Melungeons Ways Are Passing

News-Sentinel Staff Writer
Sneedville, Tenn

By Willard Yarbrough,
April 26, 1972

Spring air was nippy along Blackwater Creek in Vardy Valley. So chilly, in fact, that Howard Mullins lifted his hands with palms exposed to coal fed flames of the open fire. Such delicate hands, calloused from field work and 110 winters spent in isolated hill country where necessities of life long since have become luxuries to a mysterious people to whom Mullins belongs. He is one of the last of the Melungeons, oldest of them all in Hancock County, which has been home to the Melungeons for 200 years.

Those left in Snake Hollow, Blackwater, Vardy and Mulberry - are few in number, Most have left the hills for jobs in cities far and near. And time is catching up with those remaining. In 1931 there were 40 Melungeon families living on Newman's Ridge above their ancestral home. Today, only two families remain on the steep ridges. Genealogist William P. Grohse Sr., who lives near Mullins, estimates there may be under 200 families left in the country.

Link to Jews Seen

Melungeon youth, just as others, are leaving rural America for jobs in towns and cities. Hancock's population of 12,000 in 1900 dropped to 6719 by 1970, according to the U. S. Census. Scholars and anthropologists and the just plain curious come into these hills in ever increasing numbers. They want to see and talk with hill people with such Melungeon family names as "Mullins, Collins, Goins, Gibbons, Miser, Bowlin and Bell. A young Israeli scholar came the other day and became convinced that these lovely olive-skinned people had Jewish ancestry and fled ages ago to escape persecution at home. He cited two things he said linked Melungeons with ancient Jews: Christianity - with the ever-present Cross - and the name Vardy. Meaning Uncertain "Vardy", he told chronicler Grohse, "stems from an Israeli word that means rose. So vardyman means 'man of roses'." Vardy Collins, born in 1766, was the first Melungeon to settle on the Blackwater. Grohse says he came around 1780 or a little later. His real name was Navarrh, but visitors to his mineral springs and hotel knew him by the shorter name, Vardy.

Melungeon - what does it mean?

The Melungeons themselves, God knows, don't refer to themselves as Melungeons. They don't know where the name came from, whether from the French word "melange" (mixture), the Afro-Portuguese "melungo" (shipmate) , or the Greek "melan" (black). Back at Howard Mullins' open fire, Mrs. Mullins, who is 72, said she never heard the word until five years ago when she read a book about "Melungeons." These hill people, now intermixed with non-Melungeon mates, simply know it's a bad word which their white neighbors once used to frighten their children: "Better be good or the Melungeons will get you!"

Accustomed to Hard Times

Melungeons have been angered for almost two centuries about two things: Strangers who call them by that name, so the Melungeons think, allude to "mixture" as having Negro blood. And writers of sensational Melungeon stories at times have ridiculed a sensitive, peaceful people. Back in 1840 there was an open insult to the Melungeon name in the state Legislature. "A West Tennessee Democrat," said Grohse, "argued with an East Tennessee Republican. The Democrat became so exasperated that he told the legislators 'Don't pay any attention to him; he's one of them East Tennessee Melungeons!'" One thing is certain. Melungeons are used to hard times and privation.

Mrs. Howard Mullins remembered the Depression days when she obtained a WPA job at the courthouse here as charwoman. "I walked eight miles across Newman's Ridge to Sneedville every day", she said. "I'd leave before daylight, work all day, and walk home after dark - with my dress tail likely as not frozen stiff where it touched the snow. And you know what I got for my first week's work? A check for $2.40!"

Still Was Guarded

Old-timers remember worse times, but they consider they were fortunate even then. Melungeon men and women many, many years ago worked all day in a farmer's fields just for the food they ate lunch. Melungeons always have been excellent moonshiners, though this is mostly in the past. Mrs. Mullins remembers when she and her first husband lived next door to Howard Mullins, who she later married. "Howard would fire up his still and I'd build up my fire under my washpot, so anybody going along the road would think I was washing. Neighbors helped each other. I guess I'd wash three or four times a week, or pretend to, and hang my clothes on the line to hid Howard's still from sight."

Quit Drinking at 90

How has Grandpap Mullins lived to be 110? "He was drunk most of his life," she said. "That might have helped preserve him. He quit drinking 20 years ago, but there were many times I'd have to take the mule and sled and find him passed out drunk up a hollow. "We both chew tobacco. I do because I don't want to smell his breath," she said, pointing to her now blind husband as he chewed Beechnut as if it were chewing gum. "He chews two packs a day." Mullins hasn't been out of Vardy for more than a year, his last venture being to Sneedville. He hasn't seen a doctor in years, either, and used only aspirin for medicine. Mullins lost his father at age 8. The father and another Melungeon argued at the Mullins moonshine still, Elbert Mullins losing the argument.

