Ashby Plecker was unassuming in appearance: a small-town doctor
whose penchant for number-crunching earned him the position of registrar
in Virginias Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1912. But appearances
were indeed deceiving. With Plecker at the helm, the bureau went
on an all-out war against "amalgamation".
was not the author of the Racial Integrity Law of 1924--Virginia's
infamous "one drop" statute, which created two racial categories,
"pure" white and everybody else. But he--and allies such
as John Powell of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America--pushed hard
to enforce the act's provision for "ancestral registration".
shied away from compliance in that area, according to J. David Smith
in The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and
Black. Indeed, "passing" might have been commonplace
among whiter-skinned African- Americans since at least 1662, when
the first anti-miscegenation laws were passed in Virginia, but even
for allegedly "pure" whites, proof of racial purity might
have been difficult to obtain.
from John Rolfe and Pocahontas, J. W. Glass, early 1850s.
at least one group of whites who had been proud of their so-called
impurity lobbied successfully to have the act revised. The aristocratic
descendants of Pocahontas-- resentful of being lumped in with "Negroes,
Mongolians, American Indians, Malayans, or any mixtures thereof,
or any other non-Caucasian strains"--twisted arms until the
legislature decreed that persons with no more than one-sixteenth
Native American ancestry might still be considered white.
Plecker's power to grant birth, death, and marriage certificates
gave him unprecedented and awesome powers over Virginians who had
less clout than the Pocahontas contingent. With the stroke of a
pen, Plecker could write an individual into "Negro" status--and
legal and social oblivion. Plecker was only too willing to exercise
that power, thus making him a figure of dread to Indians in general,
but particularly to the Powhatan remnants in Rockbridge and Amherst
counties, until his retirement and subsequent death in 1946.
Terrill Bradby, a Pamunkey, in full regalia. The Pamunkeys were
very conscious of the importance of maintaining a "wild"
image and even sent a representative to the 1893 World's Fair. See
to Helen Rountree, a Old Dominion University professor who has written
extensively on Virginia's Powhatan tribes, Plecker believed that
all Indians had "polluted" their blood by mingling it with
free African-Americans--or "free issues", in the local vernacular.
Plecker thus saw those who claimed Indian ancestry as opportunists
seeking what Rountree called a "way station to whiteness"--
in other words, he saw all Indians as blacks attempting to "pass."
beliefs placed him squarely in the mainstream of the American eugenics
movement, which assaulted the rights of poor whites as vigorously
as those of racial minorities. (Compare, for example, the case of
Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old Caucasian girl from Lynchburg who was
believed, it now appears erroneously, to be "feeble- minded."
In a case that went before the Supreme Court, the state vigorously
pursued and won the right to sterilize Buck to prevent her from
passing on her "imbecility.") But the desire to make Native
Americans simply "vanish," whether into the African-American
population or into thin air, had much deeper roots.
Houck, author of Indian Island in Amherst County, cites Bacon's
Rebellion in 1676 as the first sustained and coordinated effort
in Virginia to drive the Powhatans from their land. But we cannot
forget that the nation's Indian removal policy was formulated by
that great defender of liberty Thomas Jefferson and carried out
by that great defender of the common man Andrew Jackson. Indeed,
long before Ulysses S. Grant had developed "vanishing" into
an official "Peace Policy," Virginians had mastered the
time, you will be as we are," Jefferson promised in his 1809
Indian address. "You will become one people with us. Your blood
will mix with ours; and will spread with ours over this great Island..."
Absorption into the white race--a consummation devoutly to be wished
from one perspective--was the lure Jefferson tossed before the tribes.
for those who "mingled their blood" with African-Americans,
they, too, would be absorbed--though they might not like the consequences.
Let us consider the example of the Gingashins. This eastern tribe
had two strikes against it: Its members refused to give up their
traditional lifeways; even worse, they intermarried freely and unashamedly
was anathema to Virginia elites. Intermarriage with whites could
be, and was, tolerated. Intermarriage with blacks, however, was
an intolerable challenge to the arbitrary color line that had been
in place since the first chattel slavery law passed in 1661. Thus,
in 1813, the Gingashins made their way into the history books, becoming
the first U.S. tribe to be terminated.
to say, Gingashin identity did not die with the legal decree. As
late as 1855, Rountree notes, county maps showed an "Indian
Town," an Indiantown Creek, and a settlement of seven houses.
