Most of my independent research has been as an anthropologist in Southern Appalachia: specifically the Cumberland Gap area. With a focus on identity, family narratives, and culture, I have become involved with Melungeon research, family studies, and social activism.
If you aren’t yet familiar with the term Melungeon, here is a brief explanation: this is a population of people living in the area of southeast Kentucky, northeast Tennessee, and southwest Virginia, primarily in the isolated areas of the mountains. They are commonly thought to be of tri-racial descent; White, Native American, and African. Considered an ethnic slur, the term Melungeon, was not used to self-identify until recently. The geopolitical climate prior to the 1970’s was such that the “one drop rule” of African blood could effectively nullify much of one’s civil rights legally.
Here is a transcript of a very early article from the area, thanks to Joanne Pezzullo.
“Newspapers on slow news days tend to print or reprint stories their readers may be interested in. This article while it appears in the Knoxville Register in September of 1848 it is quoting from the Louisville Examiner. So as we have no clue who the journalist was we also have no idea if this was originally printed in 1818 or in 1848. It was copied to other newspapers around the country at various times, appearing in Wisconsin paper in 1848, New Jersey papers in 1894, and Ohio papers in 1898, with no mention of the origin of the article. You would have thought it was a journalist from 1894 who had visited with the Melungeons on Newman’s Ridge,” (Joanne Pezzullo).
“From Littell’s Living Age-No. 254-31 March, 1849″
(We are sorry to have lost the name of the southern paper from which this is taken.)
We give to-day another amusing and characteristic sketch from a letter of our intelligent and sprightly correspondent, sojourning at present in one of the seldom-visited nooks hid away in our mountains.
You must know that within ten miles of this owl’s nest, there is a watering-place, known hereabouts as ‘black-water Springs.’ It is situated in a narrow gorge, scarcely half a mile wide, between Powell’s Mountain and the Copper Ridge, and is, as you may suppose, almost inaccessible. A hundred men could defend the pass against even a Xerxian army. Now this gorge and the tops and sides of the adjoining mountains are inhabited by a singular species of the human animal called MELUNGENS.
The legend of their history, which they carefully preserve, is this. A great many years ago, these mountains were settled by a society of Portuguese Adventurers, men and women–who came from the long-shore parts of Virginia, that they might be freed from the restraints and drawbacks imposed on them by any form of government. These people made themselves friendly with the Indians and freed, as they were from every kind of social government, they uprooted all conventional forms of society and lived in a delightful Utopia of their own creation, trampling on the marriage relation, despising all forms of religion, and subsisting upon corn (the only possible product of the soil) and wild game of the woods. These intermixed with the Indians, and subsequently their descendants (after the advances of the whites into this part of the state) with the negros and the whites, thus forming the present race of Melungens. They are tall, straight, well- formed people, of a dark copper color, with Circassian features, but wooly heads and other similar appendages of our negro. They are privileged voters in the state in which they live and thus, you will perceive, are accredited citizens of the commonwealth. They are brave, but quarrelsome; and are hospitable and generous to strangers. They have no preachers among them and are almost without any knowledge of a Supreme Being. They are married by the established forms, but husband and wife separate at pleasure, without meeting any reproach or disgrace from their friends. They are remarkably unchaste, and want of chastity on the part of females is no bar to their marrying. They have but little association with their neighbors, carefully preserving their race, or class, or whatever you may call it: and are in every respect, save they are under the state government, a separate and distinct people. Now this is no traveller’s story. They are really what I tell you, without abating or setting down in aught in malice. They are behind their neighbors in the arts. They use oxen instead of horses in their agricultural attempts, and their implements of husbandry are chiefly made by themselves of wood. They are, without exception, poor and ignorant, but apparently happy.
Having thus given you a correct geographical and scientific history of the people, I will proceed with my own adventures.
