In the mountains of East Tennessee lives a distinct race, a race as different from all the other races on the Western Hemisphere as the Negro is different from the Indian. Moreover, this race is found nowhere else in America. It is the race of the Melungeons, a mysterious race, few in numbers, whose origin is open to speculation. For many years they were thought to be Indians, or a mixture of Indians and white people, whereby probably originated their name, Melungeon, which means a mixture.
So far as is known they were first found in Hancock County on Newman's Ridge, soon after the Revolutionary war. Now they are settled in several counties, although still most numerous in Hancock County. They are about the same color as mulattoes, but their hair is straight and they have intermarried with the Caucasian race to a limited extent.
Judge Lewis Shepherd, who has made a close study of the Melungeons extending [p.791] over a long period of time, says that in a case at law in which he represented a Melungeon girl, a question arose whether the Melungeons have negro blood in their veins.
He says: "It was shown by tradition and the reputation prevailing among these people ‘from the time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,’ that they were descendants of the ancient Phoenicians, who built the City of Carthage and produced the great general, Hannibal. They removed from Carthage and after a time they settled in Morocco, whence they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and settled in the southern part of Portugal, whence came the celebrated Phoenician general, Othello, who was immortalized in Shakespeare's great play the ‘Moor of Venice.’
They were not tainted with negro blood, for the women of Carthage sacrificed their long raven colored hair to be plaited and twisted into cables for the ships engaged in the Punic wars. "A colony of these Moors crossed the Atlantic before the Revolutionary war and settled on the coast in the northern part of South Carolina. They multiplied rapidly and by their industry and energy they accumulated considerable property. The South Carolina people, however, would not receive them on terms of equality. They refused to recognize them socially and would not allow their children to go to school with them. In fact, they believed they were free negroes and treated them as such. By the laws of South Carolina a per capita tax was levied against free negroes and the tax authorities continually harassed them by efforts to collect the tax. Under this rigid proscription of the proud people of Carolina, their condition became intolerable and so they emigrated in a body and settled, after a long and wandering journey through the wilderness, in Hancock County, Tennessee."
In 1890 or 1891, Miss Will Allen Dromgoole wrote of the Melungeons, or Malungeons, as she spells the word, in the Arena. In part she said: "When John Sevier organized the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of East Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites or blacks, and who called themselves Malungeons, and who claimed to be of Portuguese descent. They lived to themselves exclusively and were looked upon neither as Indians or negroes. All the negroes ever brought to America were slaves. The Malungeons were never slaves, and until 1834, enjoyed all the rights of citizenship; even in the convention which disfranchised them they were referred to as ‘free persons of color,’ or ‘Malungeons.’ "
And again she said: "The Constitutional Convention (of 1834) left these most pitiable of all outcasts; denied their oath in court and deprived of the testimony of their own color, left utterly helpless in all legal contests, they naturally, when the state set the brand of the outcast upon them, took to the hills, the isolated peaks of the uninhabited mountains, the corners of the earth, as it were, where, huddled together they became a law unto themselves, a race indeed separate and distinct from the several races inhabiting the State of Tennessee." Melungeons are also found in Rhea County where they are quiet and orderly. They are, to a considerable extent, illiterate and are mostly engaged in farming. While most authorities believe that the word Melungeon is derived from the French melange, a mixture, others think that it was originally malangeon, the first part, malan, being derived from the Greek word, malan, meaning black. Other spellings are Melangins, and Melungins, with the accent on the second syllable, and the g hard, as in give.