Eventually, however, white antagonism, not to mention opportunism,
forced the Gingashins to merge into a sympathetic African-American
community. Tribes such as the Pamunkeys, Mattaponis, Upper Mattaponis,
Nansemonds, Rappahannocks, and Chickahominies took note of the lesson--and
learned how to resist.
century later, armed with the awesome power of the state, Plecker
declared war on these people. Consulting a listing of surnames associated
with Native American ancestry-- such as Beverly (from beaver), Sparrow,
Penn or Pinn, Fields, Bear, and so on--and drawing his authority
from century-old census records that were likely to list Indians
as "mulattoes"--particularly if the census were taken in
summertime, Houck notes-- Plecker embarked on a crusade to re-classify
every Native American in the state as an African-American.
A marriage certificate from 1940. Note that "mixed" is handwritten
below the typed designation "Indian."
intimidated mid-wives, wrote threatening pamphlets, editorialized
in newspapers, and trained an entire generation of county clerks
and health service workers in his methods. When all else failed,
he simply changed records to suit his prejudices, striking out the
designation "Indian" and replacing it with "Negro"
or "colored" or "mulatto"--or writing notations
on the back.
while Powhatans suffered under Plecker's tyranny, they refused to
vanish. When necessary, they sacrificed both family ties and good
will in the African-American community by refusing to attend Jim
Crow schools or segregated churches.
isolationist tactics cost them--Indian communities in Amherst were
often poor and poorly educated--but they appear to have worked.
It is worth noting that Amherst Indians who successfully held themselves
aloof from "black contamination" regained tribal recognition
in the 1980s. Another group, also living in Amherst County, which
proudly claimed African, Native, and Caucasian ancestry--the Buffalo
Ridge Cherokee--did not.
The following message addresses a problem in Virginia. While
not as blatantly egregious as the Virginia situation, records
of the Native American-descended population of Delaware also suffered
and will be discussed below.
B. Fulton (firstname.lastname@example.org) 5 Oct 2000:
to locate documentation regarding Native Americans is very difficult.
Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker spent decades trying to deny the existence
of Indians in Virginia.... Virginia's former registrar of the
Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Plecker, believed there were no
real native-born Indians in Virginia and anybody claiming to be
Indian had a mix of black blood. He classified Indians as Blacks
and even issued in 1943 a list of surnames belonging to "mongel"
or mixed-blood families suspected of having Negro ancestry who
must not be allowed to pass as Indian or White.
ran the Bureau from 1912 to 1946. He helped pass the 1924 Racial
Integrity Act, a strict race classification and law. Dr. Plecker
changed and/or destroyed labels on vital records to classify Indians
as "colored, mongrel, mulatto", investigated the pedigrees of
racially "suspect" citizens, and provided information to block
or annul interracial marriages with Whites. He not only did this
to Indians, but other races as well. Any wonder why we have difficulty
locating records? This law is still in place.
understand, I'm not trying to be political. But, I think it is
necessary for those who are searching their Native heritage to
understand why records in the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics
are incorrect or missing. The following is a transcribed copy
of the certificate that Plecker had affixed to all "suspect" birth,
death, and marriage certificates in Virginia.
To be attached to the backs of birth or death certificates of
those believed to be incorrectly recorded as to color or race.
in his History of Virginia, 1845, pages 349-350 says of the Mattaponi
and Pamunkey Indians of King William County: "Their Indian character
is nearly extinct by intermixture with the white and negroes."
Britannia, Eleventh Edition, Volume 14, page 460 and 464, says
of Chickahominy Indians. "No pure bloods left, considerable negro
and mixture," and of Pamunkeys, "All mixed-bloods: some negro
Handbook of American Indians (Bulletin 30), Bureau of American
Ethnology, under the heading "Croatan Indians," The theory of
descent from the colony may be regarded as baseless, but the name
itself serves as a convenient label for a people who combine in
themselves the blood of the wasted native tribes, the early colonists
or forest rovers, the runaway slaves or other negroes, and probably
also of stray seamen of the Latin races (Italian, Portuguese,
etc) from coasting vessels in the West Indian or Brazilian trade.
the line in South Carolina are found a people, evidently of similar
origin, designated- "Redbones." In portions of western North Carolina
and eastern Tennessee are found the so-called "Melungeons" (probably
from French melange, "mixed") or "Portuguese" apparently an offshoot
from Croatan proper, and in Delaware are found the "Moors." All
of these are local designations for people of mixed race with
an Indian nucleus differing in no way from the present mixed-blood
remnants known as Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and Nansemond Indians
in Virginia, excepting in the more complex loss of their identity.
In general, the physical features and complexion of the persons
of this mixed stock incline more to the Indian than to white or
same under "mixed-bloods," says; "The Pamunkey, Chickahomniy,
Marshpee, Narraganset, and Gay Head remnants have much negro blood,
and conversely there is no doubt that many of the broken coast
tribe have been completely absorbed into the negro race."
