Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Visit To The Melungeons - 1897

This article has been around for years, on my website,  [The Melungeon Indians] and even an earlier post.   I am re-posting it after reading it and finding some interesting little pieces of history I think should be highlighted.


A Visit To The Melungeons

C.H. Humble

On Friday forenoon, July 2, the writer and Rev. Joseph Hamilton, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, started in a hack from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., for Beatty Collins’, chief of the Melungeons, in Blackwater Valley, Hancock County, Tenn.

The distance is thirty-five miles, but over such rough rocky mountain roads, that sundown found us still five miles away from our destination, without, however, any dislocated or broken bones, for which we were thankful. From either Lone Mountain or Rogersville, the road is shorter, being about thirty miles and not so rough. But by taking the longer route we passed a rare mountain cemetery, the sight of which paid us for our journey. The mountaineer has a tender heart and devotedly loves his own. 

No appeal comes more frequently or forcefully from his preacher than the one to meet loved ones in heaven, and the same sentiment finds constant expression in the hymns sung, therefore it is not strange that he buries his dead out of his sight, he erects a shelter over the grave. Though it may be quite rude or more finished in construction, as shown in the illustrations, yet it affords comfort to the bereaved because it shelters his loved ones from the storm, as many a cultured mother would fain do when the blasts beat on the grave of her babe. It should be added that this custom is peculiar to certain localities and does not commonly prevail. 

In Mulberry Valley, where we stopped for the night, we were served with two excellent meals and a restful bed for which the only compensation receivable was our “thank you.” 

In the morning we crossed Mullberry Ridge at the Gap, and three miles down the valley were landed at Beatty Collins’ house. 

He received us cordially and gave us full possession of “Hotel Varday,” a frame building 12x14 feet, in which were three beds. The walls were decorated with a variety of McKinley and Hobart pictures, one of which having been torn was carefully stitched. 

In front was a neat little porch in which hung the stars and stripes, the only hint we had of the glorious Fourth. 

In this valley are the famous Varday Springs of health-giving sulphur water, around which before the war, were many cabins for visitors. Now crowds come every Sunday to drink the water and to picnic. It was supposed that our object was to “tend the springs.” 

The Blackwater Valley lies between Mulberry and Newman’s Ridges, and is from half a mile to mile wide. Twenty years ago it was still a wilderness, but is now under good cultivation, and divided into small farms upon which are rather poor dwellings and outbuildings. In this valley and along Newman’s Ridge, reaching into Lee County, Virginia, are settled the people called Melungeons. Some have gone into Kentucky, chiefly into Pike County, others are scattered in adjacent territory. 

The name Melungeons is of obscure origin supposed to be derived from Melange, (French) meaning a mixed people. When I privately asked the son of Beatty Collins, a school teacher, about this name, he strongly resented its application to his people, saying, “We are a pure blood people,” meaning at least that they had no negro blood in their veins. 

They feel that oursiders look down on them and this is stimulating them to a better life. 

The first settlers here were the great grand parents, Varday Collins, Shephard Gibson, and Charley Williams, who came from Virginia it is said, though other say from North Carolina. They have marked Indians resemblances in color, feature, hair, carriage, and disposition. 

In the picture given is seen the typical family of Beatty Collins, chief of the clan, who stands with uncovered head to the right; before him sits his wife. The youngest daughter, about eighteen, a blonde with light wavy hair, can walk, ride, plough or hoe with the best of them. The young man–the school teacher and store keeper----is swarthy like his father. Altogether they are an intelligent, agreeable, and hospitable family. The man in the slouch hat is not of them, but would seem to be looking that way, as through the night till break of day he talked or sang to the daughter who stands beside him. 

The second settlers were from North Carolina; they were the Goans, Miners, and Bells; they were charged with having negro blood in them and, before the war, were prosecuted on this ground for illegal voting, but were acquitted. They explained their peculiarities by claiming a Portuguese origin. 

Later Came Jim Mullens, an Englishman, who married a Collins, and whose son John married Mehala Collins, to be referred to again. Jim Moore, a British sailor, also settled here, and married a daughter of old Charley Gibson, so that while in one sense, they are a mixed people, their names indicate an origin on one side not differing from their neighbors. Their isolation may be due to the seclusion preferred by the Indians and the exclusion on account of suspected negro blood. 

The most noted person now among them is Mrs. Mehala Mullens, widow of John Mullens. About twenty children were born to this couple, three of whom met violent deaths, one son being shot in the streets of Sneedville, another in her door yard, and a third lynched in Texas. 

She is over seventy years old; weighs, it is judged, about 400 pounds; cannot walk, stand, or lie down; but sits on her bed day and night. 

Beside her is a cask of whiskey on which stand tin cups and measures. The faucet is at her hand that she may conveniently dispense liquor to all who want it. 

She seems to enjoy the notoriety, and when the officers came with a writ for her arrest, she laughingly said “Execute it!" Her size, ill health, and steep rocky roads leading to her house on Newman’s Ridge, rendered her transportation dangerous if not impossible; so she sits and sells in defiance of law. 

I asked what she was going to do with all the fruit in the large orchard? She replied, “The boys know how to work that up.” I presumed into apple brandy, and she will do the rest. 

She was quite willing to have her picture taken, but wanted a copy of it. When Mr. Hamilton asked for her address her daughter interposed. “You did not tell him how many yards it takes,” and turning, said: “ It takes twelve yards to make her a dress.” The old lady saw her daughter’s mistake and corrected it, otherwise Mr. H. might have taken the order. 