The doctor was, as usual my compagnon de voyage, and we stopped at ‘Old Vardy’s’, the hostelrie of the vicinage. Old Vardy is the ‘chief cook and bottle-washer’ of the Melungens, and is really a very clever fellow: but his hotel savors strongly of that peculiar perfume that one may find in the sleeping-rooms of our negro servants, especially on a close, warm, summer evening. We arrived at Vardy’s in time for supper, and thus despatched, we went to the spring, where were assembled several rude log huts, and a small sprinkling of ‘the natives, together with a fiddle and other preparations for a dance. Shoes, stockings, and coats were unknown luxuries among them–at least we saw them not.
The dance was engaged in with right hearty good will, and would have put to the blush the tame steppings of our beaux. Among the participants was a very tall, raw-boned damsel, with her two garments fluttering readily in the amorous night breeze, who’s black eyes were lit up with an unusual fire, either from the repeated visits to the nearest hut, behind the door of which was placed an open-mouthed stone jar of new-made corn whiskey, and in which was a gourd, with a ‘deuce a bit’ of sugar at all, and no water near than the spring. Nearest here on the right was s a lank lantern-jawed, high cheekbone, long-legged fellow who seemed similarly elevated. Now these two, Jord Bilson (that was he,) and Syl Varmin, (that was she,)were destined to afford the amusement of the evening: for Jord, in cutting the pigeon-wing, chanced to light from one of his aerial flights right upon the ponderous pedal appendage of Syl, a compliment which this amiable lady seemed in no way to accept kindly.
‘Jord Bilson,’ said the tender Syl, ‘I’ll thank you to keep your darned hoofs off my feet.’
‘Oh, Jord’s feet are so tarnel big he can’t manage ’em all by hisself.’ suggested some pasificator near by.
‘He’ll have to keep ’em off me,’ suggested Syl, ‘or I’ll shorten ’em for him.’
‘Now look ye here, Syl Varmin, ‘ answered Jord, somewhat nettled at both remarks, ‘I didn’t go to tread on your feet but I don’t want you to be cutting up any rusties about. You’re nothing but a cross-grained critter, anyhow.’
‘And you’re a darned Melungen.’
‘Well, if I am, I ain’t nigger-Melungen, anyhow–I’m Indian-Melungen, and that’s more ‘an you is.’
‘See here, Jord,’ said Syl, now highly nettled, ‘I’ll give you a dollar ef you’ll go out on the grass and right it out.’
Jord smiled faintly and demurred, adding–‘Go home Syl, and look under your puncheons and see if you can’t fill a bed outen the hair of them hogs you stole from Vardy.’
‘And you go to Sow’s cave, Jord Bilson, ef it comes to that, and see how many shucks you got offen that corn you took from Pete Joemen. Will you take the dollar?’
Jord now seemed about to consent, and Syl reduced the premium by one half, and finally came down to a quarter, and then Jord began to offer a quarter, a half, and finally a dollar: but Syl’s prudence equalled his, and seeing that neither was likely to accept, we returned to our hotel, and were informed by old Vardy that the sight we had witnessed was no ‘onusual one. The boys and gals was jist having a little fun.’
And so it proved, for about midnight we were wakened by a loud noise of contending parties in fierce combat, and, rising and looking out from the chinks of our hut, we saw the whole party engaged in a grand me lee; rising above the din of all which, was the harsh voice of Syl Varmin, calling–
‘Stand back here, Sal Frazar, and let me do the rest of the beaten of Jord Bilson; I haint forgot his hoofs yit.’
The mele closed, and we retired again, and by breakfast next morning all hands were reconciled, and the stone jar replenished out of the mutual pocket, and peace ruled where so lately all had been recriminations and blows.
After breakfast, just as the supper had been at old Jack’s, save only that we had a table, we started for Clinch river for a day’s fishing where other and yet more amusing incidents awaited us. But as I have dwelt upon this early part of the journey longer than I intended, you must wait till the next letter for the concluding incidents.”