No series on Melungeons is complete without discussion on the individuals who kept history aware of them. This article covers a woman who is perhaps the strangest, most exploitative, and inconsistent writer on the matter: Will Allen Dromgoole.

Will Allen Dromgoole

Will Allen Dromgoole during World War I.

Dromgoole gained recognition for writing everything from poetry to short fiction. She maintains most of her popularity in circles related to the study of the Melungeon community in Hancock and Hawkins Counties, of Tennessee.

Unfortunately, the phraseology in this biography is vague, but with valid reason. It is nearly impossible to ascertain the truth behind Dromgoole’s life, an uncanny echo to the Melungeons, whose origins and lives remain in obscurity. Most contemporary resources on Dromgoole feature information that is the polar opposite of what Dromgoole told papers during her life.

 

Personal Biography

Both current and historic sources agree Dromgoole was born in Murfreesboro, in Rutherford County, Tennessee. She was born in 1860. Her parents were John Easter and Rebecca Mildred Blanch Dromgoole. Dromgoole told newspapers she was the last of six girls and her parents gave her a masculine name because they gave up on having a son. She was named “William Anne Dromgoole.” Her mother named her, “William,” because she hadn’t gotten an opportunity to name a boy. Modern resources say she was the last of nine children, which already had three boys. Her father named her “William,” because he wanted yet another boy.

Old and new resources alike also agree Dromgoole noticed a billboard in childhood by a company named, “Allen’s.” She was captivated and decided she wanted her middle name to be “Allen.” Her mother scolded her, but she eventually gained national recognition as Will Allen Dromgoole. In adulthood, most of her acquaintances called her “Miss Willie.”

Dromgoole enjoyed the name “Will Allen,” because she felt it gave her license to be curt with editors she didn’t like. The tiny lady was 4’10” and weighed all of 87 pounds. She called herself “ugly as sin.”[1] Despite her small stature, she was a tomboy who hunted and fished alongside her father into adulthood. Her favorite editor, Benjamin Orange Flower, of The Arena, stated Dromgoole was high-strung and had a nervous nature in the forward of the 1895 edition of The Heart of Old Hickory and Other Stories. [5]

Dromgoole had curly brown hair and blue-gray eyes. In childhood, she was an introverted bookworm when she wasn’t exploring the woods. She was home-schooled until she reached the suitable age for the Clarksville Female Academy. She graduated there in 1876. Historically, no further education was mentioned.

Contemporary materials state she went on to Boston’s School of Expression once she graduated the Academy. Therein lays a problem. The “School of Expression,” was Boston’s “School of Elocution and Expression.” The school wasn’t even founded until 1879, and wasn’t the “School of Expression” until 1885. This was two years after she started working in the Tennessee Senate. The facility is the Curry College today, but does not list her as a notable alumnus, nor does any source ever discuss her holding a degree or official title from academic accomplishments. Modern resources state Dromgoole didn’t start at the Senate until 1885, but even so, she could hardly have attended school in Boston, while working in Tennessee.

Ever one to mystify, Dromgoole loathed her English ancestry. She stated, “I do not know what I am. I claim Irish and the French. I feel the Danish blood in my veins at times, but the cold blood of the English, I repudiate.” [5] Her extreme disdain for the English is as unusual today as it was then.

Dromgoole told papers her ethnicity was Irish and English on her father’s side. She was French and Danish on her mother’s side. Newspapers stated she was the great-granddaughter of some “notable Dane,” but none every elaborated. It is known her Irish grandfather had to flee Ireland when he embraced Protestantism.

Her family owned some slaves, although it is unknown how many or for how long. She mentioned her favorite was an elderly female they called, “Rag Mammy.” [4]

She was given Cherokee ancestry at some point during the Twentieth Century, but it is unclear how this came to be. Dromgoole never mentioned or indicated she had any such similarity with the Melungeons she wrote of, whom she said were Cherokee.

Historic sources state she studied law with her father, but claim she couldn’t practice due to her gender. This is a bit of a questionable statement because Tennessee indeed had female attorneys by 1907, when Marion Griffin began her practice. Dromgoole implied her father was an attorney, but no period evidence can be found to support this. Several modern biographies also state her father was Mayor of Murfreesboro for a time around the Civil War.

 

Adulthood

Instead of pursuing law further, she acquired a position with the Tennessee State Legislature in 1883. [2] Initially, she was turned down because the Senate was seeking a female to fill this position. Dromgoole took her rejection letter into their offices and proved that she was indeed female. She was given the position.

Her family encountered financial difficulties after her mother died in 1884. She said her mother had discussed writing for publication during her childhood. After her death, she decided to see if she couldn’t find another source of income to help the family. She began writing. [3] She seemed to pursue both her Senate job and her writing interests with ease. She retained her position as engrossing clerk several times over, winning with the majority of the votes in 1885 and 1887. She encountered major literary scandal while at the Senate in 1889 and lost her position due to her own words. More on this will be discussed later on.

