Category Archives: Resources for Research

Joint Statement from Vardy Community Historical Society and MHA

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A Joint Statement from the Vardy Community Historical Society (VCHS) and the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA )

We the members of VCHS, in conjunction with the members of MHA, jointly issue the following statement of principles:

(1). That we have and will continue to work both independently and together to preserve the heritage, culture and artifacts of the Melungeon and Melungeon-related populations and their descendants.

(2). That we recognize the likely kinship of many of these populations that have spread throughout the Southeast and their likely shared origins at some point in the past.

(3) That we do not condone nor subscribe to any theory or position that separates any group of human beings from any other group.  The Melungeons and indeed, all related populations should not be viewed as “little races” or “singular species,” but instead as what they are: human beings with cultural, genetic, and spiritual connections to one another.  We believe establishing this broader kinship does not dilute our uniqueness as human beings, but enhances it as we seek to be a model for better racial and ethnic relations.

(4) We recognize and respect that each individual population, and indeed, each family, will possess its own unique heritage and family traditions, and that no two “Melungeon” families are exactly the same.  A tolerance for these differences – and the oral traditions that accompany them – should not only be present but encouraged.

(5) We strongly discourage any efforts or activities that attempt to exclude others from the discovery and celebration of their heritage.  The Melungeons as a people do not “belong” to anyone or any specific organization, group of families, e-mail lists, or websites.  There is no “litmus” test, genetics test, or genealogical “test” that serves as an entrance ticket to being a “Melungeon.”  All that we can say with certainty is that some of our early pioneer ancestors and relatives were labeled “Melungeons” by their neighbors and others. However, and importantly, we know with equal certainty that many of their brothers and sisters migrated elsewhere and avoided the stigma of being known as a Melungeon.  Therefore, common sense tells us that we have cousins living all over this nation, some of whom know of their “Melungeon” heritage and many of whom probably do not.

(6) We strongly encourage all those with Melungeon heritage and all those who find the Melungeon story inspirational to join with us in celebrating our proud heritage and in working to bring people together.  There is a great need in this strife torn world for increased understanding and
harmony, certainly between nations but also between races, ethnic groups,cultures, and most certainly between those who call themselves Melungeon.

R. C. Mullins, President, VCHS

Wayne Winkler, President, MHA


Arwin Smallwood, Ph.D. article “A History Long Forgotten”

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Those of us who have been fortunate to hear Dr. Smallwood’s presentations at Melungeon Unions will find much familiar material in this article published by Oklahoma Humanities this summer, “A History Long Forgotten: Intersections of Race in Early America.”  The events calendar has been update to include Dr. Smallwood’s June 2013 trip to Canada as part of the University of Memphis studies abroad program.

2002 and 2010 DNA studies

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In 2002, Brent Kennedy issued a statement about the first Melungeon DNA study. Excerpt:

The long-awaited DNA results are in and as many of us have maintained, the Melungeons are indeed a mixture of all races and many ethnic groups. The DNA samples in this study represent the oldest, most established Melungeon male and female lines in the Hancock County community, and the Wise County community.  Extensive genealogies for these two populations — and those sampled — are known and documented.  Respected members of each community assisted in the collection of the samples, and these samples can be examined separately (by community) and compared against one another.

In addition to Native American (approximately 5% of the sample), African (approximately 5%) and European (approximately 83% of the sample, but representing Europeans from north to south), the study also showed approximately 7% of the samples matching populations in Turkey, Syria and northern India.  In other words, the surviving genes from Middle Eastern and East Indian ancestors are in equal proportion to those of Native Americans and Africans.  My gut feeling is that the original, seventeenth-century percentages of all three groups (i.e., African, Native American, and Middle Eastern/East Indian) were higher than what we’re seeing today.  Time, admixture, and out-movement of some of our darker cousins into other minority groups have likely lowered the genetic traces of their earlier presence.  But enough of them were there to still be traceable among the Melungeons of today. The long discounted Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritages are irrefutably there.


In 2010, DNA Consultants issued this report about an autosomal DNA study of Melungeons. Excerpt:

After many years in development, the results of a DNA ancestry project enrolling 40 Melungeons were published and made public, marking the end of an attempt to solve the mystery of a Southern U.S. ethnic group with autosomal DNA.

Seeming to lay to rest an old controversy in American history about Melungeons, the scientific data supporting a genetic mixture of white, American Indian and Sub-Saharan African were placed online today by the organizers of DNA Consultants’ Melungeon DNA Project.

Any media coverage in 2012 purporting to show Melungeons as shocked by evidence of subSaharan African DNA  conflicts with this evidence, but also with more than a hundred years of testimony from Melungeons themselves.

“Negro Speaking!” 1840 article from The Whig, Jonesboro, Tennessee

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1840 Whig Article

Negro Speaking!

published in the Whig, Jonesboro, Tennessee, 7 October 1840

We have just learned, upon undoubtable authority, that Gen. Combs, in his attempt to address the citizens of Sullivan County, on yesterday, was insulted, contradicted repeatedly, limited to one hour and a half, and most shamefully treated, and withall an effort was made, to get an impudent Malungeon from Washington City, a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian, and who has actually been speaking in Sullivan, in reply to Combs! Gen. Combs, however, declined the honor of contending with Negroes and Indians _ said he had fought against the latter, but never met them in debate! This is the party, reader, who are opposed to the gag-law, and to abolition!

Bigotry and democracy in Sullivan County, well knowing that their days on earth are numbered, are rolling together their clouds of blackness and darkness, in the person of a free negroe, with the forlorn hope of obscuring the light that is beaming in glory, and a gladness, upon this country, through the able and eloquent speeches of Whig orators.

David Shaver replied to Gen. Combs, we are informed. This is the same Davy, Mr. Netherland gave an account of, some time since, and who, Col. James gave us the history of, in an address, at our late convention. When Davy had finished, the big Democratic Negro came forward, and entertained the brethren. These two last speakers were an entertaining pair!

from Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia by Wayne Winkler (2004, Mercer University Press)

The 1840 article was printed in the Jonesborough Whig, a political newspaper edited by William Gannaway “Parson” Brownlow, later to become the controversial Reconstruction governor of Tennessee. Over the next two weeks, Brownlow’s Whig made several references to the “Malungeon” which made clear that Brownlow considered a Melungeon to be “a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian.” References to “the big Democratic Negro” were meant to associate the Democrats with the concept of racial equality, a notion repugnant of southern Whigs (and to southern Democrats as well).

