"The Malungeons"

The Arena, March 1891
Were you ever when a child half playfully told “The Malungeons will get you?” If not, you were never a Tennessee child, as some of our fathers were; they tell all who may be told of that strange, almost forgotten race, concerning whom history is strangely silent. Only upon the records of the state of Tennessee does the name appear. The records show that by act of the Constitutional Convention of 1834, when the “Race Question” played such a conspicuous part in the deliberations of that body, the Malungeons, as a “free person of color,” was denied the right of suffrage. Right there he dropped from the public mind and interest. Of no value as a slave, with no voice as a citizen, what use could the public make of the Malungeon? When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tenessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks, and who called themselves Malungeons, and claimed to be of Poruguese descent. They lived to themselves exclusively, and were looked on as neither negroes nor Indians.

All the negroes ever brought to America came as 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.”

Their condition from the organization of the State of Tennessee to the close of the civil war is most accurately described by John A. McKinley, of Hawkins County, who was chairman of the committee to which was referred all matters affecting these “free persons of color.”

Said he, speaking of free persons of color, “It means Malungeons if it means anything. Although ‘fleecy locks and black complexion’ do not forfeit Nature’s claims, still it is true that those locks and that complexion mark every one of the African race, so long as he remains among the white race, as a person doomed to live in the suburbs of society.

“Unenviable as is the condition of the slave, unlovely as slavery is in all its aspects, bitter as is the draught the slave is doomed to drink, nevertheless, his condition is better than that of the ‘free man of color’ in the midst of a community of white men with whom he has no interest, no fellow-feeling and no equality.” So the Constitutional convention left these the 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 as law unto themselves, a race indeed separate and distinct from the several races inhabiting the State of Tennessee.

So much, or so little, we glean from the records. From history we get nothing; not so much as the name, - Malungeons.

In the farther valleys they were soon forgotten: only now and then and old slave-mammy would frighten her rebellious charge into subjection with the threat, - “The Malungeons will get you in you ain’t pretty.” But to the people of the foot hills and nearer valleys, they became a living
terror; sweeping down upon them, stealing their cattle, their provisions, their very clothing, and household furniture.

They became shiftless, idle, thieving, and defiant of all law, distillers of brandy, almost to a man. The barren height upon which they located, offered hope of no other crop so much as fruit, and they were forced, it would appear, to utilize their one opportunity.

After the breaking out of the war, some few enlisted in the army, but the greater number remained with their stills, to pillage and plunder among the helpless women and children.

Their mountains became a terror to travelers; and not until within the last half decade has it been regarded as safe to cross Malungeon territory.

Such they were; or so do they come to us through tradition and the State’s records. As to what they are any who feel disposed may go and see. Opinion is divided concerning them, and they have their own ideas as to their descent. A great many declare them mulattoes, and base their belief upon the ground that at the close of the civil war negroes and Malungeons stood upon precisely the same social lfooting. “free men of color” all, and that the fast vanishing handful opened thier doors to the darker brother, also groaning under the brand of social ostracism. This might, at first glance, seem probable, indeed, reasonable.

Yet if we will consider a moment, we shall see that a race of mulattoes cannot exist as these Malungeons have existed. The race goes fromt mulattoes to quadroons, from quadroons to octoroons, and there it stops. The octoroon women bear no children, but in every cabin of the Malungeons may be found mothers and grandmothers, and very often great-grandmothers.

“Who are they, then?” you ask. I can only give you their own theory - If I may call it such - and to do this I must tell you how I found them, and something of my stay among them.

First. I saw in an old newspaper some slight mention of them. With this tiny clue I followed their trail for three years. The paper merely stated that “somnewhere in the mountains of Tennessee there existed a remanant of people called Malungeons, having a distinct color, characteristics,and dialect. It seemed a very hopeless search, so utterly were the Malungeons forgotten, and I was laughed at no little for my “new crank.” I was even called “a Malungeon” more than once, and was about to abandon my “crank” when a member of the Tennessee
State Senate, of which I happened at that time to be engrossing clerk, spoke of a brother senator as being “tricky as a Malungeon.”

