MATTERS AND THINGS

By Will T. Hale

Alton Telegraph

9/26/1912

THE MELUNGEONS

I have heard since boyhood the word “Melungeon.” It is very common in
Tennessee, and is often used as a sort of epithet. Also, as a bugbear to frighten
children.

To illustrate, middle and western Tennessee is overwhelmingly Democratic
politically, while the eastern portion is overwhelmingly Republican. It used to
be the case that a Democratic editor inclined to invective would refer to
the East Tennessee Republicans as MELUNGEONS. It was an offensive appellation,
but there was no way of preventing its use. Then, if a nurse or mother
wanted to force a child to obedience, it was customary to say: “If you don’t
behave, the MELUNGEONS will get you.”

I have been trying for some weeks to get some information as to who or what
the MELUNGEONS were. This forced me to write to different parts of the
State, and to examine old newspaper files. At last I learned that they are a
queer race of people living in the mountains of East Tennessee, South Carolina,
Virginia, and Kentucky – not one colony but several. No one knows their
origin, and their reputation has generally been bad, like that of the Gypsies.

POLITICAL MELUNGEON

With this partial explanation of what Melungeon means, I’m going to tell how
I perpetrated a miserable little joke. Before doing so, however I have to
divulge to distant readers a little of the history of what is now known as
the “Straight” or “Regular” Democracy of Tennessee.

In 1909 the party became divided into two factions over the liquor question.
The prohibition and fair election-law faction supported Ben W. Hooper for
Governor, and elected him. The faction charged with being in favor of liquor
and opposed to fair election laws with which ninety percent of the negroes
voted, called itself the regular, straight, Simonpure Democracy, and voted for
the so-called Democratic nominee. The negroes, with badges marked “Straight
Democracy” as said, marched to the polls with those who had formerly been
known as Democrats and a sprinkling of disaffected Republicans and cast their
votes for a thing they called democracy. O f course such a mixture might well
be called a mongrel political organization.

THE MISERABLE LITTLE JOKE

Now: I wrote a postmaster up in East Tennessee asking him to describe fully
the MELUNGEONS for me – customs, costumes, way of maintaining themselves, and
the like. Then I sat me down to wait the reply patiently, thinking it would
be a week or ten days before I could receive one. At the end of about three
days I heard from that postmaster. He must have grabbed up his pen about
the time he neared the last word in my letter! Doubtless his eyes were red,
too, as he wrote. Here is what he jotted down;

“ Dear Sir: There are no such people in this county as MELUNGEONS. We are
civilized folks, and better than those who would humble our pride. We want no
historian to put anything in history about any MELUNGEONS, as we would
consider it a disgrace.”

You understand, he had often heard the word used in derogation. He was sore.
I wrote him this soothing letter, believing he is a Republican, and a
Hooper man;

“Dear Sir: I am sorry if you took offense at my letter. I meant no
reflection on the people of your county, who I feel sure, are in the main most
excellent and useful citizens. You must have been in bad humor, and did not
treat me fairly. We, too, have some peculiar people here in Middle Tennessee, a
whole lot of them. For instance, there is the political party calling itself
Straight Democracy – while I am not proud of it any more than you are of the
MELUNGEONS, had you asked me to describe it I should have mustered up
courtesy to do it promptly and to the best of my ability.”

HAD THEIR OWN MONEY

Seriously, a prominent citizen of east Tennessee wrote me a pretty lengthy
description of the MELUNGEONS from which I take these salient facts;

They are of unknown origin and call themselves Portuguese. Are short and
stout; have straight hair and black or gray eyes – the Indians eye is always
black. They were in the mountains when the white men came, but during the long
wars between the whites and Indians they took part with neither side.
Indeed, they claim no affiliation with the red race.

For years they have been known as ‘counterfeiters,’ but strange to say,
there was more of the precious metals in their coin than there was in that of
the United States government.

As a body, they were as concrete as the Jews. They had no adherence to the
Indian religion or rites, but have adhered to the Christian religion, and the
cross is with them a sacred symbol. They are generally Baptists in belief.
“At one time,” writes my informant, “their coins passed current, even in my
recollection.” There is a legend that their silver came from Straight Creek,
a tributary of the Cumberland river, which blows into that stream at
Pineville, Ky. Ruins of ancient furnaces are still to be seen on the banks of
Straight Creek, but have not been used within the memory of any now living. A
family named Mullins were the makers of money in that section.

MADE GOLD DOLLARS

The “Beckler” gold dollars were made by the Melungeon in North Carolina,
and some of these coins are still extant, preserved as curiosities. They were
made from native gold by a family named Beckler, and were commonly known as “
Becklers.”

They have always boasted of their kinship to the whites. Many years ago a
decision was handed down by the Supreme Court of Tennessee, holding that they
were not negroes.

In the first census of Tennessee there were in the State more than 900 “free
persons” other than the whites. There could not have been that early [1795]
so many free negroes. No doubt the majority were MELUNGEONS.

At the close of the war between the States there were families of MELUNGEONS
in Nashville, Lebanon and Livingston, Tenn. At Livingston a female had
twelve children. One of these belonged to the Ku-klux Klan, and was hanged by
the Klan because he violated one of its rules – not to commit murder.

THE “GOIN” FAMILY

A good many years ago there came to my native village a family named Goin,
from East Tennessee. They were thought to be half-breed Indians. They were
friendly, honest, and industrious. Every second Sunday, in single file,
dressed in cheap but clean clothing, they made their way to the Baptist church. I
feel sure now that they belonged to one of the two families of Malungeons -
The family called “Goin” as I have since learned, designating it from the
ones that had no mixed blood in it.


See

HISTORY OF TENNESSEE and TENNESSEANS
THE MELUNGEONS OF EAST TENNESSEE
Will T. Hale & Dixon L. Merritt 1913


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