Saturday, April 5, 2008
THE MELUNGEONS OF EAST TENNESSEE
A HISTORY OF TENNESSEE and TENNESSEANS
THE MELUNGEONS OF EAST TENNESSEE
Will T. Hale & Dixon L. Merritt 1913
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 hen 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 withe 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.”
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