The Real History of Melungeons

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Melungeons

historySadly, it seems even less is known of the people today. Early historical accounts suggest the Melungeons were there before the white settlers. It’s impossible to gauge precisely how far back their residency and history went.

There are a few land records from the latter 1700s, when the Tennessee counties were forming. We do not know if the originals were actually new to the area, or if they just placed their ownership on record when they’d been there much longer.

The Melungeons were among the first to introduce their neighbors to a keen distrust of the government and were thought to be the first to battle Federal Revenue Officials, or “Revenuers,” over illicit liquor. They were also believed to be the last to give up their defenses when it came to waging battles with the government. They were highly against taxation in any form.

They claimed to come from North Carolina, but there is no information on when they arrived in North Carolina, either. The first white settlers came to the Tennessee region in 1772. The Melungeons are known to be among the first residing in Sevier’s “State of Franklin” on their own land. Hawkins County wasn’t actually formed until 1786. Hancock County would be formed later.

The first Hawkins County settlers established themselves in the Carters Valley area. The Melungeons were considered to be in Hawkins County, at that time. There were several battles between white settlers and Native Americans, but the Melungeons weren’t involved. They did not take either side.

Once the counties surrounding Hawkins formed, Newman’s Ridge then became a part of Hancock County. Later accounts, believed to stem from newcomers to the Melungeon community, discussed possible Native American histories among several families.

However, this article focuses on the original residents who were proud to be Portuguese.

It’s intriguing that such an isolated group, with no known origins, no folklore and no literacy, should have any knowledge of Portugal from simple guesswork. Portugal was a bustling metropolis of culture and success until 1755, when the earthquake struck. It is believed to have measured 9.0. The devastation was only compounded by tsunamis and fire. The nation never recovered its position. It seems unlikely that a community, who shunned the outside world, would invent such a connection.

Several spoke enough broken English for trading purposes, but the group had their own language. They did not write or have written documents. No one knew what language they spoke, but it seems appropriate to suppose the group spoke Portuguese, as it sounds much like a combination of Spanish and French. Countless scientists, scholars and doctors visited to see the people for themselves. Scholars would’ve been familiar, if not well versed, with Spanish, French and German, so any of those languages would’ve been understood and identified.

Their political affiliations were relatively common in the beginning—they were Whigs. There is a story behind this as well. Tennessee amended their Constitution in 1834 to prohibit “free persons of color” from voting. This brought outrage to the Melungeon community, as it started the practice of white officials calling them black or Native American. Most locals weren’t certain where the Melungeons came from, but they knew they were not African. A few sources go on to state the members who attempted to vote were actually arrested, but the charges were dropped.

Col. John Netherland took their case, pro bono. Members underwent a physical examination and it was proven they were not African. Strangely, despite the inflammatory reports, various accounts of the examination mentioned the women had beautiful, shapely hands and the men had tall, powerful physiques. The entire process of examination remains unknown, but it is certain the exam focused on their general physical appearance, as well as close study of the hands and feet.

Their rights were reinstated and it was official. The Melungeons were not “free persons of color,” they had no Native American or African-American ancestry to prohibit their civic privileges. They won the case and established that their ancestors had came from Portugal around 160 years earlier. Col. John Netherland later ran for the office of State Governor, as a Whig, in 1859.

This offers a slight window. The Melungeon ancestors, according to their own admissions, arrived in North Carolina sometime in the early 1700s. Some sources stated that Melungeon ancestors were buried in mounds in North Carolina. This is altogether unknown. It is verifiable that Portugal has one of the highest concentrations of burial mounds, or “Tumlus,” in Europe. In that country, there are over a thousand of these barrows, although they are all ancient.

Things changed around 1860, when a couple of families actually left the community. Their paths didn’t take them far from their original home. A few went into Virginia and several others into various parts of Tennessee.

William Lyle was a Hancock County merchant believed to have descended from the original group. He abandoned the old ways and became a successful shop owner in Hancock or Hawkins County. He was fondly remembered in Knoxville, Tennessee, from his trips to gather store supplies. He was unusually colored and told acquaintances he was Portuguese. He was known for his fine dress and elegant manners. Those who met him claimed he was as polished and refined as any member of Congress was.

Progress and the advance of time quickly invaded the little community, as the Nineteenth Century drove on. Perhaps those who left fled the criminal element, or they heard of a better life elsewhere. By that time, more people they considered “strange” moved on lands nearer to them.

The original elders completely prohibited outsiders marrying into the community. One of the young men wanted to marry a white woman. The presiding minister refused to officiate the wedding until their blood was mixed. The groom was required to cut his finger and allow his bride to drink a slight amount.

The reason for this remains unknown. We can merely speculate today that this might have been symbolic, a display to show the bloodlines were mixed. Or it might’ve been a “blood alliance” gesture. The drinking of blood in old Europe wasn’t unknown. Groups, such as the Tartars, participated in it as a means of symbolically uniting kingdoms.

