The Melungeons emerged into common knowledge as a group of isolationists in Northeastern Tennessee. Their primary home was in Hancock County, in a place called Newman’s Ridge. They’re often also associated with Hawkins County because Hancock broke away from Hawkins when it formed in 1848. The Melungeon community was in the same place as far back as the Eighteenth Century. This is where it started. Period. The history books, newspapers, and publications of the era all state the same facts.
Here are several:
“Malungeons— When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin (1784), there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks….”
American Notes and Queries, Volume 6. William Shepard Walsh, Henry Collins Walsh, William H. Garrison, Samuel R. Harris. Westminster Publishing Company, 1891.
“There is in Hancock County, Tennessee, a tribe of people known by the local name of Malungeons or Melungeons. Some say they are a branch of the Croatan tribe, others that they are of Portuguese stock. They differ radically, however, in manners and customs from the accounts which we have received of the Croatans….”
The Demand For Education In American History: Inaugural address of Hon. John Jay.
John Jay, 1891.
“There is in Hancock County, Tennessee, a tribe of people known by the local name of Malungeons or Melungeons.”
Congressional Serial Set. United States. Government Printing Office. U.S. G.P.O., 1915.
“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 prevailing amongst these people that they were descendants of the ancient Carthaginians; they were Phoenicians, who after Carthage was conquered by the Romans, and became a Roman 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 there came the distinguished Venetian General Othello, whom Shakespeare made immortal in his celebrated play, “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 cables 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 amongst 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.
“South Carolina had a law taxing free negroes so much per capita, and a determined effort was made to collect this tax off 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, Tennessee, where they settled.”
Judge Lewis Shepherd. Watson’s Magazine, Volume 17. Thomas Edward Watson. Jeffersonian Pub. Co., 1913.
“The Melungeons are a people of Tennessee, which has been made more of a mystery than they really are. They live at Clinch Mountain, near Holston River, and when they have merchandise to trade, they bring it for sale to the town of Rogersville, in Hawkins County, Tenn.; the locality where their homes are, is near the Quarries in Hawkins County, where marble of a pink color is now quarried.”
The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Volume 17. Stephen Denison Peet. F.H. Reveell, 1895
“A paper read by Dr. Burnett before the Washington Anthropological Society on the Melungeons in the southern Alleghenies is a case in point. Neither white nor black nor Indians, these people live encysted, like the Basques of the Pyrenees and little contaminated by mixture.”
Annual Report. Smithsonian Institution, 1890.
“Newman’s Ridge, which runs through the country north of Sneedville and parallel with Clinch river, has been occupied mainly by the Melungeons.”
A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans: The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities, Volume 3. Will Thomas Hale, Dixon Lanier Merritt. Lewis publishing Company, 1913
So, how on earth are Melungeons everywhere today? The Wikipedia article on the topic provides readers with everything wrong about this contemporary notion. Here is the Wikipedia definition of “Melungeon:”
“Melungeon is a term traditionally applied to one of numerous ‘tri-racial isolate’ groups of the Southeastern United States; historically, Melungeons were associated with the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, which includes portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Tri-racial describes populations thought to be of mixed European, African and Native American ancestry. Although there is no consensus on how many such groups exist, estimates range as high as 200.” –Wikipedia
In essence, they’ve stolen the identity of the East Tennessee group and have expanded it to include all peoples of mixed ancestry. Several people have reported that any attempts to correct the Wikipedia article are swiftly undone.
In actuality, the group didn’t exist outside this small Tennessee region until almost the close of the Twentieth Century. Even in the 1960s Walk Towards Sunset, a Melungeon drama performed in Sneedville, Tennessee, the term was only applied to the Hancock County group. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1990s that the mass exploitation began.
For example, Melungeons are erroneously placed in Virginia because an argument in a Southwest Virginia church found its way into church transcripts. One member accused another of abetting “malungins” which was a common racial epithet. After the close of the Civil War, the term was thrown around like any other racist slur against suspected Southern-sympathizers. It was common for newspaper editors to call entire regions “Melungeons” when they were suspected of voting in the opposite party.
Rather than assuming the statement for what it is, an ignorant, racist accusation, its seen as an ethnic pinnacle. It would be no different than basing such a far-reaching assumption because someone said someone “helped a half-breed.”
Today, people are Melungeon, simply because they want to be. The group now has “no known origin,” so people of any ethnicity imaginable can claim Melungeon heritage.
It’s difficult to trace how a common set of facts became so manipulated, but it’s likely that rampant commercialism is driving it. Small towns across the nation, as well as colleges and universities, are financially benefiting from Melungeon acclaim by pushing all bi-racial and tri-racial individuals into the same mold. Government grants, tourism, and a variety of “studies” and “research centers” are invaluable to small-town economies.
This is not only unfair to actual Melungeons, but also to non-Melungeon individuals. It takes the individuality and uniqueness away from both, and forces them to be as one.
In 1900, you were a Melungeon if you lived in the isolationist community on Newman’s Ridge. In 2000, you were a Melungeon if you or your ancestors lived in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, throughout the rest of the states utilizing the fame. If you can suspect any kind of multi-racial background, regardless, you could be a Melungeon.
We see far too many people today stealing the heritage of others, for no other reason than novelty. When this happens, the actual identity fades into oblivion and leaves an entire group open to every other individual’s interpretation. In contemporary times, just like 200 years ago, European-Americans want to tell Melungeons who they are and where they’re from.
In truth, the Melungeons said who they were centuries ago. They went to court and proved who they were and where they came from. Their memory and unique identity should remain intact, and their words respected.