Maybe Melungeon

Maybe Melungeon

Jack Goins

This story deals with some unanswered questions on the Historical Melungeons.  When and where did this name begin and who was the most likely source?  The answer to these questions is based on opinions from my research.  Some of my direct line ancestors were entwined in this history and some in my Goins family were among the first settlers in the Clinch area.   Authors listed them as Melungeon because of various tax, court and census records.  To set this story in its correct perspective the Melungeons were designated by census and tax enumerators, courts, and some of their white neighbors as free persons of color, or mulatto.

The First Melungeons 

Who were the first Melungeons in the Newman Ridge/Blackwater area?  Was it the following?

“Micajer Bunch, Isreal Bunch, Solomon Bunch, Claiborn Bunch, Jessee Bowlin, Zachariah Goins (note:  son of John and Elizabeth of Henry County, Virginia). (1797 Lee County Virginia Tax Records VA. state library)

The above were all listed “white” in 1797.  In an 1800 tax list all the Bunches except Sol were gone, also included in this tax list are:  Jesee Boling, Zach Goins (free man of color), two John Collins, Jacob and Daniel Collins. (1800 Lee Co., Va. Tax list)

At this time Virginia claimed most of the land on the North side of Clinch River for tax purposes.  Some whose land was on the north side of Clinch River in Hawkins County actually signed the petition to form Lee County, Virginia.

Did this unknown term ‘Melungeon’ inspire people to research them, and if there is still a mystery, is it---why this name Melungeon?

Basically I find Melungeon research the same as family research if ones goal is to determine if you are a Melungeon descendant, or in some way related to the historical Melungeons,  also if the researcher wants to know who the historical Melungeons were and why they were designated Melungeon.  First we need to know the history of our families and also the history of the Melungeon.

Several researchers, authors etc.,  who were interested in solving this mystery have started with a theory, but could not tie it to known Melungeons.  This problem is why Melungeon family genealogy may eventually solve many of these unanswered questions.

Melungeon families can be traced back in history by written records because of the mulatto, free man of color designation.  Head Melungeon families are listed on tax and land records by this method, but the researcher must be able to properly identify them because only a small percentage of the ones so labeled were Melungeon.

If a researcher discovers some of their progenitors were labeled fpc/mulatto this may become a real challenge to tie them into the historical known Melungeons. The researcher may have to decide on “Maybe Melungeon.”   The mulatto identification was first established in colonial Virginia, which is also the first hint of discrimination against people of mixed ancestry.

“Be it enacted and declared, and it is hereby enacted and declared, that the child of an Indian and the child, grand child, or great grand child, of a Negro shall be deemed, accounted, held and taken to be a mulatto. Source:  Henning’s Statutes at large, vol 3, pp 250-251, 252.”

 Their Names

My first unanswered question is, why the name Melungeon? Or was it Melungin, or malengin?  Theories range from the French word mélange meaning mixture to a host of others too numerous to name.      

Who were the Melungeons not remembered?  Sneedville Attorney Lewis Jarvis  names several Melungeons:  Vardy Collins, Shepard Gibson, Benjamin Collins, Solomon Collins, Paul Bunch and the Goodman chiefs.  Jarvis later names James Collins, John Bolin and Mike Bolin and some others not remembered.  Obviously there are more not remembered than named, so the best we can do is search the census, tax and court records for this FPC label.  Jarvis also stated they were given this name Melungeon by their white neighbors who lived here among them because of the color of their skin.

Click link  to read article. (Attorney Lewis Jarvis, Sneedville Times 4/17/1903 Hancock County, TN and it’s people Volumes 1 and 2.)

Lewis Jarvis was a captain in the Union Army Co E 8th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War and was intimately acquainted with several in my immediate family including Sizemore’s, Goins, Minor and Lawson.  Capt. Jarvis was the commanding officer who gave Stokley Lawson his fatal three-day leave to return home.  Stokely along with 5 other men were captured by Rebel Soldiers led by a Captain Surgenor,  and as the stories go either hung in Rebel Hollow, or shot near Fort Blackmore.

