Tuesday, November 9, 2010




Dr. Samuel Tyndale Wilson says in his excellent little volume, “The Southern Mountaineers:” “Occasionally the student of sociology may stumble upon a community that is a puzzle, as, for example, the one occupied by the ‘Melungeons’ of upper East Tennessee.” That is all he says of the community; and so far as known, no other history refers to the Melungeons at all. Miss Dromgoole in an article mentioned further along states that they appeared during the existence of the State of Franklin; while Colonel Henderson in a letter declares that they were in the East Tennessee mountains when the earliest settlers arrived.

The word “Melungeon” was once more familiar to Tennesseans than it is now. To illustrate, it was a custom immediately after the close of the war between the states for the Democratic editors of the central and western sections of the state to refer flippantly to their eastern neighbors collectively as Melungeons, perhaps because East Tennessee was largely Republican in politics. It was in the nature of an epithet. That it was, and still is resented, may be seen from the following circumstance. In seeking for the latest information relative to this puzzling community we recently wrote to a citizen of upper East Tennessee to help us out.

This reply was received so promptly as to lead to the belief that he hardly waited to finish the query before snatching up his pen. And perhaps his eyes were red as he wrote; “We have no such race. Our citizens are civilized people and believe in earning their living by the sweat of their brow, and are far superior to those who try to disgrace them by placing the fictitious name of ‘Melungeon’ upon them.”

The word used to be uttered by parents and nurses as a bugbear to frighten children into obedience: thus, “if you are not good, the Melungeons will get you.” Notwithstanding our acquaintance with the word, few really know what it means. The Century ventures this definition of Melungeon:”One of a class of people living in East Tennessee, of peculiar appearance and uncertain origin.” It then makes this quotation from the Boston Traveler for June 13, 1889: “They resented the appellation Melungeon, given to them by consent by the whites, and proudly called themselves Portuguese.”

It is remarkable that Tennessee history is silent on the subject since by the census taken in 1795 the Melungeons must have been numbered with the 973 “free person” other than the whites. There could hardly have been so many free negroes within the bounds of the present state only about twenty-five years after the first settlement. That of itself should have received notice. Moreover, the Melungeons’ votes, as well as those of the free negroes, had something to do with the politicians making such a radical change in the constitution of 1834, whereby both were disfranchised; though, as we shall presently see, the Melungeons were finally restored to citizenship through the efforts of Col John Netherland, of Hawkins county, the witty and eloquent opponent of Isham G. Harris for the governorship in 1859.

Col. W. A. Henderson, for some time president of the Tennessee Historical society and at present one of the most prominent members of the Tennessee bar, furnished the writer the following information in 1912:

“The name, Melungeon, is of obscure origin; probably it is from the French melange, a mixture. The Melungeons are a peculiar people living in the mountains of East Tennessee, western North Carolina, southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and are of queer appearance and uncertain origin. They have swarthy complexion, straight black hair, black or gray eyes–Indian’s eyes are always black—and are not tall but heavy-set. * * * *

They call themselves Portuguese (which they pronounce “Porter-ghee’) and were found in the regions mentioned by our first pioneers of civilization there. As a body, they were as concrete as the Jews, and their descendants are still to be found. “The Melungeons were never adherents to the Indian religion and rites, but adhered to the Christian religion. The cross was ever held by them as a sacred symbol. In religious belief they are chiefly Baptist. It is a fact that they took no part in the Indian wars, either against the whites or the Indians.

“From time immemorial they have been counterfeiters of gold and silver, and, strange to say, their money contained more of the precious metals per coin than that minted by the government. At one time within my recollection these coins passed current, without question. There is a legend that their silver came from Straight creek, a tributary of Cumberland river which flows into that stream at Cumberland Ford ( now Pineville, Ky.). Ruins of ancient furnaces are still to be seen along the banks of Straight creek, but have not been used within the makers of the silver money in that section. The Beckler gold dollars were coined in North Carolina, and some of these coins are yet extant, preserved as curiosities. They were of native gold made by a family named Beckler and were called ‘Becklers.’

