropologists have limited the term to a few families located near Newman’s Ridge, while lay researchers have attempted to expand “Melungeon” to include other mixed-race groups in the southeastern United States. At one time, the word was used as a racial epithet against a mulatto, at another time as a political epithet for east Tennessee Republicans. The common usage of the term had an element of socio-economic status attached to it; families who were financially successful were not necessarily considered Melungeon, no matter who their ancestors were.
The majority of researchers over the years have concurred with the theory that the word derived from the French melange, meaning mixture. Another proposed theory for the origin of “Melungeon” is the Afro-Portuguese term melungo, supposedly meaning “shipmate.” Yet another is the Greek term melan, meaning “black.”
Other researchers have speculated that “Melungeon” derives from the Turkish melun can, (meaning “cursed soul”), the Italianmelongena (“eggplant,” referring to one with dark skin), or the old English term “malengin” (“guile; deceit”).
Nearly everyone who has written about the Melungeons agrees that they fiercely resented the name. [Nearly all the tri-racial groups resented the names the were called by their white neighbors.] Even in the mid-20th century, to call a Hancock Countian a Melungeon was to insult him. The stigma attached to the name “Melungeon” leads most — but not all — researchers to the conclusion that the name was imposed upon the people, that it was not a name they ever used for themselves.
Over the years, many people have journeyed to remote Hancock County, Tennessee, to search for the Melungeons they have read about in magazine or newspaper stories. Most of them go away uncertain whether they have seen a Melungeon or not. Most Melungeons in Hancock County look very much like their “white” neighbors, many of whom are quite swarthy from a lifetime of outdoor work.
Observers differed in their accounts of Melungeon physical features. Some historic descriptions of Melungeons include:
They are tall, straight, well- formed people, of a dark copper color … but wooly heads and other similar appendages of our negro.
They are of swarthy complexion, with prominent cheek bones, jet black hair, generally straight but at times having a slight tendency to curl, and the men have heavy black beards…Their frames are well built and some of the men are fine specimens of physical manhood. They are seldom fat.
While some of them are swarthy and have high Indian cheekbones, the mountain whites, too, often display these same characteristics. Also, many of the Melungeons have light hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.
The color of the skin of a full-blooded, pure Melungeon is a much richer brown than an Indian’s skin. It is not the color of a part Indian and part white, for their skin is lighter. The full-blooded, pure Melungeon had more the color of skin of a person from India and Egypt.
Legend and folklore place the Melungeons in the Hancock County area prior to the arrival of the white settlers. The best evidence, however, indicates the first Melungeon families arrived in the region at about the same time as the first whites. As in most other aspects of Melungeon history, myth competes with documented fact for popular attention.
Not all the Melungeons moved to the vicinity of Newman’s Ridge, and not all of those who did move to that area moved at the same time. One important early Melungeon settlement is the Stony Creek area, near Fort Blackmore in present-day Scott County, Virginia. The Stony Creek Baptist Church records include several people with Melungeon surnames who joined the church between 1801 and 1804. These church minutes provide the first written record of the word “Melungeon” in 1813. Other Melungeon communities formed in the southeastern Tennessee counties of Hamilton and Rhea, in middle Tennessee, in eastern Kentucky, and even as far north as Highland County, Ohio.
During the Civil War, the loyalties of the Melungeons paralleled those of the neighboring whites; the majority fought for the Union, but a significant minority sided with the Confederacy.
After the war, the Melungeons were accused of bushwhacking and raiding white settlements, but these incidents likely exaggerated over the years.
In the summer of 1890, a young writer from Nashville made the journey of over 300 miles to Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County. Will Allen Dromgoole worked as an engrossing clerk in the Tennessee Senate and wrote poetry and feature stories. After reading about the Melungeons in a newspaper article, she began asking questions about them, and eventually traveled to Newman’s Ridge. After spending two weeks observing the Melungeons, she wrote two articles for a Nashville newspaper and later adapted the articles for the nationally-distributed Arena magazine.
Dromgoole’s comments reflected the racial attitudes shared by most white Americans of her day, and her descriptions of the Melungeons were far from complimentary. Unfortunately, Dromgoole’s articles were the foundation for most of what was written about the Melungeons for the next 100 years. Most writers have used her as a source, whether credited or not, and many have used her observations in lieu of traveling to Newman’s Ridge to collect their own.
The Northern Presbyterian Church established a mission in Vardy Valley, Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1899. This mission eventually grew into the Vardy School, which provided educational opportunities for Melungeons until the 1970s.
During the late 1930s and 1940s, the Melungeons were featured in several newspaper and magazine articles. Few of these pieces added any significant new information about the Melungeons; instead, most presented folk tales and increasingly fantastic theories of origin. While journalists found the Melungeons a source for interesting feature articles, scientists began the first serious academic research of the Melungeons and other tri-racials.
For nearly all the tri-racial groups, particularly those in the southern states, segregation was a daily reminder of their social status. There were exceptions; despite a few squabbles over whether Melungeons and whites should attend the same schools, most Melungeons were considered white. Legal acceptance is one thing, however; social acceptance is quite another. Even where tri-racials were considered black, the local customs and mores often differentiated between the two groups, granting the tri-racials a marginally higher status than blacks — but certainly lower than that of whites.
By the 1960s, the stigma of being a Melungeon was disappearing – but so were the Melungeons themselves. Rogersville, Tennessee attorney Henry Price said, “The pure Melungeon (if there is or was such a thing) is rare today. Only among the older folk – deep in the ridge – does one see what must have been the original skin color characteristics, experience the wary, ‘don’t tread on me’ atmosphere; hear the lament that young people are leaving the ridge in ever increasing numbers … The future for this remnant of the clan is not bright.”
However, an idea designed to bring tourism and economic opportunity to Hancock County began to engender pride in the once-hated name “Melungeon.” The Hancock County Drama Association produced an outdoor drama entitled Walk Toward the Sunset, written by noted playwright Kermit Hunter. Walk Toward the Sunset opened on July 3, 1969, and the first season closed with a total attendance of over 10,000. By 1976, however, the drama closed permanently due to lack of attendance. While ultimately unsuccessful, the play brought a sense of pride to the Melungeons. The name “Melungeon” itself — once an epithet — was worn by many with pride.
In the late 1980s, Brent Kennedy, a native of Wise, Virginia, began investigating his own ancestry. He tried to interest scholars and scientists in examining the ethnic background of the Melungeons, but to no avail. In 1992 he organized a group of researchers into the Melungeon Research Committee. Utilizing some of the research of the Committee, Kennedy published The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America in 1994. In it, he theorized that the Melungeons’ ancestors included Portuguese, Spanish, Turks, Moors, Jews, Native Americans, Africans, and various Europeans. He further contended that the population sharing this heritage is much larger than previously assumed.
Interest in the Melungeons spread via the Internet, where web pages and mail groups brought together people from all across the country who were searching for information about their Melungeon ancestry. In July of 1997, a gathering dubbed “First Union” brought more than 600 people to tiny Wise, Virginia. Later Unions were organized by the Melungeon Heritage Association, chartered in the summer of 1998.
These are the people who have been largely left out of America’s English-oriented history books. Though historical, genealogical, and genetic research has shed much light on the mystery of the Melungeons, many questions still remain. The European/Middle Eastern ancestors of the Melungeons arrived in America with the intention of establishing their families in a new land. Through intermarriage with Indians and African-Americans, they managed to do so; their descendants are at the forefront of the effort to find out who they were and how they eventually became the people known as Melungeons
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