My friend Ruth Johnson gave me a copy of a letter to her from William “Bill” Groshe.  In which he wrote:  True Melungeons are descendants of Vardy Collins, Solomon Collins, Benjamin Collins, Levi Collins, Jordin Gibson, Shepard Gibson, William Goodman, Edmund Goodman, Jesse Goodman, William Nichols, Zachariah Minor, John Minor and their families, also include James and John Mullins.”  Groshe may have written this from memory and left out some. No Goins were named, but Maybe they were also Melungeons?   ( Letter from William  Groshe to Ruth Johnson, who mailed this author a copy of above information..)    

The Term 'Melungeon"

Unanswered question #2- Where, when and by whom were they given this name Melungeon?  Lewis Shepard the attorney who won a case in 1872 Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee Chancery Court for a Melungeon girl,  ( her mother a Bolton) who was being denied her rightful inheritance wrote: 

“The term Melungeon is an East Tennessee provincialism;  it was coined by the people of that county to apply to these people.”  (Memoirs of Judge Lewis Shepard, 1915 page 88). (See A Romance of the Melungeons)

Studying Lewis Shepard Memoirs of that Chattanooga trial, his arguments on behalf of his client resembled a tribe, rather than a nickname given to them by their white neighbors, but more important this was 1872, 18 years before Dromgoole.  Where did Shepard get this Ancient Carthage argument?  His story was they were ancient Phoenicians who, after Carthage fell to the Romans, they immigrated across the straits to Gibraltar and settled in Portugal.  We are right back to the Portuguese, did this Moors/Portuguese Melungeons story originate from a story told to John Sevier, by a Gibson?      
Much has been written concerning a John Sevier letter and encounter with the Melungeons.  The earliest known reference to the purported John Sevier encounter was in a letter to the Nashville Daily American on Monday, September 15, 1890.    By Dan W. Baird:

"At the time when John Sevier attempted to organize the “State of Franklin" there were living in the mountain section of East Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned people, evidently of African or Moorish descent, who did not affiliate either with the white, the Indian or the Negro race. They called themselves "Malungeons" and claimed to be of Portuguese descent."

Baird’s letter was in response to two articles written by Will Allen Dromgoole.  Dromgoole used this information in her Arena articles without referencing where the information came from and Baird provided no reference for his information.  If you will read both the letter and Dromgoole's articles, notice that neither writer claimed John Sevier actually wrote a letter.  Thus the possibility exists that this story was handed down orally and eventually put in writing.

The problem I see with this encounter as written is when Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin the Melungeons named by Lewis Jarvis and William P. Groshe were not in East Tennessee.

According to documentation, Sevier’s encounter with the Melungeons must have been when he undertook the survey of Hawkins County in 1802, which included what is today Hancock County.  Therefore not finding a letter written by Sevier does not prove he did not see, or describe the Melungeons, because in his survey of Hawkins County he stayed in the heart of Melungeon country and spent the night with a Gibson who was most likely a Melungeon Gibson considering Sevier’s location was in Blackwater Valley.

Excerpts from the diary of John Sevier Mon. Nov. 1802:   “Mr. Fish went on to Hawkins C. H. Self and Genl. Rutledge crossed Clinch (?) Mountain at Loonys Thur. 25 Rained Lay at Robers Fry. 26 Clear day.  We all sit out from Robert's crossed Newman's Ridge & lodged all night on black water creek at Gibsons...”

In Lewis Shepards argument in the trial of the celebrated Melungeon case, his Phoenicians escaped to Portugal, this may have been from part of Shakespeare’s celebrated play Othello, The Moor of Venus.  Shepard took them back to Portugal and the Moors, and maybe a similar exotic argument was used by John Netherland.  Perhaps John Sevier in oral conversations handed down his encounter with the Melungeons.  In 1802 Sevier goes to Blackwater and stayed the night at Gibson’s.  The Gibson he spent the night with in 1802 on Blackwater was not Shepard, but maybe Rubin.  A Rubin and John Gibson did sign the petition to organize the state of Franklin.

“Rubin, Fanny, Henry, Thomas Jr, Vina, Fanny and Mary Gibson all joined Stony Creek Church 23 July 1802.   “Sept 25, 1804 Ruben Gibson excluded from membership of this church he lives down at Blackwater, and has our letter of (dismission) and keeps it, and has joined another church”  (Stony Creek Church minutes)

This may be why the first time you find the word Melungin in writing it’s in the Stony Creek Church minutes.  The first minute’s show several that were later enumerated in Hawkins County as FPC including Charles Gibson and it also shows them returning from Blackwater to Stony Creek to attend church meetings.