1843, 144 freeholders of King William County in a petition to
the legislature to abolish the two Indian reservations of that
county, B.12d7, State Library, say: "There are two parcels or
tracts of land situated within said County, on which a number
of persons are now living, all of whom by the laws of Virginia,
would be deemed and taken to be free mulattoes, in any Court of
Justice; as it is believed they all have onefourth or more of
negro blood; and as proof of this, they would rely on the generally
admitted fact, that not one individual can be found among them,
of whose grandfathers and grandmothers, one or more is or was
not a negro; which proportion of negro blood constitutes a free
mulatto, see R C Vol. 1st page." These conclusions are confirmed
by responsible citizens now living in that county December 1927.
H. Estabrook and Ivan E. McDougle in their book, "Mongrel Virginians,"
1926, describe a group of mixed bloods centering in Amherst County
and extending to the Irish Creek Valley in Rockbridge, and to
other surrounding counties, known locally as "Issue" or "Free
Issue." They say, page 15: "These freed negroes mated with themselves
or the half-breed Indians in the County.
In consideration of the above and other similar evidence relating
to all or practically all groups claiming to be "Indians", The
Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics accepts the belief that there
are no descendants of Virginia Indians claiming or reputed to
be Indians, who are unmixed with negro blood, and in accordance
with the requirements of the Vital Statistics and Racial Integrity
Laws that births and deaths be correctly recorded as to race,
classifies as negro or colored, persons, either or both of whose
parents are recorded on the birth or death certificate or marriage
license, or who are themselves recorded are Indian, Mixed Indian,
Mixed, Melungeon, Issue, Free Issue, or other similar non-white
Bureau of Vital Statistics has consented to accept an interrogation
mark as indication that the writer of the certificate considered
the individual as probably of colored origin, but preferred not
stating the fact, to appear in the local record.
warning will apply also to any who may be incorrectly recorded
as white, when known to be of Negro, Malay, Mongolian, West Indian,
East Indian, Mexican, Filipino, or any other non-white mixture.
above statement of information now available, is given for the
guidance of those to follow us in this work, and is intended to
apply to the individual whose birth is reported on the certificate
Vol._____No.____ to which this is attached.”
From Rarihokwats (email@example.com), 6 Oct 2000
In 1924, the Racial Integrity Law institutionalized the "one drop
rule", under which any person, including Indians, who was believed
to have "one drop" or more of "Negro blood" was designated as
Black. A person with no "non-Caucasian blood" was classified as
white, as well as persons who claimed 1/16th or less "Indian blood".
exemption was to protect prominent white persons who claimed to
be descended from Pocahantas. To be anything but white in Virginia
meant exclusion from employment, education, and basic services.
The "ancestral registration" provisions of the law were strictly
enforced by Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, a small-town doctor who
became registrar of the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics in
1925, he began a campaign to force the U.S. Census Bureau to report
no Indians in Virginia in 1930. The Census Bureau conceded to
mark Virginia Indians with a footnote: "Includes a number of persons
whose classification as Indians has been questioned." Plecker
believed that all Indians had 'polluted' their blood by mingling
it with free African-Americans.
thus saw those who claimed Indian ancestry as opportunists seeking
what Helen Rountree called a 'way station to whiteness'-- in other
words, he saw all Indians as blacks attempting to 'pass.'" Nonetheless,
in 1930, the U.S. Census reported 779 Indians in Virginia, noting
for the first time there were 59 Indians in Caroline County. Plecker's
successor, Russell E. Booker Jr., termed Plecker's activities
from 1912 to 1946 as "documentary genocide"
copy of the Plecker letter quoted earlier on these pages is at
Rountree's article in the Chesopian magazine (vol 10, 1972, p.
87) gives excellent detail on the racism in Virginia with which
the Indians had to deal in the first half of the 20th Century.
Stewart/Bradby Story from Jackie
Stewart Jennings, 6 Oct 2000:
posting this story here for those that have expressed interest.
I'm not pretending to know the full story - only parts. Only recently
was this story related to me by my father who lived on the Pamunkey
information was of interest to me because it tied into the story
of my father's life on the reservation. I am certain my father
is not aware of any Plecker decree or how it affected his, or
his family's or the tribe's lives.
was the youngest of the seven Stewart children. His older siblings
may be aware of Plecker but I'm not sure - and I don't know how
to bring it up. Here it is.
the Depression most of the Indians on his reservation were starving.