Howard Mullins, who has been chewing tobacco for 101 years, is the oldest child in his family. His mother was married three times. Howard's son, Burkett, 78, visits at times. Mrs. Mullins, who was a Collins, said she was born in a log house on the Ridge, that food was prepared on a dirt floor "because we had no money to buy lumber" and that the cabin had only one half-window for natural light.

Times Easier Now

Melungeons love to talk about hard times, because they're not so hard today. all homes I visited here recently had electricity and telephone. The Collinses, Mullinses and Mizers, along with the the others, find life easier on the valley floor. Their abandoned log cabins are along the creek banks or on the ridges, often the object of collectors. Painted houses either are rented or owned now, being taken over by the melungeons as others quit the Blackwater. Stone chimneys often are the only reminder of Melungeon life; some houses are gone.

Melungeons don't make gold coins any more, either. They used to mint them on the Ridge, take them into Sneedville to buy provisions - but they never said where they got the gold. Merchants welcomed the coins because they contained more pure gold than those from the U. S. Mint. Sneedville stores still buy ginseng or "sang from Melungeons who dug the roots for shipment to the Orient. Melungeons, such as Tilmon Hunt, in his 80s, love to hunt, and they eat what they bag. Tilmon displayed a fox squirrel he felled after an all-day hunt with his dog in the hills. And once Tilmon walked all the way home from Norton, Va., where he had a "paying job" years ago.

Age in Doubt

They'll really never know, these vanishing Americans, their true origin. Some aren't sure of their ages, either. Grohse, a German who settled in Vardy because he married the great-great-great- granddaughter of Vardy Collins, said the 1880 Census listed Howard Collins' age at that time as 7. if so, that would make him only 99 and not 10, the birthday being 1873. But Mullins says he is 110. Grohse likes to believe the Melungeons were of Portuguese or Spanish ancestry. And 1850 document shows Vardy Collins, then 86 owned $1500 worth of real estate and that his wife's name was Peggy. Rev. Arthur H. Taylor, a Presbyterian missionary here in 1916 and a Grohse relative, reported he had learned that Vardy Collins' wife was known as "Spanish Peggy".

Came From East Coast

Miss Martha Collins, a descendant of Vardy, and president of Citizens Bank of Sneedville, leans to the Phoenician theory - that these ancient mariners were lost from ships in the Mediterranean during a storm, and ended up on American shores. Monroe Collins, a tenant farmer at the foot of Bunches Trace near Treadway, doesn't gave a hoot about his people's origin. He'd rather pour water into groundhot holes along the creek, flushing his quarry, and convert the animal either into stew for dinner or a pet on a leash in his yard.

Mrs. Mattie Collins, 98, who lives across a creek reached by footbridge just outside Sneedville, knows only "my people came from across the waters." Sheriff Gene Collins says he isn't a Melungeon, that he has Cherokee Indian ancestry.

Scholars over the decades, and even more recently, seem rather convinced that Melungeons sprang from Mediterranean people. Some believe they were Moors, such as Shakespeare's Othello, fleeing the wars via the sea and settling in Portugal.

Had Land Grants

All agree that these olive-skinned people - comprised of beautiful women, fine-featured and erect males, and lovely children - migrated here from the East Coast, whether their beginning was from shipwreck following mutiny, survivors of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, remnants of Hernando DeSoto's expedition in East Tennessee, or the very last of the Lost Tribes of Israel. They agree, too, that most came via North and South Carolina, in advance of the white man, many settling here with land grants following the Revolutionary War and given out by Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Hancock County was in each of these states before final boundaries were drawn. The Melungeons, however, like many an American tradition, are passing, just as are some of their own traditions. Graveposts are disappearing from the cemeteries. Standing on Newman's Ridge and looking northward, Melungeon country is breath takeingly beautiful. This is so whether one looks to the left at the green valley of Little Sycamore or Snake Hollow, directly ahead toward Mulberry Gap, or to the right and the valley of the Blackwater and Vardy.

English names merely add to the mysterious legends of these hill people. One hill saying is that if a Mullins marries a Collins, their off spring is a Gibson. The Melungeons aren't so reticent anymore, or skeptical of strangers, and this is largely so because of Kermit Hunter's outdoor drama that's shown here each summer beginning July 4. "The Melungeon Story: Walk Toward the Sunset" is staged at the base of Newmans's Ridge in Sneedville. It depicts their travail and discrimination against them, from the time John Sevier found them in 1784. It tells how racial bars were broken with the marriage of a Sneedville white to a beautiful Melungeon lass.

These "people of free color" finally were permitted by the Legislature to vote! And famed author Jesse Stuart tells in his book, "Daughter of a Legend", how he dated a Melungeon when he was a student at LMU. Even today, however, Melungeons are lampooned. A recent magazine article said the drama was concocted to bilk money from tourists at a Melungeon trap that featured no Melungeons. How sad! Melungeons built the outdoor theater, helped stage the play, and performed in it. And Hancock Countians gave money and labor, signed notes for operating capital, and lost money in efforts to preserve the Melungeon culture and tradition.