Examining Records

Examining other historical documents, the Melungeon claimed their origin was Portuguese who later mixed with other nationalities.  Lewis Jarvis was born 1828, at least 50 years after some named historical Melungeons were born.  The word Melungeon, Melungin is found in writing in 1813, so his information was not first hand in regard to who, or when they were given this name Melungeon.  Although Jarvis stated he knew Vardy Collins and some others.
Another problem question is, does this Melungeon label apply to all the free colored families in Hawkins County, or only the ones who settled in the part that became Hancock County in 1844?  This old witness separates them, but not by counties.

  “In the last decade there has been a deep interest manifested by educators, the church and the ethnologist, in what is known as the “mountain people,” many thousands of whom are scattered over parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia.”  But there is also another people who have lived in the mountains, principally in the Clinch mountains, of eastern Tennessee for more than a century; separate and distinct from all others, whose ancestry is shrouded in mystery - the mystery of obscurity. They have lived their simple pastoral life and for more than a hundred years so quietly and obscurely that their name is unknown to many.”  They are the Melungeons -their very name is a corruption of some foreign word unknown to them or to the few have given them any study. They have had no poet or seer to preserve their history.”  (Statement by Eliza Haskell who’s father John Netherland won their freedom for them.)

Unless an old record is located which contradicts these older documents we can correctly say by research the correct identification as described by witnesses in the days of the Melungeons:

“They were the families designated as free colored, free man (person) of color and mulatto who moved into Hawkins/Hancock Tennessee and the lower western part of Lee/Scott Counties, Virginia beginning 1790’s.”

The oldest documents on the Melungeons is also centered on these interlocking families, such as the unnamed author in the 1848-49 Littell’s Living Age; a visit to Mineral Springs and Vardy Collins hotel, and also describing the gorge where the Melungeons lived.  Vardy Collins was called the chief cook and bottle washer of the Melungeons.  Then 50 years later another writer came to the same location and interviewed Vardy Collins grandchild and great grandchildren.

“On Friday forenoon, July 2, (1897) the writer (C.H, Humble) and Rev. Joseph Hamilton, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, started in a hack from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., for Beatty Collins’, chief of the Melungeons, in Blackwater Valley, Hancock County, Tenn.  (Womens Board Of Home Missions. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Home Mission monthly).”

Some researchers have ignored both these old visitation accounts and cast them aside as to be taken as a grain of salt cast into the wind, or as color writers who should be ignored. My advice is to ignore any researcher who tells you this because every document must be carefully examined, because they are as scarce as hen’s teeth.  If the researcher rejects these two documents they are left with Dromgoole (1890) as the only written source prior to 1900 who actually identified some of the head Melungeon families. For an example we have:

#1-1813 Stony Creek Church record on one lady accusing the other of housing the Melungins (not identified).
#2-1840 Brownlows Whig, “an impudent Malungeon from Washington Cty, a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian,” (Not identified) and who has actually been speaking in Sullivan, in reply to Combs.
#3-Edward Guerrant Diary: July 2,1863 "Came on to Mr Horton's for dinner-found him in a tornado furious- against Virginians, who fed his grass and & c, and in ecstatic panegyrics of all Kentuckians-"all of whom were "interesting" gentlemen"- and no "malungens"(1/2 b & 1/2w).

Here is the message I get from these first three records.
1-A Melungeon was held in very low standing, one you should not keep in your home.
2- A Melungeon was half Indian and Half Black and thus should be ignored.
3-Melungeon was half black and half white.  Also, Mr. Horton’s conclusion that the Kentucky soldiers took care of his crops etc, was because they had no Melungeons in their army?      

Only three written documents to Dromgoole not counting the 1872 Shepard trial because I have not found, nor have I seen any of those actual court records in Shepard’s 1872 trial, only his S.L. Shepard Memoirs, Chattanooga, 1915, or Bairds article, which was in response to Dromgoole.  This is all the written pre Dromgoole article I have,  I’m sure there must be more.  How did the writer in the 1848 article know where to come? And for that matter how did Dromgoole know where to come? Must have been by oral conversations.