My father remembers not being fed for many days. Sometimes he
would eat once a week. He said it was always like that during
the depression. Apparently an agency took pity on these people
and one day sent a truck of food (cheese and bread) only to be
sent away by the families because they were too proud to accept
handouts. They asked for work instead.
father was about 6-7 years old at the time. So much for Plecker's
"mongrels" and "pseudo-Indians." I do not know how they ate during
that time but the Pamunkey River did provide some sustenance.
He spoke of eating shad roe from the river.
I do believe this was a form of "genocide." I don't think Plecker
counted on them sticking it out and helping each other. Their
sense of family was very great. During this same period, my father's
oldest sister, Daisy, and he found work in a cannery somewhere
in VA. While my Aunt Daisy packed the cans, my father, Aubrey
Aunt Daisy told him the following (and I'm paraphrasing): "We
always canned during the summer months and it was very hot all
the time. We worked in a large building with no ventilation. Aubrey,
I remember looking up at you stirring the cans and the sweat was
just pouring off of you. I knew it was over 100 degrees in that
building but because you were always working in that steam it
had to be 140. I couldn't stop crying, you were so little and
had to work so hard." He was 9 years old!
were lucky, because they found work occasionally during that time.
My father's response to this story was that he felt it did not
hurt him it only helped. My father told me everybody was starving
and they tried to look after each other. These people are examples
of the "Greatest Generation." I know that there are many people
with similar depression-era stories.
we know the minorities were hit the hardest during the depression.
Both blacks and indians or mongrels, as Plecker fondly called
these extraordinary people, had it the worse. I believe, the indians
really were hit the hardest because of Plecker's decree and the
intense prejudice it produced. My father and his family were shunned
from society - even by poor whites. I can remember when I was
young understanding my father's need to be sensitive to others
of color. He never expressed it that way - we just never said
an unkind word about another race. He remembers being called the
"n....." word through most of his childhood.
Plecker's letters he mentioned that these Virginia indians were
trying to evade the draft. Interesting, maybe some did but from
my family's experience, that was not the case. All my uncles,
including my father served their country with distinction during
WWII. My father, Aubrey, was a sailor and enlisted when he turned
of age. He was part of the clean-up operation in the Pacific.
He also witnessed an atomic explosion on a Pacific atoll knowing
that being that close could cause cancer. All the sailors knew
about the affects of atomic radiation. My Uncle Stanley served
in the Army during WWII. He chased Rommel all over Africa during
the African campaign and fought on the Cassarine (sp?) Pass. I
understand that one of my uncles was part of the Normandy Invasion.
They all volunteered and they all came back alive. So much for
evading the draft.
people are so modest that they feel they've done nothing special.
Everyone of them succeeded through hard work and perservence.
Not one of them could attend a public school. My father attended
the one-room elementary Pamunkey school that, I think, still sits
on the reservation. He was sent away to a Cherokee High School
or boarding school. After the war he went on to college, the only
one in his family that did.
the war, most of his siblings moved off the reservation to find
work in Philadelphia. His two sisters remained on the reservation.
Every one of them succeeded in life. It's interesting to note
that most of them started up their own businesses and financially
did very well. My Aunt Daisy, who was one of the sisters that
remained on the reservation, became a very prominent figure in
the tribe and a talented potterer.
sure there's much more to their history but they are very reluctant
to talk about it. When I pressure my father to recount more of
their story, he just says, "It was a very painful and terrible
time. No one wants to remember."
From Thomas F. Brown, 7 Oct 2000:
Plecker's letters he mentioned that these Virginia indians were
trying to evade the draft.>>
maybe some did but from my family's experience, that was not the
case. Some of the draft-age men of the "tri-racial" groups refused
to serve in the colored regiments, but were willing to serve in
white regiments. My recollection from the literature is that in
some cases they were accomodated by allowing them into white units,
and in other cases were excused from service altogether because
of the racial classification issue.
From Gene R. Griffith ( Littlewolf),
9 Oct 2000:
My family was one of the families that Walter Plecker took an
interest in to the point that he took one of my aunts and cousins
when they were little less than teenagers and had them declaired
feebled minded and had them put into a home for the feebled minded
in Lynchburg,VA. Had them sterlized and then experimented on each
of them. Some were left almost blind and other things too numerous
last of my aunts who Plecker did this to, died just this past
month and until the day that she died she was still cursing Plecker's
name for what he had done to her. She was 71 and had lived all
these years in the torment that he made for her. May the Great
Spirit finally give her the peace she so richly deserves.
in the past two years were we finally given permission to regain
our true race of Monacan Indian the state of VA. made it possible
for all native people to submit the change of race forms who had
been so disposed of. I am now listed as a True Indian as is my
mother her mother and her mother before her.
