Mysterious Hill Folk Vanishing
The New York Times
August 10, 1971
By Jon Nordheimer
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
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.
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
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
“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,
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
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
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
“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
“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