Appeared in the
Knoxville News Sentinel, Knoxville, TN on Monday, November 3, 2003
STORY OF MELUNGEONS SHOWS EARLY DIVERSITY IN UPPER SOUTH
In the mid-1970's, when I developed an interest in the people called
Melungeons, the only two books I could find on the subject were Jean Patterson
Bible's "Melungeons Yesterday and Today," and Bonnie Ball's "The Melungeons."
Today there are several available and you can type the name of the
once-mysterious ethnic group into your computer browser and get thousands of
John Sevier, Tennessee's first governor, was told by the Cherokees that
they had long referred to Melungeons as "as blue-eyed Indians." The term "Melungeon"
was probably given to them by French explorers, the first Europeans who ran into
them, long before the Scotch-Irish arrived. Wherever it came from, it was a term
of contempt, equivalent tp "mongrel."
They were spread throughout the Southern Appalachians under various names -
Brass Ankles, Carmelites, Lumbee Indians and Redbones - but they were
concentrated in what is now Hancock County, Tenn. They were mostly dark,
Mediterranean-looking people, but blue, gray and green eyes often turned up
among them. They would sometimes say they were "Portygee," when asked their
country of origin.
When genetic testing became available, it was proven that many had come
from Mediterranean stock - which likely included Moors, Berbers and even
Serphadic Jews - who had probably fled religious or ethnic persecution and
arrived by way of Portugal. But for 150 years, the so-called experts said such a
heritage was not possible because people with Portuguese and other Mediterranean
names had not been found on the passenger lists of European immigrants.
It didn't occur to the experts that a people who had already fled one place
because of ethnic persecution might have used English-sounding names to blend in
when they came here. The scholars preferred to say they were Phoenicians,
remnants of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Croatan Indians, shipwrecked Welsh
sailors or even a lost tribe of Israel. People without a voice of their own for
generations - with names like Collins, Mullins, Chavis, Casteel, Cox and variety
of spellings for Goin - they were helpless in stopping misinformation spread by
Their fair-skinned neighbors had always looked at them with suspicion. They
were landowners of prime property they had settled before the Scotch, Irish and
French got here. During a Tennessee constitutional convention that took place in
the mid-1830s, the delegates seized the opportunity to declare the ethnic group
known as Melungeons "free people of color," who could not own property, vote and
were forbidden by law to marry white people or testify against them in court.
Except in a few places like Claiborne County, (TN.) , where they had
political power and called themselves "black Dutch" and "black Irish," their
land was taken from them and many fled to the hills and settled places like
Newman's Ridge, in what is now Hancock County. (TN.). Some believe that county
was created especially for them, and it remains among the poorer areas in the
Disenfranchised and denied education - or as victims of ethnic cleansing,
as Dr. Brent Kennedy called it in "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud
People," a book he coauthored with Robyn Vaughan Kennedy - some Melungeons
survived by making whiskey, counterfeiting and even guerrilla warfare against
both sides during the Civil War.
The blue-eyed Kennedy, who had always thought of himself as Scotch-Irish,
became interested in Melungeons when he was diagnosed with a disease only found
in people of Mediterranean orgin.
"Sneaky as a Melungeon" and "The Melungeons will get you if yo udo't
behave" were common phrases well in the 20th century. It was also believed that
two Melungeons would always recognize each other wherever they met in the world
and that the offspring of whites and Melungeons would result in either dark or
fair children because Melungeon blood wouldn't mix with white.
My mother was a Goin from Claiborne County, (TN.), but she had never heard
the term "Melungeon" until I told her about it. The legends and lies that made
the Melungeons appear so mysterious for so long are proof that is possible to
almost obliterate the heritage of any minority group. All you need is enough
shame and comtempt.
Written By: David Hunter, who writes this column for the News Sentinel, is a
freelance writer and former Knox County sheriff's deputy. You may write him at
P.O. Box 1124, Powell, TN. 37849. His e-mail address is
Return to Hancock County Page
Return to TNGenWeb Page
All information contained in this
site has been generously donated and is owned by the submitter, it is for
personal use and is not to be use for profit.
This page was created and is
Carol Turner, Hancock County TNGenWeb
The graphics used on these
pages, with the exception of the USGenWeb & TNGenWeb logos, unless
otherwise noted are of my own recreation and are not to be used without my
Copyright 2003 by Carol Turner.