The origin of this “impudent Malungeon” is given as “Washington City.” This raises some questions. Jonesborough, where the newspaper was published, is the seat of Washington County, Tennessee, and there is a Washington County nearby in Virginia. However, there is no city or town named “Washington” anywhere near Jonesborough. In the 1840s, “Washington City” often referred to Washington, D. C. If the “scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian” came from the District of Columbia, the term “Melungeon” obviously had a far broader meaning and more widespread usage than anyone has suggested to date. If the term was being used in the nation’s capital, one could reasonably assume the term would exist in numerous other records. It does not; as of this writing, the Jonesborough articles of 1840 are only the second known written record of the word, the first being the Stony Creek church minutes of 1813. The author may have been applying a local term to an outsider, someone who would not have been called a “Malungeon” anywhere else?. The more likely explanation, however, is that the reference to “Washington City” is a mistake or a typographical error, and the origin of the “impudent Malungeon” was Washington County.

Tennessee politicians, particularly in the post-Civil War era, would use the term “Melungeon” to describe opposing politicians, particularly Republicans from the eastern third of the state. During the post-war Reconstruction era, bitter epithets flew freely between Democrats and Republicans. This particular epithet, however, seems never to have lost its suggestion of non-white ancestry. When Nashville writer Will Allen Dromgoole asked two Tennessee legislators of the 1890’s to define “Malungeons,” the answers were “a dirty Indian sneak” and “a Portuguese nigger.”

“A Note on the Melungeons” by Burnett, 1889 article

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1889 Burnett Article

A Note on the Melungeons

This article was published in the American Anthropologist 2, (October 1889): 347. The lecture was given to the American Antropological Society in February 1889.

Legends of the Melungeons I first heard at my father’s knee as a child in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, and the name had such a ponderous and inhuman sound as to associate them in my mind with the giants and ogres of the wonder tales I listened to in the winter evenings before the crackling logs in the wide-mouth fireplace. And when I chanced to waken in the night and the fire had died down on the hearth, and the wind swept with a demoniac shriek and terrifying roar around and through the house, rattling the windows and the loose clapboards on the roof, I shrank under the bedclothes trembling with a fear that was almost an expectation that one of these huge creatures would come down the chimney with a rush, seize me with his dragon-like arms, and carry me off to his cave in the mountains, there to devour me piecemeal.

In the course of time, however, I came to learn that these creatures with the awe-inspiring name were people somewhat like ourselves, but with a difference. I learned, too, that they were not only different from us, the white, but also from the Negroes–slave or free–and from the Indian. They were something set apart from anything I had seen or heard of. Neither was the exact nature of this difference manifest even in more mature years, when a childish curiosity had given way to an interest more scientific in its character. There was evidently a caste distinction as there was between the white and Negro, and there was also a difference between them and the free Negroes. No one seemed to know positively that they or their ancestors had ever been in slavery, and they did not themselves claim to belong to any tribe of Indians in that part of the country. They resented the appellation Melungeon, given to them by common consent by the whites, and proudly called themselves Portuguese.

The current belief was that they were a mixture of white, Indian, and Negro. On what data that opinion was based I have never been able to determine, but the very word Melungeon would seem to indicate the idea of a mixed people in the minds of those who first gave them the name. I have never seen the word written, nor do I know the precise way of spelling it, but the first thought that would come to one on hearing it would be that it was a corruption of the French word melangee—mixed.

It was not, however, until I had left East Tennessee and become interested in anthropology–chiefly through my membership in this Society—that the peculiarities of this people came to have any real significance for me, and I was then too far away to investigate the matter personally to the extent I desire. I have, however, for several years past pursued my inquiries as best I could through various parties living in the country and visiting it, but with no very pronounced success. I have thought it well, however, to put on record in the archives of the Society the rew notes I have been able to obtain, trusting that some one with better opportunity may be induced to pursue the matter further.

It appears that the Melungeons originally came into east Tennessee from North Carolina, and the larger number settled in what was at that time Hawkins County, but which is now Hancock. I have not been able to hear of them in any of the lower counties of east Tennessee, and those I have seen myself were in Cocke county, bordering on North Carolina. At what time this emigration took place in not known, but it was certainly as long ago as seventy-five or eighty years. One man, “Old Sol. Collins,” in Hancock County, claims that his father fought in the revolution.

They are known generally by their family names, as the “Collinses,” &c., and on account of the caste restriction, which has always been rigorously maintained, they do not intermarry with the Negroes or Indians. As stated before, they are held by the whites to be a mixed race with at least a modicum of Negroes blood, and there is at least one instance on record in which the matter was brought before the courts. It was before the war–during the time of slavery–that the right of a number of these people to vote was called in question. The matter was finally carried before a jury and the question decided by an examination of the feet. One, I believe, was found to be sufficiently flat-footed to deprive him of aright of suffrage. The others, four or five in number, were considered as having sufficient white blood to allow them a vote. Co. John Netherland, a lawyer of considerable local prominence defended them.

It should be stated, however, that there is a disposition on the part of the more thoughtful of those among whom these people live to give some credence to their claim of being a distinct race, a few inclining to the Portuguese theory, some thinking that they may possibly be gypsies, while yet others think that they may have entered the country as Portuguese or gypsies and afterward some families may have intermingled with negroes or Indians or with both. So far as I have been able to learn, however, there was not at any time a settlement of Portuguese in or near North Carolina of which these people could have been an offshoot. Those that I have seen had physical peculiarities which would lend plausibility to any one of the foregoing theories.

They are dark, but of a different hue to the ordinary mulatto, with either straight or wavy hair, and some have cheek bones almost as high as the Indians. The men are usually straight, large, and find looking, while one old woman I saw was sufficiently hag-like to have sat for the original Meg Merriles. As a rule, they do not stand very high in the community, and their reputation for honesty and truthfulness is not to be envied. In this, however, there are said to be individual exceptions.

