The Melungeon Mystery:
The Making of Myth? By Pam Vallett
"...shiftless, idle,thieving, and defiant of law, distillers of
brandy almost to a man...they are not at all like the
mountaineer either in appearance or characteristics...Their
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 acerage hieght, coal black hair and eyes, high cheek bones, and
the same red-brown complexion."
Will Allen Dromgoole, 1891
A sociology professor at the
says that the Melungeons of East Tennessee, a people thought for many
years to possess unique racial and cultural characteristics, may not
be so unique after all.
"People have been asking the wrong question all along," said C.
McCurdy Lipsey, associate professor of sociology at UTN. "Instead of
asking, 'Who are these strange people and where do they come from?'
they should be asking, 'Are these really a strange people? Do they,
in fact, possess unique racial and cultural characteristics?'
"According to my interpretation of the evidence, they are not and do
Lipsey says the term Melungeon became a derogatory label for all the
people who lived on
Valley, and that the basis for the myth which now surrounds them can
be traced to the period between 1889 and 1891 when a wealth of
material was published about the Melungeons.
"The single most damaging article from among this proliferation of
misinformation, and the one most commonly referred to by other
writers in the perpetuation of the myth about the Melungeons, was
written by a young
Allen Dromgoole," he says.
"Published in The Arena in 1891, it asserted that the records of the
constitutional convention of 1834 show that John A. McKinney, a
delegate to that convention, used the term Melungeon to refer to free
persons of color. In checking the journal of the constitutional
convention of 1834, I found the
Melungeon was not mentioned."
Articles Perpetuate Myths
Practically all subsequent articles, with few notable exceptions,
adopted the assumptions of these early articles, Lipsey said.
"It is in this manner that the myth of the Melungeons has been
perpetuated. Nobody has conducted a thorough investigation.
Researchers only go as far back as the articles published between
1889 and 1891 and stop there.
"Information contained in Dromgoole's article to support the claim
that the Melungeons are a unique racial group can be used to show
just the opposite. If the Melungeons had been designated as free
persons of color at the constitutional convention of 1834, then,
according to the Southern custom which did not permit Negroes to
participate as citizens, they would not have been able to own or buy
land, recieive land grants from the state of
other legal business. While it's true that some of the people on
Newman's Ridge and Blackwater valley were refused these rights,
public records show that by no means were all of them refused."
In a forthcoming article, Lipsey turns to the history and settlement
patterns of the
alternative theory to the existing Melungeon belief. He maintains
that by the nineteenth century, there had already been over 300 years
of American history which included lost colonies and mixed groups.
"The eastern seaboard and the western frontier - that is,
stories and ballads, legends, and myths," explained Lipsey. "Not
surprisingly, when Will Allen Dromgoole 'found' the Melungeons on
Newmans Ridge, the available and handy myths were tested for
their 'fit' and the speculators were off and running. What you had,
in essence, were legends waiting for groups to explain."
Indians Join Migrating Parties
Lipsey also said that it was not unusual during the nineteenth
century for groups of outcast Indians and "half-breeds" to attach
themselves to migrating groups of English, Scotch, and Germans and to
take their surnames.
"Evidence reveals that this was the case of the people who came to
settle on Newman’s Ridge. L.M. Jarvis, a long time resident of
derision during the 1800s and given the Indians on account of their
"Lipsey said other evidence supports his theory. "The reputable
before the dromgoole articles, does not mention the existence of a
race of people called the Melungeons, although the author does refer
to people with a mixture of white and Indian blood living on Newman's
Dr. Lipsey first became interested in the Melungeons when he was
"I had read an article in the local paper which told about this
strange-looking group of people with peculiar habits who lived 75
miles further west in
"Interestingly enough, it subsequently became necessary for me to
make monthly trips to Vardy, which is at the foot of Newman's Ridge
looking, strange-acting group of people. What I found was a people
who were, in appearance, general Anglo-Saxon types, the majority
being of Scotch and Irish descent.
"This aroused my curiosity. Where had all the information about the
Melungeons come from? Why had something so obviously not true - as
evidenced by the appearance of the people in and around Vardy - been
allowed to be perpetuated?"
In 1971, Dr. Lipsey was a graduate student in sociology at the
from the late Dr. Norbert Reidl of the anthropology department, he
decided to undertake the study of the Melungeons. He conducted
interviews with folklorists, attorneys, historians, other authors who
have written on the subject, and people in
"Interviews with persons who are of Melungeon-designated families
have been almost impossible to obtain because of the intense
resentment to the implications of the term," said Lipsey. "I have
talked with long-time residents of the county about the Melungeons,
including the mayor of the county seat in Sneedville, public school
teachers and local historians.
"My most significant contact is Bill Grohse, who has lived in Vardy
since 1930. Interestingly enough, he fits the description of a
Melungeon better than most of the residents of the Ridge.
Unfortunately for the proponents of the Melungeon myth, he was born
and raised in
"Bill Grohse has collected a fantastic amount of material on families
of Newman's Ridge which he has shared with me. He has researched
court records, conducted library research and done a number of
genealogical analyses. The information he has uncovered also supports
the theory that the history of the Melungeons is a myth.
"In fact, he married a woman from a Melungeon-designated family whose
maiden name was Mizer. He has traced her genealogy back to
analyses he has conducted. Evidence such as this certainly doesn't
support the theory of a unique racial group."
In addition to conducting numerous interviews to collect information
on the Melungeons, Lipsey has compiled an extensive bibliography.
"Compiling a comprehensive bibliography has been no small task," said
Lipsay. "It has required long hours in archives and extensive
correspondence with libraries throughout the
has been spent reading nineteenth-century newspapers which, whether
on my subject or others, are fascinating to read."
Future research of the Melungeons will include a more thorough
investigation into cultural indicators such as architectural
structures. Dr. Lipsey thinks such indicators will be the same for
both the Ridge and the rest of
which they would need to be to support the present theory of the
Melungeons being a unique cultural group.
Seeks Origins of Word
Additional research will need to be done on the term "Melungeon"
itself. There are several theories as to it's origin and meaning.
"I am suggesting the possibility that the term was derived from the
middle English term 'mal engine' which meant deceitful, tricky,
treacherous, wicked. It may have been a generally derogatory term
used in reference to persons or groups who were threatening or who
were considered wicked or evil.
"The term could easily have made the transition from adjective (a
malengine person) to noun (a malengine), especially if applied to
readily identifiable persons or groups which, in turn, could provide
racial overtones to the word." A third area of study involves a more
thorough investigation of the account by Louis Shepherd of a trial
which took place in
"In his memoirs, Judge Shepherd recounts the details of an 1872
trial in which he successfully defended a young woman's right to
inherit property with the argument that she was of Melungeon
ancestry, not Negro, and that the Melungeons were descendants of the
Moors. Further research is needed on this topic in order to clear up
many unanswered questions."
The last phase of Dr. Lipsey's research will be to publish a book on
the myths which have evolved in the east
has been partially supported by a grant received during the past year
from the UT National Alumni Association. He presented his findings to
the Southern Sociology Society in April.
"I am writing a short article for publication in the near future,"
said Lipsey. "I don't think there is any evidence to support the myth
that the Melungeons constitute a unique racial group or a unique
cultural group. I hope to be able to set the record straight and clear
up eighty-seven years of misconception."
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Article by Pam Vallett