Were you ever when a child
half playfully told “The Malungeons will get you”? If not, you were
never a Tennessee child, as some of our fathers were; they who tell us
all that may be told of that strange, almost forgotten race, concerning
whom history is strangely silent. Only upon the records of the State of
Tennessee does the name appear.
The records show that by act of the Constitutional Convention of 1834,
when the “Race Question” played such a conspicuous part in the
deliberations of that body, the Malungeons, as a “free person of
color,” was denied the right of suffrage. Right there he dropped from
the public mind and interest. Of no values as a slave, with no voice as
a citizen, what use could the public make of the Malungeon?
When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was
living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned,
reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent,
who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks, and who called
themselves Malungeons, and claimed to be of Portuguese descent. They
lived to themselves exclusively, and were looked upon neither as
negroes nor Indians, the Malungeons were never slaves, and until 1834
enjoyed all the rights of citizenship. Even in the Convention which
disenfranchised them, they were referred to as a “free person of color”
Their condition from the organization of the State of Tennessee to the
close of the Civil Wars is most accurately described by John A.
McKinley of Hawkins County, who was chairman of the committee in which
was referred all matters affecting these “free persons of color” which
means Malungeons if it means anything. Although fleecy locks and black
complexion do not forfeit natures claims still it is true that those
-------- that complexion mark every one ooff the African race, so long
as he remains among the white race, as a person doomed to live in the
suburbs of society.
“Unenviable as is the condition of the slave, unlovely as slavery is in
all it aspects, bitter as is the draught the slave is doomed to drink,
nevertheless, his condition is better than that of the free man of
color in the midst of a community of white men with whom he has no
interest, no fellow-feeling and no equality.” So the Constitutional
convention left these the most pitiable of all outcasts; denied their
oath in court and deprived of the testimony of their own color, left
utterly helpless in all legal contests, they naturally, when the State
set the brand of the outcast upon them, took to the hills, the isolated
peaks of the uninhabited mountains, the corners of the earth, as it
were, where, huddled together, they became a law unto themselves, a
race indeed separate and distinct from the several races inhabiting the
State of Tennessee.
So much, or so little, we gleaned from the records. From history we get
nothing; not so much as the name, ----Malungeons.
In the farther valleys they were soon forgotten: only now and then an
old slave-mammy would frighten her rebellious charge into subjection
with the threat,—“The Malungeons will get you if you aint pretty.” But
to the people of the foot hills and the nearer valleys they became a
living terror; sweeping down upon them, stealing their cattle, their
provisions, their very clothing, and household furniture.
They became shiftless, idle, thieving, and defiant of all law,
distillers of brandy, almost to a man. The barren height upon which
they located, offered hope of ono other crop so much as fruit, and they
were forced, it would appear, to utilize their one opportunity.
At the breaking out of the war, some few enlisted in the army, but the
greater number remained with their stills, or pillage and plunder among
the helpless women and children.
These mountains became a terror to travellers; and not until within the
last half decade has it been regarded safe to cross Malungeon
Such there were; or so do they come to us through tradition and State’s
records. As to what they are any whom feel disposed may go and see.
Opinion is divided concerning them and they have their own ideas as to
A great many declare them mulattoes, and base their belief upon the
ground that at the close of the Civil War negroes and Malungeons stood
upon precisely the same social footing “free men of color” all; and
that the fast vanishing handful opened their doors to the darker
brother, also groaning under the brand of social ostracism. This might,
at first glance, seem probably, indeed, reasonable.
Yet if we will consider a moment, we shall see that a race of mulattoes
cannot exist as these Malungeons have existed. The race goes from
mulattoes to quadroons, from quadroons to octoroons, and there it
stops. The octoroon women bear no children, but in every cabin of the
Malungeons may be found mothers, and grandmother, and very often
“Who are the, then?” you ask. I can only give you their own
theory—if I may call it such—and to do this I must tell you how I found
them, and something of my stay among them.
First, I saw in an old newspaper some slight mention of them. With this
tiny clue I followed their trail for three years. The paper merely
stated that “somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee there existed a
remnant of people called Malungeons, having a distinct color,
characteristics, and dialect.” It seemed a very hopeless search, so
utterly were the Malungeons forgotten, and I was laughed at — little
for my “new crank.” I was even called “a Malungeon” more than once, and
was about to abandon my “crank” when a member of the Tennessee State
senate of which I happened at that time to be engrossing clerk, spoke
of a brother senator as being “tricky as a Malungeon.” I pounced upon
him the moment his speech was completed, “Senator,” I said, ‘what is a
Malungeon?” “A dirty Indian sneak” said he. “Go over yonder and ask
Senator–; they live in his district.” I went at once.
