Mysterious Hill Folk Vanishing

The New York Times
August 10, 1971

By Jon Nordheimer

Sneedville, Tenn-----


It has been nearly a century since the first Melungeons walked out of the hills around Sneedville and mingled with the white farm families of the Clinch River Valley in East Tennessee.

Now only a few descendants of the swarthy mountaineers continue to live high up on the brow of Newman’s Ridge or in the shadowy pocket of Snake Hollow. And they, like the others before them, are making plans to leave the security of the hills for other places.

"Most’s gone now or dead," said on of the mountaineers, Monroe Collins, as he paused the other day at the edge of a hemlock grove that shade a crude Melungeon graveyard on the south slope of Newman’s Ridge. Off in the distance, beyond the razorback ridges of Hancock County , were the taller peaks of North Carolina ad Georgia, milky islands in the mid-summer haze.

‘Land’s Growing Wild’

The old man stood over a grave marker and scratched flakes of age from the peeling stone. Wild huckleberry tendrils curled around the marker and a half dozen others that were discernible in the rough field.

“The farm land’s growing wild just like the graveyard,” Mr. Collins observed. “Young men’d rather work in a factory in Morristown than tend a patch of corn. To tell the dyin’ truth, there’s few of the of ridge people left.”

Newman’s Ridge overlooks Sneedville, a poor community of about 700 persons near the Virginia border. In the early 19th century nearly 350 Melungeons settled on the ridge, coming down into the valley only on rare occasions to forage for wild vegetables and sell moonshine whiskey. They lived apart from the whites for generations. The ridge was a hilltop sanctuary against the outside world and its prejudice.

‘Origins Uncertain’

The prejudice eventually vanished. And, to a degree, so have the Melungeons. Only 100 or so still live in the Clinch Valley, and many of them, like Mr. Collins, who is 65, are old and fretful about the future.

The South abounds with ethnic subgroups of dark-skinned people whose racial history is cloaked in mystery and sensitivity. Tradition usually ascribes an exotic beginning to the groups other than the simple cross-breedings of white pioneers with Indians and Negro slaves. Typically members of the subgroups have feared that local whites would regard them as half-breeds or blacks. Traditionally, the white communities have not disappointed them.

Where the Melungeons differ from other subgroups like the Brass ankles and Buckheads and Red Bones is the wealth of theorize about their origin—none of which has been supplied by the Melungeons themselves. Years of isolation and illiteracy dulled their history, and today men like Monroe Collins are more concerned with the problems of the future than with the mysteries of the past, although the subject continues to excite scholars and romantics.

The recent assertion that a stone found in East Tennessee contained Hebraic lettering led to excited speculation that the “Melungeons” are descended from Phoenician sailors who fled the Roman sacking of Carthage.

The most popular theory is that the original Melungeons were survivors of the destruction of a Portuguese fleet dispatched in 1665 to capture Cuba from the Spanish. Two facts support this contention. The Afro=Portuguese word melungo means shipmate, and John Seizer, the Tennessee explorer, wrote in 1784 that he found a dark-skinned people in Hancock County who were neither Indians nor Negro and who told him they were of Portuguese descent.

Yet there are no traces of the Portuguese language or of Portuguese social or religious traits among today’s Melungeons or among those interviewed by John Siever nearly 200 years ago.

Another theory is that the first Melungeons were deserters from Ponce de Leon’s exploration party that cut through the region in 1540 in search of gold. Still another is that they were the remnants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of Roanoke.

“A considerably less romantic theory: noted Henry R. Price, a Tennessee lawyer who has assembled research on the subject, “runs to the effect that the Melungeons are simply the result of miscegenation among the french, Spanish and English outcasts who hung around the fringes of the early Virginia and North Carolina settlements, runaway Negro slaves, the Cherokee and Croatan Indians.” The French word for mixture, Mr. Price pointed out, is melange.

‘Resemble Neighbors’

Except for their dark skin, the Melungeons closely resemble their white neighbors in appearance and customs. Facial features, with some exceptions, are European-Caucasian. Eyes are brown, blue or gray. Hair is usually straight and black, but there are Melungeons with sandy, blond or brown hair.

For years Melungeons with fair skin have entered the white community and fond social acceptance and success–as much as success was available to anyone in Hancock County, which is, by Government standards, the eighth poorest county in the nation. Miss Martha Collins, who’s father was a Melungeon (Collins is one of the principal family names in the colony), is the president of the only bank in Hancock County. At 76, she is gray haired, fair skinned and blue eyed. She said in an interview that nothing “hateful” had ever happened to her in Hancock County because of her background, but she was disappointed that sh was unable to join the Daughters of the American revolution 50 years ago despite her contention that her Melungeon forebears fought in the Rebolutionary War.

For many years before the Civil War, Melungeons held an uncertain social status in Hancock County, somewhere between the whites and the 3000 black slaves. The were considered “free men of color” when they settled on Newman’s Ridge in the early decades of the 19th century and they enjoyed certain civil rights, but there was little social contact with the whites down in the valley.

‘Intermarriage Spread’

After the Civil War, however, intermarriage became acceptable, usually the son of a white farmer taking a hill girl for his bride, and there were reports of Melungeon males abducting white girls from distant farms to take into the hills with them. Also, after the freed slaves left the county—only tow or three black families live in the Sneedville area today–the local whites grew less anxious about skin pigmentation.

Intermarriage and the mobility of modern times have thinned the ranks of the Melungeons.

Taylor Collins, a man in his late 70s is one of those who still lives in a tin-roofed house on Newman’s Ridge. But at the end of this summer he and his wife are moving to Fort Wayne, Ind.

“Sold out to the doctor in town,” Mr. Collins said as he greeted a visitor at the fence outside his house, which has an iron bedstead as a gate. He leaned on a crude sourwood cane that has a handle worn smooth with dependence and spa tobacco juice into the dust at his feet. “Can’t go on living up here with no car and no way to get to town,” he said in a voice quivering with age.

His wife appeared on the planked porch, next to an old abandoned washing machine. She was a tall woman, with flaxen hair, and she was very thin and looked terribly fragile.

“We were going to stay here and buy another farm,” she said, “but I couldn’t get the old man to agree. He worked in Indiana during the war, and it’s the only place outside of here that he know.”

‘A Bad Mistake’

Later, Monroe Collins sat on the floorboards of his own porch and said he was sad to learn that Taylor Collins was leaving Hancock County. As he talked, he played with his 2-year old granddaughter, Susy, who was busy chewing a huge plug of tobacco.

“It’s a bad mistake,” reflected Monroe Collins, stretching out the word “bad” for a full second to show the depth of his disapproval. “Folks can’t live up on the ridge all their lives and then pick up and go to the city like that. They won’t know what to do. There’s no one to look after them. I wish they’d stay.”

He stopped to let the little girl scamper outside to play with a scruffy pony that grazed next to a junked car. “All the ridge people,” he said, “ have gone up form here and left, or else they’re sleeping in their graves, and the ones that leave don’t ever find their way back home no more.”

This article also appeard in the EWARDSVILLE INTELLIGENCER August 19, 1971 under the headline; PREDJUDICE VANISHED; SO DID MELUNGEONS