I pounced on him the moment his speech was completed. “Seantor,” I said, “what is a Malungeon?”

“A dirty Indian sneak,” said he. “Go over yonder and ask Senator _____; they live in his
district.”

I went at once.

“Senator, what is a Malungeon?” I asked again.

“A Portuguese nigger,” was the reply. “Representative T____ can tell you all about them, they live in his county.”

From “district” to “county” was quick travelling. And into the House of Representatives I went, fast upon the lost trail of the forgotten Malungeons.

“Mr. ____,” said I, “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. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Reublican ticket.” I merely mention all this to show how the Malungeons to-day are regarded, and to show show I tracked them to Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, where within four miles of one of the prettiest county towns in Tennessee, may be found all that remains of that outcast race whose descent is a riddle the historian has never solved. In appearance they bear a striking resemblance to the Cherokees, and they are beleived by the people round about to be a kind of half-breed Indian.

Thier complexion is a 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 Malungeon women are quite shapely and pretty. Also their feet, despite the fact that they trravel 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 be readily detected, as can those of cohabitation withthe mountaineer; for the pure Malungeons present a characteristic and individual appearance. On the Ridge proper, one finds only pure Malungeons; it is in the unsavory limits of Black Water Swamp and on Big Sycamore Creek,lying at the foot of the Ridge betweenit and Powell’s Mountain, that the mixed races dwell.

In Western and Middle Tennessee the Malungeons are forgotten long ago. And iundeed, 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 instant you cross into the county line. There they are distinguished as
“Ridgemanites,” or pure “Malungeons.” Those among them whom the white or negro blood has entered are called the “Black-Waters.” The Ridge is admirable adapted to the purpose of wild-cat distilling, being crossed by but one road and crowned with jungles of chinquapin, cedar, and wahoo.

Of very recent years the dogs of the law have proved too sharp-eyed and bold even for the lawless Malungeons, so that such of the furnace fires as have not been extinguished are built underground.

They are a great nuisance to the people of the county seat, where, on any public day, and especially on election days, they may be seen squatted about the streets, great strapping men, or little brown women baking themselves in the sun like mud figures set to dry.

The people of the town do not allow them to enter their dwellings, and even refuse to employ them as servants, owing to their filthy habit of chewing tobacco and spitting upon the floors, together with their ignorance or defiance of the difference between meum and tuum.

They are exceedingly shiftless, and in most cases filthy.They care for nothing except their pipe, their liquor, and a tramp “ter towin.” They will walk to Sneedville and back sometimes twice in twelve hours, up a steep trail though an almost unbroken wilderness, and never seem to suffer the least fatigue.

They are not at all like the Tennessee mountaineer either in appearance or characteristics. The mountaineer, however poor,is clean, - cleanliness itself. He is honest (I speak of him as a class) he is generous, trustful, until once betrayed; truthful, brave, and possessing many of the noblest and keenest sensibilities. The Malungeons are filthy, their home is filthy. The are rogues, natural, “born rogues,” close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and to use their own word, “sneaky.” They are exceedingly inquisitive too, and will traila visitor to the Ridge for miles, through seemingly impenetrable jungles, to discover, if may be, the object of his visit. They expect remuneration for the slightest service. The mountaineer’s door stands open, or at most the string of the latch dangles upon the “outside.” He takes you for what you seem until you shall prove yourself otherwise.

In many things they resemble the negro. They are exceedingly immoral, yet are great shouters and advocates of religion. They call themselves Baptists, although their mode of baptism is that of the Dunkard.

There are no churches on the Ridge, but the one I visited in Black Water Swamp was beyond question and inauguration of the colored element. At this church I saw white women with negro babies at their breasts - Malungeon women with white or with black husbands, and some, indeed, having the trhree separate races represented in their children; showing thereby the gross immorality that is practised among them. I saw an old negro whose wife was a white woman, and who had been several times arrested, and released on his plea of “Portygee” blood, which he declared had colored his skin, not African.