Terri Rosenthal <firstname.lastname@example.org>, 3 Jun 2009
is some info on (Walter Plecker)...*letter that he wrote*. He was
in fact a "country doctor" who ended up becoming the /State
Registrar for the
Bureau of Vital Statistics/ of the state of Virginia. He was an
evil man...and ruined many lives with his views, including my own
family. You were white or black...there were no Native Americans
left living in VA as far as he was concern. He changed information
on marriage licenses, death certificates, birth certificates and
on the census..along with any other document he could control though
his office. He bulled workers, doctors, clergy, midwives and any
one else that would fill out documents that would have race information
on them. He is also the one that made it possible to have a young
women that *he* deemed unfit to have children as she was handicapped,
sterilized without her consent. What he did to people of color,
Native Americans and others that he thought of
as less then a white, less then him, has taken years to undo in
the state of Va. And in some cases his poison, along with other
men in power in my state with the same views...may never be undone.
They even had "hit" list of families that they went after.
If I was his relation....I would change my name and never tell anyone.
you look at what he did and many like him you can see parallels
with what happened to many families in Germany in the 20s and 30's...before
the war even came about. I am sure if he thought he could round
up all those he hated, Blacks, Native Americans, and those of mixed
blood and any one else he thought was inferiorly ...he too would
have sent us to a gas chamber...but he could not do that...so he
ruined their lives and identities instead.
don't need to take my word on this...there is so much information
about him out there. Go look for yourself. ...and yes just the mention
of his name makes me angry to think that he was able to do what
he did to so many and no one stopped him. How sad for all of us,
then and now.
A Series of Letters Relating to The Melungeons of Newman's Ridge
Commonwealth of Virginia
Bureau of Vital Statistics
State Department of Health
William T. Adcock
I received your letter of October 30th 1929 in which you say that
"We have decided to lose the last drop of blood we have in
us before we will be classed as colored".
order to know upon what grounds you considered yourself white, I
wrote to you twice asking you to tell us who was your mother and
who was her mother. You did not reply to either letter as we certainly
expected you to do if you are attempting to maintain that they are
white. I did not however ask you that because we did not know but
simply to see what you would say.
old birth records which we have, made by the Commissioners of the
Revenue as they visited the homes of the people to assess them for
taxes gives your family history clearly. The Commissioners of the
Revenue knew every family perfectly well, just what they were, and
where they came from.
records show that your father Elisha Willis was a colored man. The
old tax records also gave him as colored. Your mother Margaret Adcock
was the daughter of Belinda (sometlmes called Malinda) Branham,
recorded as a mulatto, and Wiliam Adcock. Belinda your mother was
a daughter of Creasy Branham.
have in our office a copy of Woodson's list of "free negroes"
of the 1830 U. S. Census which gives Creasy Branham of Amherst County
as a free negro.
people of Amherst County, now living, make the same statement. She
was generally known as "a little brown skinned negro who lived
to be nearly one hundred years old".
1899 you took out a license to marry Mary (or Polly) Branham. This
license gives both of you as colored. The record of the birth of
your wife Polly Branham December 25, 1875 gives her as colored and
the daughter of Marshall and Arnetta Branham.
the evidence as given above I am compelled under the 1924 Act to
list you and your children and all other descendants of Creasy Branham
or Elisha Willis or their blood relatives as colored.
want to warn you that the Racial Integrity Law of 1924 makes it
a penitentiary offense for anyone with a trace of negro to marry
a white person or to register in the Bureau of Vital Statistics
as white. All midwives or heads of families who attempt to register
"free issues" or colored births or deaths as white, are
liable to be indicted on a felony charge.
Mr. J. P. Kelly
Trustee of Schools
Lee County, Virginia
Our office has had a great deal of trouble in reference to the persistence
of a group of people living in that region known as "Melungeons",
whose families came from Newman's Ridge, Tennessee. They are evidently
of negro origin and are so recognized in Tennessee but when they
have come over into Virginia they have been trying to pass as white.
In a few instances we learn that they have married a low type of
white people which increases the problem.
understand that some of these negroes attempted to send their children
to the Pennington Gap white school and that they were turned out
by the School Board. Will you please give us a statement as to the
names of the children that were thus refused admittance into the
white schools and the names and addresses of their parents. If possible,
we desire the full name of the father and the maiden name of the
these families originated out of Virginia, our old birth, death,
and marraige records covering the period, 1853 through 1896, do
not have them listed by color as are those whose families have lived
in Virginia for a number of generations. They are demanding of us
that we register them as white, which we persistently refuse to
do. If we can get a statement that the School Board has refused
them admittance into the white schools, we can use that as one of
the grounds upon which we would refuse to classify them as white.
