What Do You Know About The Melungeons?

Nashville Banner - August 3 1924
By Douglas Anderson

In the summer of 1890 "Will Allen" visited a settlement of "Malungeons" on Newman's Ridge, in Hancock County, and printed two articles in the American descriptive of the inhabitants and the way they lived.

Many of the Malungeons claimed Portugese and Cherokee descent. One man claimed to be the grandson of a Cherokee chief. The inhabitants were of all colors, and there was a black man who had a white wife, but escaped punishment by insisting upon his Portugese blood.

They all lived in rude huts; many were immoral and all were filthy. They grew tobacco, had orchards, and were much given to distilling. They had their herb doctors and charmers, and blood beads that would cure any disease of the blood. Collins, Mullins, and Garvin were the three family names represented in the settlement. During the Civil War, it was stated, this settlement was a terror to the women in "the valley", by reason of plundering and theiving expiditions.


"Will Allen's" first article was printed in the American of Aug. 31. It was followed by quite a discussion, which revealed the existence of other settlements of Malungeons in different sections of Tennessee, and afforded several correspondents an oppurtunity to express their opinion of the origin of the name and tribe, but added nothing of a positive nature to the knowledge of either subject.

Hon. J. A. Cartwright, later circuit judge, wrote of a settlement in the Twenty-fourth district of Davidson County, as follows; "These people have black hair, dark brown complexion, are readily distinguishable from the mulatto, being evidently of different origin, and have distinct features, quite similar to those described by Will Allen. They are illiterate, live in cabins and subsist by their labor, mainly by cultivating the soil in a small way.

"There is no social connection between them and their neighbors, either white or black, but they remain seperate, distinct and isolated. The citizens of that vicinity called them Portugese. "Some years ago when the county schools were organized and put into operation these people were sufficiently numerous to require of the school commisioners a seperate, distinct school for their children, and furnished as many as thirty pupils exclusively of their own race. This school was distinct from the schools of the district and was attended by the children of no other people. Is this strange unknown remnant of a tribe or race a part of the Malungeons?"


In the American of Sept.7, "Twenty-fourth district" insisted that the Malungeons were an admixture of the white, Indian, and Negro races. He protested against "coining a new name for these amalgamationists." (If the Malungeons had heard of this last word they would have thought a new word had been coined for them.) "Will Allen" need not have gone to East Tennessee to find these people, observed this correspondent. "They are here under the very dome of the capitol. We recognize them as mulattoes on account of the fusion of Negro blood in their veins. When the fusion is slight they set up a claim of superiority and call themselves Portege, but, as Will Allen says, it is a mystery where the Portugese comes in. This will remain a mystery until better ethnologists enter the lists than have yet appeared. The Negro blood can easily be traced, as also sometimes the Cherokee." The correspondent stated that "we have just a few of these mulattoes among us", and denied Cartwright's statement that they had demanded and obtained a seperate school.


In the American of Sept. 10, Cartwright answered "Twenty-fourth District", taking the position that "if there were no Portugese blood in them, as your correspondent denies, but Negro blood instead, then they are a mixture of Indian and Negro alone, and consequently we cannot 'recognize them as mulattoes'. So that any mixture which is not between the white and the Negro alone may well be called Malungeon, this word being apparently derived from the French Melanger, to mix, mingle.

Consequently the criticism on the coinage of a new word to represent a mixture otherwise than between white and Negro is not well taken." "I am reliably informed," Cartwright continued, "that there is or was a family of these people in the Twenty-fourth district whose name is Collins, and it is a significant fact that both the East Tennessee and Davidson County people repudiate the mulatto idea, and according to my information, keep themselves seperate and distinct from the Negro in their social relations."

As to the statement that a seperate school was at one time maintained for Malungeons in the Twenty-fourth district, Cartwright stated that he got the information from the man who was county superintendent of education in 1870-71. He adds that the seperate school had thirty pupils and was taught by a white man named "Oldham or Oldman".


In the American of Sept. 14, "C.H." wrote that he had heard of the Malungeons from his father's Negro slaves long "before the war", and he anxious to know if such people really existed or not; have thought perhaps it was only a myth hatched in (?) adds: "Since childhood I have been (?) the very fertile brain of our imaginative Negro nurse, who used to entertain us with stories of the Malungeons, ghosts, hobgoblins, Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, etc.

