In the last
decade there has been a deep interest manifested by educators, the
church and the ethnologist, in what is known as the “mountain people,”
many thousands of whom are scattered over parts of Kentucky, Tennessee,
North Carolina, and Georgia. Much has been done for these people, many
of whom are descended from Covenanter and Revolutionary stock, but are
the unfortunate victims of environment and lack of opportunity. Many
strong virile men and women have come from them. Many have become
teachers and returned to make their own people their life work.
But there is also another people who have lived in the mountains,
principally in the Clinch mountains, of eastern Tennessee for more than
a century; separate and distinct from all others, whose ancestry is
shrouded in mystery - the mystery of obscurity.
They have lived their simple pastoral life and for more than a hundred
years so quietly and obscurely that their name is unknown to many.”
They are the Melungeons -their very name is a corruption of some
foreign word unknown to them or to the few have given them any study.
They have had no poet or seer to preserve their history.
The Melungeons have a tradition of a Portuguese ship mutiny, with the
successful mutineer beaching the vessel on the North Carolina coast,
then their retreat towards the mountains, farther and farther away from
the avenging law of man, going on where nature’s barriers were their
protection from a relentless foe-swept into heaven by the hand of fate.”
This strange people seem to have been forgotten by a century of
civilization that has left its impress on everything else. They still
have some names that suggest the Portuguese ancestry, such as
“Sylvestor,” but their surnames are anglicized to such a degree that to
trace them to their original would be impossible. The Portuguese
mutineer came to a region almost uninhabited, and because settlers were
so few and scattered the strangers were unmolested. Beyond the
mountains that hem them in was the institution of slavery; when they
went beyond their narrow confines they were in contact with the
influence and prestige of the slaveholder. In all slave holding
communities all persons not white, or Indians, were classed as Negroes,
and the name Melungeon was generally understood to mean a class of
mixed-blooded but free negroes. This they resented, and insisted on
their Portuguese ancestry.
By the Constitution of 1834 all persons of color were deprived of the
franchise in Tennessee, and by an especial act of the legislator these
people were given the right to vote. To prove they were not Negroes,
the beautiful hands and feet of some of the race were examined, and the
marked difference between them and the Negroes decided the question in
their favor. The late John Netherland of Tennessee obtained the right
of for them, and their deep gratitude was manifested towards him in
every way as long as he lived. As a class, they are faithful friends.
They have a kindly nature and personal friendship carries a degree of
unselfishness that could well be imitated in higher life.
Though they resented being considered as negroes, they never presumed
to be on an equality with the whites but were well content to occupy an
intermediated ground-a sort of “third estate.” They are a shrinking
timid people outside of their own boundaries. During the Civil a few of
them were in the Southern army, but most of them were loyal to the
union. When the conscript law was enforced, may of them went to
Kentucky and joined the Union army, though there is little military
glory in their history. It is said on authority that the brave Admiral
Farragut was a descendent of a Portuguese of that name, who married a
poor North Carolina girl. In one respect the Melungeons are like the
Irish peasant, in that one of their principal recreations consists in
telling an hearing stories; recounting famous neighborhood fights and
tales of hunting adventures.
They also have many superstitions. They have a firm belief in the
powerful influence of the moon and a never failing fear and respect for
‘hants.” What will be the ultimate fate of the people, no one can tell.
As they improve in wealth and opportunity, many of the original
characteristics will change. They have already intermarried with some
of the mountain people near them and probably in the next one or two
generations the name Melungeon will be all that is left of a people
whose origin is shrouded in mystery.
About the Author
Eliza was the daughter of John
Netherland who had
represented the Melungeons in court and was a staunch supporter
and friend of the Melungeons. She married to John Heiskell and
was the mother of John
editor of the Arkansas
Gazette for more than