It is perhaps characteristic of them that, since a revenue tax has been placed by the Government on the manufacture of spirituous liquors, these people have been engages largely in illicit distilling; but, whatever may have been their origin, it is still a fact of interest that there has existed in East Tennessee for nearly a hundred years a class of people held both by them selves and by the people among whom they live as distinct from the three other races by whom they are surrounded, and I trust that these few imperfect notes may cause a study of them to be made by some one more competent than myself. For assistance in getting information I am particularly indebted to Dr. J. M. Peirce, of Hawkins county, Tennessee, and to Dr. Gurley, of the Smithsonian Institution.

Since the above communications was read before the Society I have received from several sources valuable information in regard to the Melungeons; but the most important contribution bearing on the subject, as I believe, is the little pamphlet published by Hamilton Mc Millan, A. M., on “Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony” (Wilson, N.C., 188). Mc Millan claims that the Croatan Indians are the direct descendant of this colony. What connection I consider to exist between the Melungeons and the Croatan Indians, as well as other material I have accumulated in regard to the Melungeons, will be made the subject of another communication which is now in preparation.

“True Story of Delaware’s Moors,” 1896 article

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1896 Moors Article

True Story of Delaware’s Moors

Smyrna (Delaware) Press, 1 January 1896

Down in the southern end of Delaware, thickly settled, especially about Lewes, and scattered as far north as the boundary of KentCounty, one finds a race of men who have been a source of wonder and a puzzle to the historian of that state. They tell a curious story of Oriental origin, and cling to traditions which are wholly their own, and while they are known to this day as the Moors of Delaware, are an enigma to the general population in and about the state they inhabit. From a distance they look like the ordinary colored residents of the neighborhood, but a close inspection shows that they haven’t the slightest trace of Negro blood in their veins. Indeed, some of them are so fair and so ruddy that they are often mistaken for white men, and, in fact, this is how one day their fanciful story of descent from a captive Moor came to be ventilated in a court of justice in Sussex County, and their strange history for the first time given an air of credence.

After that such notable Delawareans as Judge George P. Fisher took a profound interest in these people. Chas. Brown, who owned large tracts in and about a place which was then called Moorton, after them, but which is now set down on the maps as Cheswold, bequeathed to them a piece of land on which to build a school. Other equally well-known men of affairs in the lower end of Delaware for the first time began to take an interest, as if they had found a curiosity to be proud of in their own native State.

Around the little town of Cheswold there is a settlement comprising about 200 of this peculiar race. They are now in an interesting stage of development. They have a church and school, manage their own affairs and are looked upon as the most industrious citizens of the place.

Cheswold is about sixty-eight miles from Philadelphia, and can be reached by the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is in the heart of Kent County, and the populace in and around Cheswold is an exact type of the race who inhabit the belt stretching away to the lower end of the state. Contrary to what one would expect who has been reared in a large city, and grown familiar with the colonization methods of various races, who segregate in sections which they afterward make their own, the Delaware Moors do not huddle together in any particular locality. They have no monopoly of any part of the town, and the agricultural and industrial pursuits that inject the only life into Cheswold are not controlled by the race.

One hardly knows on stepping from the train that there exists such a colony as the Delaware Moors in and about Cheswold, and it is only by assiduous questioning and a little personal exploration that at last he is brought face to face with certain unmistakable signs that shows that these people have made this place their own. A short walk to the end of the town soon tells the story. The “yaller” man, as he is called, is so in evidence, and before you take many steps you begin to find that he is pretty numerous, tills the soil, conducts business and carries on trade with his fair brethren, much like the members of any other civilized colony. Should you engage him in conversation you will find that the tone, together with the gesture and carriage, are of a race different from the colored people of the neighborhood. Should you desire to know aught of Cheswold and of the Moors he will gladly tell you, for every member of the tribe seems to be well acquainted with its history.
The town is a little collection of two or three-storied frame houses, with here and there a really pretentious dwelling, all clustered about a central avenue. The railroad runs through the eastern verge of the place, and on either side are comfortable dwellings, inhabited by workingmen, or in the case of one of them, by the pastor of the modest little church. Your Moorish friend will point to it from where he stands. It is the first yellow house from the grocery store on the main street, and directly opposite is the canning factory which, fully running, employs twenty or thirty men. The factory is an institution of Cheswold, for the surrounding country, with its many farms and bountiful crops, is famous for its mellow fruit.The most interesting place in the town, however, is the home of Cornelius Ridgeway, the patriarch of the colony. It is a yellow colored frame building, the first on the left as you turn form the railroad. He is a man of about sixty, has a bright face, and, you will soon see, is an industrious worker at shoe-making. Despite the lowliness of his calling he follows it as would a knight the tourney. There is a kindly look in his eye as you mention the race whose patriarch he is and whose history he knows by heart. He will gladly lay his work aside to take up the thread of the Moors’ history.

“There are some of them,” pointing to a couple of youths, fair of face and almost white, who are just leaving his shop. “Do they look like Negroes?”

The Delaware Moors, according to the story told by Cornelius and the other patriarchs, came into the history of the state over a hundred years ago, but they were never assigned a place until the trial of Levi Sokum, a member of the race, who was charge with selling powder and shot to Isaiah Harmon, another member of the race, whom the prosecution contended was a mulatto. There were no records of the tribe up to that time, and all that was known was handed down from father to son and told about by the old men of the race, who guarded the younger members of the flocks and zealously instilled into their minds the strange teaching that declared them to be of a purer strain than any of their neighbors, and forbade the young to play with, or the youths and maidens to intermarry with, those of another race. By the patriarchs it was preached about that their progenitors were a Moorish prince who had been sold into captivity because of troubles in his own dominion, and who, as fate would have it, was bought by a young Irish woman who herself was an exile, and was banished from a duchy in Spain that rightfully belonged to her and her impoverished father.

Senorita Requa, or Miss Reegan, as she was called by some, first came into the history of Delaware some years prior to the Revolutionary War, and settled on a big farm near Lewes. She had fabulous wealth, so the old man said, and to all she was as a sealed book. Many young men sought for her hand, but to all she turned a deaf ear, and shut herself up in her cloister-like mansion. Those who saw her said that she had a sweet and passive look, as if she had seen much sorrow and was resigned. Her affairs were managed by an old man who had known her before the days of adversity and who fled with her from the castled land of Spain. She had hundreds of slaves working for her and was reputed to be the wealthiest lady in Delaware.

