The Mystery of the Melungeons.

Nashville Tennessean Sunday Magazine
September 22, 1963
By Louise Davis

Who are the Melungeons—the “mystery race” tucked away between giant ridges of East Tennessee mountains long before the first white explorer arrived? What exotic tale of shipwreck or mutiny lies in the dark eyes of the red-brown people already in Hancock County before Daniel Boone cut a trail? What story of explorers’ strayed from DeSoto’s party 400 years ago or of Portuguese sailors stranded on the North Carolina coast stares out in their steady gaze?

A photographer and I set out to talk to these shy people and, if possible, to break down their long-standing refusal to have their picture made. In part, we succeeded. We found that the dark people are indeed there, pocketed mysteriously in the mountains where tow-headed Anglo-Saxon children fill most of the schools. But the sullen eyes of Anglo-Saxon citizens (who make up 99 percent of the population of Hancock County) followed every move we made, and even the sheriff challenged the photographer’s right to make a picture of the court house.

The tragedy of the “lost race” was thick around us. “Every eye in the valley is watching you,” one of our kind guides (who asked not to be identified) said after we had left Sneedville, the county seat, and risen over Newman’s Ridge to dip down the back side where the few identifiable members of the race live.

So deep is the resentment in Hancock County against inquiring outsiders, particularly against certain Knoxville newspapers and “The Saturday Evening Post” for stories they published, that all writers and photographers are under suspicion. The truth is that Melungeons are a vanishing race, a race so rare that Hancock County citizens can point out only two or three families with certainty. And they prefer not to do that.

For the word Melungeon (pronounced Me-lun-jun) itself is so clouded in tragedy that people there will not say it. A much maligned people—not white nor black nor yellow nor red—the Melungeons had to take their case to the Tennessee Supreme Court before the Civil War to win the decision that they were not Negroid and were therefore entitled to send their children to school with white children.

Before that, in the state constitution of 1834, they were disfranchised as “free men of color” and were denied the right to sue or testify in court. White men who coveted the rich lowlands the Melungeons had cultivated pushed them off their acres and on to the rocky ridges. The Melungeons had no recourse.

Trapped in poverty, snubbed by their fair-skinned neighbors, some of them withdrew to the poor land along Snake Hollow, deep in the rattlesnake-infested gorge in the shadow of towering Newman’s Ridge. Some of them settled along the northern end of the valley, at the Virginia line, where Blackwater Creek flows, and some settled on the Ridge.

“I have never heard one refer to himself as a Melungeon.” Mildred Haun, gifted Tennessee writer who grew up in a neighboring county and wrote many stories about them, said. “Most of the mountain people refer to them as Blackwaters and Ridgemanites.” But even in that long gorge, winding some 20 miles in a half-mile-wide band between Newman’s Ridge and Powell Mountain there are few “pure Melungeons” left today.

The Melungeons still there deeply resent outsiders who pry into their ancestry and pontificate on their intelligence and industry. They themselves refuse to discuss the matter, and few will talk to reporters on any subject. They and fellow citizens of Hancock County are incensed at bus-loads of brash teachers and students from university sociology classes who descend on the court house from time to time to announce they are “looking for Melungeons.”

Miss Martha Collins, vice-president of the Citizens Bank of Sneedville, sat at her trim-lined desk in the air-conditioned, modernistic bank and pondered questions we asked her. Obviously it was not a subject to dismiss lightly, nor to discuss with strangers who might write misleading stories. A fair-skinned, blue-eyed woman whose calm efficiency at running the bank was sharpened in 25 years of training under her distinguished father’s presidency, Miss Collins weighed her words, spaced her sentences precisely ------- figuring interest.

“I used to regard the stories about Melungeons as a part of mythology,” Miss Collins, a college graduate who is descended from one of the oldest families in the region, said. “But my sister said, “No, there is some truth in it.” Miss Collins rose from her desk and walked thoughtfully to the vault to withdraw a letter postmarked 1907. It had been written to her by one of her uncles. Elegant in vocabulary and charming in sentiment, the letter related some of the family stories about their origin. Written by J. G. Rhea, the letter told of one of the legends that persists to explain the presence of the dark-skinned people in the area: they are descendants of the Spaniards and perhaps Portuguese men in DeSoto’s party who ventured from Florida into parts of North Carolina and Tennessee in search of gold in 1540.

According to this story, some of the men became lost from DeSoto’s party, were either captured or befriended by Cherokee Indians, intermarried with them, and left their descendants in Rhea, Hawkins, and Hancock counties in Tennessee and neighboring counties in Virginia. “Navarrh Collins….a fine old patriarch….said to be of Portuguese descent, was one of the early settlers.” Rhea wrote. “He settled on Blackwater Creek and owned Vardy Mineral Springs.” Vardy, a community centered around a neat cluster of white frame church, school and missionary teacher’s residence, got its name from Spanish settlers, tradition says.

