are an ethnic group indigenous to the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, racially a mixture of black, white and American Indian. Founded by free mulattos and mestees (Indian-black mix with or without white) from North Carolina, they were in Hancock County before whites arrived there. From the time and location of their origin, the Indian element is probably Saponi and Tutelo, but is usually incorrectly thought to be Cherokee by the Melungeons. Designated 'free people of color' in the Tennessee constitution, they have been described as a 'tri-racial isolate' by anthropologists and as an 'old mixed race group' by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
They were recognized as American Indian by the Tennessee department of education during the days of school segregation and had separate schools from both white and black. Rejected as Indians by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, they are legally black under Tennessee law as they are known to have some black African ancestry. Culturally, they are Appalachian. I wrote the preceding statement some years ago to attach to affirmative action forms, etc., to explain why I check Black (with Melungeon added in parentheses) when I am not culturally Black American and show little evidence of black ancestry.
The African Origin of the American Melungeons.... click here
Calvin Beale opens his chapter on "mixed-racial isolates" with the following statement: "In about 1890, a young Tennessee woman asked a state legislator, 'Please tell me what is a Malungeon?' 'A Malungeon,' said he, isn't a nigger, and he isn't an Indian, and he isn't a white man. God only knows what he is.' ...
The young woman, Will Allen Dromgoole, soon sought out the 'Melungeons' in remote Hancock County and lived with them for a while to determine for herself what they were. Afterward, in the space of a ten-page article, she described them as 'shiftless,' 'idle,' 'illiterate,' 'thieving,' 'defiant,' 'distillers of brandy,' 'lawless,' 'close,' 'rogues,' 'suspicious,' 'inhospitable,' 'untruthful,' 'cowardly,' 'sneaky,' 'exceedingly immoral,' and 'unforgiving.' She ... ended her work by concluding,
'The most that can be said of one of them is, 'He is a Malungeon, a synonym for all that is doubtful and mysterious - and unclean.' Miss Dromgoole was essentially a sympathetic observer." Needless to say, Miss Dromgoole is not highly regarded by Melungeons. She didn't even bother to spell the word correctly. That Beale regards her as sympathetic is a good measure of the esteem with which Mestees in general have been regarded by whites.
In the 1966 edition, The Randon House Dictionary of the English Language defined Melungeon as "a member of a people of mixed Caucasian, Negroid and American Indian ancestry living in the region of the southern Appalachians." In the 1987 edition, to conform to the current niceties of the language, the definition was changed to "a member of a people of mixed white, black and American Indian ancestry living in the region of the southern Appalachians."
At an estimated nearly twenty thousand people, the Melungeons are the second largest Mestee group. The word Melungeon probably derives from melange and was the name given to these people by French traders coming up the rivers from Louisiana before English speaking whites came over the Smoky Mountains [EP,BB,JB,HP].
The origin and racial composition of the Melungeons has been the subject of many legends and disputes. Since some were settled in what is now Hancock County before any white people reached it and since they were obviously not Indian either racially or culturally, speculation has run wild. In the "Celebrated Melungeon Case" in Chattanooga in 1872, a woman's inheritance was challenged by cousins on the grounds that her mother was Melungeon and Melungeons are part black and since black-white marriage was illegal, she was illegitimate. Lewis Shepherd, her lawyer, convinced the court that Melungeons are the descendants of Carthaginians, not Black Africans, and her cousins lost.
Melungeons were allowed to vote in Hancock County but when they moved away things were different. In one court case over five Melungeon men trying to register to vote, the court called in a physician as an expert witness to determine whether they had any black ancestry. Four were approved for voting as being racially consistent with an Indian-White mix but one was denied because he had flat feet. Tennessee may be unique in viewing arches as a necessary qualification for voting.
Melungeons would not send their children to black schools and they were not allowed in the white schools, so the Tennessee Department of Education had "Indian" schools for them. This led to almost total illiteracy among Melungeons. They would not have black teachers and white teachers would not teach in their schools, so they had to depend on the few Melungeons who had learned to read at the Presbyterian Mission School in Vardy. None of their teachers had been to high school. In Tennessee until the 1950's and 60's, Melungeons were usually classified as black for marriage, white for voting and Indian for education.
There is a Welsh legend of a Prince Madoc who came to America and founded a Welsh colony in late Pre-Columbian times. The site of his landing has been set as Mobile Bay (a very long ways from Wales for small boats) and three Pre-Columbian stone wall sites in the Southeast (Old Stone Fort in Tennessee, Fort Mountain in Georgia and the Welsh Caves at Desoto Falls in Alabama, all within 100 miles of Chattanooga) were all traditionally attributed to these Welsh.
This was 'proven' because Indians were thought incapable of piling up loose rock to make a wall. The Welsh were supposed to have survived as any Indians who showed light color in hair or skin or eyes (blue eyes were instant proof of descent from the Welsh, who almost all have black hair and eyes), with the Mandan tribe of Siouan Indians and the Melungeons usually being the named groups.
