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The Melungeons

My Perspective


I guess I'm luckier than a lot of people whose genealogical research leads them to the conclusion that their ancestors may have been Melungeons. I was told all of my life that my father's family was Melungeon. The explanation that I was given about what "Melungeon" meant was that they were a mixture of three different races. I accepted that without question.

It was not until I got the genealogy bug from my mother and began climbing further up my family tree that I realized there were those who questioned this explanation. I read other theories which mostly served to confuse me. I found there were several books that had been written about the Melungeons. I researched the history of Newman's Ridge and, in doing so, I learned about a famous Melungeon named Mahala Mullins. I also got acquainted with the late Bill Grohse, Hancock Co., TN historian and genealogist. Today there are internet sites that are devoted to the subject of the Melungeons.

After 20 years of research, I still haven't unlocked the secret of the Melungeons. Thanks to Nancy Sparks Morrison, I now know what "shovel teeth" are (which I have) and where I'm supposed to be able to find the bump on my head — both of which are reportedly characteristics of Melungeon descendants. Although I am fair skinned and freckled, I know about my Melungeon heritage because it was openly discussed among my family. The stigma of the Melungeons still existed in our area, but my family never tried to conceal their ancestry. I guess they realized that a person should be proud of his heritage, no matter what it is, because it is part of what makes us who we are.


Theories

My paternal forefathers were from the Newman's Ridge area of Hancock Co., TN. Most of the history of the Melungeons is speculation because there was nothing recorded by the earliest inhabitants of the ridge. When discovered in 1784, at the time John Sevier organized the State of Franklin, this colony of dark-skinned, dark-haired people claimed to be Portuguese — descendants of shipwrecked sailors. There is also a group of dark-skinned people who live in South Carolina who insist their ancestors were Portuguese sailors or pirates and that they anglicized their names to those of English settlers. For example, "Brogan" could have been changed from "Braganza," "Goins" from "Magoens," "Collins" from "Colinso" or "Mullins" from "Mollen." Even the word "Melungeon" could have been derived from the AfroPortuguese word "melungo," which means "shipmate" or "companion," although some people believe it comes from the French word "melange" meaning "mixture." A recorded historical event that is considered to be a possible link between the Melungeons and the Portuguese theory is that of a ship sent from Portugal in 1665 in an attempt to seize Cuba. The ship was never heard from again.

Some historians theorize that the Melungeon ancestors were Carthaginians who fled from their native land in 146 B.C. when it was destroyed by the Romans. A number of them supposedly crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Portugal and later emigrated to the Carolinas and eventually into East Tennessee. A recent addition to feasible theories of Melungeon origin is the "Phoenician Theory," which is based on a stone found in Brazil in 1872 which told of an actual landing of a Near Eastern ship there in 531 B.C. An inscription on a stone found near Fort Loudon, TN at Bat Creek in 1885 has given weight to another theory. The translation reads "for the land of Judah," thus leading some historians to believe the Melungeons were descendants of the "Lost Tribe of Israel." The inscription, however, has also been identified with an early 19th century Cherokee alphabet.

Possibly the most widely accepted theory of the Melungeon's origin has been that of the "Lost Colony." When supply ships came to Roanoke Island from England in 1560, all evidence that remained of the 150 colonists that had arrived there three years earlier were their dilapidated houses and the word CROATOAN carved on a tree. It was assumed the settlers had fled to the Indian village of Croatan about fifty miles south seeking refuge with the Indians who had been particularly friendly to the previous voyagers. A search for the missing colonists was attempted, but stormy weather forced the ships to sail away to the West Indies. Croatan legend holds that they indeed befriended the English and took them into their tribe. They later moved westward to the Lumber River in North Carolina where they were discovered by the French in 1709. Among them were blue-eyed, fair-haired members who spoke some Elizabethan English words and had surnames corresponding to those of the lost colony. If this is the true story of how the Melungeons came into existence, it still isn't the complete story. Even before the disappearance of the lost colony, an earlier expedition from England had recorded finding Indians who "were of yellowish color and their hair black for the msot part, and yet we saw children that had very fine auburn and chestnut-colored hair," whom they assumed were probably descendants of earlier shipwrecked European sailors.


Books

The Melungeon legend has been romanticized in novels like "Daughter of the Legend" by Jessee Stuart and "The Hawk's Done Gone" by Mildred Haun. Historical sketches involving the Melungeons were written by Bonnie S. Ball and Jean Patterson Bible. Dr. Brent Kennedy recently published a book titled "Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People." Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have been devoted to the subject of Melungeon ancestry. For several years, the residents of Sneedville, TN presented a play called "Walk Toward the Sunset," which was a dramatization of the Melungeon way of life.


