The Melungeons Are Coming Out in the Open
Drama Pondered To Raise Their
‘From Shame To The Hall Of
Fame’ In Hancock County
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
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
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
What they want to do in
Hancock County, to quote Conner, is lift the Melungeon name “from shame
to the hall of fame.”