That, of course, is a matter of history and does not involve any
individual but the whole School Board, the responsibility thus being
divided up while few individuals who write to us as to their negro
characteristics are willing to have their names used or to appear
in court should it become necessary. This makes it very difficult
for us to secure necessary information to properly classify them
in our office. If the School trustees will co-operate with our office
and will refuse them admittance into the white schools and give
us information when such refusals are made, we can withough great
difficulty hold them in their place, but this co-operation is very
do not know who is the Clerk of the School Board or who would be
the proper one to apply to but your name has been given to me.
Yours very truly,
Secretary of State,
bureau is the only one in any State making an intensive study of
the population of its citizens by race.
have in some of the counties of southwestern Virginia a number of
so-called Melungeons who came into that section from Newmans Ridge,
Hancock County, Tennessee, and who are classified by us as of negro
origin though they make various claims, such as Portugese, Indians,
law of Virginia says that any one with any ascertainable degree
of negro is to be classified as colored and we are endeavoring to
so classify those who apply for birth, death and marriage registrations.
have a list of the free negroes, by counties, of the 1830 U. S.
Census in which we find the racial origin of most of these Melungeons
classified as mulattoes. In that period, 1830, we do not find the
name of Hancock County, but presume that it was made up from portions
of other counties, possible Grainger and Hawkins, where we find
considerable numbers of these Melungeon families listed.
you please advise as to that point and particularly which of these
original counties Newmans Ridge was in.
you in advance and with kindest regards, I am
A. Plecker, M. D.
August 12, 1942
W. A. Plecker,
Bureau of Vital Statistics
Secretary of State has sent your letter to my desk for reply.
have asked us a hard question.
origin of the Melungeons has been a disputed question in Tennessee
ever since we can remember. Hancock County was established by an
Act of the General Assembly passed January 7th, 1844 and was formed
from parts of Claiborne and Hawkins counties.
Ridge, which runs through Hancock county north of Sneedville, is
parallel with Clinch River and just south of Powell Mountain. The
only map on which we find it located is edited by H. C. Amick and
S. J. Folmsbee of the University of Tennessee in 1941 published
by Denoyer-Geppert Co., 5235 Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, listed as
[TN 7S]* TENNESSEE. On this map is shown Newman's Ridge as I have
sketched it on this little scrap of paper, inclosed. But we do not
have the early surveys showing which county it as originally in.
It appears that it may have been in Claiborne according to the Morris
Gazetteer of Tennessee 1834 which includes this statement: "Newman's
Ridge, one of the spurs of Cumberland Mountain, in East Tennessee,
lying in the north east angle of Claiborne County, west of Clinch
River, and east of Powell's Mountain. It took its name from a Mr.
Newman who discovered it in 1761."
historians of East Tennessee who lived in that section and knew
the older members of this race refer to Newman's Ridge as "quite
a high mountain, extending through the entire length of Hancock
County, and into Claiborne County on the west. It is between Powell
Mountain on the north and Clinch River on the south." Capt.
L. M. Jarvis, an old citizen of Sneedville wrote in his 82nd year:"I
have lived here at the base of Newman's Ridge, Blackwater, being
on the opposite side, for the last 71 years and well know the history
of these people on Newman's Ridge and Blackwater enquired about
as Melungeons. These people were friendly to the Cherokees who came
west with the white imigration from New River and Cumberland, Virginia,
about the year 1790...The name Melungeon was given them on account
of their color. I have seen the oldest and first settlers of this
tribe who first occupied Newman's Ridge and Blackwater and I have
owned much of the lands on which they settled.. They obtained their
land grants from North Carolina. I personally knew Vardy Collins,
Solomon D. Collins, Shepard Gibson, Paul Bunch and Benjamin Bunch
and many of the Goodmans, Moores, Williams and Sullivans, all of
the very first settlers and noted men of
these friendly Indians. They took their names from white people
of that name with whom they came here. They were reliable, truthful
and faithful to anything they promised. In the Civil War most of
the Melungeons went into the Union army and made good soldiers.
Their Indian blood has about run out. They are growing white...
They have been misrepresented by many writers. In former writings
I have given their stations and stops on their way as they emigrated
to this country with white people, one of which places was at the
mouth of Stony Creek on Clinch river in Scott County, Virginia,
where they built fort and called it Ft. Blackamore after Col. Blackamore
who was with them... When Daniel Boone was here hunting 1763-1767,
these Melungeons were not here."
late Judge Lewis Shepherd, prominent jurist of Chattanooga, went
further in his statements in his "Personal Memoirs", and
contended that this mysterious racial group descended from the Phoenicians
of Ancient Carthage. This was his judgment after investigations
he made in trying a case featuring the complaint that they were
of mixed negro blood, which attempt failed, and which brought out
the facts that many of their ancestors had settled early in South
Carolina when they migrated from Portugal to America about the time
of the Revolutionary war, and later moved into Tennessee. At the
time of this trial covered by Judge Shepherd "charges that
Negro blood contaminated the Melungeons and barred their intermarriage
with Caucasians created much indignation among families of Phoenician
descent in this section."