Newman's Ridge History

In 1891, Miss Will Allen Dromgoole published an article in which she claimed to have discovered the real history of the Melungeons. She stated that two Cherokee Indians borrowed names of white settlers, calling themselves "Vardy Collins" and "Buck Gibson." Buck covered himself with a dark stain and Vardy sold him to a wealthy white man as a slave. Buck later washed off the stain in a creek and joined Vardy in the woods. They divided their loot and went their separate ways. Miss Dromgoole also stated that a Collins came to Newman's Ridge and raised a family by a wife whose ancestry was vague. She told of an English trader named Mullins who married one of the Collins daughters, a free or escaped slave named Goins who married another Collins daughter and moved to the Blackwater Swamps, and a Portuguese named Denhan who came from one of the Spanish settlements farther south and married still another Collins daughter. Miss Dromgoole offered no authority for her statements.

Although Miss Dromgoole's version of the Melungeons' obscure beginning may have been purely conjecture, some of the names she mentioned were recorded in history. The first Melungeon inhabitants of the Newman's Ridge area were Vardy Collins and Shepherd Gibson. In 1780, John Wolf received a land certificate from the state of North Carolina which he assigned to Vardemon Collins. In 1784, Henry Grimes received a similar certificate which he assigned to Shepherd Gibson. In 1796, another certificate was assigned to Vardemon Collins from Elisha Neilson. Gibson obtained his first land grant from Tennessee in 1814; Collins in 1816. By this time, other Melungeon families were living in the area.

Vardy Collins was born in North Carolina in 1764 and still lived in Hancock Co., TN at the time of the 1850 census. He owned and operated a hotel/boarding house at the foot of Newman's Ridge. The hotel was in operation from the 1840s until 1916. The Vardy community located at the foot of Newman's Ridge was named for him. It is not known for sure where Shepherd Gibson was born, but he died in 1842 in Hawkins Co., TN. (Hancock Co., TN was not in existence at that time as it was formed in 1844 from part of Hawkins Co.)

During the 1830s, many Melungeon families acquired land in the Newman's Ridge area. In the Hawkins Co., TN Register's Office can be found the names of those who purchased land in the Walter Sims survey, which was located on both sides of the Clinch River and included a part of Newman's Ridge and Buffalo Creek. Among those names are William Bowlin, Elisha Goin, Haston Goin, Benjamin Bunch, Jessee Goodman, Elijah Goins, George Goen, Jordan Gibson, Crispin Goan, James Mullins, James Collins, Andrew Gibson, Zachariah Minor, William Goodman, John Collins, Wyatt Collins, James Moore, and Solomon D. Collins.


Mahala Mullins

My great-great-grandfather was Bailey Collins, son of Solomon D. Collins and Virginia "Gincy" Goins. Bailey had a sister named Mahala. Mahala Collins was born in 1824 and died in 1898 in Hancock Co., TN. Mahala married John Mullins. John was the son of James and Clara Mullins. Mahala was probably the most famous Melungeon in the Newman's Ridge area. Haley, as she was called, openly sold moonshine in her log house high on Newman's Ridge. Legend has it she weighed about 600 pounds, but most people agree her weight was actually around 400 pounds. Another legend tells that, since her house was built on the Tennessee-Virginia line, when the Tennessee authorities came looking for her she would go to the Virginia side of the house and when the Virginia authorities came she would go to the Tennessee side. In reality, her house was in Tennessee about two miles from the Virginia line. She undoubtedly was too large to be taken out of the house if the authorities tried to arrest her. One deputy reportedly told the sheriff, "She's catchable, but not fetchable."

When Haley died, she was carried from the house through an opening left in the wall for a chimney. According to one source, she was buried in her bed which had the legs removed and boards added to the sides to form a coffin. Another source claims she was buried in a piano crate. She now rests in a small cemetery near the house that had been started with the deaths of some of her infant children.

According to an affidavit signed by Haley's son, Reuben, Solomon D. Collins was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. The affidavit states that "Solomon Collins is said to crossed into Tennessee and married Jincy Goins and settled there because he was afraid the chief would kill him if he returned to the tribe."


William "Bill" Grohse

The late Bill Grohse was instrumental in helping me with my Hancock Co., TN research. His wife was a descendant of Solomon D. Collins and Virginia "Gincy" Goins. Bill lived in the Vardy community of Hancock Co. The first time I visited him, as soon as I introduced myself he began to tell me my lineage. He had extensive records and family histories. He contributed a column to the local newspaper in which he published many Hancock Co., TN census records. I have communicated with several Hancock Co. researchers who obtained valuable assistance from him. I will forever be in his debt.


Internet Sites

Melungeon Resource Page

Open Directory Melungeon Sites

Vardy Valley Historical Society

Melungeons & Other Mestee Groups


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