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.

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