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.