The Melungeons

Eliza N. Heiskell

The Arkansas Gazette
Little Rock
Sunday January 12, 1912

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 Netherland Heiskell, editor of  the Arkansas Gazette for more than seventy years.