Feuding was a part of daily life by the time the Civil War began. Moonshiners held rivaling stills and defended their property, and their product, to the death if necessary. The community did not choose a side in the War Between the States. Some people claimed they supported the North, while others state they supported the South, but the fact is they didn’t leave their property to support either side. They were equally hostile to any intrusion of either government.

Later on, there would be rumors that two Collins brothers joined in the battle, but both died from homesickness. One would be plausible, but two sounds much like an urban legend.

With such a sizable community, illicit liquor stills were closely guarded. Destruction was all around during the war. It is more likely that they didn’t want either side, North or South, confiscating or destroying their stills. Even the worst feuds were forgotten if outsiders attempted to thwart the manufacture of moonshine.

News of this “new race” gained momentum in the 1880s. Curious spectators began making regular visits to Newman’s Ridge and the surrounding areas. Dromgoole wrote her series of articles after a visit in 1890. The 1890s also saw an influx of missionaries to the Melungeon community. The Golden Age of this community had long since diminished as the elders passed on. What followed was a community that had no skills or capacity to survive in an ever-advancing world. A world that no longer left them isolated.

By the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, the community had no concern or regard for the political field or social issues. The people still lived in cabins and hunted with antiquated long-barrel rifles, but all the original settlers were gone.

The remnants made moonshine and utilized coarse-ground cornmeal for bread. Marriages among many newcomers were akin to those of Native Americans or the poorer classes in Europe. Consensual unions were not based on ceremony, religious views or legalities. A couple claimed they were married and they were. If either wanted a divorce, they made it known and they were divorced.

The Presbyterian community in particular displayed a considerable amount of compassion and concern for the despondent region. Mr. W. M. Elliot was a representative for the Holston Presbytery in 1890. He decided to take a shortcut through the Blackwater portion of Hancock County. As luck would have it, Mr. Elliot was confronted by curious Melungeons.

He made his introduction and stated his business, but they had never heard of a Presbytery. They became suspicious. Fears arose that he was an abominable revenuer, determined to destroy their stills. They tried to run him off, even threatened him with death.

Perhaps it was their poverty, or their obvious ignorance, but Mr. Elliot wouldn’t leave. Despite even death threats, he refused to abandon the community. His persistence eventually won them over. He stayed, preached and handed out bibles to as many as he could. The majority of Melungeon households didn’t have a bible.

One member of the community was Caney Collins, who claimed he was a Baptist minister. His brother was Beatty Collins. Mr. Elliot also noticed the community’s illiteracy. He asked about their ability to read, but found the majority of Melungeon children were denied access to public schools, due to the assumption they were all non-whites.

The people had tried to compete with the outside world. A schoolhouse existed in the area, but the teacher could do little more than instruct on the alphabet and provide basic spelling lessons. Fortunately, this was all about to change.

A year or two later, the regional Presbyterian church turned their full focus on the struggling community. They needed teachers, not only for religious instruction, but also for academic instruction. The idea of real teachers was put forth before the Melungeon community. The people were so enthralled that they offered a house for the new teacher or teachers. They also volunteered to help remodel the structure to make it livable.

It was a regional effort. Generous people in Greenville and Jonesboro, Tennessee, donated the furniture. The good people in Knoxville donated a horse for the effort. The community was not going to have one, but two teachers. Miss Annie Brian Miller volunteered to come from her home in Limestone, Tennessee. Miss Maggie B. Axtell came from her home in Topeka, Kansas. The two women were to live at the “Varday Hotel,” until their house was complete.

By 1900, it was estimated that 400-500 individuals lived within the Melungeon community. The knowledge of the “Melungeons” faded into non-existence for decades after. The community became educated, well acquainted with their county neighbors and eventually assimilated into modern life.

This was also the year Melungeon elders issued a formal “edict” to the public. It appeared in a variety of newspapers in the Southeast. They admitted their ranks were dwindling and their community was dying out. To remedy this, they advertised for respectable, honest Caucasian men to marry their daughters. The elders stated their community once held strong, decent people and was in need of new blood. If they married their daughters, and treated them with love and respect, the elders were ready to offer a sizable portion of land to every man who applied.

Researchers began exploring the history of the civilization more fastidiously at this point. A number of reporters came across the court records from the trial to allow Melungeons to vote. The records stated the Melungeons’ ancestors originated in central Portugal and then came to South Carolina. This claim also stated they’d brought the distilleries with them from South Carolina when they migrated into Tennessee. This account stated the original Melungeons were Gibson, Mullins, Collins and added a new surname: Wilkins.

In 1902, many researchers developed the theory that Melungeons belonged to the Seventeenth Century exodus from Portugal. There were a number, starting in 1694, and the very first fleet was lost at sea. Researchers stated the fleet crashed along the North Carolina coast and the survivors eventually came to Tennessee.

Awareness of the group was reborn in the 1960s with the creation of Kermit Hunter’s play Walk Toward the Sunset. This drama was performed in Sneedville, county seat of Hancock County, Tennessee.

The modern interest today began around the middle of the 1990s. Relation to the Melungeon community began to hinge on certain last names or appearances, as opposed to actual, documented lineages.

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