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.
"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
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
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.
to Bruce Crawford, a former newspaperman, and leading student
of ethnology of the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 into Tennessee. 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.
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 not Negroes.
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.
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.
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," meaning mixture.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.