How I chanced to go and how I first heard of the Malungeons was through a New York newspaper. Some three years since I noticed a short paragraph stating that such a people exist somewhere in Tennessee. It stated that they were rather wild, entirely unlettered and largely given to illicit distilling. It spoke of their dialect as something unheard of, but failed to locate the human curiosities. I had but one cue by which to trail them--viz: they were illicit distillers. After repeated inquiry, and no end of laughter at my expense, I went to Capt. Carter B. Harrison, who was once United States marshal and did a good deal of work in this district. “The Malungeons?” said Capt. Harrison. “O, yes; you will find them in -------county (I will give the county later), and Senator J----, of the state senate, can tell you about them.” I trailed Senator J--- for six months and with this result. “Go to -----,” said he, “and take a horse forty miles across the country to ---Tenn. There strike for----- ridge, the stronghold of the Malungeons.”
I have followed directions faithfully, and just here let me say if any one supposes I made the trip for the fun it might afford, he is mistaken. If any one supposes it was prompted by a spirit of adventure, or a love for the wild and untried, he is grievously in error. I have never experienced more difficulty in traveling, suffered more inconvenience, discomfort, bodily fatigue and real dread of danger. It required almost superhuman effort to carry me on, and more than once, or a dozen times, I was tempted to give it up.
The Malungeons are a most peculiar people. They occupy an isolated land except for horse or foot passengers, inaccessible territory, separated and alone, not mixing or caring to mix with the rest of the world. There are, however, a few, a very few, exceptions. I went one day to preaching on Big Sycamore, where the people are more mixed than on their native mountains. I found here all colors--white women with white children and white husbands, Malungeon women with brown babies and white babies, and one, a young copper-colored woman with black eyes and straight Indian locks, had three black babies, negroes, at her heels and a third at her breast. She was not a negro. Her skin was red, a kind of reddish-yellow, as easily distinguishable from a mulatto as the white man from the negro. I saw an old colored man, black as the oft-quoted ace of spades, whose wife is a white woman. I am told, however, the law did take his case in hand, but the old negro pleaded his “Portygee” blood and was not convicted.
Many of the Malungeons claim to be Cherokee and Portuguese. Where they could have gotten their Portuguese blood is a mystery. The Cherokee is easily enough accounted for, as they claim to have come from North Carolina, and to be a remnant of the tribe that refused to go when the Indians were ordered to the reservation. They are certainly very Indian-like in appearance. The men are tall, straight, clean-shaven, with small, sharp eyes, hooked noses, and high cheek bones. They wear their hair long ( a great many of them) and evidently enjoy their resemblance to the red man. This is doubtless due to the fact that a great many are disposed to believe them mulattos, and they are strongly opposed to being so classed. The women are small, graceful, dark and ugly. They go barefooted, but their feet are small and well shaped. So, too, are their hands, and they have the merriest, most musical laugh I ever heard. They are exceedingly inquisitive, and will ask you a dozen questions before you can answer two.
The first question that greets you at every door is--even if you only stop for water--”Watcher name?” the next is, “How old yer?” and, “Wher yer live ter?” and then comes the all-important—“Did yer hear an’thin’ o’ ther railroad cumin’up ther ridge?” They all look for it constantly and always, as if they expect to see, some glad day, the brunt of the iron track, the glorious herald of prosperity and knowledge, come creeping up the mountain, horseback or afoot, bringing joy to the cabin even of the outcast and ostracized Malungeon; ostracized indeed. Only the negroes, who having themselves felt the lash of ostracism, open their doors to the Malungeons. They are very dishonest, so much so that only a few, not more than half a dozen, of the best are admitted into the house of the well-to-do native.
During the war they were a terror to the women of the valley, going in droves to their homes and helping themselves to food and clothing, even rifling the beds and closets while the defenseless wives of the absent soldiers stood by and witnessed the wholesale plundering, afraid to so much as offer a protest. After the war the women invaded their territory and recovered a great deal of their stolen property. They are exceedingly lazy. They live from hand to mouth in hovels too filthy for any human being. They do not cultivate the soil at all. A tobacco patch and orchard is the end and aim of their aspirations. I never saw such orchards, apples and apples and apples, peaches and peaches and peaches, and soon it will be brandy and brandy and brandy.
They all drink, men, women and children, and they are all distillers; that is, the work of distilling is not confined to the men. Indeed the women are the burden-bearers in every sense. They cook, wash, dig, hoe, cut wood, gather the fruit, strip the tobacco and help with the stills. There is not so much distilling now among them as there was a few years back. Uncle Sam set his hounds upon their trail, and now they are more careful of the requirement of the federal law at all events, as their miserable little doggeries, dotted here and there, go to prove. They wondered very much concerning my appearance among them. Yes, I am right in the midst of them, and such an experience is almost beyond my power to picture. My board rates 15 cents per day. (Let the Maxwell blush.) [Ed. note: The Maxwell was a very prominent and well-known Nashville hotel.] Thank fortune, my purse and my destiny have at last “met upon a level.” No, do not say I am swindling my poor hosts. (I go from place to place.) Wait until I tell you. After I really struck their settlement, I entered upon a diet of cornbread and honey. Coffee? Oh, yes, we have “lots” of coffee. It sets (or stands according to its age) in a tin pot in the shed (or under it), between the two rooms. There are never more than two rooms. Any one who is thirsty helps himself to coffee. Cold? Aye, cold as this world’s charity and as comfortless. But it saves a walk to the spring and so we drink it. I had some trouble in getting board, because I asked “for board.”