The dialect of the Malungeons is a cross between that of the mountaineer and the negro - a corruption, perhaps, of both. The letter R occupies but a smallplace in their speech, and they have a peculiar habit of omitting the last letter, sometimes the last syllable of their words. For instance “good night” - is “goo’ night.” “Give” is “gi’,” etc. They do not drawl like the mountaineers but, on the contrary, speak rapidly and talk a great deal. The laugh of the Malungeon women is the most exquisitely musicle jingle, a perfect ripple of sweet sound. Their dialect is exceedingly difficult to write, owing to their habit of curtailing their words.

The pure Malungeons, that is the old men and women, have no toleration for the negro, and nothing insults them so much as the suggestion of negro blood. Many pathetic stories are told of their battle against the black race, which they regard as the cause of their downfall, the annihilation, indeed, of the Malungeons, for when the races began to mix and to intermarry, and the expression, “A Malungeon nigger” came into use, the last barrier vanished, and all were regarded as somewhat upon a social level.

They are very like the Indians in many respect, _ their fleetness of foot,cupidity, cruelty (as practised duringthe days of their illicit distilling), their love for the forest, their custom of living without doors, one might almost say, - for truly the little hovels could not be called homes, - and their taste for liquor and tobacco.

They believe in witchcraft, “yarbs,” and more than one “charmer” may be found among them. They will “rub away” a wart or mole for ten cents, and one old squaw assured me she had some “blood beads” the “wair bounter heal all manner o’ blood ailimints.”

They are limited somewhat as to names: their principal families being the Mullins, Gorvens, Collins, and Gibbins.

They resort to a very peculiar method of distinguishing themselves. Jack Collins’ wife for instance will be Mary Jack. His son will be Ben Jack. His daughters’ names will be similar: Nancy Jack or Jane Jack, as the case may be, but always having the father’s Christian name attached.

Their homes are miserable hovels, set here and there in the very heart of the wilderness. Very few of their cabins have windows, and some have only an opening cut through the wall for a door. In winter an old quild tis hung before it to shut out the cold. They do not welcome strangers among them, so that I went to the Ridge somewhat doubtful as to my reception. I went, however, determined to be one of them, so I wore a suit as nearly like their own as I could get it. I had some trouble securing boards, but did succeed at last in doing so by paying the enormous sum of fifteen cents. I was put to sleep in a little closet opening off the family room. My room had no windows, and but the one door. The latch was carefully removed before I went in, so that I had no means of egress, except through the family room, and no means by which to shut myself in. My bed was of straw, not the sweet-smelling straw we read of. The Malungeons go a long way for their straw, and they evidently make it go a long way when they do get it. I was called to breakfast the next morning while the gray mists still held the mountain in its arms. I asked for water tobathe my face and was sent to “ther branch,” a beautiful little mountain stream crossing the trail some few hundred yeards from the cabin.

Breakfast consisted of corn bread, wild honey, and bitter coffee. It was prepared and eaten in the garret, or roof room, above the family room. A few chickens, the only fowl I saw on the Ridge, also occupied the roof room. Coffee is quite common among the Malungeons; they drink it without sweetening, and drink it cold at all hours of the day or nights. They have no windows and no candles, consequently, they retire with the going of the daylight. Many of their cabins have no floors other than that which Nature gave, but one that I remember had a floor made of trees slit in half, the bark still on, placed with the flat side to the ground. The people of the house slept on leaves with an old gray blanket for covering. Yet the master of the house, who claims to be an Indian, and who, without doubt, possesses Indian blood, draws a pension of twenty-nine dollars per month. He can neither read nor write, is a lazy fellow, fond of apple brandy and bitter coffee, has a rollicking good time with an old fiddle which he plays with his thumb, and boasts largely of his Cherokee grandfather and his government pension. In one part of his cabin (there are two rooms and a connecting shed) the very stumps of the trees still remain. I had my artist sketch him sitting upon the stump of a monster oak which stood in the very center of the shed or hallway.

This family did their cooking at a rude fireplace built near the spring, as a matter of convenience.

