Vol. 4, # 3
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This multi-ethnic group has been a part of Appalachia folklore for many generations, and the subject of scientific research for the last half-century. Records establish the beginning of the only settlement of people who were known and called Melungeons between the years 1800-1900. They were identified in court, newspapers and census records as free persons of color and it was common knowledge who some of them were and where they lived. Military, land, tax and court records established the fact that the Melungeons came with and were part of the original pioneer settlers as they moved west. No records have been found calling them Melungeons in all the other places they lived prior to settling on Newman Ridge and Blackwater areas of East Tennessee and adjoining Lee County, Virginia.
Researching Melungeons from a historical and genealogical standpoint is identical to researching any other family. For those who have a Melungeon ancestor, he or she will eventually show up. The Gowen Research Foundation formed the first organized Melungeon Research team in 1990, headed by Evelyn McKinley Orr. A valuable collection of family history and genealogy was gathered during this time, but the mystery concerning the Melungeons remains unsolved.
Outsiders never called this group of people “Melungeon,” nor did they call themselves Melungeon on any records. The term was used for almost 100 years before it made dictionaries. The Melungeons were first defined in a dictionary in 1892. "One of a very dark people living in the Mountains of Tennessee.” New Standard dictionary of the English Language.
The main body of the people who came to be known as Melungeon lived in Louisa County, Virginia and started their migration in late 1740’s to the Flat River area of Granville County which became Orange County, NC in 1753. They left this area beginning in 1767 and set out for the backwoods sections of Virginia and NC on the New River. From there they came down the Clinch River, some stopped at Fort Blackmore for a few years but most of them came on to Hawkins County, TN in 1790’s. Historians believe most of these people were living in East Tennessee. “Other free person enumerated in the 1790 census possibly confirms that a free settlement of non-whites, a dark skin race or colony of people was living in East Tennessee.” (Vanishing Colony Of Newman Ridge, Henry Price)
By 1810 it was certain that a colony of dark-skinned people inhabited the ridge land and valleys near the Clinch River in what is today Hancock County, TN. Most of these were related families who can be found on previous tax and land records with the notation “mulatto, or free person of color.” Hawkins County Historian Henry Price, author of Vanishing Colony of Newman's Ridge, used these same records as a means of locating and identifying the Melungeons in census and tax records. Will T. Hale in History of Tennessee and Tennesseans agrees, “In the census taken in 1795 the Melungeon must have been with the 973 free persons of color.”
Dr. Edward T. Price in Geographical Review writes “The Melungeons reached Newman Ridge and Blackwater Valley (in Hancock County) among the first settlers, apparently in the 1790’s.” Some of his explanations or descriptions were: “1-The people must be racial mixtures of white and non-white groups, Indian and or Negro, 2-they must have a social status differing from that accorded whites, Indians or Negroes in the area in such a way as to throw them generally together in their more personal relationships; 3- they must exist in such numbers and concentration as to be recognized in their locality as such a group and be identified by a distinguishing group name, some of those named and mapped included the Melungeons.”
Backtracking the Melungeons using church, tax, land and military records proves the migration pattern is correct. Not only do tax records from the lower district of Russell County, Virginia list these families, they were also recorded in the Stony Creek Church minutes, in 1813 which also shows the movements of these people as they traveled back and forth from Stony Creek Church to the Blackwater Church in Hawkins County, Tennessee. The exact date this name Melungeon was given to these former church members is unknown. Perhaps the former church members who migrated first to Hawkins County beginning 1802 were given this name because these ladies were using the word and the church clerk recorded it which suggests the people labeled Melungeon had already been given this name by 1813. Some of the people who became known as Melungeons joined the Stony Creek Church at Fort Blackmore, Virginia beginning in 1801.
What makes the term so interesting is the first three times it can be found in writing it is spelled differently: 1- Melungin 2- Malungeon 3- Melungeon. And almost every time it was used in a derogatory manner. Another reason researchers have studied them so thoroughly is because of the mystery of the word itself. No one knows for sure the true definition of this word.
They cannot be identified by the same methods as other Appalachian settlers at this time, although they went to the same churches and schools and fought in the same wars, but they did not enjoy the same freedoms as afforded their white neighbors. They were treated differently and called Melungeon by some of their neighbors. Marriage records reveal Melungeons married into their own related families at twice the rate of whites in this same community. It was their neighbors who labeled them Melungeons and tried to take their basic rights away. Military records also establish that men who later became known as Melungeons fought in the same wars as their white neighbors. Several were in the battle at Point Pleasant against the Shawnee Indians.
Melungeons was a fighting word in Hancock County and even in adjoining Hawkins County; don’t ask if someone is a Melungeon. Their poverty and lack of education has been a result of their isolation from the world outside Hancock County, and more or less from their neighbors in the county itself.
