A Romance of the Melungeons


Mysterious Racial Group in East Tennessee, Descendants of Phoenicians of Ancient Carthage,
 Subject of Dramatic Story Found in Memoirs of Late Judge Lewis Shepherd 
 - Drama and Heartbreak Attended Early Lawsuit in Which Chattanoogan Won His Spurs -

T. A. Rogers
June 21, 1936

Editor’s Note–Romance, drama and heart-break, holding all the interest of a Hollywood moving picture thriller, are contained in this story of “The Melungeons,” a tale of the early days of Chattanooga, as told by the late Judge Lewis Shepherd, for many years a leading member of the bar here.  This story , along with many other interesting narratives, appears in ‘Personal Memoirs” in which Judge Shepherd told of striking and important cases in which he figured as a young attorney and in later life.  For the most part the stories in the book were originally written for the Times by Judge Shepherd.

Many years ago, when Tennessee was being settled by white people, there came to this section from Virginia a wealthy man with his family and his slaves.  He bought a large and valuable tract of land a cleared it up and converted it into a farm.  This tract was situated in the bend of the river, now called Moccasin bend and much of it was very rich and fertile river bottom land, where vegetation of all sorts grew in rich and luxuriant abundance.

The man died after awhile, leaving a widow and three sons, the widow married again and raised a family of three girls.  The young men grew up to be good business men, and each of them had a fine farm inherited from his father.  Two of them died without having been married, and their estates were inherited by the survivor.  The survivor, the hero of this story, rented his land and hired out his slaves, and he himself entered into the mercantile business in the town which grew up on the south side of the river.  It was at first Rossville, but is now the flourishing city of Chattanooga.  After several years of life in the town he was attacked with severe  spell of fever; he recovered but the disease affected his mind to such an extent that he was temporarily deranged.  He recovered his mental faculties about the year 1848 and thereafter, for several years, managed his property very successfully.

Old Soldier’s Beautiful Daughter

He had on his farm a tenant who had been a United States soldier in the War of 1812, having joined the army in South Carolina, where he lived at the time.  This old soldier had a daughter who was famed for her beauty, her grace of manner and modesty.  She was a dark brunette.  She had a suit of black hair, which was coveted by all the girls who knew her.  Her form was petite, and yet withal was so plump and so well developed as to make her an irresistibly charming young woman.  She was most beautiful of face, and had a rich, black eye, in whose depths the sunbeams seemed to gather.  When she loosed her locks they fell, almost reaching the ground, and shone in the sunlight or quivered like the glamour which the full moon throws on the placid water.  She was the essence of grace and loveliness.

Our hero fell in love with this delightful young woman;’ she reciprocated his affection, and they obtained the consent of their parents to be married.  His mother and half sisters heard of his attachment and engagement — to which they were much opposed. They knew if he married, their prospects of some time falling heir to his property would be destroyed.  They notified the clerk and his deputy, whose duty it was to issue marriage licenses not to issue a license, claiming that our hero was incompetent to contract a marriage, and that there was a legal disability to his inter-marriage with this girl and they threatened to bring suit for damages against him and his bondsmen if he issued him a license to wed this young woman.

Love Laughs at Obstacles

When our hero, several days afterward applied to the clerk he was refused a license.  He was a young man of resources and was not to be outwitted in this way.  He took his bride elect and crossed over the river and secured the aid of Ab Carroll and John Cummings, both of whom were young men, and they entered joyfully into the plot.  They were fond of fun, and they readily agreed to promote the marriage, since there was a romantic feature connected with it.  They took the young people desperately bent on getting married to the house of squire Clark in Dade county, Georgia, and sent to Trenton and secured a marriage license.  Squire Clark performed the marriage ceremony in due and proper form, and made return of the license, properly indorsed by him under the law of Georgia, the proper court in Trenton, the county seat of Dade county.

The happy bridegroom, with his charming bride, returned to his home that afternoon, duly and legally married, much to the discomfort of his relatives who had tried to thwart the marriage, it never having occurred to them that a Georgia court would grant a license and a Georgia judge perform the ceremony.

