A generation ago census records of certain mountainous
counties of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Carolina, and others
proved somewhat confusing. This was due to the presence of a strange
group of people whose origin was, and has remained, one of the deepest
and most fascinating mysteries of American ethnology. The "Melungeons"
who were called "ramps" in certain areas by their neighbors, have
characteristics that range from those of the whites and American
Indians to Orientals or Negroes. This variation prevented a definite
race classification, and has also given rise to numerous theories
concerning their origin.
Some had dark, oily skin, kinky hair, upturned noses and dark stoic
eyes. Others, even in the same family had coarse bronzed skin, with
straight black hair. Still others, close relatives, differed little
from their white neighbors, perhaps having brown or light, fuzzy
hair, fair or medium skin, and dark blue or gray eyes. Then there
were others among them that had smooth, yellowish skin, curly brown
or black hair, and dreamy, almost Oriental eyes. It would be
impossible to make any accurate estimate of how many such people
were scattered throughout the mountains of the Southern Appalachians,
but it can be assumed that their number fifty years ago would have
run into at least five digits.
According to Bruce Crawford, a former newspaperman, and leading
student of ethnology ofthe Appalachian area, the Melungeons were
officially recognized about 1887 and given a separate legal existence
under the title of "Croatan Indians" on the theory of their descent
from Raleigh's Lost Colony of Roanoke Island (North Carolina), a
convenient means of disposal, but hardly satisfying to the inquisitive
historian. The older Melungeons insisted that they were Portuguese.
I have known the Melungeons from childhood, when three families
lived as tenants on my father's farm in Southwestern Virginia. Their
children have been my pupils, and I have done first-hand research
on their traits, customs, and past, but can give here only the proposed
theories of their origin.
Mr. Crawford's research revealed that when John Sevier organized
the state of Franklin (Tennessee) there was a colony of "dark-skinned,
reddish-brown complexioned people supposed to be of Moorish descent."
They were neither Indians nor Negroes, but claimed to be Portuguese.
There is a doubtful theory that the Melungeon was a product of frontier
warfare when white blood was fused with the Indian captor's and
that of the Negro slave. There also persist stories (that are
recorded in history) that DeSoto visited Southwestern Virginia in
the sixteenth century by way of a long chain of mountain leading
One ridge known as "Newman's Ridge" (which could have been "New
Man's Ridge") was once the home of a teeming colony of Melungeons
who were strongly believed to have descended from members of DeSoto's
party lost or captured there. In both Carolinas Melungeons were
denied privileges usually granted to white people. For that reason
many migrated to Tennessee where the courts ruled that they were
Traditions still persist that the Melungeons were
descendants of the ancient Phoenicians who migrated from Carthage
to Morocco, whenced they crossed the Atlantic before the American
Revolution and settled in North Carolina. If this theory can be
accepted, they were pure Carthaginians, and not a mixed race. In
weighing this last statement it is interesting to note that the
Moors of Tennessee called themselves Portuguese, that the Moors
of North Carolina came from Portugal, and that a generation ago
the Melungeons called themselves Portuguese. Yet there are factors
that are puzzling in these assumptions. Such common surnames among
them as Collins, Gipson (Gibson), Sexton, Bolen, Goins, and Mullens
suggest no Phoenician background. And there is nothing about the
word "ramp" to suggest a shy, usually inoffensive race of people.
Neither is there any known reason for usage of the word "Melungeon"
which is believed to have been derived from the French word "melange,"
The Melungeons were sometimes shy and reticent
toward outlanders, but amiable with neighbors. They were loyal to
their kin and employers. While they were fond of whiskey few were
boisterous or malicious. I recall a story often told by my father,
who was reared only a few miles from Newman's Ridge, about "Big
Mahala Mullens" who lived on the Virginia-Tennessee state line.
She grew so obese that she was unable to leave her house, and sat
at the door all day selling whiskey to travelers. When she discovered
the approach of revenue officials she waddled over to the Virginia
side of her house if they approached from the Tennessee side, and
vice versa if from Virginia. The act was probably unnecessary, since
the authorities could not have removed her from the house. When
Mahala died the chimney was torn away in order that she could be
removed for burial.