I imagine if the United States Census listed them as mulattoes their
listing will remain. But it is a terrible claim to place on people
if they do not have negro blood. I often have wondered just how
deeply the census takers went into an intelligent study of it at
that early period.
have gone into some detail in this reply to explain the mooted question
and why it is not possible for me to give you a definite answer.
I hope this may assist you to some extent.
Mrs. John Trotwood Moore
State Librarian and Archivist
John Trotwood Moore
State Librarian and Archivist
State Department of Education
thank you very much for your informative letter of August 12 in
reply to our inquiry, addressed to the Secretary of State, as to
the original counties from which Hancock County, Tennessee, was
formed. We are particularly interested in tracing back, as far as
possible, to their ultimate origin the melungeons of the Newmans
Ridge section, especially as enumerated in the free negro list by
counties of the states in the U. S. 1830 census. This group appears
to be in many respects of the same type as a number of groups in
Virginia, some of which are known as "free issues," or
descendants of slaves freed by their masters before the War Between
the States. In one case in particular which we have traced back
to its origin, and which we believe to be typical of the others,
a slave woman was freed with her two mulatto sons and colonized
in Amherst County in connection with a group of similar freed negroes.
These sons were presumably the children of the woman's owner, and
this seemed to be the most satisfactory way of disposing of them.
One of those sons became the head of one of the larger families
of that group. All of these groups have the same desire, which Captain
L. M. Jarvis says the melungeons have, to become friends of Indians
and to be classed as
Indians. He referred to the effort which the melungeon group made
to be accepted by the Cherokees, apparently without great success.
It is interesting also to know the opinion expressed by Captain
Jarvis that these freed negroes migrated into that section with
the white people. That is perfectly natural as they have always
endeavored to tie themselves up as closely as possible either with
the whites or Indians and are striving to break away from the true
have a book, compiled by Carter G. Woodson, a negro, entitled "Free
Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830," listing
all of the free negroes of the 1830 census by counties. Of the names
that Captain Jarvis gave, we find included in that list in Hawkins
County, Solomon Collins, Vardy Collins, and Sherod (probably Shepard)
Gibson. We find also Zachariah Minor, probably the head of the family
in which we are especially interested at this time. We find also
the names of James Moore (two families by this name) and Jordan
and Edmund Goodman. In the list for Grainger County we find at least
twelve Collins and Collens heads of families. This shows that they
were evidently considered locally as free negroes by the enumerators
of the 1830 census.
of the most interesting parts of your letter is that relating to
the opinion of the Judge mentioned, in his "Personal Memoirs,"
Mrs. John Trotwood Moore, con't
August 20, 1942
to have accepted as satisfactory certain evidence which was presented
to him that these people are of Phoenician descent from ancient
Carthage, which was totally destroyed by Rome. We have in Virginia
white people, descendants of Pocahontas, who married John Rolfe
about 1616. About twelve generations have passed since then, and
we figured out that there was about 1/4000th of 1% of Pocahontas
blood now in their veins, though they seem to be quite proud of
that. If you go back to the destruction of Carthage in 146 B. C.,
or to the destruction of Tyre by Pompey in 64 B. C., when all characteristic
features of national life became extinct and with it racial identity,
you will see that the fraction of 1% of Phoenician blood would reach
astronomical proportions and be totally lost in the various mixtures
of North Africans, with which the Carthaginians afterwards mixed.
The Judge also speaks of the inclusion of Portuguese blood with
this imaginary Phoenician blood. It is a historical fact, well known
to those who have investigated, that at one time there were many
African slaves in Portugal. Today there are no true negroes there
but their blood shows in the color and racial characteristics of
a large part of the Portuguese population of the present day. That
mixture, even if it could be shown, would be far from constituting
these people white. We are very much afraid that the Judge followed
the same course pursued by one of our Virginia judges in hearing
a similar case, when he accepted the hearsay evidence of people
who testified that they had always understood that
the claimants were of Indian origin, regardless of the documentary
evidence reaching back in some cases to or near to the Revolutionary
War, showing them to be descendants of freed negroes.