Her first literary success came from a story called “Fiddling His Way to Fame.” The story came out with The Arena. She soon found her life was more hectic and demanding than she imagined. It wouldn’t be long before she complained that she received more requests for work than she even hoped to fulfill.

Many contemporary accounts state Dromgoole began working with newspapers in the 1900s, but she was so comfortable and familiar with publishing that by 1890 that she started her own. “Will Allen’s Journal,” was a weekly publication out of Nashville, Tennessee. The first issue came out on February 2, 1890. The publication was quite popular and sold around 5,000 copies per week, just in the first 3 months.

She stated her father had to sell the family cabin in Elk River, and it crushed her to see him so despondent. She eventually used her writing money to repurchase the cottage and both of them lived there for the rest of their lives. The cottage was called the “Yellow Hammer’s Nest,” by friends and neighbors. Dromgoole simply called it, “The Den.” Her father remained spry and active outdoors, even as late as 1894. The 88-year-old man made headlines when he said he traveled 8-10 miles daily on foot. Dromgoole also said she harvested mementos from all coal and iron mines that were once in their area. She was also said to be friends with many in the prison camps across the state, where she received a great deal of inspiration for her tales.

When reporters or literary individuals visited Dromgoole’s home, they found a masculine decor. Her cabin walls were jammed with stuffed animals, trophies from her hunting trips. The ceiling was covered with hanging pipes and walking sticks.

 

Adventure Happens

Dromgoole was a bit of an adventurer, but always expected much sympathy and applause for her efforts. Her pieces on the Melungeons are a fine example. She barged into a community, ridiculed the residents, deliberately made them uncomfortable, complained over having to pay for food and lodging, and wanted her readers to know she did it, not for adventure, but for reasons she never states. Here is one excerpt in her own words:

“I have followed directions faithfully, and just here let me say if any one supposes I made the trip for the fun it might afford, he is mistaken. If any one supposes it was prompted by a spirit of adventure, or a love for the wild and untried, he is grievously in error. I have never experienced more difficulty in traveling, suffered more inconvenience, discomfort, bodily fatigue and real dread of danger. It required almost superhuman effort to carry me on, and more than once, or a dozen times, I was tempted to give it up.”

Dromgoole also placed herself in the middle of the Coal Creek War of 1891-1893. During this period in Tennessee, mining companies eliminated their usual mining employees in favor of free labor via the state prisons. Many disgruntled miners waged a war against the companies, and thereby the state. After she arrived, unannounced, the soldiers began arresting all strangers who wandered the camp. She was arrested for trespassing and taken to General Samuel Carnes’s private quarters. When her identity was established, she claimed she was given the freedom to go where she wished in the camp.

Dromgoole spoke of the coming women’s suffrage movement at a New Orleans high school in 1895. She supported the movement and told the audience to prepare, because it was coming. She eventually founded the Women’s Press Club of Waco, Texas. Modern resources say she was teaching in Texas when the club was formed, but no historic resources support it. Sadly, her beloved father, John Dromgoole, died in 1897. He was buried in the Sunset Cemetery in Weakly County, Tennessee. She was devastated after her mother’s death, but her father’s demise nearly killed her. She stopped writing entirely for a decade. She gave readings and lectures, but didn’t produce any work.

Once her parents had passed on, Dromgoole was truly alone. Her adult life was filled with travel and acclaim, but precious little mention of love or affection. Perhaps her high-strung nature, or tendency to exaggerate, made close relationships impossible.

She loved the Lone Star state and spent much time there. Despite her proclamation of love for her cottage, she was a frequent traveler. She planned to spend the winter in El Paso, in 1898. For some reason, she changed her mind after only a few days and moved onto Waco. She received wonderful literary applause in Boston and New York City, so she visited both often.

Several sources say Dromgoole also taught in Tennessee, but no historic proof of this can be found, either. She frequently gave lectures and readings across the country, but the only teaching position she was credited with was the Chair of History and English Literature with Capital City College in Washington, DC. The facility was the Staunton Female Seminary before it moved to the capital.

Dromgoole suffered a horrific accident in June of 1911. She was standing at an intersection in Murfreesboro when a runaway horse and buggy hit her. She survived, but barely. She sustained a broken jaw, many missing teeth, and a considerable amount of bruising across her body. Dromgoole had amassed a sizable bibliography by 1912; however, The Island of Beautiful Things was said to be her first actual novel.

During the First World War, Dromgoole was the only women who wore a Navy Officer’s uniform. Information again separates as historic accounts from the 1910s and 1920s state she was a United States Navy “yeoman” and a recruiter for the cause. Sources today state she was a “warrant officer.” This is wrong. Females weren’t authorized for the position of a warrant officer until 1944, and those first few were focused mainly on band and administrative activities.

Women were allowed into the position of “Yeoman” as early as 1918. These individuals dealt primarily with clerical and administrative duties. The war also brought a change in the media. Mentions of Dromgoole grew fewer and fewer until she seemed to fade completely from the spotlight.

Dromgoole’s health started to decline in August of 1934, and not even her feisty nature could overcome. She passed away at her home on September 1, 1934. She was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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