Other historians/authors later identified the same people as the 1848 and 1897 articles, or else they used Dromgoole to establish that the Melungeons were free persons of color, but this begs another question, which free persons of color were Melungeons?  Eliza Haskell, William L. Worden, Henry Price, Sandra Keys Ivey, and many, many others too numerous to name, all had one thing in common-- they wrote about and investigated the known historical Melungeons of the Blackwater/Newman Ridge area.   Jesse Stuart “Daughter of the Legend” was indirectly pointing to these same interlocking families. 

Were They Portuguese

I recommend you read Saundra Keyes Ivey Dissertation, she stayed in Sneedville and interviewed many Melungeon descendants as well as taking part in their outdoor drama, Walk Toward the Sunset.  Her research was outstanding.  Here is her opinion on the correspondent in the 1848 Littel’s Living Age article.  Quote:  “There seems to be no reason for this writer to have invented this detail,  “The Melungeons carefully preserved the “Legend of their history.” This “Legend” according to the writer, included an original descent from Portuguese adventures and later intermarriages with Indians, Negroes, and whites.”  (Saundra Keys Ivey PhD Dissertation, Indiana University.)

Most pre 1900 Melungeon records point to a Spanish/Portuguese heritage that later married Indians.  
” They deeply resent the name Melungeon given to them by the whites, but proudly call themselves Portuguese.”  (Dr. Swan Burnett: The Melungeons Oct 1889 in American Anthropologist),
Notice in the 1848-9 visit to Mineral Springs and Vardy Collins, they were first Portuguese, but in the 1897 visit to the same place and an interview with Vardy Collins grandson they were not mixed, but pure. Why this Indian heritage by Calloway Collins as recorded by Dromgool?

Last paragraph page 747 the Arena, this was after the move to Newman Ridge, quoting Dromgoole:  “there was no mixture of blood. They claimed to be Indians and no man disputed it.”

Why did the Melungeons nationality change?  One possibility was this mixing with Indians and Europeans as described in the 1848-9 article finally rooted out their original Portuguese ancestor after another fifty years.

A good example of this change is evident in my own family whereas Grandpa Goins talked about his Indian ancestors and never mentioned Portuguese, but his sister talked about her Portuguese ancestors.  No doubt by the time the Melungeons arrived on Blackwater they were more Indian than Portuguese. An old adage is if momma was Cherokee, baby was Cherokee, if momma brought the Indian into the family, they identified as their mother’s culture did. 

“The Melungeons have a tradition of a Portuguese ship mutiny, with the successful mutineer beaching the vessel on the North Carolina coast, then their retreat towards the mountains.”  (Eliza Haskell daughter of John Netherland 1912 Arkansas Gazette.)

According to witnesses named in this article John Netherland was the defense attorney in the illegal voting trials held in Rogersville 1846-48 this above statement by his daughter may have been a hint on the argument presented by John Netherland in those trials, but Dr. Swan Burnette had this to say about them in 1889:    

“The matter was finally carried before a jury and the question decided by an examination of the feet.  One, I believe, was found to be sufficiently flat-footed to deprive him of aright of suffrage.  The others, four or five in number, were considered as having sufficient white blood to allow them a vote.  Col. John Netherland, a lawyer of considerable local prominence defended them.”  (Dr.Swan Burnette 1889)

The 1834 revised Constitution of Tennessee specifically disfranchised Indians, mustees, and mulattoes.  The illegal voting charges and trials of known Melungeon families in Rogersville proves they did not escape this discrimination.  After two separate juries ruled Wiatt Collins and Zachariah Minor not guilty the state dropped the charges on Solomon, Levi, Ezekial, and Andrew Collins and later dropped charges on Lewis Minor.  The answer to why the charges were dropped is simple, they were brothers and cousins.  Why try Lewis Minor after his brother Zachariah was found not guilty by a Jury?  Evidence points to a probable pre trial deal between their lawyer and the state prosecutor on who was to be tried.

