Habits, Customs and
Characteristics of Malungeons.
I have made a careful study and inquiry as to the name Malungeon, but
have been unable as yet to place it. It has an Indian sound, but the
Malungeons themselves have no idea as to its origin or meaning. These
people, of whom so little is known, inhabit an isolated corner of the
earth, known as Newman’s ridge, in Hancock county.
They are within five miles of one of the prettiest county seats in
Tennessee. They mix very little with the natives of the county, and
seem to care very little about the world beyond their isolated
habitation. Their homes are miserable hovels, set in the very heart of
the wilderness. There is not, I am told, a family on the ridge other
than the Malungeons.
At one house where I stopped I was put in a closet to sleep. The room
had no windows and the door opened into my landlady’s room. The latch
was removed before I retired. My bed was made of straw and I was not
its sole inhabitant, not by an overwhelming majority. My food consisted
of corn bread, honey and bitter coffee. At another place, I climbed a
ladder to the roof-room, which had neither windows nor floor.
I did not meet a man or woman in the ridge who could read. At the foot
of the ridge in what is known as Black Water swamp, the country is
simply magnificent. I boarded there for several days and found the
people exceedingly kind. The ridge proper is the home of the
Malungeons. I visited one house where the floors were of trees, the
bark still on them, and the beds of leaves.
The owner was a full-blooded Indian, with keen, black eyes, straight
black hair, high cheeks, and a hook nose. He played upon his violin
with his fingers instead of a bow, and entertained us with a history of
his grandfather, who was a Cherokee chief, and by singing some of the
songs of his tribe. He also described the Malungeon custom of
amusements. The dance is a favorite pastime consisting of a two, four
or six-handed reel. Whiskey is a very popular guest at their
entertainments, and fights are not an uncommon result. In a fight each
man’s friends are expected to take sides and help, and the fight
continues until one side at least is whipped.
At another house I visited (if I may call it a house) I found the
family, nine in number, housed in one room of a stable. There were
three rooms to the establishment. The stock (belonging to some one
else) was fed in one department and the family lived in the next. The
living room was about 12 feet square and had neither chinking or
daubing. There were two beds, and one of them stood alongside the
partition where there were cracks large enough for a child of 5 years
to step through the hay rick on the other side. The space unoccupied by
the beds was about 1 feet [sic], and there being no chairs, and old
quilt was spread upon the floor, and three poor old women were
scattered upon it arranging their Indian locks. The third room was the
cooking department, although several dirty-looking beds occupied space
here and there. I forgot to mention a heap of white ashes in the living
room, which the women utilized for spitting upon.
The Malungeons are great lovers of the weed and all chew and
smoke - men, women and children. I also visited the cabin of a charmer,
for you must know these people have many superstitions. This charmer
can remove warts, moles, birth-marks, and all ugly protuberances by a
kind of magic known only to herself. She offered to remove the mole
from my face for 10 cents, and became quite angry when I declined to
part with my lifetime companion. “Tairsn’t purty, nohers,” she said;
“an ‘t air ner sarvice, nurther.” I cannot spell their dialect as they
speak it. It is not the dialect of the mountaineers, and the last
syllable of almost every word is omitted. The “R” is missing entirely
from their vocabulary. There is also a witch among them who heals
sores, rheumatism, “conjures,” etc. They come from ten miles afoot to
They possess many Indian traits, that of vengeance being strongly
characteristic of them. They, likewise, resemble the negro in many
They are sticklers for religion, and believe largely in water and the
“mourner’s bench.” They call themselves Baptists, although their form
of worship is really that of the Dunkard. They are exceedingly
illiterate, but are beginning to take some interest in educational
matters. I visited one of their schools, taught by a native Malungeon.
He could not read, and his pronunciation of the words given to the
spelling class was exceedingly peculiar, as well as ridiculous. Mr.
Thomas Sharpe, of Nashville, made an excellent sketch of this teacher
while he was busy with his class and unconcious that he was “being tuk
fur a pictur.” There are but three names among them - real Malungeon
names - Collins, Mullins, Gorvens. Lately the name of Gibbins has found
a way among them, but the first three are their real names. They
distinguish each other in a most novel manner. For instance, Calloway
Collins’ wife is Ann Calloway, his daughter is Dorous Calloway, and his
son is Jim Calloway. How they live is a mystery.
Their food is the hardest kind, and their homes unfit shelter for man
or beast. In many cases they are extremely immoral and seem utterly
unconscious of either law or cleanliness. Their voices are exceedingly
sweet, and their laugh the merriest, most musical ripple imaginable,
more like the tinkle of a happy little brook among beds of pebbles than
the laugh of a half civilized Malungeon. Even the men speak low and
their voices are not unpleasant. The women are quick, sharp, bright.
The men are slow, lazy, shiftless and shirking, and seem entirely
unacquainted with work, God’s medicine for the miserable.
Their dress is ordinary calico, or cotton, short blouse, without
buttons or other fastenings than brass pins conspicuously arranged, or
narrow white strings tacked on either side the waist and tied in a bow
knot. These strange people have caught, however, the fever raging
throughout the south, and especially through Eastern Tennessee, the
They believe their sterile ridges to be crammed full with the precious
ore. If it is, the rocks give no sign, for there are no outcroppings to
be found as yet. At one place I staid to dinner. No one ate with me
except my own guide, and the food and shelter were given grudgingly,
without that hearty willingness which characterizes the old Tennessee
mountaineer, who bids you “light and hitch, feed your critter and be
I was invited to eat, to be sure, but the family stood by and
eyed me until my portion of bread and honey almost choked me. Corn
bread, thick, black, crusted pones, steaming hot, and honey sweet
enough and clean - aye, clean, for the wild bees made it from the wild
flowers springing straight from God’s planting. I paid 15 cents for my
dinner. A mountaineer would have knocked you down had you offered money
for dinner under such circumstances. Bah! The Malungeon is no more a
mountaineer than am I, born in the heart of the old Volunteer state.