Monday, June 30, 2008

Melungeon Romance pt. 3

She was very much like her mother, and possessed all the charms and graces she did, but they were undeveloped. Mr. Williams took her to a milliner and had her proved with a wardrobe suitable to her changed surroundings. She very readily adapted herself to her new surrounding and her new life out in the midst of civilization. She was kept at the Williams home and sent to school from there for about two years.

She had to start from the very beginning but, being ambitious to get some education she studied hard and learned very rapidly and in the short time of her school days got a very fair and practical educations. She afterward married her teacher, who was a splendid young man and became one of the leading men in the community and managed his wife’s affairs very successfully and added considerably to her fortune. At the time of his death, which occurred about twenty years ago, he was a prominent official in the county and in conjunction with Blev Thomspon, represented the Hill City district in the county court.

The case was energetically prepared for trial; upward of sixty depositions were taken on the various issues raised in the pleading. The fact of the marriage was easily proved; Squire Clark, who officiated, was still living; as were John and James Cummings and Joel Cross, all of whom were eye witnesses to the performance of the ceremony and remembered it well. In their depositions they stated as a reason for remembering the occurrence so well the unusual circumstances that when the ceremony was said Squire Clark, the bridal pair and witnesses were all standing in the big road in front of Squire Clark’s house. The record in the old Bible established the date of the birth of the child.

The point made that the man was incapable, by reason of being non compos mentis, of entering into a contract of marriage was settled by the ruling of the judge that a marriage which was voidable could not be questioned by anybody except one of the parties to be contract; in other words, that such marriage could not be attacked collaterally; so that it was at all relevant to take evidence on that point.

The great battle ground was the allegation in the answer that the marriage was void because in contravention of a statue of Tennessee prohibiting the intermarriage of a white person with a person of Negro blood to the sixth degree it being alleged that the mother of this girl was a person of mixed Negro blood within the prohibition degree, and upon this issue a large volume of proof was taken.

What the Proof Showed

The evidence completely exploded this theory. It was satisfactorily established in the proof that the family of this woman was in no way allied to, or connected with, the Negro race; that there was not a feature of herself or ancestry that was at all similar to the distinguishing characteristics or features of the Negro, except that they were of dark color, about the color of a mulatto. They had high foreheads; long, straight, black hair; high cheek bones, thin lips, small feet, with high insteps and prominent Roman noses, while the features of the Negro and mulatto were exactly the reverse of these.

In truth, these people belonged to a peculiar race which settled in East Tennessee at an early day and in the vernacular of that country, they were known as “Melungeons,’ and were not even remotely allied to the Negroes. It was proven by the tradition among these people that they were descendant of the ancient Carthagenians; they were Phoenicians who, after Carthage was conquered by the Romans and became a province, emigrated across the Straits of Gibraltar and settled in Portugal. They lived for many years and became quite numerous on the southern coast of Portugal, and from thence the distinguished Venetian general, Othello, whom Shakespeare made immortal in his celebrates play, “Othello, the Moor of Venice.” These were the same people who fought the Romans so bravely and heroically in the Punic wars and whose women sacrificed their long, black hair to the state to be plaited and twisted into cable with which to fasten their galleys and ships of war to the shore.

About the time of our Revolutionary war, a considerable body of these people crossed the Atlantic and settled on the coast of South Carolina, near the North Carolina line, and they lived among the people of Carolina for a number of years. At length the people of Carolina began to suspect that they were mulattoes or free Negroes and denied them the privileges usually accorded to white people. They refused to associate with them on equal terms and would not allow them to send their children to school with white children, and would only admit them to join their churches on the footing of Negroes.

Race Holds Its Own

South Carolina had a law taxing free Negroes so much per capita, and a determined effort was made to collect this of them. But it was shown in evidence on the trial of this case that they always successfully resisted the payment of this tax, as they proved that they were not Negroes. Because of their treatment, they left South Carolina at an early day and wandered across the mountains to Hancock county, East Tennessee; in fact, the majority of the people of that country are “Melungeons,:” or allied to them in some way. A few families of them drifted away from Hancock into the other counties of east Tennessee and now and then into the mountainous section of Middle Tennessee. Some of them live in White, some in Grundy and some in Franklin county. They seem to prefer living in a rough, mountainous and sparsely settled country.

One peculiarity of these people is that the dark color cannot be bred out of them; they do not miscegenate or blend in color. It frequently happens that a white man marries a “Melungeon” girl and raises children by her, but the children always partake of the color of one or the other parent; some of them will be white, like the father, and some of them dark, like the mother. Sometimes the women bear twins by a white sire, and one will be white and the other one dark. The spectacle has often been seen of a mother suckling twin babies, one white and the other dark. This is not true of a cross between a white man and a Negro woman. A mulatto is always half white and half black, and an octoroon can hardly be told from a pure Caucasian, the Negro blood being so completely bred out. While this is true, our southern high bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with Negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc. The term “Melungeons” is an East Tennessee provincialism; it was coined by the people of that country to apply to these people. It is derived from the french word ‘melange’ meaning a mixture, or medley, and has got into the modern dictionaries. It was applied to these people because at first it was supposed that they were of mixed blood-part white and part Negro.

This name is a misnomer, because it has been conclusively proven that they are not mixed with Negro blood, but are pure-blooded Carthaginians, as much so was Hannibal and the Moor of Venice and other pure blooded descendants of the ancient Phoenicians.