“The Melungeons have always, moreover, boasted of their kinship with the white race. Many years ago a decision was handed down by the supreme court of Tennessee, holding that the Melungeons were not negroes. The case probably arose out of some prosecution for illegal voting. “Where this people originated will probably never be known. **** Some people believe that the Mulungeons were descendants of the lost Raleigh Colony of Roanoke which disappeared, supposedly absorbed with the Croatan Indians; but they have never claimed any affiliation with the English— and that was an English colony. They must come of some colony emanating from Portugal. They are a living mystery.”

The reference to the gold and silver coins of the Melungeons suggests what Adair says of silver in east Tennessee in a history of the Indians published in London in 1775: “Within twenty miles of the late Fort Loudoun **** the silver mines are so rich that by digging about ten yards deep some desperate vagrants found at sundry times as much rich ore as to enable them to counterfeit dollars to a great amount, a horse-load of which was detected in passing for the purchase of negroes at Augusta.”

“ Were those “desperate vagrants” Melungeons? Furthermore, speaking of the Beckler gold dollar made in North Carolina, the metal was found in that state at an early day. John Reed, a Hessian soldier, settled in Cabarrus county after the revolution. His son in 1799 found in Meadow creek a nugget of gold as large as a small smoothing iron, but the family had no idea of its value until 1803 he, by fluxing, it made a bar of gold from six to eight inches long. Reed is known as the first gold miner in the United states, but the Melungeons of North carolina may have been entitled to the distinction.

Miss Dromgoole, the novelist and poet, paid a visit to the Melungeons in Hancock county about 1890. She says that John A. McKinney, of Hawkins county, was chairman of the committee of the Constitutional Convention of 1834, to which were referred matters affecting “free persons of color,” and held that if the phrase meant anything it meant Melungeons. Her opinion was that the amendment to the fundamental law of the state, denying the Mulungeons their oath as well as their right to vote, rendered them desperate. They took themselves to the hills where, huddled together, they became a law to themselves, a race distinct form the several races inhabiting the state, and were soon a terror to the people of the foot hills and valleys, swooping down and stealing their cattle, provisions, clothing, and furniture.

In time they became, almost to a man, distillers of brandy. At the breaking out of the war between the States a few enlisted, but the greater part remained with their stills, and kept up plundering the valleys. “Their mountains became a terror to travelers,” she declares, “and not until within the last half decade has it been regarded safe to cross Melungeon territory.”

“In appearance they bear a striking resemblance to the Cherokees, and they are believed by the people round about to be of a kind of half-breed Indian. Their complexion is reddish brown, totally unlike the mulatto. The men are very tall and straight, with small, sharp eyes, high cheek bones, and straight black hair, worn rather long.

The women are small, below the average height, coal black hair and eyes, high cheek bones, and the same red brown complexion. The hands of the Melungeons women are quite shapely and pretty. Also their feet, despite the fact that they travel the sharp mountain trails barefoot, are short and shapely. Their features are wholly unlike those of the negro, except in cases where the two races have cohabited, as is sometimes the fact. These instances can readily be detected, as can those of cohabitation with the mountaineer, for the pure Melungeons present a characteristic and individual appearance.

On the Ridge proper, one finds only the pure Melungeons; it is in the unsavory limits of Black Water Swamp and on Big Sycamore Creek, lying at the foot of the ridge between it and Powell’s mountain, that the mixed races dwell. So nearly complete has been the extinction of the race that in but few counties of eastern Tennessee is it known. In Hancock you may hear them, and see them, almost the minute you cross into the county line. There they are distinguished as the ‘Ridgemanites’ or pure Melungeons. Those among whom the white or negro blood has entered are called the ‘Blackwaters.’

The ridge is admirably adapted to the purpose of wildcat distilling, being crossed but by one road and crowned with jungles of chinquapin, cedar and wahoo. Miss Dromgoole’s summary is, that they are filthy, and have filthy homes; they are rogues; close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and “sneaky.” More charitable is the opinion of Mrs. Eliza N. Heiskell, of Memphis, whose father, Col. John Netherland above mentioned, was a staunch friend of these apparently down-trodden people.