Practically all Melungeons preferred a care-free
existence with members of their own clan. For many generations they
seldom married outsiders, and virtually all families in each area
were related. Nearly all Melungeons, young and old chewed tobacco.
They lived largely on bacon, corn pone, mush, and strong coffee.
In early spring they gathered "crow's foot" from the woodlands,
and "bear's lettuce" from spring branches, and ate them raw with
salt. They liked wild fruits and berries to eat from the bush, but
cared nothing for canning and preserving them. The holiday for Melungeon
men was a week in late summer, after the crops were laid by, to
be used for a ginseng expedition. No camping equipment was taken
along except a water pail, knives, and a frying pan. They slept
under the cliffs.
No fisherman could compete with the Melungeons.
He simply waded into the stream, shoes and all, and searched with
his fingers for fish hiding under stones. It no time he emerged
with a nice string of fish. Theirs was a hardy race, and seldom
did they rely on a doctor. They applied many home remedies for injuries
and brewed herb teas. Childbirth was a casual matter, usually attended
by mountain midwife. Babies, as a rule, grew and thrived without
any pretense of comfort or sanitation.
Their religion was of the simple Protestant type.
They often attended their neighbors' churches, and occasionally
had a patriarch-preacher in their group. They learned some of the
old ballads and gospel songs from memory, for few of them could
read or write. They accepted attendance at school, in most cases,
an "unnecessary evil." Church picnics were always attended by Melungeon
boys, but my mother once had a difficult time persuading young Willie
that he must have a bath and wear a suit in order to participate
in a children's day program. So he appeared, grinning broadly, in
my brother's hand-me-down. Then came industry to the Appalachians
- coal, timbering, and railroads. The change was slow. World War
I drew Melungeons into industry as well as military service. Coal
towns grew up rapidly, and the Melungeon, like other tenant farmers,
loaded up his few belongings on a wagon and headed for the "public
works." A few remained behind and bought little hillside farms.
For some reason their number appears to have decreased sharply in
the past three decades, probably a result of long intermarriage,
or perhaps many have been lost in white blood. Soon they may become
just a legend - a lost race. ;;
Ohio Valley Folk Research Project. Publications
released in 1960 as of June 15, 1960. (1) "Sage's Purple Passon"
by Ben Hayes, New Series No. 37 (2) "Hair Balls and the Witch" by
Melissa Hughes, New Series No. 38 (3) "Uncle Remus in Syracuse"
by Lawrence S. Thompson, New Series No. 39 (4) "Hewitt, the Hermit"
by James Emmitt, New Series No. 40 (5) "Tobacco Folklore" by Lawrence
S. Thompson, New Series, No. 41 (6) "Ox, Capon and the Hare" by
Yancy Yadkin, New Series, No. 42 (7) "Hugh Mosher, the Fifer" by
Robert L. Walden, New Series, No. 43 (8) "Control of Grasshoppers"
by Raymond Embree, New Series, No. 44 (9) "The Lost Silver Mine"
by Dr. Carl R. Bogardus, New Series No. 45 (10) "Hog Drive to Evansville,
1879" by Elmer S. Elliott, New Series No. 46 (11) "Johnny Appleseed"
by Rosella Rice, New Series, No. 47 (12) "Squirrel Broth" by Merrill
C. Gilfillan, New Series, No. 48; (13) "The Undertaker's Revenge,"
by Jean Dow, New Series, No. 49 (14) "The Jackson County Madstones"
by Dr. Gwyn Parry, New Series No. 50. (15) "The Feast of Rosea"
by Adlyn Keffer, New Series, No. 51 (16) "Song, Legend of PA and
WV" by Keysner and Whiting, New Series, No. 52 (17) "Lazy Tom" by
Ellen Margolis, New Series No. 53 (18) "The Story of Nelson T. Gant"
by Norris F. Schneider, New Series, No. 54 (19) "The Big Blow" by
Laessle Bemis, New Series, No. 55) Publication
No 2Pages 47 to 52