“Senator what is a Malungeon?” I asked again. “A Portuguese
n*****” was the reply. “Representative ---- can tell you all about
them, they live in his county. From “district to county” was quick
traveling and in the House of Representatives I went fast upon the lost
trait of the forgotten Malungeons.
“Mr.-----,” said I, “please tell me what is a Malungeon?”
“A Malungeon,” said he, “isn’t a n_____, and he isn’t an Indian and he
isn’t a white man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a
Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket.” I merely mention
all this to show how the Malungeons of today are regarded, and to show
how I tracked them to Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, where within
four miles of one of the prettiest county town in Tennessee, may be
found all that remains of that outcast race whose descent is a riddle
the historian has never solved. In appearance they bear a striking
resemblance to the Cherokees, and they are believed by the people round
about to be a kind of half-breed Indian.
Their complexion is a reddish brown, totally unlike the mulatto. The
men are very tall and straight, with small sharp eyes, high cheek
bones, and straight black hair, worn rather long. The women are small,
below the average height, coal black hair and eyes, high cheek bones,
and the same red-brown complexion. The hands of the Malungeon women are
quite shapely and pretty. Also their feet, despite the fact that they
travel the sharp mountain trails barefoot, are short and shapely. Theor
features are wholly unlike those of the negro, except in cases where
the two races have cohabited, as is sometimes the fact. These instances
can be readily detected, as can those of cohabitation with the
mountaineer; for the pure Malungeons present a characteristic and
individual appearance. On the Ridge proper, one finds only the Pure
Malungeons; it is in the unsavory limits of Black Water swamp and on
Big Sycamore Creek, lying at the foot of the Ridge between it and
Powell’s Mountain, that the mixed races dwell.
In Western and Middle Tennessee the Malungeons are forgotten long ago.
And indeed, so nearly complete has been the extinction of the race that
in but few counties of Eastern Tennessee is it known. In Hancock you
may hear them and see them almost the instant your cross into the
county line. There they are distinguished as the Ridgemanites or “pure
Malungeons.” There among whom the white or negro blood has entered are
called the Black Waters.” The Ridge is a----- --------to the purpose of
wildcat distilling, being crossed by but one road and crowned with
jungles of ------------
Of very recent years the dogs of the law have proved too sharp-eyed and
bold even for the lawless Malungeons, so that such of the furnace fires
as have not been extinguished are built underground.
They are a great nuisance to the people of the county seat, where, on
any public day, and especially on election days, they may be seen
squatted about the streets, great strapping men, or little brown women
baking themselves in the sun like mud figures set to dry.
The people of the town do not allow them to enter their dwellings, and
even refuse to employ them as servants, owing to their filthy habit of
chewing tobacco and spitting upon the floors, together with their
ignorance or defiance of the difference between meum and them.
They are exceedingly shiftless, and in most cases filthy. They care for
nothing except their pipe, their liquor, and a trap “ ter towin.” They
will walk to Sneedville and back sometimes twice in twelve hours, up a
steep trail through an almost unbroken wilderness and never seem to
suffer the least fatigue.
They are not at all like the Tennessee mountaineer either in appearance
or characteristics. The mountaineer, however poor, is
clean.–cleanliness itself. He is honest (I speak of him as a class) he
is generous, trustful, until once betrayed, truthful, brave, and
possessing many of the noblest and keenest sensibilities. The
Malungeons are filthy, their home is filthy. They are rogues, natural,
“born rogues,” close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful; cowardly,
and, to use their own words “sneaky.”
They are exceedingly inquisitive too and will trail a visitor to the
Ridge for miles, through seemingly unpenetrable jungles, to discover if
maybe the object of his visit. The expect remuneration for the
slightest service. The mountaineers door stands open, or at most the
string of the latch dangles upon the outside. He takes you for what you
seem until you shall prove yourself otherwise.
In many things they resemble the negro. They are exceedingly immoral,
yet are great ----and advocates of religion. The call themselves
Baptists, although their mode of baptism is that of the Dunkard.