will require other evidence than that of Captain Jarvis and His
Honor before classifying members of the group who are now causing
trouble in Virginia by their claims of Indian descent, with the
privilege of inter-marrying into the white race, permissible when
a person can show his racial composition to be one-sixteenth or
less Indian, the remainder white with no negro intermixture. We
have found after very laborious and painstaking study of records
of various sorts that none of our Virginia people now claiming to
be Indian are free from negro admixture, and they are, therefore,
according to our law classified as colored. In that
class we include the melungeons of Tennessee.
again thank you for your care in passing on this information and
would be delighted if you ever visit in Virginia and in Richmond
if you will come into our office. Miss Kelley and I would be greatly
pleased to talk with you on this and kindred subjects and to show
you the work which Miss Kelley is doing in properly classifying
the population of Virginia by racial origin. She is doing work which,
so far as I know, has never before been attempted.
W. A. Plecker, M. D.
A. Plecker, M. D. Registrar
Bureau of Vital Statistics
Department of Health
dear Dr. Pleckner:
were most kind to reply so fully to my letter, and you have given
me so much information on this vitally interesting subject that
I am really grateful.
husband was so interested in it and had studied it with a view to
writing on the subject but never got around to it. I recall that
he was interested in an article on the Melungeons that appeared
perhaps two years before his death (May 10, 1929) in the Dearborn
Independent. I do not have the article but I think it was written
by a North Carolina writer. I am sorry I cant be more definite but
if there is a file in the State or Public Library it might interest
have Carter G. Woodson's "Free Negro Heads of Families in the
United States in 1830", but I have never made a study of it.
is fortunate to have you and Miss Kelly doing such an important
piece of research. I wish Tennessee could borrow you. Anyhow, what
you are doing will be, in effect, for all the Southern States and
there was never a time when it was more needed.
I am in Richmond at any time I shall certainly be pleased to stop
by your office and talk with you and Miss Kelley. If your work is
to be published we shall want to secure a copy for this library.
you for the circulars inclosed and I wish you full success with
Mrs. John Trotwood Moore
State Librarian and Archivist
Registrars, Physicians, Health
Offices, Nurses, School Superintendents,
and Clerks of the Courts
December 1942 letter to local registrars, also mailed to the clerks,
set forth the determined effort to escape from the negro race of
groups of "free issues," or descendents of the "free
mulattoes" of early days, so listed prior to 1865 in the United
States census and various types of State records, as distinguished
from slave negroes.
that these people are playing up the advantages gained by being
permitted to give "Indian" as the race of the child's
parents on birth certificates, so we see the great mistake made
in not stopping earlier the organized propagation of this racial
falsehood. They have been using the advantage thus gained as an
aid to intermarriage into the white race and to attend white schools,
and now for some time they have been refusing to register with war
draft boards as negroes, as required by the boards which are faithfully
performing their duties. Three fo these negroes from Caroline County
were sentenced to prison on January 12 in the United States Court
at Richmond for refusing to obey the draft law unless permitted
to classify themselves as "Indians."
of these mongrels, finding that they have been able to sneak in
their birth certificates unchallenged as Indians are now making
a rush to register as white. Upon investigation we find that a few
local registars have been permitting such certificates to pass through
their hands unquestioned and without warning our office of the fraud.
Those attempting this fraud should be warned that they are liable
to a penalty of one year in the penitentiary (Section 5099a of the
Code). Several clerks have likewise been actually granting them
licenses to marry whites, or at least to marry amongst themselves
as Indian or white. The danger of this error always confronts the
clerk who does not inquire carefully as to the residence of the
woman when he does not have positive information. The law is explicit
that the license be issued by the clerk of the county or city in
which the woman resides.
aid all of you in determining just which are the mixed families,
we have made a list of their surnames by counties and cities, as
complete as possible at this time. This list should be preserved
by all, even by those in counties and cities not included, as these
people are moving around over the State and changing race at the
new place. A family has just been investigated which was always
recorded as negro around Glade Springs, Washington County, but which
changed to white and married as such in Roanoke County. This is
going on constantly and can be prevented only by care on the part
of local registrars, clerks, doctors, health workers, and school
report all known or suspicious cases to the Bureau of Vital Statistics,
giving names, ages, parents, and as much other information as possible.
All certificates of these people showing "Indian" or "white"
are now being rejected and returned to the physician or midwife,
but local registrars hereafter must not permit them to pass their
hands uncorrected or unchallenged and without a note of warning
to us. One hundred and fifty thousand other mulattoes in Virginia
are watching eagerly the attempt of their pseudo-Indian brethren,
ready to follow in a rush when the first have made a break in the
State Registrar of Vital Statistics