They immediately went to housekeeping on the bridegroom’s plantation in a comfortable home which he had previously furnished and prepared for his bride, and they started out in life happily and auspiciously.  The marriage took place on June 14, 1856, as shown by Squire Clark’s return on the license.

The first child of the marriage was a son, who died in his infancy.  The second was a daughter, who was born in the latter part of they year 1858.

Insane From Grief

Eight days after her birth the mother died, which event was such an overpowering shock to the father that he went violently insane and had to  be taken into custody and kept under guard for a long time.  He never recovered his mind, but he got to be in such condition that he was entirely harmless. He was permitted to live alone in his house and his meals were furnished him by his guardian, who looked carefully and closely after his welfare.

He was like Judge Alton Parker in one respect-he took a plunge into the creek, or river, near his house every morning, no matter how cold or how hot it was.  In the winter time he frequently had to break the ice in order to take his plunge.  He would not allow a hair to grow anywhere on his body, head or face; he plucked them out as soon as they made their appearance, and he fancied that evil spirts would invade his house and destroy him unless he kept himself surrounded by a circle of cats, which he always did.  His cats were numerous and were exceedingly well trained for their work.

The mother and half sisters of the crazy man procured a maternal aunt of the child “Aunt Betsy” either by threats or bribes to take the infant clear out of the country and exacted a promise from her that she would never return to this country, and she took her away and settled in Illinois in the swamps of the Mississippi, seventy-five miles from Cairo, and the child was completely forgotten by everybody in this country, except Mr. Samuel Williams, who knew all the fact and knew that some day there would be a reckoning. He secretly arranged with “Aunt Betsey” to have a letter written to him once in a while to keep him posted as to the whereabouts and the welfare of the child, and this she did.  Whenever she changed her place of residence she promptly caused Mr. Williams to be notified and informed of her new habitation.

She had the forethought when she went on her journey to take the child’s father’s family Bible, which contained a record in his own handwriting of his marriage and the birth of the  children, which proved to be a valuable item of evidence in the great chancery court suit which afterward arose out of these matters.

Shortly after the man went crazy William H. Foust was appointed guardian of his person and property.  Mr. Foust was one of the best men in the country; was successful and prosperous in his own affairs and made a careful and prudent guardian of his ward’s property and of his person. He kept his lands rented and carefully collected and preserved the rents until he had a fund of many thousands of dollars, loaned at interest and well secured by deeds of trust on real estate.  Mr.  Foust allowed the man to live in his own house, but employed one of the tenants on his estate to feed him and look after keeping his house and clothes in proper condition, and in this way he was comfortably and amply provided for.

Fight for Estate Opens

In 1872, while the Hon. D. M. Key was chancellor, the two surviving half-sisters of our man and the children of the deceased half sister brought suit in the chancery court, by which they sought to surcharge and falsify the settlements made from time to time by Mr. Foust of his guardianship; they charged that he had mismanaged the estate and wasted its assets, and had loaned large sums to insolvent persons and had taken inadequate security from the borrowers, and sought to make him account for the assets, which he ought, by prudent management, to have on hand.

Another feature of the bill was that Mr. Foust’s ward was an incurable and permanent lunatic, rarely having a lucid interval, and that complainants were his heirs apparent and would certainly fall into possession of the estate.  The prayer of the bill was that the guardianship be revoked and the ward and his estate be turned over now to them,  they agreeing to give bond and security that they would provide for all his wants.  They also prayed the court to pronounce a decree adjudging them to be the heirs apparent to the estate.

Mr. Samuel Williams and Col. John L. Divine were the sureties on Mr. Foust’s bond as guardian, and they were sued in order to make good the decree which the complainant expected to recover, and Mr. Williams concluded that now was the proper time for him to make use of the knowledge which he had of the existence and whereabouts of the rightful heir apparent, and sought a lawyer to whom his secret would be entrusted and who could represent the girl in the assertion of her rights.  He found on inquiry that all the experienced lawyers in town had been employed either by complainants or Mr. Foust, one of the defendants.  VanDyke, Cooke & VanDyke Judge D. C. Trewhitt and Maj. Mose H. Clift were the array on the complainants’ side while Key & Richmond and Col. W. L. Eakins represented Mr. Foust.