There are no churches on the Ridge, but the one I visited in Black
Water Swamp was beyond an inauguration of the colored element. At this
church I saw white women with negro babies at their breasts—Malungeon
women with white or with black husbands, and some, indeed, having the
three separate races represented in their children, showing thereby the
gross immorality that is practiced among them. I saw an old negro whose
wife was a white woman, and who had been several times arrested, and
released on his pleas of “Portygee” blood, which he declared had
colored his skin, and not African.
The dialect of the Malungeons is a cross between that of the
mountaineer and the negro,—a corruption, perhaps, of both. The **letter
R occupies but small place in their speech, and they have a peculiar
habit of omitting the last letter, sometimes the last syllable of their
words. For instance “good night”— is “goo’ night.” “Give” is “gi’” etc.
They do not drawl like the mountaineers but, on the contrary, speak
rapidly and talk a great deal. The laugh of the Malungeon woman is the
most exquisitely musical jingle, a perfect ripple of sweet sound. Their
dialect is exceedingly difficult to write, owing to their habit of
curtailing their words.
The pure Malungeons, that is the old men and women, have no toleration
for the negro, and nothing insults them so much as a suggestion of
negro blood. Many pathetic stories are told of their battle against the
black race, which they regard as the cause of their downfall, the
annihilation, indeed, of the Malungeons, for when the races began to
mix and to intermarry, and the expression. “ A Malungeon-n****r” came
into use, the last barrier vanished and all were regarded as somewhat
upon a social level.
They are very like the Indians in many respects–their fleetness of
foot, stupidity, cruelty as practiced during the days of their illicit
distilling, their love for the forest, their custom of living without
doors, one might almost say. For truly the little hovels could not be
called homes,– and their taste for liquor and tobacco.
They believe in witch craft, ghost and more than one “charmer” may be
found among them. They will “rub away” a wart or a mole for ten cents,
and one old squaw assured me she had some “blood beads” that “wair
bounter heal all manner o’ blood ailments.” They are limited somewhat
as to names: their principal families being the Mullins, Gorvens,
Collins, and Gibbins. They resort to a very peculiar method of
distinguishing themselves. Jack Collins’ wife for instance will be Mary
Jack. His son will be Ben Jack. His daughters’ names will be similar;
Nancy Jack or Jane Jack, as the case may be, but always having the
father’s Christian name attached.
Their homes are miserable hovels, set here and there in the very heart
of the wilderness. Very few of their cabins have windows, and some have
only an opening cut through the wall for a door. In winter an old quilt
is hung before it to shut out the cold.
They do not welcome strangers among them, so that I went to the Ridge
somewhat doubtful as to my reception. I went, however, determined to be
one of the, so I wore a suit as nearly like their own as I could get
it. I had some trouble securing board, but I did succeed at last in
doing so by paying the enormous sum of fifteen cents a day. I was put
to sleep in a little closet opening off the family room. My room had no
windows, and but the one door. The latch was carefully removed before I
went in, so that I hand no means of egress, except through the family
room, and no means by which to shut myself in. My bed was of straw, not
the sweet smelling straw we read of. The Malungeons go a long way for
their straw and they evidently make it go a long way when the do get
it. I was called to breakfast in the morning while the gray mist still
held the mountains in it’s arms. I asked for water to bathe my face and
was sent to “their branch,” a beautiful little mountain stream crossing
the trail some few hundred yards from the cabin.
Breakfast consisted of corn bread wild honey, and bitter coffee. It was
prepared and eaten in the garret, or roof-room above the family room. A
few chickens, the only fowl I saw on the Ridge, also occupied the roof
room. Coffee is quite common among the Malungeons; they drink it
without sweetening and drink it cold at all hours of the day or night.
They have no windows and no candles, consequently, they retire with the
going of the daylight. Many of their cabins have no floors other than
that which nature gave, but one that I remember had a floor made of
trees slit in half, the bark still in, placed with the flat side to the
The people in this house slept on leaves with an old gray blanket for
covering. Yet the master of the house, who claims to be an Indians, and
who without doubt, possesses Indian blood, draws a pension of
twenty-nine dollars per month. He can neither read nor write, is a lazy
fellow, fond of apple brandy and bitter coffee, has a rollicking good
time with an old fiddle which he plays with his thumb, and boasts
largely of his Cherokee grandfather and his government pension.