The Melungeon's own explanation of their origin is that they descended from Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on the Carolina coast who made their way inland and married Cherokee women. Newman's Ridge, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, is a long way from any coast and a very peculiar location for any sea-going people, be they Portuguese, Welsh or Carthaginian. The Appalachian whites around them also have a legend to explain their origin, that the devil was expelled from Hell for a time by his wife and came to the Smoky Mountains where he took a Cherokee girlfriend and fathered the Melungeons [BB,NC].
Edward Price wrote his dissertation on the Melungeons. He did it for the Geography Department of the University of California at Berkeley, which gave him the freedom to say what he found even if it did not agree with the folklore of the Welsh or the desired ancestry of the Melungeons. The census records are fairly complete for the early Melungeons, both in Tennessee and North Carolina.
The earliest of them moved to Tennessee between 1780 and 1790, led by their founding hero, Vardy Collins, but the migration continued for some decades. In the early censuses they were all listed as "free mulattos" or "free colored"[EP]. No Welsh, no Carthaginians, no Portuguese, no Cherokee. The type names of the early Melungeons, Collins, Mullins, Gipson (Gibson) and Sexton, suggest the usual Irish and English indentured servants as the white component of Southern mulattos.
They have been joined by other Mestees, including many Goins families, and acquired many other names such as Price by marriage to whites [HP]. Goins is an indicator name for Melungeons in Tennessee, a Goins church is a Melungeon church, Goinstown is a Melungeon community (the Goinstown district of Nashville is now considered black, the Melungeons who founded it have intermarried with and been absorbed by the blacks [BB]).
The Indian component of the Melungeons is explained by Jack Forbes who notes that in the Carolinas the term mulatto was used for Indian-Black and Indian-White crosses as well as for Black-White [JF]. The Indians are identified by him as the Saponi, a Siouan tribe from Eastern Virginia. The Tutelo, Saponi and other Virginia Siouans were driven out of Virginia by whites from the East and by Iroquoians from the North, and settled around Mount Airy, N.C.
When they were driven from this place by whites, the group split, with the more Indian Tutelo going North to join their former enemies, the Iroquois, the more Indian Saponi going South to join the Catawbas, and the less Indian members of the community going West to become the Melungeons (including Ramps, Magoffin County people and Carmel Indians) and part of the Redbones, a related group living in the swamps of southern Louisiana.
They were probably always more black than Indian, but the white component has increased with time, as noted in the descriptions of them in successive census reports [EP]. Both the Melungeons and the Redbones have spoken only English since they were first noted, even though the Redbones are surrounded by French speakers. The long list of people with the name Goins in the Mount Airy phone book indicates not all of this community left North Carolina.
There was a later wave of mixed people from central Virginia, who were mostly free mulattos but with some Powhattan and other Algonquian Indian in them. These made a minor contribution to the Melungeons and Ramps but a major one to the Magoffin County People and other Mestees of Kentucky and the Carmel Indians of Ohio
The same wave created the Guineas and the other Mestee groups of West Virginia and Ohio. The Melungeons of southwest Virginia were joined by one "Indian" (group not identified) family named Coal (or Cole) which became the most common name in the local community. Today this group is noticably darker and more negroid appearing than the main group in Tennessee, but whether this results from the Coals joining the group is not clear.
The Melungeons changed from valley farmers to hunting, subsistence farming and moonshine production when the whites arrived and drove them from the valleys [BB,JB]. This story is affirmed by the play "Walk Toward the Sunset" and Bonnie Ball asserts it was a direct result of the disenfranchising the Melungeons in 1834, which not only forbade "free people of color" from voting but also from testifying against a white person in court.
Henry R. Price calls this into question, showing from the land settlement records that the Melungeons arrived from North Carolina along with the whites, not long before them, and that the land they claimed originally they tended to keep [HP]. Some of their leaders, like Vardy Collins, got good land and quite a lot of it. The later Melungeon arrivals were shunted to the ridge tops and onto poor or isolated land, but the processes are not at all clear.
They early (before the Civil War) won the right to vote and participate in court procedings in court cases in several counties of northeastern Tennessee. The courts took a view of their classification consistent with the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. If the county government could not prove they were part black African in ancestry, they were not included in the intent of the law, even if they were very dark to be the whites with less than half Indian that they claimed to be.
They are very outdoors oriented, living in very small houses, usually about 20 feet by 20 feet wooden shacks, mostly covered with tarpaper, with some 18 foot house trailers. Ellen Rector of Sneedville opened a chapter of Hillbilly Women titled What aint called Melungeons is called hillbillies with a poem:
There aint no tarpaper shacks in heaven,
The Lord will be my landlord there,
The creeks are bright and clear in heaven,
There aint no coal dust in the air.
Many of their homes have two pickup trucks and a jeep parked outside (one can speculate that the pickups are to deliver moonshine to towns and the jeep for hunting and to escape raids by revenuers). The folk heroine of the Melungeons is 'Aunt' Mahala Mullins, supposedly Tennessee's all-time champion moonshiner. When the revenuers finally found her home on top of Newman's ridge, they could not take her to jail because she was too large to get her out of her house [JB,BB,NC].
