Littell's Living Age
slow newsdays tend to print or reprint stories their readers may
be interested in. This article while it appears in the Knoxville
Register in September of 1848 it is quoting from the Louisville
Examiner. So as we have no clue who the journalist was we also
have no idea if this was originally printed in 1818 or in
1848. It was copied to other newspapers around the country at
various times, appearing in Wisconsin paper in 1848, New Jersey papers
in 1894, and Ohio papers in 1898, with no mention of the origin of the
article. You would have thought it was a journalist from 1894 who
had visited with the Melungeons on Newman's Ridge.
It was reprinted from the Knoxville Register September 6, 1848 quoting
from the Louisville Examiner. (We are sorry to have lost the name of
the southern paper from which this is taken.)
We give to-day another amusing and characteristic sketch from a letter
of our intelligent and sprightly correspondent, sojourning at present
in one of the seldom-visited nooks hid away in our mountains.
You must know that within ten miles of this owl's nest, there is a
watering-place, known hereabouts as 'black-water Springs.' It is
situated in a narrow gorge, scarcely half a mile wide, between Powell's
Mountain and the Copper Ridge, and is, as you may suppose, almost
inaccessible. A hundred men could defend the pass against even a
Xerxian army. Now this gorge and the tops and sides of the adjoining
mountains are inhabited by a singular species of the human animal
The legend of their history, which they carefully preserve, is this. A
great many years ago, these mountains were settled by a society of
Portuguese Adventurers, men and women--who came from the long-shore
parts of Virginia, that they might be freed from the restraints and
drawbacks imposed on them by any form of government. These people made
themselves friendly with the Indians and freed, as they were from every
kind of social government, they uprooted all conventional forms of
society and lived in a delightful Utopia of their own creation,
trampling on the marriage relation, despising all forms of religion,
and subsisting upon corn (the only possible product of the soil) and
wild game of the woods.
These intermixed with the Indians, and subsequently their descendants
(after the advances of the whites into this part of the state) with the
negros and the whites, thus forming the present race of Melungens.
They are tall, straight, well- formed people, of a dark copper color,
with Circassian features, but wooly heads and other similar appendages
of our negro. They are privileged voters in the state in which they
live and thus, you will perceive, are accredited citizens of the
commonwealth. They are brave, but quarrelsome; and are hospitable and
generous to strangers. They have no preachers among them and are almost
without any knowledge of a Supreme Being. They are married by the
established forms, but husband and wife separate at pleasure, without
meeting any reproach or disgrace from their friends. They are
remarkably unchaste, and want of chastity on the part of females is no
bar to their marrying. They have but little association with their
neighbors, carefully preserving their race, or class, or whatever you
may call it: and are in every respect, save they are under the state
government, a separate and distinct people. Now this is no traveller's
They are really what I tell you, without abating or setting down in
aught in malice. They are behind their neighbors in the arts. They use
oxen instead of horses in their agricultural attempts, and their
implements of husbandry are chiefly made by themselves of wood. They
are, without exception, poor and ignorant, but apparently happy. Having
thus given you a correct geographical and scientific history of the
people, I will proceed with my own adventures.
The doctor was, as usual my compagnon de voyage, and we stopped at 'Old
Vardy's', the hostelrie of the vicinage. Old Vardy is the 'chief cook
and bottle-washer' of the Melungens, and is really a very clever
fellow: but his hotel savors strongly of that peculiar perfume that one
may find in the sleeping-rooms of our negro servants, especially on a
close, warm, summer evening.
We arrived at Vardy's in time for supper, and thus despatched, we went
to the spring, where were assembled several rude log huts, and a small
sprinkling of 'the natives, together with a fiddle and other
preparations for a dance. Shoes, stockings, and coats were unknown
luxuries among them--at least we saw them not. The dance was engaged in
with right hearty good will, and would have put to the blush the tame
steppings of our beaux.
Among the participants was a very tall, raw-boned damsel, with her two
garments fluttering readily in the amorous night breeze, who's black
eyes were lit up with an unusual fire, either from the repeated visits
to the nearest hut, behind the door of which was placed an open-mouthed
stone jar of new-made corn whiskey, and in which was a gourd, with a
'deuce a bit' of sugar at all, and no water near than the spring.
Nearest here on the right was s a lank lantern-jawed, high cheekbone,
long-legged fellow who seemed similarly elevated. Now these two, Jord
Bilson (that was he,) and Syl Varmin, (that was she,)were destined to
afford the amusement of the evening: for Jord, in cutting the
pigeon-wing, chanced to light from one of his aerial flights right upon
the ponderous pedal appendage of Syl, a compliment which this amiable
lady seemed in no way to accept kindly.
'Jord Bilson,' said the tender Syl, 'I'll thank you to keep your darned
hoofs off my feet.'
'Oh, Jord's feet are so tarnel big he can't manage 'em all by hisself.'
suggested some pasificator near by.
'He'll have to keep 'em off me,' suggested Syl, 'or I'll shorten 'em
'Now look ye here, Syl Varmin, ' answered Jord, somewhat nettled at
both remarks, 'I didn't go to tread on your feet but I don't want you
to be cutting up any rusties about. You're nothing but a cross-grained
'And you're a darned Melungen.'
'Well, if I am, I ain't n*****-Melungen, anyhow--I'm Indian-Melungen,
and that's more 'an you is.'
'See here, Jord,' said Syl, now highly nettled, 'I'll give you a dollar
ef you'll go out on the grass and right it out.'
Jord smiled faintly and demurred, adding--
'Go home Syl, and look under your puncheons and see if you can't fill a
bed outen the hair of them hogs you stole from Vardy.'
'And you go to Sow's cave, Jord Bilson, ef it comes to that, and see
how many shucks you got offen that corn you took from Pete Joemen. Will
you take the dollar?'
Jord now seemed about to consent, and Syl reduced the premium by one
half, and finally came down to a quarter, and then Jord began to offer
a quarter, a half, and finally a dollar: but Syl's prudence equalled
his, and seeing that neither was likely to accept, we returned to our
hotel, and were informed by old Vardy that the sight we had witnessed
was no 'onusual one. The boys and gals was jist having a little fun.'
And so it proved, for about midnight we were wakened by a loud noise of
contending parties in fierce combat, and, rising and looking out from
the chinks of our hut, we saw the whole party engaged in a grand me
lee; rising above the din of all which, was the harsh voice of Syl
'Stand back here, Sal Frazar, and let me do the rest of the beaten of
Jord Bilson; I haint forgot his hoofs yit.'
The mele closed, and we retired again, and by breakfast next morning
all hands were reconciled, and the stone jar replenished out of the
mutual pocket, and peace ruled where so lately all had been
recriminations and blows. After breakfast, just as the supper had been
at old Jack's, save only that we had a table, we started for Clinch
river for a day's fishing where other and yet more amusing incidents
awaited us. But as I have dwelt upon this early part of the journey
longer than I intended, you must wait till the next letter for the