Young Lawyer Recommended

A friend of Mr. Williams advised him to consult a young lawyer (Shepherd) who was just starting out in business.  Mr. Williams acted on this advice and communicated all the facts in his possession to the young man and placed the entire matter in his hands for  such action as he might deem necessary and appropriate.  Mr. Williams agreed to serve in the capacity of next friend to the girl and become responsible for the costs and thereupon a bill was filed for her, asking that she be adjudged the child and heir apparent to the crazy man and that she be supported and educated out of his estate, her education having been sadly neglected while she was in exile.

This bill created a big sensation; it was like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky.  The complainants were extravagant in their denunciation of the bill as a tissue of falsehoods and slanders.  They claimed that it was a fabrication of old man Williams, and that the girl was an impostor.  They even denied that there was any such person as she in existence; they denied her identity as the child of the lunatic, married to his alleged wife and claimed that if he had gone through the form of marriage it was void for numerous reasons, and the issue of such marriage was illegitimate.

In this condition of affairs, Mr. Williams on the advice of the counsel he had retained for the girl, went to Illinois and after much persuasion , he induced her to return to Chattanooga with him. He brought back with him the old Bible which “Aunt Betsy” had carried away with her when she went to Illinois.

He had to promise “Aunt Betsy” that he would fetch her back to Chattanooga as soon as she could dispose of her belongings, which promise he made good.  When Mr. Williams got back to Chattanooga the girl was nearly 15 years old.  She knew nothing about the ways of the world. She was totally ignorant of the prevailing fashions of dress, she did not know what a corset was or how it was worn, whether over or under the dress.  She had spent the most of her life in the forest along the banks of the Mississippi, where she and her aunt had made their living by cultivating a small patch with hoes and by cutting cord wood and selling it to the steamboats which plied up and down the river and which used the wood for fuel. She knew nothing whatever of the arts of fashionable women in making for themselves attractive forms  and figures by skillful lacing.  She was simply an uncouth , unsophisticated, unmade-up, natural girl from the backwoods; a girl, withal, possessed of a strikingly beautiful face and a figure which , by proper development and dress was capable of being molded into a form that would please the most fastidious.

Hoe Girl to Heiress

She was very much like her mother, and possessed all the charms and graces she did, but they were undeveloped.  Mr. Williams took her to a milliner and had her proved with a wardrobe suitable to her changed surroundings.  She very readily adapted herself to her new surrounding and her new life out in the midst of civilization.  She was kept at the Williams home and sent to school from there for about two years.

She had to start from the very beginning but, being ambitious to get some education she studied hard and learned very rapidly and in the short time of her school days got a very fair and practical educations.  She afterward married her teacher, who was a splendid young man and became one of the leading men in the community and managed his wife’s affairs very successfully and added considerably to her fortune.  At the time of his death, which occurred about twenty years ago, he was a prominent official in the county and in conjunction with Blev Thomspon, represented the Hill City district in the county court.

The case was energetically prepared for trial; upward of sixty depositions were taken on the various issues raised in the pleading.  The fact of the marriage was easily proved; Squire Clark, who officiated, was still living; as were John and James Cummings and Joel Cross, all of whom were eye witnesses to the performance of the ceremony and remembered it well.  In their depositions they stated as a reason for remembering the occurrence so well the unusual circumstances that when the ceremony was said Squire Clark, the bridal pair and witnesses were all standing in the big road in front of Squire Clark’s house.  The record in the old Bible established the date of the birth of the child.

The point made that the man was incapable, by reason of being non compos mentis, of entering into a contract of marriage was settled by the ruling of the judge that a marriage which was voidable could not be questioned by anybody except one of the parties to be contract; in other words, that such marriage could not be attacked collaterally; so that it was at all relevant to take evidence on that point.