The Melungeons usually have been peaceful, and while they are prone to shooting towards flatlanders snooping in the hills (suspected of being revenuers), these expert hunters who live on rabbits and squirrels rarely actually hit the person. They never served in the military (Jean Bible notes about 40 Melungeons served in the Union army in the Civil War, but out of a group of several thousand even then, that is very few) until the First World War, when they were finally allowed to serve in white units (only after presenting the army with affidavits from the county clerks in their home counties saying they were not considered black).
In the Second World War, they learned to drive jeeps in the army, and when they returned to the hills, they could then deliver their moonshine to the towns and eliminate the white middlemen. This is their main danger to outsiders, since they frequently will be found driving the mountain roads of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia at night at high speeds with their lights out.
In the Civil War, Melungeon sympathy certainly lay with the Union side, since the Southerners treated them with contempt as non-white and were the people who had stolen their valley land. However, they probably did more damage to the North than to the South, since the Union supply lines for Sherman's March to the Sea ran through their territory at Cumberland gap and supplied many a Melungeon with guns and food and even horses.
The vast majority of Melungeons will adamantly deny that they are Melungeon. They assert that they are simply white mountain people with a little Cherokee in them. However, their white neighbors know who they are. While their speech retained archaic forms longer than that of neighboring whites, today they are culturally indistinguishable from their white neighbors, except that they live on the poorest, least productive land with the poverty this implies.
Melungeon graves sometimes have small wooden houses built over them (which has reminded some observers of a similar trait among Eskimo members of the Russian Orthodox church), but this is no longer done and no explanation has been given for the practice. Some Melungeons are easy to pick out, others are simply white in appearance.. The group on High Knob in Virginia have had less white introduced in this century and show much more African ancestry than those in Tennessee.
The Melungeon appearance is typically olive to white complexion (many men simply look dirty), gray or green eyes with a cloudy appearance to the iris, and brown or black wavy hair. They tend to be average height to tall, with small hands and feet, and perhaps heavier than other Appalachian Mountain people.
The small hands and feet are a point of special pride, connecting them to putative Indian ancestors and distancing them from blacks. Judging by the doors in older Melungeon houses and cabins, they frequently used to be shorter [JB]. The traditional warning by white parents to their children that they had better behave or the Melungeons will get them [NC] is probably carried over from Gypsies, whom they resemble only in appearance.
Many Melungeons have started admitting they are Melungeon in recent times, as a result of the efforts by some white Tennesseans to make it respectable to be Melungeon. An outdoor drama depicting their history and culture, "Walk Toward the Sunset," was put on each year in Sneedville for several years. Jean Patterson Bible, a retired school teacher in Dandridge, who taught many Melungeon children and had a Melungeon woman, Martha Collins, who was president of Citizens Bank of Sneedville, as a close friend, wrote the book, Melungeons Yesterday and Today, which is a very comprehensive study of the Melungeons.
She may be faulted for trying to minimize the black element in the Melungeon background, taking the Welsh and Cherokee legends too seriously, and for making the story too pretty and romantic, but as a friend of the Melungeons trying to help them be accepted by bigoted white neighbors, this is more than forgivable.
Henry R. Price, a lawyer in Rogersville who wrote the background booklet for the drama, also deserves recognition, I found both of these people very friendly and willing to share their knowledge.
North Callahan wrote that Melungeons are not accepted by whites not because of their color but because they are lazy, dirty and illiterate [NC]. From my observations, they do not differ from Appalachian whites who share the deprivations inherent to life on the ridges. Mostly, they prefer hunting to reading and do not like being indoors for long periods of time, which frequently causes them to be poor students and hired workers. If, as a marginalized group deprived of their land and livelihood, they have sometimes resorted to theft and illegal production of whiskey, I see no shame but take pride in the fact they did these things well.
To close this section on the Melungeons, I will quote Dr. Kermit Hunter, author of "Walk Toward the Sunset" as well as "Unto These Hills" presented by the Cherokee of North Carolina, in a letter to Jean Bible: "The story of the Melungeons is typical of some of the darker impulses in the American dream: those moments when the American dream gets crowded by white supremacy, the arrogance of wealth and position and power. The Melungeons happened to have dark skin, and for this reason they were buffeted and shunted by the white society moving across the mountains toward the west" [JB].
It is harder to find material about the other Mestee groups of this central range, though Brewton Berry describes several of them in his book, Almost White. The Ramps of southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina are simply Melungeons who have hired out as farm workers for whites. The Magoffin County People and other, unnamed groups of eastern Kentucky are called Carmel Indians where they overlap into southern Ohio.
They are treated with the Melungeons by Jean Bible but Edward Price has shown there are few common names although the two groups are contiguous. They tend to be darker and more Indian appearing than the Melungeons. The Haliwa Indians and other Mestee groups of northern North Carolina represent the remnants of the groups which crossed the mountains to form the Melungeons. They are strongly asserting their Indian origin and are trying to emulate the Lumbees in achieving at least state recognition as Indian [CB]. According to Brewton Berry, the Melungeons of west Florida around Dead Lake have no connection with the Melungeons of Tennessee whereas the Redbones of Louisiana do.
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