Another family occupied one room, or apartment, of a stable. The stock fed in another (the stock belonged, let me say, to someone else) and the “cracks” between the logs of the separating partition were of such depth a small child could have rolled from the bed in one apartment into the trough in the other. How they exist among such squalor is a mystery.

Their dress consists, among the women, of a short loose calico skirt and a blouse that boasts of neither hook nor button. Some of these blouses were fastened with brass pins conspicuously bright. Others were tied together by means of strings tacked on either side. They wear neither shoes nor stockings in the summer, and many of them go barefoot all winter. The men wear jeans, and may be seen almost any day tramping barefoot across the mountain.

They are exceedingly illiterate, none of them being able to read. I found one school among them, taught by an old Malungeon, whose literary accomplishments amounted to a meagre knowledge of the alphabet and the spelling of words. Yet, he was very earnest,, and called lustily to the “chillering” to “spry up,” and to “learn the book.”

This school was located in the loveliest spot my eyes ever rested upon. An eminence overlooking the beautiful valley of the Clinch and the purple peaks beyond/illows and billows of mountains, so blue, so exquisitely wrapped in their delicate mist-veil, one almost doubts if they be hills or heaven.While through the slumbrous vale the silvery Clinch, the fairest of Tennessee’s fair streams, creeps slowly, like a drowsy dream river, among the purple
distances.

The eminence itself is entirely barren save for one tall old cedar, and the schoolmaster’s little log building. It presents a very weird, wild, yet majestic scene, to the traveller as he climbs up from the valley.

Near the schoolhouse is a Malungeon grave-yard. The Malungeons are very careful for their dead. They build a kind of floorless house above each separate grave, many oof the homes of the dead being far better than the dwellings of the living. The grave-yard presents the appearance of a diminutive town, or settlement, and is kept with great nicety and care. They mourn their dead for years, and every friend and acquaintence is expected to join in the funeral arrangements. They follow the body to the grave, sometimes formiles, afoot, in single file. Their burial ceremonies are exceedingly interesting and peculiar.

They are an unfogiving people, although, unlike the sensitive mountaineer, they are slow to detect an insult, and expect to be spit upon. But injury to life or property they never forgive. Several odd and pathetic instances of Malungeon hate came under my observation while among them, but they would cover too much space in telling.

Within the last two years the railroad has struck within some thirty miles of them, and its effects are becoming very apparent. Now and then a band of surveyors, or a lone mineralogist will cross Powell’s mountain, and pass through Mulbery Gap just beyond Newman’s Ridge. So near, yet never nearer. The hills around are all said to be crammed with coal or irton, burt Newman’s Ridge can offer nothing to the capitalist. It would seem that the Malungeons had chosen the one spot, of all that magnificent creation, not to be desired.

Yet, they have heard of the railroad, the great bearer of commerce, and expect it, in a half-regretful, half-pathetic way.

They have four questions, always, for the stranger: -

“Whatcher name?”

“Wher’d yer come fum?”

“How old er yer?”

“Did yer hear en’thin’ er ther railwa’ comin’ up ther Ridge?”

As if it might step into their midst any day.

The Malungeons believe themselves to be of Cherokee and Portuguese extraction. They cannot account for the Portuguese blood, but are very bold in declaring themselves a remnant of those tribes, or that tribe, still inhabiting the mountains of North Carolina, which refused to follow the tribes to the Reservation set aside for them.

There is a theory that the Portuguese pirates, known to have visited these waters, came ashore and located in the mountains of North Carolina. The Portuguese “streak,” however, is scouted by those who claim for the Malungeons a drop of African blood, as, quite early in the settlement of Tennessee, runaway negroes settled among the Cherokees, or else were captured and adopted by them.

However, with all the light possible to be thrown upon them, the Malungeons are, and will remain, a mystery. A more pathetic case than theirs cannot be imagined. They are going, the little space of hills ‘twixt earth and heaven alloted them, will soon be free of the dusky tribe, whose very name is a puzzle. 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.

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