The great battle ground was the allegation in the answer that the marriage was void because in contravention of a statue of Tennessee prohibiting the intermarriage of a white person with a person of Negro blood to the sixth degree it being alleged that the mother of this girl was a person of mixed Negro blood within the prohibition degree, and upon this issue a large volume of proof was taken.

What the Proof Showed

The evidence completely exploded this theory.  It was satisfactorily established in the proof that the family of this woman was in no way allied to, or connected with, the Negro race; that there was not a feature of herself or ancestry that was at all similar to the distinguishing characteristics or features of the Negro, except that they were of dark color, about the color of a mulatto.  They had high foreheads; long, straight, black hair; high cheek bones, thin lips, small feet, with high insteps and prominent Roman noses, while the features of the Negro and mulatto were exactly the reverse of these.

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 among these people that they were descendant of the ancient Carthagenians; they were Phoenicians who, after Carthage was conquered by the Romans and became a 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 thence the distinguished Venetian general, Othello, whom Shakespeare made immortal in his celebrates play, “Othello, 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 cable 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 among 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.

Race Holds Its Own

South Carolina had a law taxing free Negroes so much per capita, and a determined effort was made to collect this of 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, East Tennessee; in fact, the majority of the people of that country are “Melungeons,:” or allied to them in some way.  A few families of them drifted away from Hancock into the other counties of east Tennessee and now and then into the mountainous section of Middle Tennessee.  Some of them live in White, some in Grundy and some in Franklin county.  They seem to prefer living in a rough, mountainous and sparsely settled country.

One peculiarity of these people is that the dark color cannot be bred out of them; they do not miscegenate or blend in color.  It frequently happens that a white man marries a “Melungeon” girl and raises children by her, but the children always partake of the color of one or the other parent; some of them will be white, like the father, and some of them dark, like the mother.  Sometimes the women bear twins by a white sire, and one will be white and the other one dark.  The spectacle has often been seen of a mother suckling twin babies, one white and the other dark.  This is not true of a cross between a white man and a Negro woman.  A mulatto is always half white and half black, and an octoroon can hardly  be told from a pure Caucasian, the Negro blood being so completely bred out.  While this is true, our southern high bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with Negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc.

the term “Melungeons” is an East Tennessee provincialism; it was coined by the people of that country to apply to these people.  It is derived from the french word ‘melange’ meaning a mixture, or medley, and has got into the modern dictionaries.  It was applied to these people because at first it was supposed that they were of mixed blood-part white and part Negro.

This name is a misnomer, because it has been conclusively proven that they are not mixed with Negro blood, but are pure-blooded Carthaginians, as much so  was Hannibal and the Moor of Venice and other pure blooded descendants of the ancient Phoenicians.

Fight at Every Step

It was proven in the case that the grandfather of this girl was accorded full right of a citizen while he lived in Hamilton coutry.  He was allowed to vote at all elections at a time when a Negro could not vote and was allowed to testify in the courts when a Negro was an incompetent witness.

Once, in Marion county, a white man named Perkins killed one of the old man’s grandchildren and an indictment was found against him, with the name of the old man marked as prosecutor.  A plea in the abatement was filed by the defendant, averring that he had no capacity to become a prosecutor because he was a Negro.  The defendant was convicted and sent to the penitentiary for a long term.

The old man applied to the government for a pension on account of his services to the country in the War of 1812.  At the time of his enlistment a Negro or a mulatto could not become a soldier in the United States army at all.  He had some difficulty in finding a witness who could testify that he was in the army in that war.  He had put his case in the hands of a local pension attorney, who had exhausted his resources in an effort to find satisfactory evidence in support of his client’s claim.

Knew Company Roll by Heart.