One day a slave ship put in at Lewes and finding that she was in need of a slave she sent to the ship for one. It so happened that a handsome young fellow, straight in stature, noble in bearing and withal having a kingly look about him, was chosen and brought to the mansion of the mysterious lady. He walked with such an air and spoke with such a clear accent, and, above all, conversed in those dulcet tones which alone are Spanish, that the lady, who was seldom seen by men, called for him to be brought to her. There and then, in the most romantic way, he fell on his knees and told her in sweet Castilian tongue that he was an exiled Moorish prince who had fought in the Spanish War, gained renown, and because of his popularity was secretly carried off and sold to the slaver by friends of his uncle, who were jealous of his popularity and coveted the throne himself.

Whether or not his story was true, the heart of the exiled woman went out to that of the exiled Moor, and from that moment she loved her princely suitor. The result was a marriage and the children had the characteristics of the Moor and Hibernian, the voluptuous beauty of the one, the natural vivacity of the other.

When it became known that the mistress had married the man, who was looked upon as a Negro, the populace for miles around were incensed and the young men who had sought the lady’s hand, and had been slighted, cast many aspersion on her fair name. Hence it was that to this day there are stories in Delaware to the effect that the woman was an outcast favorite of the Spanish King, and like the celebrated Lola Montez, who held the King of Bavaria enthralled, had been compelled to flee because of the wrath of the nobles and the Queen. At any rate, the children of the pair were tabooed by the good society of Sussex County, and hence arose a curious state of affairs. The children, reared under the best tutors, for the exiled woman valued education, held themselves too good for the blacks, and were not allowed the society of the whites. It was because of this that a fusion of blood occurred between the Nanticoke Indians and the children of the curious fated pair took place. The aborigines had reached a high degree of civilization and among the young men of the tribe there were some who were educated. Hence it was that one of the children, a beautiful daughter, fell in love with an educated and well-to-do member of his tribe, who at that time inhabited that part of Delaware, were tillers of the soil, and had none of the evil habits common to the Indian race. This union was subsequently followed by the marriage of a Moor son with an Indian maiden, and so the blood of the Moor and the Indian became diffused, and the curious combination of races brought forth the Delaware Moor of today. In this way the Nanticoke Indians who were once numerous in Southern Delaware have entirely disappeared, but their descendants are these men who today are scorned by the whites.

The Moorish school at Cheswold is an object of no little interest. There is nothing lofty about it, but that the board which directs its affairs are a determined set of men may be shown by a little story which is told apropos of the school. The story shows the positive character of the Moors when their racial prejudices are aroused. Some time ago the school, which stands in a romantic spot about a mile from the village, was without a teacher, and the board sent to Superintendent Tindal, at Dover, to fill the vacancy. “Send us a teacher,” they said, “but under no circumstances let him be a black man.” Three days later, when G. G. Johnson, of Hamilton, Va., appeared to take charge of the little frame school one of the Moorish parents discerned that he was a Negro, and then there was a scene. All the Kent County Moors rose up in arms against the alleged outrage, and an indignant protest was sent to Superintendent Tindal. After Mr. Johnson returned to Virginia, Mr. Tindal was told that he might send an Indian or a white man, or preferably a Moor.

Cornelius, who is a member of the board, laughed heartily in speaking o£ the matter. He then dilated upon the queer customs of his people. They do not marry outside their tribe. They observe a color line with the Negro stricter than that of the out and out Southerner, and woe betide the Delaware Moorish maiden who so forgets her station as to manifest a weakness for a common black man. She is first warned, then chastised, then entreated, and finally, if she persists in loving him, is banished altogether from her father’s roof, and boycotted by the tribe forevermore.

The Moorish maidens spoken of by Cornelius are very pretty, and they have nothing of the heavy upper lip and other Negroid features indicative of a Negro. Two of them called to see Cornelius while he was talking, They stepped back with a modest courtesy on seeing that another person was in the room, and were about to retire when the old cobbler called them back. An excellent opportunity was thus afforded to scrutinize their features and study their characteristics. The least that can be said of them is that they are handsome. There is something in their soulful eyes which reminds one of a place beyond the seas, and when they speak the ripple of words is mellifluous, and not at all the plaintive jargon of the Southern “mammy” or the animated colored girl.

It is not often that one of them becomes enamored of a black man, for there are plenty of good looking Delaware Moors about to please them.

The Delaware Moor, one might be led to believe, would follow the doctrines handed down by their ancestors and accept the faith of Mohammed. Such is not the case, however. Their house of worship is not a mosque but a simple little frame Methodist Church. The building itself is picturesque. It stands out on the verge of the village, back from the road leading in the opposite direction from the school. Its architecture has nothing to suggest the beautiful, but every Sunday its wooden wall rings with melodious praises, as sent up in the good, clear tones of the sweet voiced Delaware Moors, and all that part of Kent County for miles around re-echoes with the heavenly adulation.

The structure was erected in l885, and by dint of hard scraping the Moors have managed to make the church their own, paying off a mortgage for $1100. The contractor who erected the building knocked off a few hundred dollars to begin with, and when the last joist was nailed up the jubilation was one long to be remembered for up to this time they had no fixed place of worship. Sometimes accepting the hospitality of the whites, they were relegated to the rear of their church together with the blacks, and this wounded their pride. The elders of their peculiar race finally put their heads together, and declared that unless they had a separate church for themselves the race might become disintegrated and it was this feeling that prompted them to secure a church of their own.

In many of the race the strain is almost pure white, while in some it is yellow, in others deep brown. One family in Kent County named Durham is as fair as any Caucasian, and its members resemble the Irish more than any other race. In others the difference between them and pure whites could never be told, and this is how it fell about in the case of Isaiah Harmon, of Sussex County, who bought the powder and shot from Levi Sokum, another Delaware Moor, which was aired in the Sussex County court and which established the fact that the tribe was not one of Negro blood, and gives a color of truth to the story told by the old Moors of Kent County.