Swan Burnette wrote, “one was found guilty.”  Ambrose Hopkins was charged at the same time as Vardy and the others, and found guilty by a Jury on June 1, 1849.  Court records now show three illegal voting cases tried by juries in Hawkins County, Tennessee.  The grand Jury charges were identical for Vardy Collins and Ambrose Hopkins.  If a pre trial agreement based on kinship is correct, Hopkins was not related to the Collins and Minors.  (Credit: Dr. David Jones, Orlando Florida)

The above charges stemmed from an election held in 1845, looking at the 3rd District voters in 1843 the only one charged in 1846 for illegal voting who voted in the 1843 election was Ambrose Hopkins.

Again we find the old witness correct.  Burnette’s information was no doubt second hand but finding this case proves he was correct by his quote:  “One was found Guilty and the others were sufficiently white enough.”  Was he correct in the flat foot method used to free or convict those tried?  Also, did John Netherland present the ship wrecked Portuguese story as told by his daughter Eliza?

Zachariah Minor told his children he was Portuguese/Indian which leaves little doubt the argument presented at the trial was Portuguese because Indians were automatically eliminated from voting by the 1834 constitution. Looking at the possibility that the Sevier encounter was known at this time (Sat.Jan 29,1848),  “they appeared to be of African or Moorish descent.” Perhaps their argument was Moors from Portugal, what ever it was the following Jury ruled “Not Guilty”.  Thomas Dodson, John Isenberg, Mitchael Baugh, WM Rowan, James Miller, Meridith Lawson, George Wright, William Long, Jos R Johnson, WM Lee, Jacob Arnott and John Manis.

The 1880 census of Hancock County, Tennessee adds credence to this defense because both my Goins and Minors were actually enumerated as Portuguese written in the first column where race is designated by a letter, thus Portuguese with the label W for white written over Portuguese.

1880 federal census of district 4 Hancock County, Tennessee, enumerator was James A. Doughty, June 1, 1880. 
                     1880    Frame One                   
                     1880    Frame Two

Evidently both my Goins and Minor family told this census person they were Portuguese and he wrote Portugee in race column, but later wrote the initial W real dark over this Portuguese maybe because he noticed the 1880 census did not list Portuguese.

On page 2 in my book “Melungeons And Other Pioneer families is a photo of the log house I grew up in and grandpa Goins sitting on the front porch. This house was built near the end of the Civil War.  Dad purchased the place in 1944 and grandpa died there in 1954.  Ironically, another Goins died there in 1895.  “11 Dec 1895 Lewis Goans, an aged and well known citizen of our county, died at the residence of Harris Bell on Cave Ridge near town Tuesday night after an illness of about 6 weeks, Aged 84 years.  Until his last illness Mr. Goans had never been sick but 2 days in his life, and was an exceptionally well preserved man.  He was Very Dark complected and claimed to be of Portuguese stock.  Buried at Cedar Grove near the river.”

Lewis Goans moved to Hawkins County in 1855 from Rockingham County, NC and the same area where my Rev. war grandfather Zephaniah Goins moved from in 1811, but I have not been successful in connecting my Goins family to Lewis.  (Distant Crossroads Volume 19, number 3, 2002)

I’m not sure if the Portuguese came from my Goins or Minor family or from both.  Grandpa Goins always claimed to ¼ Indian and I have found enough evidence to substantiate this ¼ Indian claim, it’s the other ¾ that’s in question.  His sister Lizzie Goins Parsons always talked about her Goins Portuguese ancestors.  In a Tennessee Supreme Court case 1827 Abraham Vaughn vs Phoeba Tucker in a court case involving race, “Always understood that Molly Moore had one of the family named Minor having since obtained their freedom on the plea” [being of Indian Descent].   I have not been able to find this Minor case in Virginia and since no first name was given in the record I gave up on trying to locate it, both my Minor and Goins family was originally from Virginia. 

Maybe Melungeon

In my opinion the answer to who was a Melungeon lies with the family researcher working within the scope of the historical records. Those of us who search old records for the truth know proof of opinions come from documented research. Hopefully locating and indexing the Hawkins County records 1795-1850 will answer some of these questions and I can remove this ‘maybe Melungeon’ label from my Goins family. Hawkins County consisted of a very large area. Hancock County was formed from the lands of Hawkins in 1844,but was not fully organized until 1846. Court cases that occurred before Hancock was fully organized are in the Hawkins County Court house. Like the above illegal voting cases, these charges stem from a state election held in 1845. 

Copyright © 2004 by Jack Goins.