In an article contributed to the Arkansas gazette, January 14, 1912, she says: “But there is also another people who have lived in the mountains, principally in the Clinch mountains of eastern Tennessee for more than a century; separate and distinct from all others, whose ancestry is shrouded in mystery –the mystery of obscurity. They have lived their simple pastoral life and for more than a hundred years so quietly and obscurely that their name is unknown to many. They are the Melungeons–their very names is a corruption of some foreign word unknown to them or to the few who have given them any study. They have had no poet or seer to preserve their history.

“The Melungeons have a tradition of Portuguese ship and a mutiny, with the successful mutineer beaching the vessel on the North Carolina coast, then their retreat towards the mountains, farther and farther away from the avenging law of man, going on where nature’s barriers were their protection from a relentless foe–swept into this haven by the hand of fate. This strange people seem to have been forgotten by a century of civilization that has left its impress on everything else; They still have some names that suggest the Portuguese ancestry such as ‘Sylvester.’ but their surnames are anglicized to such a degree that to trace them to their originals would be impossible.

“The Portuguese mutineers came to a region almost uninhabited, and because settlers were so few and scattered the strangers were unmolested. Beyond the mountains that hem them in was the institution of slavery; when they went beyond their narrow confines they were in contact with the influence and prestige of the slaveholder. In all slave-holding communities all persons not white, or Indians, were classed as negroes, and the name Melungeon was generally understood to mean a class of mixed-blood but free negroes. This they resented, and insisted on their Portuguese ancestry. By the Constitution of 1834 all persons of color were deprived of the franchise in Tennessee, and by a special act of the legislature these people were given the right to vote.

“To prove they were not negroes, the beautiful hands and feet of some of the race were examined, and the marked difference between them and the negroes decided the question in their favor. “The late John Netherland of Tennessee obtained the right of citizenship for them and their deep gratitude was manifested toward him in every way as long as he lived. “ As a class they are faithful friends. They have a kindly nature, and personal friendship carries a degree of unselfishness that could well be intimated in higher life. Though they resented being considered as negroes, they never presumed to be on an equality with the whites, but were well content to occupy an intermediate ground-a sort of ‘third estate.’ “

They are a shrinking, timid people outside of their own boundaries. During the Civil war a few of them were in Southern army, but most of them were loyal to the Union. When the conscript law was enforced many of them went to Kentucky and joined the Union army, thought there is little military glory in their history. “It is said on authority that the brave Admiral Farragut was a descendant of a Portuguese of that name who married a poor North Carolina girl. “In one respect the Melungeons are like the Irish peasant, in that one of their principal recreations consists in telling and hearing stories, recounting famous neighborhood fights and tales of hunting adventures. They also have many superstitions. They have a firm belief in the powerful influence of the moon and a never-failing fear of ‘ha’nts.’

“In their narratives one is impressed with the smallness of their vocabulary, and at the same time the graphicness of it. Once the Melungeon colony learned that one of their political idols was to spend the night at a certain house. By the time the sun had set the men began to drop in, many having walked miles to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. Seated around the fire, one after another told some experience he had had or seen.

Finally one said to another: “George, the master-lick that I ever seed one man hit another was the lick you hit Shep Gibson!’

“Yes,’ said George–‘you had to hit Shep a master-lick or he would whup you, for he was big and strong and naturally on handy in a fight.’ “Which outlined a situation and stated results in a very few words.

“What will be the ultimate fate of these people no one can tell. As they improve in wealth and opportunity, many of their original characteristics will change. They have already intermarried with some of the mountain people near them, and in all probability in the next two or three generations the name Melungeon will be all that is left of a people whose origin is shrouded in mystery.”

In the sixties of the nineteenth century some of the Melungeons had left east Tennessee mountains. There were a few at Lebanon, Livingston, and Nashville; and a writer in the Nashville banner, for October 12, 1912, makes a statement which indicates that there have been Melungeons who were not false to a trust. A family named Dungee kept a toll-gate on the Charlotte Pike during the war between the States and until 1908. Only faithful employees hold positions so long.

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