In those days there was a law which forbade anyone from selling or loaning ammunition to a Negro or mulatto. Sokum had sold to Harmon a quarter pound of powder and a pound of shot, and the action was brought by some envious white men, who had a grudge against Sokum. When Harmon appeared in court that day, everyone looked at him in surprise expecting to find, at least, a man with “yaller” blood, if not the pure black blood. Instead, a young fellow, straight as an arrow and with a complexion that rivaled that of any Caucasian present was introduced as the defendant and set down by the prosecution as mulatto, or Negro, and that Harmon came of a race that was altogether distinct.

In order to support his claim an old woman of the tribe named Lydia Clark was called to the witness stand and questioned. she told the story of the origin of the Delaware Moor as given above, and showed conclusively that her kinsman was not of the Negro descent. According to her story the original progenitors appeared about twenty years before the Revolutionary War and the succeeding generations were confined principally to the southeast portions of Sussex Count, in and around Lewes, Millsboro, Georgetown and Milton.

“The Melungeons” by Paul Converse, 1912 article

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The Melungeons

by Paul Converse

originally published in Southern Collegian (December 1912) 59-69.

Clinch is the name of a range of mountains of some height and local prominence that run through upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia about midway between the Alleghenies and Cumberlands. To the east of the Clinch range lies a region in which the water courses have worn for themselves broad, gently rolling and fertile valleys while the intervening ridges have been worn back until they are low and of relatively little importance. To the west, however, for a distance of 25 or 30 miles lies a region which is, geologically speaking, too young for the waterways to have cut anything except deep and narrow valleys. Hence we find there a topography of alternating steep ridges and narrow valleys and there narrow strips of level valley land.

The fifth valley to the west of Clinch Mountain is the Blackwater valley, which lies between Newman’s Ridge on the southeast and Powell’s Mountain on the northwest. This valley is about 26 miles long, extending the length of Newman’s Ridge, from Howard’s Quarters in Claiborne County, Tennessee, through Hancock County, in the same State, to the Blackwater salt works in Lee County, Virginia. The southern end of this valley is narrow, but it widens out toward the north and makes room for several fertile mountain farms, and although it attains no great width it is unusually straight, as mountain valleys go, and if a railroad should ever be built through this section, it will probably follow this route. The southern end of this valley is drained by Sycamore Creek, flowing southwestward through primeval forests of oak and hemlock which cover the precipitous northern slope of Newman’s Ridge and the more gentle slope of Powell’s Mountain. The northern end is drained by Blackwater Creek, which winds its way leisurely northeastward through narrow strips of verdant meadow land. Here, along the banks of this sparkling stream and on the top and eastern slope of Newman’s Ridge, is the home of the Melungeons, far famed not only for their lawlessness and the number of their bloody feuds, but for the mystery surrounding their ancestry and their peculiarities in general.

The word “Melungeon” is said to belong to the vernacular of East Tennessee, but the Melungeons are probably better known in New England than they are in the neighboring counties of their native State. The name (sometimes spelled Malungeon) is said to be derived from the French “Melange,” meaning mixture or medley, and this is generally accepted as the correct derivation. But it has been suggested (by Lucy S. V. King, writing for the Nashville American) that the name was derived from “Melanism,” a word of Greek origin, denoting an excess of black pigment in the skin.

But let the origin of their name be what it may, the Melungeons have been and are still a peculiar people. They are as different from their neighbors, the mountain whites, who are the purest descendents of the Scotch Irish and English colonists known today on the American continent, as they are from the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Connecticut Yankee. 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. They have deep-set dark brown eyes. Their frames are well built and some of the men are fine specimens of physical manhood. They are seldom fat. Their lips are not noticeably thicker nor their feet broader than those of pure Caucasians, and although their hair is sometimes wavy it is seldom, if ever, kinky. Some of the small boys with their uncombed hair, dirty faces and wide, staring eyes look like young Indians fresh from their smoky wigwams. The girls, however, with their brown eyes, rosy cheeks and heavy black locks are good examples of natural beauty. The language of these people has many interesting and peculiar idioms but does not seem to differ much from that used in other remote rural sections of East Tennessee.

These are some of the more marked characteristics of the pure Melungeons, but the typical physical characteristics are gradually disappearing as outsiders intermarry with them or as they venture out into the outside world to lose their identity. For from this parent colony in Hancock County, Tennessee, they have emigrated to several nearby counties and many are reported to be living in the Cumberland Mountains in Bledsoe, Van Buren, Franklin, Marion, and White counties, and near Dayton in Rhea County a colony of 200 is reported, among whom “Noel” is the predominating name. The theory has also been advanced that the “strange people of the Ozarks” are an offshoot of the Melungeons. But to say the least, this is unproved.

The origin of these peculiar people is an unsolved mystery, although many have tried to trace their ancestry back to some definite race or locality. Some say that they are the remnant of Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony and others that they are the descendents of some ancient colony of refugees fro Venice, Servia, or Portugal. Some of the Melungeons themselves claim such an origin. Those in Rhea County claim to be of Servian descent and those in Hancock County say that they are of Portuguese extraction.

Judge Louis [sic] Shepherd, of Chattanooga, some years ago had an important case in which he established by a tradition existing among these people but without historical proof, that they are of Portuguese ancestry. His theory is that they are descended from the ancient Phoenicians, who settled Carthage about 850 B.C., probably best known to the average reader through their famous general Hannibal. From Carthage they moved westward to Morocco and from Morocco they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to southern Portugal. Here they resided for some time, and from this group Shakespeare’s Othello was descended. A colony of the Moors, it is claimed, crossed the Atlantic Ocean prior to the Revolutionary War and settled on the northern part of the South Carolina coast, where they multiplied and amassed some property. A number are said to have resided near Spartanburg, S. C., during the war of independence. The South Carolinians, however, would not receive them on terms of equality and at times excluded their children from the schools, on the ground that they were negroes. At that time South Carolina levied a per capita tax on free negroes. It is said that the continued attempts to collect this tax from these strange people led them to emigrate in a body and cross the Great Smoky Mountains a part of the Allegheny chain, beyond which they penetrated deep into the trackless and uninhabited wilderness and finally settled in the remote Blackwater Valley. Here they lived unmolested until the Scotch Irish, spreading westward fro the Watauga settlements, in Tennessee, discovered them in the closing years of the eighteenth century.

