Remembering a regional people called Melungeons

Larry Bowers
Posted 5/17/17

During my newspaper career, working in Maryville, Gatlinburg, Kingsport and Morristown in East Tennessee, there was often discussion of one of the region’s oddities ... the Melungeons.

A number …

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Remembering a regional people called Melungeons


During my newspaper career, working in Maryville, Gatlinburg, Kingsport and Morristown in East Tennessee, there was often discussion of one of the region’s oddities ... the Melungeons.

A number of these unusual people were located through the years in Hancock and Hawkins counties, just west of Morristown and Hamblen County.

The Melungeons were often referred to by other settlers to East Tennessee through the years as descendants of “Turks,” “Moors” or “Portuguese.”

Historically, this group of people were associated with the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, which includes portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and eastern Kentucky.

According to Wikipedia, “their tri-racial population is thought to be of mixed European, African and Native American ancestry, among the world’s most intent melting pots. There is no consensus on how many such groups exist, but estimates range as high as 200.”

According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, cultural geographer Edward Price, in a 1950 dissertation, proposed that Melungeons were families descended from free people of color (who were likely of both European and African ancestry) and mixed-race unions between persons of African ancestry and Native Americans in colonial Virginia.

The ancestry and identity of Melungeons has been a highly controversial subject and has given rise to infinite discussions. Secondary sources disagree as to their ethnic, linguistic, cultural and geographic origins and identity, as they are of mixed racial ancestry.

They could be described as a loose collection of families of diverse origins who migrated, settled near each other, and intermarried, mostly in Hancock and Hawkins counties. Their ancestors can usually be traced back to colonial Virginia and the Carolinas. They were largely endogamous, marrying primarily within their community until about 1900.

Melungeons have been defined as having multi-racial ancestry, and “do not exhibit characteristics that could be classified as those of a single racial phenotype,” notes Wikipedia. Most modern-day descendants of Appalachian families traditionally regarded as Melungeon are generally European American in appearance, often (though not always) with dark hair and eyes, and a swarthy or olive complexion.

Descriptions of Melungeons have varied widely over time; in the 19th and early 20th century, they were sometimes identified as "Portuguese," "Native American," or "light-skinned African American.”

During the 19th century, free people of color sometimes identified as Portuguese or Native American in order to avoid being classified as black in the segregated slave societies. Other Melungeon individuals and families are accepted and identify as white, particularly since the mid-20th century. They have tended to "marry white" since before the 20th century.

As if we didn’t have enough racial stereotypes, Scholars and commentators do not agree on who should be included under the term Melungeon.

Contemporary authors identify differing lists of surnames to be included as families associated with Melungeons. The English surname Gibson and Irish surname Collins appear frequently, and genealogist Pat Elder called them "core" surnames.

Vardy Collins and Shep Gibson settled in Hancock County, and they and other Melungeons are documented by land deeds, slave sales and marriage licenses. Other researchers include the surnames Powell, LeBon, Bolling, Bunch, Goins, Goodman, Heard, Minor, Mise, Mullins, and several others.

The original meaning of the word "Melungeon", from about the mid-19th to the late 20th centuries, is referred exclusively to one tri-racial isolate group, the descendants of the multiracial Collins, Gibson, and several other related families at Newman's Ridge, Vardy Valley, and other settlements in and around Hancock and Hawkins counties.

These families, or their descendants, remained while I was living in Morristown.

During the 1600s, the free descendants of many settlement unions formed the oldest free families of color. Early colonial Virginia was very much a "melting pot" of peoples, and some of these early multi-racial families were ancestors of the later Melungeons.

Over the generations, most individuals of the group called Melungeon were persons of mixed European and African descent, whose ancestors had been free in colonial Virginia.

In 1894, the U.S. Department of the Interior, in its "Report of Indians Taxed and Not Taxed," noted that the Melungeons in Hawkins County "claim to be Cherokee of mixed blood.” The term Melungeon has since been applied as a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mixed-race ancestry.

In 2012, genealogist Roberta Estes and fellow researchers, reported that the Melungeon lines likely originated in the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery became widespread.

They concluded that as laws were put in place to prevent the mixing of races, family groups could only intermarry with each other. They migrated together from western Virginia through the Piedmont frontier of North Carolina, before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee.

Free people of color are documented as migrating with European-American neighbors in the first half of the 18th century to the frontiers of Virginia and North Carolina, where they received land grants like their neighbors.

For instance, the Collins, Gibson, and Ridley (Riddle) families owned land adjacent to one another in Orange County, N.C., where they and the Bunch family were listed in 1755 as free Molatas (mulattoes).

By settling in frontier areas, such as Hancock and Hawkins counties, free people of color found more amenable living conditions and could escape some of the racial strictures of the Virginia and North Carolina Tidewater plantation areas.


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