There were multiple families in the initial group. They were varied in hue and features, but the outside world wasn’t aware of them for nearly a century. The people went through several generations of intermarriage, so it’s probable that genetically dominant darker features were a common trait by the time outsiders grew curious.
These copper-colored peoples were dark-skinned, but were not African. Anthropologists and historians alike studied the group, but were unable to reach a conclusion they could all agree on. The papers of the era regularly said “the group claims to be Portuguese,” but those around them seldom recognized or respected it.
The original group was not Native American, as they had distinctly different features. They had high cheekbones, but straight noses. Most had straight black hair and their eyes were so brown they appeared black. Even the physically darkest members of the group had distinctly European features. Conflicting reports have stated they were both tall and short.
The community was peppered with individuals considered “white trash” by the time reporters trekked into Newman’s Ridge. As a result, the entire community gained a reputation for adamantly refusing to improve their way of life. Usually, this was attributed to laziness and ignorance.
Accounts state that, despite the depth of their own color, the original group regarded other persons of color with contempt or disdain. Papers frequently warned readers never to ask the Melungeons about having African heritage, as they would shoot anyone for asking. The earliest settlers to Newman’s Ridge did not claim to have Native American ancestry.
While Will Allen Dromgoole painted them as murderous hordes, hell-bent on destruction and deprivation, other accounts reported a hospitable group, amicable and quick-to-laugh. Both positive and negative reports said they were hot-tempered. Any outsiders who married into the group remained in the settlement. By 1900, not a single member within the community had even ridden a train.
Some accounts said they were a “heathen” people with no religion or folklore, but early accounts describe a people that revered the symbol of the cross. Information often stated the group had no churches. There are accounts the original group observed a Christian religion, although there is no known record of an earlier church in the area. The settlement probably observed what we might call a “Druid Church” where services are observed in a forested sanctuary instead of a building.
There were no social structures in place, they didn’t elect officials and no members of the community led any others. They did not have rulers, chieftains, kings, lords or mayors. They did have elders who held slight recognition and respect in the community.
When it came to religion, 90% of the information stated the Melungeons disdained any form of worship. They had absolutely no folklore, no known origins and no intellectual or philosophical pursuits. The only information they held was that their ancestors came out of North Carolina. They didn’t have any person regarded as “holy,” or who led from a spiritual perspective.
Rare articles from around 1900, paint a different picture of the religious customs. They stated the Melungeons were deeply, almost fanatically, religious. One legend stated the boarding house owner Vardemon, or “Uncle Vardy,” Collins was surprised when a traveling bishop stopped to spend the night. He found out the man was a minister and they sat down to dinner.
Vard had talked the Bishop into preaching to his people by the time the meal ended. He carried a dinner horn out on his porch and gave three blasts. Within an hour, 100 people had gathered to hear the traveling holy man.
This traveling bishop was none other than Rev. F. A. Ross, who constructed the famous Rotherwood mansion in Kingsport, Tennessee. Rev. Ross was a Presbyterian, and it is ironic that his denomination would take such interest in helping the community decades later.
As the community warmed up to outsiders, a few reporters gained the confidences of the elders. They were shown the group’s “relics.” There wasn’t a great deal to remind them of their past. They reported a few household implements made of organic materials and some broken pottery, some of which was decorated with crude Maltese cross designs. This design has significance, which will be discussed later on.