This is quite a fine theory, but most people are more prosaic and hold the Melungeons to be a mixed race, having Indian, Negro, and Caucasian blood in their veins. This the word “Melungeon” itself would indicate and the Bureau of Ethnology at Washington classifies them as a branch or offshoot of the Croatan Indians of North Carolina, who are a people of obscure and mixed descent in whose veins Indian blood predominates. It is evident from the belief existing among the Melungeons and from more recent emigrants that they came to Tennessee largely from North and not South Carolina. Old Beatty (sic) Collins, a veteran of the Civil War and on4e of the most intelligent and respected of his tribe, says that his grandfather came to the Blackwater valley from North Carolina more than 100 years ago with the first settlers and took up a large tract of land there. Also a man named Stuart, said to be a Melungeon, has recently moved to Hawkins County, Tennessee, from North Carolina, and others are said to still reside in that State. The Sycamore end of this valley, known locally as “Snake Hollow,” is of much more recent settlement. The inhabitants, however, came largely from the Blackwater country, and people still in the prime of life can remember when the first settlers moved into this narrow valley, made their little clearings on the steep mountain sides, erected their crude log huts and planted their little patches of corn and tobacco.

Although many of the Melungeons claim a Portuguese ancestry and some admit having Indian blood in their veins they do not like to be called Melungeons or considered as peculiar people. They simply desire to be called by their names, of which Collins is the most common, while Mullins is a close second. Other common names are: Bolen, Gibson, and Goins, and such names as Lawson, Maloney and Fields are not unknown.

From their English names, taken in connection with the other proof, it seems probable that the story of their Portuguese origin is a myth. At any rate the burden of proof is upon those who make such assertions and some definite historical proof must be produced before such a theory will be generally accepted as correct.

They are very sensitive and become angry if accused of having negro blood in their veins. It is a known fact that some of the Melungeons fought in the War of 1812 and some say that their ancestors were in the revolutionary War; some of them received pensions, voted, and prosecuted white men prior to the Civil War, none of which negroes were allowed to do under the laws existing in those days. Their right to vote, however, was frequently challenged. In one case, in which Col. John Netherland was the defending lawyer, the matter was carried into court and decided by measuring their feet. Four or five were allowed to vote but one was debarred n the ground that his feet were too broad. The people on Sycamore are somewhat darker than those on Blackwater and there the race question has entered the school, some of the white settlers objecting to their children going to school with those of their darker skinned neighbors. This is somewhat strange in view of the fact that from the marriage of a white with a Melungeon some of the children will be dark and others will have very light complexions.

The Melungeons have lived for generations in their secluded valleys and ridges far away from the routes of trade and the centers of population and civilization. There they have eked out an existence by their primitive methods of farming and fruit growing. Being too far from market to be able to properly dispose of heavy or bulky products they long ago began concentrating their corn so that they could carry it to market in jugs. But they soon came to consume the greater part of the contents of the jugs at home, and after the United States revenue law was put into operation, they, with their white neighbors of the valleys and ridges to the east and west, became a law unto themselves and defied all outside authority. They always carried guns or knives and many a bloody murder and foul crime has been committed in this region. By its lawlessness and bloodshed this section came to be known to the inhabitants of the more peaceful side of the Clinch as “yan side,” and to be accused of being a citizen of “yan side” was, to say the least, not a compliment. And of all the clans and tribes of “yan side,” the Melungeons were the worst. Old persons say that they can remember when nurses frightened their children into being good by telling them that if they were naughty the Melungeons would get them, and children were said to creep to bed on cold, stormy nights, frightened, afraid that the fierce dark men from “yan side” would swoop down and carry them off.

Up to two decades ago, whiskey flowed like water in the Blackwater country and moonshining was a common occupation. A stranger who ventured into that region in those days did so at the risk of his life for he was at once taken for a detective or a “revenue.”

In those days Mahala Mullins, queen of the blind tigresses, plied her illegal trade in a large log house that stands on a wagon road on Newman’s Ridge within five miles of a county seat and a temple of justice. Mahala Mullins, herself a Melungeon but the wife of a white man, believed that making and selling of whiskey was a natural and inalienable right. When about sixty years of age she had an attack of fever, following which she developed a kind of dropsy and grew exceedingly corpulent, becoming one of the largest women in the South. She was so large she could not walk, and her heart would not allow her to lie down, hence she was forced to keep a sitting posture continually. She was so large she could not get through the door and was thus confined to her room. So here she sat day in and day out beside a large whiskey barrel with a measure in her hand and sold to all who would purchase. When officers came with a warrant she would smile and tell them to take her, but as she could not walk and as they could not carry her, as she weighed about 500 pounds, they always had to return empty handed. She generally kept a federal license, but on one occasion a State judge grew unusually insistent and ordered the sheriff to bring her to court at any price. This official, however, returned and reported that she was “seeable and talkable but not bringable.”

In those days feuds were of common occurrence. A typical one was the Brewer-Collins feud. At an election a few years ago trouble arose over the right of certain men to vote, and Wiley Brewer, who was a justice of the peace, ordered quiet and was shot and wounded by a Collins. Then, quick as lightning, guns were drawn and a volley fired, as a result of which three men were killed and another wounded. Before the smoke had cleared away, Will Brewer stuck his gun under his arm and continued to hold the election. From that time the Brewers were marked men and a little later they were ambushed and shot by the Collinses. Will Brewer was killed and Wiley Brewer again wounded. He is today living in another part of the county afraid to return to his own home.

These conditions are, however, almost a thing of the past. Over this whole region a new light has dawned and a better civilization and a higher code of morals are penetrating into the remotest recesses of these mountains. Some fifteen years ago Presbyterian missionaries established a school on Blackwater and some seven or eight years later one on Sycamore. About the same time Mahala Mullins died and Beatty Collins, who had already been deputy sheriff for many years, was induced to co-operate with the revenue officers, and with his aid moonshine stills soon became a thing of the past although blind tigers still inhabit some of the dense forests. The Presbyterians, who are an unknown sect in most parts of the Southern mountains, have done much good and have large churches. They have, however, by no means displaced the Baptists, who are the leading sect in the Southern mountains, and Methodists are not unknown. Needless to say that politically the republicans are in the majority.