They would frighten us by saying: 'If you don't behave the Malungeons will get you', and if angry with one another they would say: "You are as mean and low-lived as a Malungeon, and you are nothing but an Ish anyhow.' When we would ask who the Malungeons or Ishes were they said they were runaway Negroes who had married Indians and their children, and that the Negroes belonging to quality folks would not associate with them; that Negroes who belonged to poor white folks would sometimes visit them. Most of the Negroes, both blacks and mulattoes, held these Malungeons in great contempt. These things come back to me after forty years, when I heard the Negro slaves of my father tell stories of their meanness. They were always insulted if called a Malungeon".


In the American of Sept. 14, "J.W.S." of Murfreesboro combated the idea that the Malungeons were merely mulattoes, saying in part that "a race of mulattoes cannot exist long like these Malungeons have. They go from mulattoes to quadroons and from these to octoroons. Then the race stops. Who ever heard of an octoroon woman bearing children? There is not a case on record, so that if these people are or were mulattoes, as these critics would have you believe, the race would have been extinct long ago, as no children have been born of women springing from mulattoes, beyond the quadroon mother, and it seems that some of these Malungeon women have as many as seventeen children, who, if they had come from mulatto parentage, would long ago have passed the octoroon stage.

This fact alone shows they do not descend from mulatto parents, and therefore they must be Malungeons or some other race besides mulattoes, "There are, no doubt, many citizens living in Tennessee now who remember that quadroon and octoroon women were not as ready sale, except for house servants (mostly on orders then), as the black women, and all on account of the fact that no children were ever born of an octoroon woman".


In the American of Sept. 15, Dan W. Baird wrote of the Malungeons, in part, as follows:

"Several families are still to be found in Smith, Wilson, Rutherford, and Davidson Counties. There is nothing in their family names to give the student of ethnology a clue to their origin. In a locality in Wilson County known forty years ago as 'Malungeon Town', the most common names were Richardson, Nickens, and Collins. In Rutherford County not far from Lavergne, the principal Malungeons were Archers, Lanterns, and Blackmans. One of the latter family has sold fish in the north end of the market house in this city (Nashville) for many years, and some of the same family reside a few miles out on the Nolensville Turnpike. "A pretty fair speciman of the Malungeon tribe is a young fellow named Bernice Richardson, now serving a life sentence in the state prison for self-confessed complicity in the murder of M.T. Bennet of Lebanon.

"We need not go outside this county to prove that the Malungeons are, or were, up to the close of the war, a people distinct from and not allied by blood to either the white, Negro, or Indian races of this state. "It is a subject of no practical importance at this time, but it will interest many who have the leisure and opportunity for such investigation to trace the history and origin of this people. All that they seem to know of themselves is that they are Malungeons and of the Portugese descent. These two points have been agreed upon for more than three-fourths of a century, and it appears that anyone who undertakes to investigate the matter will be forced to accept them as established facts... " It is not a violent conjecture to suppose that many of these 'Mountain Negroes' may have been put ashore on the coast of North Carolina by the Portugese pirates who are known to have frequented those waters, and that their natural instincts would lead them to the mountains...At any rate, these people were first noticed in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina and they called themselves 'Malungeons' and claimed to be Portugese."


In 1879, a man named Bolling, or Bowling, lived with his large family of small children in a rude hut on the Rabbit Hollow lane, near Saundersville, whence he came or whither he went desponent saith not.

Possibly he was a fisherman. He was reputed to be a Malungeon, and he may have admitted that he was. He was certainly something out of the ordinary in the way of breeding, as shown by his dark brown complexion and long, stringy, shiny Indian-like hair. Bolling's peculiar features attracted much attention and comment, and in explaining to the uninformed what a Malungeon was, the wise ones said that he was a Portugese, or had Portugese blood in him. Perhaps it may have been said also that Bolling and other so-called Malungeons had Indian blood in them. "My recollection of Bolling is very clear, and from that recollection I would say that he would have little trouble borrowing a peck of meal in either an Indian or a Portugese camp. Judging from his name, he would probably have claimed descent from Pocahontas if he had ever heard of her.

Conributed by Kevin Mullins