The Melungeons

A Strange and Little Known Tennessee People

Descendants of Aztecs and Pizarro’s Spaniards - Their Peculiar Manners and Customs - Speculations: “Who are These Peoplle?

(From a Special Contributor)

July 29, 1894

Several years ago, while traveling through upper East Tennessee, I incidentally heard of a peculiar race of people living in the mountain section of country embraced within the limits of Hancock county. Having heard enough to awaken my curiosity, I determined to investigate for myself their history, habits and race features, as I could find no written mention of them in any magazine, newspaper or historical word of the State.

In pursuance of my object I made several trips through their country and made a study of their habits of life and physical trait of character, gleaning what I could from them, of their traditions and history, and believe that I have now sufficient evidence to clearly establish who these people really are, and to what race they originally belonged, tracing them unerringly to the present time.  In this I have been greatly aided by the kindly suggestions and valuable information received through the researches by Dr. Bachman, which he very kindly placed at my disposal for use in a more complete and extended historical sketch of these people, which I will publish later.  I will now only attempt a brief sketch, showing who these people are, which has been a question much discussed, and about which many theories have been advanced.  While following up and linking together the evidence which sowed clearly that theirs was even yet a distinctive, original race from ours, I visited the Anthropological Building at the World’s Fair, and there obtained conclusive evidence that I was not mistaken in the theory which I had believed the correct one.

Locally these people are known as “The Melungeons.” They are generally of fine appearance, being tall, and unusually well formed, with straight black or reddish hued brown hair, black or brown eyes, always keen and piercing in their glances, high cheek bones, square cut jaws, and of an erect - even - proud - carriage, some of their women being remarkable for their beauty. They are intelligent, but very reticent, and also reserved in manner; particularly so when interrogated as to their history.  They are friendly with their fairer skinned neighbors, and in some instances have intermarried with them but as a rule they choose husbands or wives among themselves. They are strictly honest, yet distrustful to some extent of advances coming from strangers.  They are firm friends, but implacable and even treacherous enemies.  They live mostly in small frame or log houses, farm a little, hunt and fish and take life easy.

They have but little money, and seem to care but little for it. They go nearly always armed with rifle of shotgun, whether to trade at some neighboring town or to visit a neighbor.  Some of them -- mostly the younger members - can read and write fairly well enough for the ordinary transactions occurring in such a primitive community.  They have and enjoy all the rights of citizenship, yet they live and move, a distinct and separate body from those around them, preserving their individuality and racial distinction.

“Who are these people?” has been asked thousands of times, doubtless by some passing traveler, who quickly noted their clean-cut, distinctive race features, speech and bearing.  The answer made invariably is “Melungeons”  - Our fathers who settled here along about 1790 to 1800, found them here, with another small settlement near Nashville’s present site.” This is all you can obtain in the way of information by casual inquiry.

But investigation proves these people to be true descendants of the Aztecs, with the blood of Spain and Portugal, as I will endeavor to show later, and, in giving you the proofs, you must follow me in an apparently aimless ramble - or what at first will seem such to you - up among the cloud-crowned mountains, the dark, shadowy caves, where the sun peeps only at noon to lighten the gloom and gild the shadows with its golden light for an hour; beneath frowning, toppling cliffs, pass up the deep and gruesome gorges, wrapped in shadow and mystery beneath the giant firs; listen to the splashing, leaping waters of flowing brooklet, as it winds the sinuous way over, around and under the moss-covered rocks, or huge fragments hurled from the beetling cliffs above; through beds of ferns - only such ferns as can here be found - and sweet smelling woodland flowers; climb with me to the topmost peaks, where the “thunder heads” gather their forces for the coming storm, and the eagles build their nests.

Follow with me in the dusky light of waning day, that distant spiral column of smoke denoting the lowly roof, beneath  which I shall find shelter for the night and enjoy with me the free hospitality of my host Nuno and his wife Luizan, with little Nonah and Cecilia and Juan peeping from the cracks between logs, with bright wondering eyes at their strange guest, and mark well these names, all around in the same family; three Spanish or Portuguese sounding and two Indian or Aztec; for in this is one of the direct evidences offered as to “who are these people.”

Upon the top of one mountain we found the blackened rocks, fragments fused, fragments disintegrated and crumbled dust made by signal fires.  Down in that dark cove we fund stone hammers, stone bowls, half formed upon the rock of which it is still a part.  Within the shadows of that gloomy gorge we found arrow-heads of flint.  We passed into a cave.  It opened into a large cavern, through which a tiny brooklet flowed, and thence out into the gorge we just had left.  In this cave is a broken copper medal, an iron implement too badly eaten into by rust to be recognized as to its name or use, a small bag composed of woven grss, a broken piece of pottery - a bowl - with - how strange? - the Maltese cross upon it.  The pottery showed threads of grass baked in the clay, that it might be stronger in its structure, a broken dagger of finely tempered steel, before this destroying rust penetrated its polished surface.  Further on a piece of heavy dark cloth, covered with shells and teeth of fish - salt water fish - sewn upon it with twisted fibers from the plant known as the “devils shoe string” - among the mountaineers of today - with a bone needle, for here is the needle close by, and not many feet off a broken piece of curved metal, unquestionably part of a helmet, and many other traces all of which you can find duplicates of at Nuno’s home, and which he shows to you with pretended indifference, but with secret reverence.  As in the case of the names, we have in these relics a proof of presence of the Spanish soldier and Indian presence at the same time; or if you prefer the knight of Portugal and the Aztec Princess living in love and harmony together.