And let me say, I have never drawn a good easy breath since I landed and found a dozen pairs of little black Indian eyes turned upon me. Always they are at the cracks, the chimney corner, “window-hole,” the door, peeping through the chinquapin and wahoo bushes, until I feel as if forty thousand spies were watching my movements. I had not dared to take out a pencil for three days, except last Monday night after I went to bed. I tried to write a letter in the dark, by a streak of light which fell through a chink in the door. But the next morning, when my hostess--a little snap-eyed, red-brown squaw--flung open my door (the room had but one and she had removed the fastening, a wooden button, the night before) and sung out:
“You, Joe!--time you’s up’n out’n there,” and a little, limp, sleepy-looking Indian crawled out from a pallet of rags in a corner. I felt pretty sure the boy had been put there to watch me, and so I didn’t try that kind of writing again. They are exceedingly suspicious and are as curious about me as can be. They received an idea that I am traveling for my health, as quite a number come from the valley to drink the mineral water with which this magnificent country abounds. Still, they suspect me, and they come in droves to see me. Seven little brown women, with bare feet and corncob pipes, sat on the doorstep yesterday to see me go out. I stopped a moment to speak to them; told them my name, which is the greatest puzzle to them, not one daring to try it, my age, and was informed that if I wasn’t married “t’wair time.” And then one grizzle face old squaw kindly offered me a “pull at her pipe.”
I visited one house of two rooms--Mrs. Gorvins’. She was out in the orchard gathering apples to dry, and out to the orchard I went. The prettiest girl I ever saw came to meet me with her lap full of apples. She pointed to a seat on a rude bench and poured the apples into my lap, at the same time calling, “Mai! Mai! Come er-here!” (Please call that word Mai as the a is called in hair or after.) Mai came, and the saints and hobgoblins! The witch of Endor calling dead Saul from sepulchral darkness would have calked her ears and fled forever at the sight of this living, breathing Malungeon witch. Shakespeare would have shrieked in agony and chucked his own weird sisters where neither “thunder, lightning nor rain” would ever have found them more. Even poor tipsy, turvy Tam O’Shanter would have drawn up his gray mare and forgotten to fly before this, mightier than Meg Merrilles herself. She was small, scant, raw-boned, sharp-ankled (barefoot), short frock literally hanging from the knee in rags. A dark jacket with great yellow patches on either breast, sleeves torn away above the elbow, black hair burnt to an unfashionable auburn long ago, and a cob-pipe stem wedged between the toothless gums. A flock of children came in her wake, and full one dozen more (indeed, I am telling the unvarnished truth) came from bush and brake. I never saw as many, seventeen by actual count, and two missing “count o’bein’ dead.”
Mrs. Gorvins was silent until I spoke to one of the children, and then, let me tell you something, I never saw an uglier human creature, or one more gross-looking and unattractive, and I never saw a gentler, sweeter, truer mother. She called up her children--little brown fellows, bearing the unmistakable mark of the Indian, all but one, a little white-headed boy with blue eyes and dimpled chin, who seemed as much out of place among them as a lily in a dungeon. One was Maggieleny (Magdalena), and one was Ichabvady (Ichabod), and one was Archivale (Archibald). Another was Kat (Kathleen), another Hahny (Hannah), and the baby--names giving out, as the mother told me, she “had jes’ been plumb erbliged ter name one over twict,” and so the baby was called Katty (Kathleen). They lived on corn bread and honey, coffee without cream or sugar, and found life full and glad and satisfactory.
I could run on forever telling you of these queer, queer people, who are a part of us, have a voice in our politics and a right to our consideration. They are a blot on the state. They are ignorant of the very letters of the alphabet, and defiant (or worse, ignorant) of the very first principles of morality and cleanliness. It is no sensational picture I have drawn; it is hard truth, hard to believe and hard to understand. They are within five miles of one of the prettiest county seats in Tennessee. In politics they are republican to a man, but sell their votes for 50 cents and consider themselves well paid. They are great “charmers” and “herb doctors.” I have a string of “blood beads” I bought of an old squaw, who assured me they would heal all “ailmint o’ the blood.” They are totally unlike the native Tennessee mountaineer, unlike him in every way. The mountaineer is liberal, trustful and open. The Malungeon wants pay (not much, but something) for the slightest favor. He is curious and suspicious and given to lying and stealing, things unknown among the native mountaineers.
I must tell you of a sermon I heard down in Black Water swamp. I do not know what the text was, but the preacher, a half-breed, was telling of the danger of riches. He told them of Mr. Vanderbilt, “the riches man et uver trod of God a-mighty’s yearth,” he said. And then he told how, when he came to die he called his wife and asked her to sing “Come, Ye Sinners.” He drew his point: the rich man wanted the beggar’s song sung over him. And he lamented that it was “tu late, tu late” for Mr. Vanderbilt. He died and went to torment, “an’ where uz all his money?” I took it upon myself to tell him where a good slice of it was. I could not call myself a Tennessean and sit by and hear Mr. Vanderbilt slandered, and right here in Tennessee, too, preached right into hell by the people his wealth was given to bless. So when the service was over I went to the preacher and I said: “Brother, you are doing the memory of Mr. Vanderbilt a great wrong. He was a good man, if a rich one, and Tennessee is indebted to him for the grandest school she has.” He looked at me a minute, and then he said: “He uz a Christian?” “Yes,” I said, “and had a Christian wife.” His face brightened, “Waal,” he said, “I air glad to know that; I’ll tell ‘em so nex’ time I preach.” I hope he did.
The Nashville Daily American
Written for the Sunday American
By Will Allen Dromgoole
August 31, 1890
August 31, 1890