I have made a careful study and inquiry as to the name Malungeon, but have been unable as yet to place it. It has an Indian sound, but the Malungeons themselves have no idea as to its origin or meaning. These people, of whom so little is known, inhabit an isolated corner of the earth, known as Newman’s ridge, in Hancock county.
They are within five miles of one of the prettiest county seats in Tennessee. They mix very little with the natives of the county, and seem to care very little about the world beyond their isolated habitation. Their homes are miserable hovels, set in the very heart of the wilderness. There is not, I am told, a family on the ridge other than the Malungeons.
At one house where I stopped I was put in a closet to sleep. The room had no windows and the door opened into my landlady’s room. The latch was removed before I retired. My bed was made of straw and I was not its sole inhabitant, not by an overwhelming majority. My food consisted of corn bread, honey and bitter coffee. At another place, I climbed a ladder to the roof-room, which had neither windows nor floor.
I did not meet a man or woman in the ridge who could read. At the foot of the ridge in what is known as Black Water swamp, the country is simply magnificent. I boarded there for several days and found the people exceedingly kind. The ridge proper is the home of the Malungeons. I visited one house where the floors were of trees, the bark still on them, and the beds of leaves.
The owner was a full-blooded Indian, with keen, black eyes, straight black hair, high cheeks, and a hook nose. He played upon his violin with his fingers instead of a bow, and entertained us with a history of his grandfather, who was a Cherokee chief, and by singing some of the songs of his tribe. He also described the Malungeon custom of amusements. The dance is a favorite pastime consisting of a two, four or six-handed reel. Whiskey is a very popular guest at their entertainments, and fights are not an uncommon result. In a fight each man’s friends are expected to take sides and help, and the fight continues until one side at least is whipped.
At another house I visited (if I may call it a house) I found the family, nine in number, housed in one room of a stable. There were three rooms to the establishment. The stock (belonging to some one else) was fed in one department and the family lived in the next. The living room was about 12 feet square and had neither chinking or daubing. There were two beds, and one of them stood alongside the partition where there were cracks large enough for a child of 5 years to step through the hay rick on the other side. The space unoccupied by the beds was about 1 feet [sic], and there being no chairs, and old quilt was spread upon the floor, and three poor old women were scattered upon it arranging their Indian locks. The third room was the cooking department, although several dirty-looking beds occupied space here and there. I forgot to mention a heap of white ashes in the living room, which the women utilized for spitting upon.
The Malungeons are great lovers of the weed and all chew and smoke - men, women and children. I also visited the cabin of a charmer, for you must know these people have many superstitions. This charmer can remove warts, moles, birth-marks, and all ugly protuberances by a kind of magic known only to herself. She offered to remove the mole from my face for 10 cents, and became quite angry when I declined to part with my lifetime companion. “Tairsn’t purty, nohers,” she said; “an ‘t air ner sarvice, nurther.” I cannot spell their dialect as they speak it. It is not the dialect of the mountaineers, and the last syllable of almost every word is omitted. The “R” is missing entirely from their vocabulary. There is also a witch among them who heals sores, rheumatism, “conjures,” etc. They come from ten miles afoot to consult her.
They possess many Indian traits, that of vengeance being strongly characteristic of them. They, likewise, resemble the negro in many things.
They are sticklers for religion, and believe largely in water and the “mourner’s bench.” They call themselves Baptists, although their form of worship is really that of the Dunkard. They are exceedingly illiterate, but are beginning to take some interest in educational matters. I visited one of their schools, taught by a native Malungeon. He could not read, and his pronunciation of the words given to the spelling class was exceedingly peculiar, as well as ridiculous. Mr. Thomas Sharpe, of Nashville, made an excellent sketch of this teacher while he was busy with his class and unconscious that he was “being tuk fur a pictur.” There are but three names among them - real Malungeon names - Collins, Mullins, Gorvens. Lately the name of Gibbins has found a way among them, but the first three are their real names. They distinguish each other in a most novel manner. For instance, Calloway Collins’ wife is Ann Calloway, his daughter is Dorous Calloway, and his son is Jim Calloway. How they live is a mystery.
Their food is the hardest kind, and their homes unfit shelter for man or beast. In many cases they are extremely immoral and seem utterly unconscious of either law or cleanliness. Their voices are exceedingly sweet, and their laugh the merriest, most musical ripple imaginable, more like the tinkle of a happy little brook among beds of pebbles than the laugh of a half civilized Malungeon. Even the men speak low and their voices are not unpleasant. The women are quick, sharp, bright. The men are slow, lazy, shiftless and shirking, and seem entirely unacquainted with work, God’s medicine for the miserable.
Their dress is ordinary calico, or cotton, short blouse, without buttons or other fastenings than brass pins conspicuously arranged, or narrow white strings tacked on either side the waist and tied in a bow knot. These strange people have caught, however, the fever raging throughout the south, and especially through Eastern Tennessee, the iron fever.
They believe their sterile ridges to be crammed full with the precious ore. If it is, the rocks give no sign, for there are no outcroppings to be found as yet. At one place I stayed to dinner. No one ate with me except my own guide, and the food and shelter were given grudgingly, without that hearty willingness which characterizes the old Tennessee mountaineer, who bids you “light and hitch, feed your critter and be ter home.”
I was invited to eat, to be sure, but the family stood by and eyed me until my portion of bread and honey almost choked me. Corn bread, thick, black, crusted pones, steaming hot, and honey sweet enough and clean - aye, clean, for the wild bees made it from the wild flowers springing straight from God’s planting. I paid 15 cents for my dinner. A mountaineer would have knocked you down had you offered money for dinner under such circumstances. Bah! The Malungeon is no more a mountaineer than am I, born in the heart of the old Volunteer state.
By Will Allen Dromgoole
Nashville Sunday American
September 1, 1890