But let us go out from this dark depository of ancient secrets, and once more, under the light of day, wend our way to the mouth of the gorge, then out upon a level basis, fertile and green, a mile or more in diameter, circular in its general form, locked in by towering mountains on every side except flowing from the forge just behind us the brooklet winds its way to nearly the center of this plain  There it is joined by streams from several similar gorges. A small lake is formed of cold, clear water, and from this is a nobler stream flows out through a natural cleft in the solid mountain wall, narrow its channel and steep its bed.  The waters rush through with a steady roar, resembling the deep-toned rumbling of thunder.  Around this pool, or lake, I have mentioned, and covering several hundred aces in its bounds, is the remains of a rock wall built by human hands, and yet perfect beneath the surface, and easily traced.  Within its bounds is a cemetery in the southwest corner. Who built so great and strong a wall as this must once have been? What people lie in that cemetery?

The fact that this wall was six feet thick laid in regular courses, and cemented together by the use of a mortar now difficult to determine its component parts, is proof that it was built by a people who certainly could not be classed as ignorant savages, and the further fact that it was built around a never-failing supply of pure water, in the center of a fertile plain with but one narrow outlet which could be guarded and defended and in which buffalo and other animals could be herded, shows that it had been selected with keen sagacity and for some well-defined purpose

If besieged by their enemies, they were prepared to stand with comfort a long one, and in times of peace secure against the depredations of ferocious animal marauders, with which the forest were then undoubtedly thickly inhabited  No descent could be made successfully by men from the precipitous mountain sides, as these, being sparsely covered with vegetation, would at all times be exposed to view; and again, if a descent was made they would be at the mercy of those sheltered behind a strong and almost impregnable  wall, while the distance was too great for a flight of arrows to prove destructive, or even the bolt from a crossbow or the shot from an harquebus fired from the surrounding heights.

Thus we find them at home and obtain an idea of the manner in which they lived.  In brief, they were constantly at war with some other tribal race.  They lived in fortified cities; their food consisted of fish and fowl and flesh, with edible plants, maize, roots and salads.  There is, however, no vestige of grain food or slightest sign of their having ever tilled the soil.  they had intercourse with the tribes along the seacoast or made expeditions there themselves, as proven by their clothing, which we have shown already in another part of this article in some instances to be a cloth ornamented with sea shells, shark’s teeth and animal teeth, serpents teeth, etc.  Thus we know they strove to ornament their dress; probably used plumes and feathers in their headdress, wore picturesque costumes, mantels of furs and cloaks of bright-colored feathers.  They bury their dead in two ways, although a common cemetery was used.  One cloth or a fur mantle - laid full length upon the back, with arms crossed upon the breast, with the head to the west, the feet to the east.  In other words, in rising the face would look toward the sun.

Slabs of stone encase the body, as a vault in appearance. In some instances inscriptions have been cut upon these, but in the lapse of centuries water and fire have destroyed all but the traces of these.  In the other way the bodies are buried in a sitting position, with the knees doubled back over the breast and supporting the chin.  These bodies are sown up in a mat of woven grass, or shroud of woven feathers, soft, thick and skillfully put together. These bodies are not encased with stone slabs, but sit with their faces turned toward the rising sun.

These remains of walled cities and cemeteries have been found in several places in Tennessee.  Haywood briefly mentions one discovered by the first settlers from Virginia and North Carolina near the present site of Nashville, but only in a casual way and without particulars.  The ruins can yet be seen by excavating at that point and in other places, which I intend to mention in a later article.

When I visited the World’s Fair I spent ten long days in the anthropological building and also visited the cave of the cliff dwellers.  To my great pleasure I found perfect duplicates of what my researches in the mountains of Tennessee had brought to light.

Now, let us take all the evidences we have before us-the names, features, bearings, habits, fondness for bright clothing and ornaments, traits of character and disposition, relics yet preserved in their homes, although unassociated as links in the chain of a direct history of their ancestry in the minds of the present tribe or race of “Melungeons,” yet is convincing to me that they are the diect descendants of the Aztecs and Portuguese, the latter commingling with the Aztecs probably as far back as the sixteenth century-I say this because I believe I can furnish proof of evidence difficult to refute of this being true-tat the Aztecs welcomed among them these few adventurers and that the union of the two races never extended farther than a limited area and a proportionately small amount of mixed blood, these being confined to the present limits of Tennessee, and represented now by a few hundred “Melungeons.”

The terrible tribal conflicts, disease and later conflicts with our own people have decimated and destroyed all but a few of their descendants, who yet linger among the mountains, which once knew the presence of a great and powerful nation other than ours.  This nation in Tennessee-as shown by the evidence I have introduced-both in their mode of burial and weapons and habits of life contained the blood also of another separate and distinct race in their veins, and that these were men of Portugal and Spain, who either deserted or were captured from De Soto’s army. 

In this manner, I now close this hasty sketch of “Melungeons” of Tennessee, except to say that I have gathered and preserved many of their traditions, which I hope later to make public and further confirm the position assumed in this article.  I would like, further, to suggest that the evidence found here, in New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Mexico, Peru and Chili, and the exhumations of Egyptian tombs prove that the Aztecs were the same race of people in each country above named, only modified by climate and surroundings; that they ruled in Egypt and ruled the Western Hemisphere, with the Maltese cross following them everywhere, and to the almost utter extinction of their people and their race down to the present race.  there is indubitable proof of the existence of a Masonic order extending through centuries of time among the Aztecs.


The 'World's Fair' in 1893 was actually the 400th anniversary of Columbus -- and I've found a little about the anthropology building and some of the anthropoligist.