Feuds are now of seldom occurrence and as moonshining is an occupation of the past a stranger is now as safe on Blackwater as on Broadway, but he is even yet looked upon with curiosity and with more or less suspicion, if he has no apparent business. The people are for the most part sober, hospitable and ore or less industrious, cultivating their mountain farms, knowing and caring little for the happenings of the outside world.

Primitive methods of agriculture still prevail. The farmers live in houses erected by their own hands either from rude logs or rough sawed lumber. On Blackwater frame houses of four or five rooms are not uncommon, but on Sycamore the typical residence is a cabin built of round, unbarked logs, dovetailed together at the corners, having the cracks chinked or daubed with mud and a chimney built of rough, flat stones. Sometimes these cabins have a second room built of rough timber. Vehicles are rare. The merchants and better farmers have farm wagons but the wooden sled is the ordinary means of transportation. Buggies are almost unknown and automobiles undreamed of.

The farming implements are crude. The soil is broken with a bull-tongue plow, the seed sown by hand, the crops cultivated with the double shovel plow and heavy iron hoes, and hauled to the barn on simple wooden sleds. A variety of crops, including tobacco, are grown, so that little food has to be imported, and the narrow meadows are generally in grass to furnish hay for wintering the cattle. Much fruit is grown. Formerly th4e apples were used for making brandy but now they are dried in the sun for market. But if the season is wet crude furnaces are built of rough stones can covered with tin so that the apples are dried in spite of the rain.

Although remote from the routes of trade, commerce has developed to a limited extent. The traveling salesman makes his monthly rounds and in the tiny rural stores the greatest variety of articles are found. Candies, overalls, calicoes and shoes recline upon the shelves beside bolts, horseshoes and nails, while coal oil, dishes, canned goods and novelties are not lacking. In exchange for these articles the merchant takes chickens, eggs, ginseng, dried apples and other light commodities. These he loads into his wagon and hauls to the nearest railroad town, where he sells his produce and reloads the wagon with his miscellaneous merchandise, and at the end of the third day, after fording treacherous streams, climbing steep, rocky hills and toiling laboriously through long quagmires, known as roads, he again reaches his store and unpacks his wares. Grain and other heavy commodities are not grown for export but many cattle are raised and sold to the buyers on their periodic visits, Small saw mills with their portable engines are moved from place to place and saw lumber for local use and walnut and poplar, the only timbers that pay for the haul to the railroad.

Practically all the people wear clothing made of factory woven cloth and “store shoes,” but many of the women still go barefooted, and this is so customary that even barefoot girls are not abashed in the presence of strangers. It is not unusual to see a man and his barefooted wife walking to the store or to the home of some distant friend. They walk single file, a necessity on the mountain trails, and the man always precedes. If such a couple be stopped by a stranger who wishes to inquire the way or make a passing remark, the man after replying will search the stranger’s face with his dark, piercing eyes ands say: “’Pears like I’ve seed you som’ers; what’s your name?”

A stranger can always secure a night’s lodging at any of the primitive homes of these people. But the offer of such hospitality will seldom be made unless asked for directly, and then it will almost never be refused, no matter how poor the accommodations are. The woman cooks the crude meal and places it on the table, but if a stranger be present she invariable refuses to eat until the men have finished, no matter how much room there is at the table of how little she has to do. This rule does not apply to the children, however.

A stranger once spent the night in the dead of winter at such a home. Arising in the morning he was asked by his host if he would like to wash before breakfast, and he replied that he would. His host then asked if he preferred hot or cold water. The stranger was surprised at such a question but as the morning was bitter cold, a heavy snow having fallen during the night, he replied that he’d take warm water. The man of the house thereupon threw a towel across his shoulder and led the way down through the woods to the spring. The visitor wished many times as he trudged through the new-fallen snow that he had chosen cold water, but to use the colloquial expression, “he had his ruthers.”

But after all is said – after the investigator has described the poverty of the many and the primitive customs of all; after the artist has painted in varied hue the exquisite beauties of the landscape; after the invalid has drunk the excellent mineral waters and gone away cured; after the geologist has located all the mineral bearing strata and explained why Blackwater Creek flows northward when all other streams in this section flow southward; after the linguist has accurately recorded all the peculiarities of the vernacular; and after the promoter has estimated the value of the virgin forests and hidden mineral wealth – after all this has been done, the peculiar physical characteristics of the people will remain and the mystery surrounding their ancestry will present an unsolved problem for the historian. The Melungeons, however, are fast losing their identity. Many whites have already intermarried with them and many children with fair complexions, light hair and blue eyes frolic with their swarthy neighbors. But in spite of this race admixture it will be many years before their peculiar characteristics entirely disappear.

1924 Racial Integrity Act (Virginia)

Published by:

1924 Racial Integrity Act

Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act

Chap. 371. – An ACT to preserve racial integrity. [S B 219]

Approved March 20, 1924.

1. Be it enacted by the general assembly of Virginia, That the State registrar of vital statistics may, as soon as practicable after the taking effect of this act, prepare a form whereon the racial composition of any individual as Caucasian, Negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or and mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains, and if there be any mixture, then, the racial composition of the parents and other ancestors, in so far as ascertainable, so as to show in what generation such mixture occurred, may be certified by such individual, which form shall be known as a registration certificate. The State registrar may supply to each local registrar a sufficient number of such forms for the purpose of this act; each local registrar may, personally or by deputy, as soon as possible after receiving said forms, have made thereon in duplicate a certificate of the racial composition, as aforesaid, of each person resident in his district, who so desires, born before June 14, 1912, which certificate shall be made over the signature of said person, or in the case of children under fourteen years of age, over the signature of a parent, guardian, or other person standing in loco parentis. One of said certificates for each person thus registering in every district shall be forwarded to the State registrar for his files; the other shall be kept on file by the local registrar.


Walter A. Plecker, Virginia’s Registrar of Vital Statistics, was a chief proponent of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act

Every local registrar may, as soon as practicable, have such registration certificate made by or for each person in his district who so desires, born before June 14, 1912, for whom he has not on file a registration certificate, or a birth certificate.

2. It shall be a felony for any person willfully or knowingly to make a registration certificate false as to color or race. The willful[sic] making of a false registration or birth certificate shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for one year.

