The Melungeons Are Coming Out in the Open

Drama Pondered To Raise Their Name
‘From Shame To The Hall Of Fame’ In Hancock County

Kingsport Times-News
Sunday, January 28, 1968
By Shirley Price
Times-News Rogersville Bureau

Sneedville—“Sure, I’m a Melungeon and proud of it.”

Probably for the first time in history, this statement came from one of a group of East Tennessee mountain-folk whose history and origin is steeped in legend and mystery.Heretofore, Melungeon was a fighting word in Hancock County and even in adjoining Hawkins County. You just don’t ask a fellow if he’s a Melungeon. North of Sneedville, high on a mountain known as Newman’s Ridge, this group of people have lived and survived in what some would call primitive conditions.

Their poverty and their lack of education have been a product of their isolation– from the world outside Hancock County, and more or less from their neighbors in the county itself. Now plans are underway for an out-door drama at Sneedville, based on the Melungeon story and on the frontier way of life as depicted by the Melungeons. Carson-Newman College received a Federal grant to survey the possibilities of such a drama “as a means to improve the socio-economic climate” of Hancock County.

And when W. C. Collins, a supervisor in the Hancock County School system and co-chairman of a committee promoting the drama, made the above statement regarding his Melungeon heritage, he opened a door in overcoming the stigma which has been attached for centuries to a people maligned by the society surrounding them.

Although the drama committee has not decided definitely, possibilities are that the drama will be based on Jesse Stuart’s book, “Daughter of the Legend.”Stuart’s story of a Melungeon girl and her marriage to an ‘outsider” is set on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, although Stuart never mentions Melungeon or the locale.

This strange clan of people settled in Hancock County before Tennessee became a state. For nearly 200 years their origin has been the subject of speculation and today, no one can actually say where the originated.

Henry Price, a Rogersville attorney, gathered material for a paper on the Melungeons, calling it “The Vanishing Colony of Newman’s Ridge.” In his collection of theories as to the origin of the Melungeons, Price said they could be mistaken for either Caucasians, Negro or Indian but that as a people, they do not seem to be any of these.

You might not know a Melungeon if you met him. Usually they have a dark skin, straight black hair, olive-like hue complexions, coal black, brown, deep purple or grey eyes. The theories of their origin are many and varied. Among the legends are those that say they are descended from a band of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, or from the ancient Carthaginians, or from Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Other legends link the Melungeons with DeSoto’s party and another, with Prince Madoc, the Welsh chieftain who sailed westward in the 12th century, reached the mouth of the Mississippi and moved into the interior of the wilderness. They have even been linked with th4 lost tribes of Israel.

Another less romantic legend is that they are simply the result of miscegenation among the french, Spanish and English outcasts who hung around the fringes of early Virginia and North Carolina settlements.

But whatever their origin, the group eventually settled in Hancock County, along Newman’s Ridge and in settlements known as Blackwater, Snake Hollow and Vardy.

There is evidence that two patriarchs of the clan lived on the ridge before 1790. Far from being savages, their acquiring of land, making wills, owning slaves and securing marriage license, paying taxes are on record in Rogersville in various historical documents.

Vardy Collins and Shep Gibson were probably the first two Melungeon families to settle in the area. Gibson’s last will and testament is on file in Rogersville, naming Collins as executor.

The Melungeon cabins were small, crude dwellings made of notched logs and “dobbed” with clay. The house of one of the better known Melungeons is among those still standing today, and the drama association plans to restore the cabin of Aunt Mahala Mullins for a museum.

Aunt Mahala is reported to have been a huge woman, weighing anywhere from 400 to 800 pounds–she seems to get heavier with each new story.

Tales about Aunt Mahala and her moonshining are many— she was able to manufacture and sell the “white lightnin’ “ without fear of prosecution because she was too big to be taken through the door of her cabin.

When she died, about 1900, the tale goes, they had to remove the chimney from one end of her cabin to get her out. Her grave is in a cemetery not far down the ridge from her cabin.

Collins said, “I think a lot of people really are happy that they are Melungeons.” He has traced his ancestry back to Vardy Collins and Shepherd Gibson, “but I haven’t gone beyond,” Collins said. Earl Turner, who has taught school at Vardy for a number of years said that the drama script would be “a historical mystery drama–some things will never be known.”

The Rev. R. B. Conner, pastor of First Methodist Church in Sneedville, said the drama on the Melungeons “would be the biggest thing that’s happened to Hancock County since the Civil War.”

Conner has visions of a theater for the drama, motels and restaurants, bridle trails, playgrounds, golf courses and a chair lift on the top of Newman’s Ridge.

What they want to do in Hancock County, to quote Conner, is lift the Melungeon name “from shame to the hall of fame.”