Someone told him that the old man could call the roll of his company from the captain down to the last private on the list.  He had learned it from hearing the orderly sergeant call it over at roll calls, and his habit was to repeat it as a sort of song or medley.  The attorney called him in and had him call the roll and while he called the attorney wrote down the names.  The old many had forgotten the number of his regiment.  All that he could tell was that it was a South Carolina regiment.  The attorney sent this list of names to the war department at Washington, and a search was made in the archives among the South Carolina regiments, and sure enough, the muster roll of his company was found, containing the names from the captain down, just as the old man had called them over to his attorney.  From this clue as a starting point he had no difficulty in making out his case to the satisfaction of the pension commissioner.

This was a very important piece of evidence to defeat the Negro imputation, because it was utterly impossible for a Negro to be an enlisted man at the time.  He might be hired as a teamster or a cook, but could not be a soldier.

While the testimony was being taken some old-time Negroes were introduced to prove that the Boltons, for that was the name of the old man referred to, were kinky-headed Negroes.  They were promptly swore to this and said that the whole bunch of them had kinky hair, just like a mulatto Negro.

Missing Witness Appears

On being cross-examined they were asked if all of Bolton’s daughters had kinky hair and that our girl’s mother had the same sort of hair.  They did not know that Betsy was in the land of the living; in point of fact, the parties and attorneys on the other side did not have a suspicion that she was any nearer than her Illinois hut in the swamps of the Mississippi; but she was then on Williams island, having been brought back here by Mr. Williams in pursuance of his promise to her when he got her to let him fetch the girl back.

Notice was immediately served that on the following Saturday the deposition of Betsy Bolton would be taken at the residence of Samuel Willliams, and it was so taken.  She was asked to cut off a lock of her hair and pin it to her deposition.  She reached up to her topknot and pulled out her old-fashioned tucking comb, and a monstrous mass of coal black hair as straight as the hair of a horse’s tail, fell down to the floor.  It was about four feet long and perfectly free of a kink or a tendency to curl.  She exhibited with  her deposition a fair sample of her magnificent hair, which completely destroyed the depositions of the Negroes taken on the other side to prove that the Bolton people were Negroes.

The case was patiently tried by the learned chancellor, who gave the solicitors free scope to argue it as much as they pleased.

The decree was in favor of the girl and adjudged that she was the heir apparent of her father and entitled to be supported and educated out of his estate and to inherit his estate after his death.  He directed the guardian to provide liberally out of the funds in his hands for her education and maintenance and to pay the young lawyer, who had fought her battle single-handed against the most experienced and best legal talent that could be found, $5,000 for his services.  The young man thought that was a pretty good fee to earn in his first year’s practice.

His Memory Good

At one time Mr. Williams got alarmed at the splendid array of lawyers that were pitted against his inexperienced solicitor, and he contemplated sending to Knoxville for Col. John Baxter to take the leading part in the case, but on reflection he decided that that would be unjust to his solicitor, who had borne the burden of the preparation of the case for trial; he thought he was entitled to the glory and the compensation in case of success, and he therefore abandoned his purpose engaging Col Baxter.

One of the funny incidents of this case was the following:

Joel Cross testified that he witnessed the marriage and that it occurred in the big road in front of Squire Clark’s residence on June 14, 1856; he was closely examined by Judge Trewhitt, who thought that he could catch him on his swearing so particularly to the date of the marriage.  He asked him how he was able after such a long lapse of time, to swear to the precise date of the occurrence.  His answer was;

Well judge, that was a notable day with me; several things happened on that day to make me remember it.  While we were at breakfast that morning the report was brought to us that a Baptist preacher who was carrying on a revival in the neighborhood had got drunk and the meeting would have to be broken up; a little later some young horses that were plowing in my field ran away and tore down several acres of fine growing corn; and then, about the middle of the afternoon, this marriage performed in the big road; and lastly, we had a fine baby girl born at our house that evening and I set down the date of her birth and her name in the Bible, and that is how I know the date.”

The decree in this case was affirmed on appeal to the supreme court and by this final act a great wrong was righted and a worthy  girl was vested with the title to a large fortune of the benefits of which she had been deprived for many years.