3. For each registration certificate properly made and returned to the State registrar, the local registrar returning the same shall be entitled to a fee of twenty-five cents, to be paid by the registrant. Application for registration and for transcript may be made direct to the State registrar, who may retain the fee for expenses of his office.

4. No marriage license shall be granted until the clerk or deputy clerk has reasonable assurance that the statements as to color of both man and woman are correct.

If there is reasonable cause to disbelieve that applicants are of pure white race, when that fact is stated, the clerk or deputy clerk shall withhold the granting of the license until satisfactory proof is produced that both applicants are “white persons” as provided for in this act.

The clerk or deputy clerk shall use the same care to assure himself that both applicants are colored, when that fact is claimed.

5. It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons. All laws heretofore passed and now in effect regarding the intermarriage of white and colored persons shall apply to marriages prohibited by this act.

6. For carrying out the purposes of this act and to provide the necessary clerical assistance, postage and other expenses of the State registrar of vital statistics, twenty per cent of the fees received by local registrars under this act shall be paid to the State bureau of vital statistics, which may be expended by the said bureau for the purposes of this act.

7. All acts or parts of acts inconsistent with this act are, to the extent of such inconsistency, hereby repealed.

1929 Pamphlet by Walter Plecker

Published by:

1929 Plecker Pamphlet

Legal Percentages of “Negro Blood”

Amount of Negro and Other Colored Blood Illegal in Various States for Marriage to Whites: 1929

Walter A. Plecker

Walter Ashby Plecker was the head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1936. He believed “there is a danger of the ultimate disappearance of the white race in Virginia, and the country, and the substitution therefor of another brown skin, as has occurred in every other country where the two races have lived together.” Plecker believed this “mongrelization,” resulted in the downfall of several earlier civilizations. He used the 1924 Racial Integrity Act to classify Virginia Indians and mixed-race individuals as “colored,” and therefore denied basic civil rights under Virginia’s system of segregation.

Source: University of Albany, SUNY, Estabrook, SPE,XMS 80.9 Bx 2 C18. Used by permission.

by W.A. Plecker, Eugenical News (vol. 14:8)

Legal Limits of Negro and Other Colored Blood In Colored-White Marriages.

Dr. W. A. Plecker, Registrar of Vital Statistics of the Commonwealth of Virginia, who has been the principal leader in the recent movement to secure the enactment of the so-called Racial Integrity Laws by several states, has compiled the accompanying table showing the present status of legislation in reference to the legal limits of intermarriages between the white and colored races.

None Permissible

1. Alabama

2. Georgia (or W. Indian, Asiatic Indian or Mongolian) New Act not being enforced for lack of appropriation

3. Virginia

Negro or Negro Descent

1. Arizona (or Mongolian-Indian) Caucasian or descendants with Negro, Mongolian, Indian and descendants.

2. Louisiana (or Indian) Persons of color include those belonging in whole or in part to the African race

3. Montana (or Negro – Chinese – Japanese in whole or in part)

4. Nevada (or brown-yellow-red races)

5. Oklahoma (Persons of African descent with persons not of African descent whether white or Indian)

6. South Dakota (or Korean – Malay – Mongolian)

7. Utah (or Mongolian)

8. West Virginia


1. Florida

2. Indiana

3. Maryland

4. Mississippi (or Mongolian)

5. Missouri (or Mongolian)

6. Nebraska (1/8 Japanese or Chinese)

7. North Carolina (or Indian)

8. North Dakota

9. South Carolina (or Indian)

10. Tennessee

11. Texas


1. Kentucky (if one grandparent was a Negro, or a white woman with a “colored” man)

2. Oregon (or Mongolian, or white with one more one-half Indian)

Mulattoes ½

1. Arkansas

2. California (or Mongolian)

3. Colorado

4. Delaware

5. Idaho (or Mongolian)

6. Wyoming (or Mongolian or Malay)

No Restriction

1. Connecticut

2. District of Columbia

3. Illinois

4. Iowa

5. Kansas

6. Maine (an act of 1786 made marriage of a white person and negro or mulatto void)

7. Massachusetts (A former Act made marriage of a white and negro or mulatto illegal)

8. Michigan (Mixed marriage formerly void now legal)

9. Minnesota

10. New Hampshire

11. New Jersey

12. New Mexico

13. New York

14. Ohio (A former statute forbade marriage of a pure white and a person of visibly African blood)

15. Pennsylvania

16. Rhode Island

17. Vermont

18. Washington

19. Wisconsin

1930 Letter from Walter Plecker to Lee County, VA Schools Trustee

Published by:

1930 Plecker Letter

Plecker Letter to Trustee of Lee County, Va. Schools

Bureau of Vital Statistics
State Department of Health

August 5, 1930

Mr. J. P. Kelly
Trustee of Schools,
Pennington Gap,
Lee County, Virginia

Dear Sir,

Our office has had a great deal of trouble in reference to the persistence of a group of people living in that section known as “Melungeons,” whose families came from Newman’s Ridge, Tennessee. They are evidently of negro origin and are so recognized in Tennessee, but when they have come over into Virginia they have been trying to pass as white. In a few instances we learn that they have married a low type of white people which increases the problem.

We understand that some of these negroes have attempted to send their children to the Pennington Gap white school and that they were turned out by the School Board. Will you please give us a statement as to the names of the children that were refused admittance into the white schools and the names and addresses of their parents. If possible, we desire the full name of the father and the maiden name of the mother.

As these families originated out of Virginia, our old birth, death, and marriage records covering the period, 1853 through 1896, do not have them listed by color as are those whose families have lived in Virginia a number of generations. They are demanding of us that we register them as white, which we persistently refuse to do. If we can get a statement that the School Board refused them admittance into the white schools, we can use that as one of the grounds upon which we would refuse to classify them as white. That, of course, is a matter of history and does not involve any individual but the whole School Board, the responsibility thus being divided up, while few individuals who write to us as to their negro characteristics are willing to have their names used or to appear in court should it become necessary. This makes it very difficult for us to secure necessary information to properly classify them in our office. If the School Trustees will co-operate with our office and will refuse admittance into the white schools and give us information when such refusals are made, we can without great difficulty hold them n their place, but this co-operation is very essential.

I do not know who is the Clerk of the School Board or who would be the proper one to apply to but your name has been given to me.

Yours very truly,

Walter A. Plecker
State Registrar