Melungeon Fame

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Melungeons

melungeon outlaws?As word spread of the “new race” so did fantasy. Northern reporters made it a point to briskly “investigate the community,” by speaking to one or two families, so they might carry off biases, prejudices and unfair assumptions of all.

The remote community had no desire for outside interference. The secluded culture gave rise to a lawless element during the Nineteenth Century. People, classified as “white trash” also came into the surrounding lands. Many were in search of safe havens to create their moonshine.

The criminal element had a highly negative impact. Crime often went unpunished, because the law-abiding residents knew the price of justice. Feuds were common and your testimony today could very well be the last nail in your coffin tomorrow. Some feud grudges were held nearly a decade before someone was murdered for it.

Reporters often seemed only too happy to carry back tales of malice and ruthlessness. The struggling town of Sneedville was often besieged by outlaws, leaving countless bullet holes in the houses along the main street by the 1900s.

Area populations grew wary of reporters. This was just a few decades after the Civil War. It was thought that the northern newspapers and media wanted to portray as much racial mixing as possible in the southern states.

These early suspicions believed the aim was to reduce the southern populations to a mongrelized state, where there were no “uncontaminated” Caucasians, African-Americans or Native Americans. This was also in the era of eugenics, when many scientists and politicians united in order to prove the “white master race,” emphasize racial purity and deter racial “poisoning” or mixing.

This brings question, even today, as attempts to correct illogical or unfounded claims are occasionally met with declarations of “racism.” It’s implied you’re denying what you are, not because you want to correct genuinely erroneous information, but because you actively dislike this race or that race. This is one reason why it’s so difficult to find plausible or concrete answers. So many theories are racially motivated and if anyone contradicts them, they’re labeled as denying their “true heritage” or of just being racist.

Unfortunately, even southern authors, such as Will Allen Dromgoole (1860-1934), were eager to hop on the proverbial bandwagon to malign the rural community. Dromgoole visited the area in 1890 and began a scathing series of articles on the people there. More of her work will be discussed later on.

Melungeons were portrayed as subhuman, inferior in every way. They were lazy moonshiners, uneducated and absent of moral standards. They were filthy, their homes were shacks and their lives were miserable. Their misery was always self-imposed.

This is not to say all were without flaw, as every group of humans will see much discord. There were indeed murderers, outlaws and rival moonshine gangs throughout the county. The murder rate in the 1890s for Hancock County was at 150 killed, and not a single criminal in jail. Although, it was amusing to see newspapers from New York City indignant over the crime rate in Hancock County, Tennessee.

It’s easy to see why isolation was such an integral part of the community. Contact with the outside world brought little more than trouble and uncertainty. Wicked people came into the community to flee outside justice and participate in the feuding. If the intruders weren’t criminals, they were other interlopers intent on telling the community who their ancestors were and where they came from.

The majority of the data states the original people did not travel beyond their boundaries, did not speak English, intermarried and did not socially mix with outsiders. Some came into affluence, but even when wealthy, they had no desire to mingle with non-Melungeon neighbors.

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