In one part of his cabin ( there are two rooms and a connecting shed)
the very stumps of the tree still remain. I had my artist sketch him
sitting upon the stump of a monster oak which stood in the very center
of the shed or hallway. This family did their cooking at a rude
fireplace built near the spring, as a matter of convenience. Another
family occupied one room, or apartment, of a stable. The stock fed in
another (the stock belonged, let me say, to someone else) and the
“cracks” between the logs of the separating partition were such depth a
small child could have rolled from the bed in one apartment into the
trough in the other. How they exist among such squalor is a mystery.
Their dress consists, among the women, of a short loose calico skirt
and a blouse that boasts of neither hook nor button. Some of these
blouses were fastened with brass pins conspicously bright. Others were
tied together by means of strings tacked on either side. There wore
neither shoes nor stockings in the summer and many of them go barefoot
all winter. The men were– ---- ---- and may be seen almost any day
tramping barefoot across the mountain.
They are exceedingly illiterate, none of them being able to read. I
found one school among them, taught by an old Malungeon whose literary
accomplishments amounted to a meagre knowledge of the alphabet and
their spelling of words. Yet, he was very earnest and called lustily to
the “chillering” to “spry up” and to “learn the book.” This school was
located in the loveliest spot my eyes ever rested upon. An eminence
overlooking the beautiful valley of the Clinch and the purple peaks
beyond. Billows and billows of mountains, so blue, so exquisitely
wrapped in their delicate mist-veil one almost doubts if the be hills
or heaven. While through the slumbrous vale the silvery Clinch, the
fairest of Tennessee”s fair streams, creeps slowly, like a drowsy
dream-river, among the purple distances. The eminence itself is
entirely barren save for one tall old cedar and the schoolmaster’s
little log building. It presents a very weird, wild, yet majestic
scene, to the traveller as he climbs up from the valley. Near the
schoolhouse is a Malungeon grave-yard.
The Malungeons are very careful for their dead. They build a kind of
floorless house above each separate grave, many of the homes of the
dead being far better than the dwelling of the living. The graveyard
presents the appearance of a diminutive town, or settlement, and is
kept with great nicety and care. They mourn their dead for years, and
every friend and acquaintance is expected to join in the funeral
arrangements. The follow the body to the graves sometimes for miles,
afoot, in single file. Their burial ceremonies are exceedingly
interesting and peculiar.
They are an unforgiving people, although, unlike the sensitive
mountaineer, they are slow to detect an insult, and expect to be spit
upon. But injury to life or property they never forgive. Several odd
and pathetic instances of Malungeon hate came under my observation
while among them but they would cover too much space in telling. Within
the last two years the railroad has struck within some thirty miles of
them, and its effects are becoming very apparent.
Now and then a band of surveyors, or a lone mineralogist will cross
Powell’s Mountain, and pass through Mulberry Gap just beyond Newman’s
Ridge. So near, yet never nearer. The hills around are all said to be
crammed with coal or iron but Newman’s Ridge can offer nothing to the
capitalist, it would seem that the Malungeons had chosen the one spot.
Of all that magnificent creation, not to be desired. Yet they have
heard of this railroad the great bearer of commerce and expect in, in a
half regretful, half pathetic way.
They have four questions, always, for the stranger— “Whatcher name?”
“Wher’d yer come from?” “How old er yee?” “Did yer hear an’thin er ther
reilwa’ comin’ up ther Ridge?” As if it might step into their midst any
The Malungeons believe themselves to be of Cherokee and Portuguese
extraction. They cannot account for the Portuguese extraction. They
cannot account for the Portuguese blood, but are very bold in declaring
themselves a remnant of those tribes, still inhabiting the mountains of
North Carolina, which refused to follow the tribes to the Reservation
set aside for them.
There is a theory that the Portuguese pirates, known to have visited
these waters, came ashore and located in the mountains of North
Carolina. The Portuguese “streak” however, is scouted by those who
claim for the Malungeons a drop of African blood, as quite early in the
settlement of Tennessee, runaway negroes settled among the Cherokees,
or else were captured and adopted by them. However, with all the light
possible to be thrown upon them, the Malungeons are, and will remain, a
A more pathetic case than theirs cannot be imagined. They are going,
the little space of hills ‘twixt earth and heaven allotted them, will
soon be free of the dusky tribe, whose very name is a puzzle, and whose
origin is a riddle no man has unraveled. The most that can be said of
one of them is, “He is a Malungeon,” a synonym for all that is doubtful
and mysterious—and unclean.
The letter R occupies but small place in their speech, and they have a
peculiar habit of omitting the last letter, sometimes the last syllable
of their words.