Fight at Every Step

It was proven in the case that the grandfather of this girl was accorded full right of a citizen while he lived in Hamilton coutry. He was allowed to vote at all elections at a time when a Negro could not vote and was allowed to testify in the courts when a Negro was an incompetent witness.

Once, in Marion county, a white man named Perkins killed one of the old man’s grandchildren and an indictment was found against him, with the name of the old man marked as prosecutor. A plea in the abatement was filed by the defendant, averring that he had no capacity to become a prosecutor because he was a Negro. The defendant was convicted and sent to the penitentiary for a long term.

The old man applied to the government for a pension on account of his services to the country in the War of 1812. At the time of his enlistment a Negro or a mulatto could not become a soldier in the United States army at all. He had some difficulty in finding a witness who could testify that he was in the army in that war. He had put his case in the hands of a local pension attorney, who had exhausted his resources in an effort to find satisfactory evidence in support of his client’s claim.

Knew Company Roll by Heart

Someone told him that the old man could call the roll of his company from the captain down to the last private on the list. He had learned it from hearing the orderly sergeant call it over at roll calls, and his habit was to repeat it as a sort of song or medley. The attorney called him in and had him call the roll and while he called the attorney wrote down the names. The old many had forgotten the number of his regiment. All that he could tell was that it was a South Carolina regiment. The attorney sent this list of names to the war department at Washington, and a search was made in the archives among the South Carolina regiments, and sure enough, the muster roll of his company was found, containing the names from the captain down, just as the old man had called them over to his attorney. From this clue as a starting point he had no difficulty in making out his case to the satisfaction of the pension commissioner.

This was a very important piece of evidence to defeat the Negro imputation, because it was utterly impossible for a Negro to be an enlisted man at the time. He might be hired as a teamster or a cook, but could not be a soldier.

While the testimony was being taken some old-time Negroes were introduced to prove that the Boltons, for that was the name of the old man referred to, were kinky-headed Negroes. They were promptly swore to this and said that the whole bunch of them had kinky hair, just like a mulatto Negro.

Missing Witness Appears

On being cross-examined they were asked if all of Bolton’s daughters had kinky hair and that our girl’s mother had the same sort of hair. They did not know that Betsy was in the land of the living; in point of fact, the parties and attorneys on the other side did not have a suspicion that she was any nearer than her Illinois hut in the swamps of the Mississippi; but she was then on Williams island, having been brought back here by Mr. Williams in pursuance of his promise to her when he got her to let him fetch the girl back.

Notice was immediately served that on the following Saturday the deposition of Betsy Bolton would be taken at the residence of Samuel Willliams, and it was so taken. She was asked to cut off a lock of her hair and pin it to her deposition. She reached up to her topknot and pulled out her old-fashioned tucking comb, and a monstrous mass of coal black hair as straight as the hair of a horse’s tail, fell down to the floor. It was about four feet long and perfectly free of a kink or a tendency to curl. She exhibited with her deposition a fair sample of her magnificent hair, which completely destroyed the depositions of the Negroes taken on the other side to prove that the Bolton people were Negroes.

The case was patiently tried by the learned chancellor, who gave the solicitors free scope to argue it as much as they pleased.

The decree was in favor of the girl and adjudged that she was the heir apparent of her father and entitled to be supported and educated out of his estate and to inherit his estate after his death. He directed the guardian to provide liberally out of the funds in his hands for her education and maintenance and to pay the young lawyer, who had fought her battle single-handed against the most experienced and best legal talent that could be found, $5,000 for his services. The young man thought that was a pretty good fee to earn in his first year’s practice.

His Memory Good

At one time Mr. Williams got alarmed at the splendid array of lawyers that were pitted against his inexperienced solicitor, and he contemplated sending to Knoxville for Col. John Baxter to take the leading part in the case, but on reflection he decided that that would be unjust to his solicitor, who had borne the burden of the preparation of the case for trial; he thought he was entitled to the glory and the compensation in case of success, and he therefore abandoned his purpose engaging Col Baxter.

One of the funny incidents of this case was the following:

Joel Cross testified that he witnessed the marriage and that it occurred in the big road in front of Squire Clark’s residence on June 14, 1856; he was closely examined by Judge Trewhitt, who thought that he could catch him on his swearing so particularly to the date of the marriage. He asked him how he was able after such a long lapse of time, to swear to the precise date of the occurrence. His answer was;

“Well judge, that was a notable day with me; several things happened on that day to make me remember it. While we were at breakfast that morning the report was brought to us that a Baptist preacher who was carrying on a revival in the neighborhood had got drunk and the meeting would have to be broken up; a little later some young horses that were plowing in my field ran away and tore down several acres of fine growing corn; and then, about the middle of the afternoon, this marriage performed in the big road; and lastly, we had a fine baby girl born at our house that evening and I set down the date of her birth and her name in the Bible, and that is how I know the date.”

The decree in this case was affirmed on appeal to the supreme court and by this final act a great wrong was righted and a worthy girl was vested with the title to a large fortune of the benefits of which she had been deprived for many years.


This story, along with many other interesting narratives, appears in ‘Personal Memoirs” in which Judge Shepherd told of striking and important cases in which he figured as a young attorney and in later life. For the most part the stories in the book were originally written for the Times by Judge Shepherd. T.A. Rogers, June 21, 1936

Thanks to for this article.

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