Mentioned often by the Tennessee Mountaineers as “sons of perdition” the Melungeons were once ferocious fighters whose rampages into the lowlands infuriated early Scotch- Irish settlers of the Volunteer state and led to many bloody battles. But, that was back in the days when Tennessee was a struggling Western State. The years have changed these dark mountain folk, who insist they are of Portuguese origin into a peaceful but aloof group and still live in the Cumberland’s.
While historians and students of folklore differ widely in their theories of the Melungeons origin, there are many who believe in the Portuguese theory. One member of the race summed up the Melungeons belief to James Aswell of the Tennessee W.P.A writers’ project: “We come from Portugal. It was a long time ago, but we come from Portugal and were Portuguese. We come in a boat and it was bigger, heaps bigger, than airy ferryboat ever you saw. It was big and they run it with sails all across the water. When the boat came to Land some sort of hardness sprung up betwixt the sailormen and their bosses. Don’t know what it was but the sailormen killed the boss men and set fire to the boat and burned it plum down. So here they were with no way to get back home, so they hunted themselves up an injun town and they run the injun men off into the woods and married up with the injun women. And they later crossed over into Tennessee.” However the early settlers took little stock in this story. Instead they believed the dark hill people to be a mixture of white renegades, runaway Negro slaves, and Indians.
Old written records in Tennessee establish the true-recorded identity and history of the Melungeons and they present a challenge to authors and others who have identified other groups as Melungeons prior to this group. History studies establish the fact that it was once common knowledge where the Melungeons were located and who many of them were beginning with the possible ‘John Sevier letter’, the 1802 Sevier survey through Melungeon country, the 1813 Stony Creek Church record, and the 1846-48 illegal voting trials of the Melungeons.
The majority of evidence points to the fact that the Melungeons were; "One of a very dark people living in the Mountains of Tennessee", as first defined in a dictionary in 1892 by Dr. Isaac K. Funk, and nothing has been found to change this historical fact. Research continues and who knows maybe someday, someone will discover an old record that may prove or disprove this history.
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Fact: Will Allen Dromgool wrote in her article ‘The Malungeons’ Boston Arena, May 1891 that John Sevier encountered the Melungeons while attempting to organize the state of Franklin (1784). She wrote they called themselves Malungeons and claimed to be Portuguese.
Tip: Many of the people who became known in history as the Melungeons lost their identity through intermarriages with their white neighbors and the job of finding and locating these families can only be done through family genealogy. Some of these may have mixed with Indian tribes and lived among them. The main body of the ones who became known as Melungeons and carrying Melungeon traits fall into a basic family name grouping which includes Boulden, also spelled Bowlin, Bolen, Bowling, and Bolton, Bunch, Collins, also Collens and Colins, Fields, Gibson, Gipson, Goins also spelled Goen, Goan, Going, Minor, Mullins, Williams, Nichols. Of course by reason of several generations of intermarriage with neighboring white settlers, many other names are blood related to the Melungeons.
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Melungeon Conference and Celebration will be held June 12-13
The weekend features two events focusing on the Melungeons. The Melungeon Historical Society will hold their first annual conference on Friday, June 12, in Rogersville, Tennessee, while the Vardy Community Historical Society holds their Spring Fling at their museum on Vardy Road in Hancock County, Tennessee.
The public is invited to this event, which will be held at the Hawkins County Rescue Squad meeting room, 955 East McKinney Avenue, Rogersville, Tennessee. Registration begins at 9:30 AM and the conference will run until about 8:30 pm, with lunch and dinner breaks.
Presentations at the MHS conference will begin at 10 AM and will cover topics such as the origin and historical uses of the term "Melungeon," DNA research on Melungeon families, and other topics related to the multi-ethnic people first documented in the Clinch River region in the early 19th century. The use of DNA technology in genealogy will be covered by Roberta Estes, founder of DNAExplain, a Michigan company that analyzes and interprets individual DNA tests.
Other presenters include Jack Goins, Hawkins County Archivist and author of Melungeons and Other Pioneer Families; Kathy Lyday-Lee, a professor at Elon University who taught a course on Melungeons; and Kathy James, who will present DNA information on the Gibson and Collins families.
"This conference is of special interest to those who want to learn more about the Melungeons," said Winkler, "but it is also designed to benefit anyone interested in genealogy and especially in the use of DNA technology to trace family lines." The conference is free, but donations are suggested to help promote the work of the Melungeon Historical Society.
On Saturday, June 13, the Vardy Historical Society will hold its Spring Fling from 10 AM until 2 PM. The location is the Vardy Church Museum, which features displays from the Presbyterian mission which provide education opportunities for Melungeon children from 1899 to the early 1970s.
The Spring Fling features Appalachian crafts such as basket and chair weaving, apple butter making, corn grinding, shuck dolls, hominy making, a tractor show, and plenty of music.
For more information on the MHS conference, contact Winkler at 423.439.6441 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For information on the VCHS Spring Fling, contact Claude Collins at email@example.com or 423.733.2305.
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