Navarrh, Rhea said, was a variation of Navarre, a region in Spain. When Navarrh Collins opened Navarrh Mineral Springs, a long-ago health resort in the valley, the name was soon contracted to Varr and they Vardy.There is nothing of the backwardness of the traditional mountaineer in the letter, and it is obvious that Hancock County has—and for generations has had—its artistocracy, some of whom took pride in their Spanish and Portuguese ancestry as well as in their Scotch-Irish blood. But there are no Spanish or Portuguese names in the community now. There is no peculiarity of vocabulary to set the Melungeon apart from other citizens of comparable education and background.

The late Mrs. John Trotwood Moore, historian and former head of the Tennessee State Library, said original family names of the Melungeons disappeared as they took the names of English-Irish settlers who came into the mountains after the Revolutionary War. The Melungeons became Collins, Mullins, Gibson, Freeman, Goins, et cetera. Others may have anglicized their Spanish or Portuguese names.

The Melungeons themselves, a clannish lot who are said to talk freely among themselves of their mysterious beginnings, are silent when outsiders broach the subject. Miss Collins, at the Sneedville bank, had told us we might find one of the dark-skinned people some 14 miles away, where Snake Hollow road crooks through the shadowy gorge between Sneedville and Tazewell. Mrs. Bertha Bell, Miss Collins said, might talk to us and pose for our photographer.

Mrs. Bell did both, chatting happily on every subject from gardening to taxes until the origin of the settlers was mentioned. A slight, engaging woman, hospitable and kind, she became inscrutable as Buddha when we asked her about Portuguese or Spanish settlers in the area, and, finally about Melungeons. “I don’t know anything about that,” she said, suddenly wide-eyed and innocent. “I don’t know about such as that.”

Her skin had the red-brown color of an Asiatic. Her bare feet, after 58 years of walking the rocky roads unshod, were dainty and shapely. Her hands and feet had none of the light coloring of Negro palms and soles. It was reminder of telling evidence used by one of Tennessee’s early lawyers of distinction, John Netherland, to win the lawsuit hinging on the fact that Melungeons are not Negroid.

Some observers say the distinct coloring of a Melungeon does not blend with that of a white. Some of the children of mixed marriages are white, while others have the red brown coloring of the Melungeons. White mothers, for instance, may have dark sons and white daughters. The setting for tragedy is complete.

The dark forebodings and heartbreak that come of the mixed marriages is theme of many of the short stories in the remarkable volume, “The Hawk’s Done Gone,” that Mildred Haun published in 1940. In one story, she told of a white girl who did not know that her father was Melungeon. When she married and her child was dark-skinned, the girl’s husband killed both mother and child. “From my observations and from all I have heard, I don’t believe they blend in color.” Miss Haun, now a writer for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., said recently. But some lifelong residents of Hancock County say Melungeons do indeed blend with other races. For centuries they kept their distinctive look because they were so isolated that they seldom married outside their clan.

The word Melungeon is said to come from the French word mélange, meaning mixture. But that too is conjecture. Another explanation is that the word comes from melas, a Greek word meaning dark, and that fits the theories of the ancient Greek beginnings of the race. Still another explanation is that the word comes from an Afro-Portuguese word, melungo, meaning sailor. It is the Portuguese sailor tradition that persists among the Melungeons. Those who discus the matter simply say they are “Porter-ghee.” According to them, Portuguese sailors sometime before the American Revolution mutinied, and their ship was beached off the coast of North Carolina. The sailors came ashore only to encounter hostile Indians, and when they had killed the Indian men, the claimed the Indian women as their own. One version of this story is that some of these Portuguese sailors were descended from ancient Phoenicians who had moved from Carthage to Morocco, whence they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to settle in North Portugal. “A colony of these Moors is said to have crossed the Atlantic and settled in North Carolina,” the Encyclopedia Americana states. Chinese sailors were known to have made their way to Portugal and intermarried with the Portuguese, and that slightly Oriental strain is one of the clues to the occasional slant eyes and silky skin of some of the Melungeons.

One thing is sure: the mystery is alive and walking in Hancock County. As Mrs. Bell stood on the front porch of her home—the only two-story house on narrow Snake Hollow road—her nine-year-old grandson, Terry, appeared around the corner of the house. His dreamy Oriental eyes and elfin face held all the mystery of his race. Like one of the genil from the Arabian Nights, the long-legged boy scampered over rocks and around tree roots, bouncing the “wheelbarrow” he had created by nailing the lid of a tin bucket to a long stick. “All it takes to make a boy happy in this part of the country is a hammer and some nails,” his grandmother commented happily. The boy grew quiet at the sound of a jet plane zooming far above the mountain that walls in his world, and he and his grandmother squirted tobacco juice thoughtfully. “Not anything goes too fast for me,” the boy of mysterious past said. “And no water’s to deep for a boy,” his grandmother added, nodding her head till her string of pearls twinkled, with an animation no stoic mountaineer knows.