Privately, I said, “Why do you, so near the grave, go on selling this destructive stuff to the young men?” She replied, “It’s the only way I can make a livin’.” 

She would only half promise to think of the evil of it. The old sentiment of the people makes it innocent, the notoriety makes it pleasant, and the money makes it profitable, and habit blinds her to the curse it has brought to her own door. 

These people, however, do little drinking and are not noted as in former days for shooting, cutting and stealing. They are peaceable and progressive, have good natural abilities, and are very eager to rise. They have schools and church buildings, and are strongly religious and very hospitable. 

During the Civil War many of them were in the Union army and helped to make the record of Hancock County, which sent more soldiers into the Federal service than it had voters. 

In 1862, Captain J. H. Trent, of Morristown, Tenn., formed a company largely composed of these people. Enlisted as infantry they were shortly made Company A First Tennessee Cavalry. They were noted for their bravery and were generally called upon in emergencies and for difficult service. 

The captain tells of two of Beatty Collins’ brothers who died in the army, of broken hearts, due to prolonged absence from home. 

Recently there were 500 person at the funeral, 150 of whom out of respect remained for dinner. 

During the Saturday and Sunday we spent in the valley we were with the people in five meetings. On Saturday morning their preacher did not come, but they wished us to preach if we were not Mormons, these they did not allow to preach in their church. As a neighboring preacher came in we begged to be excused. 

The sermon we heard was good in thought, arrangement and delivery, although accompanied at frequent intervals by some very straight spitting through a convenient crack in the floor. 

For future meetings they appealed to us, and by rising vote the strange preachers were unanimously invited to preach in the afternoon, when we had a good audience. 

Sunday morning service was to begin at 10 o’clock,, so all the preacher, four in number, could have a turn. The singing was led by a young, man aided by all, including the woman with the high falsetto voice, who for the time took her snuff stick out of her mouth. 

The first verse was the line:” “We have mothers who have gone on before,” repeated four times. Succeeding verses were the same line with father, brother, or other relative substituted for mother. The chorus was the line “ We will lean on the Bible and go home,” repeated four times, and more weird enchanting harmony I never heard. 

Their preacher came Sunday morning and treated us with the utmost courtesy. He is a perfect gentleman and an earnest Christian. He led in a devout prayer only one sentence of which seemed to be for the special edification of the strange brethren. It was: “O Lord reach into the recessities of our hearts and bring out everything inimicable to they will, divest us of the principles of religion, and ratify all our wrongs.” <><> Many old people gave their hands to the preacher in token of their faith in Christ and about twenty, mostly young people, in the same way expressed their desire to be Christians; a splendid field for some personal work. 

In the afternoon, I organized a Sunday school and told them of the work done by our Bible Teachers. Mr. B. H. Williams, the Secretary of the Sunday School, Postmaster and Justice of the Peace, said; “Send the ladies right to my house, I’ll take care of them.” Mr. Beatty Collins will give us a house and a piece of land, and all seemed anxious for these ladies to come. 

We have a competent lady, a native Tennesseean, for whom $150 is pledged, who is very anxious to enter this field. For her salary, we need another $150. 

Friends in Kansas are raising money to send another worker there, for two should go together. We will need at least $100 to repair and remodel the house, $100 more for a stable, horse, etc., sums which we trust the Lord will shortly send us. 

The door is open, the call is in our ears, the response will surely come. C.H. Humble 

Church at Home and Abroad‎ - Page 403
by Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly - Presbyterian Church - 1897



On July 3, 4 and 5, I was in Blackwater valley, between Mulberry and Newman's ridges, Hancock county, Tenn., where dwell a peculiar people called the Melungeons.

On August 26, I again started for this region, this time from Lone Mountain, on horseback, the distance being twenty-six miles, over a fair road with no considerable hills.

At least a dozen schoolhouses and churches were passed, in only one of which was there a Sunday- school.

About nine miles out I rode into a crowd of school-children, sixty in number, enjoying recess. The teacher said there were eighty scholars in the district, but they had no Sunday-school. He cheerfully agreed to give me an hour on the morrow at 2 P.M., and to "norate" the appointment. At that time the house was crowded, nearly a hundred persons being present. After an address, a Sabbath-school was organized, which we will be able to visit at short intervals.

But as the approach to Blackwater was made the inquiry arose, " What is my Fourth of July Sabbath-school doing?" and on my arrival I was rejoiced to learn that it was in a flourishing condition and was truly the "Pride of the Valley."

A meeting that night at the schoolhouse two miles down the creek opened the way for another Sunday-school as soon as our Bible teachers get on the ground. Another point up the creek was also spoken for. The fields are white already to harvest, and while the region is little known, Presbyterians have not in times past wholly neglected it.

A writer says: "One night in June, many years ago, Dr. Frederick A. Ross, a noted Presbyterian minister, of Eastern Tennessee, was traveling through the Blackwater country. He accidentally came upon "Uncle" Vard's house and asked if he could stay all night.  [Newspaper Article on this story - A Peculiar People]

"The old mountaineer told him he could, and after he had fed his horse and the guest had eaten supper the old man asked him his business. He told him he was a preacher. The old man told him he would like to hear him preach. ' Where is your congregation?" asked the minister. 'I'll get one in a few minutes,' replied 'Uncle' Vard. He took a long dinner horn from its rack over the door and going outdoors blew several shrill blasts. Within an hour fifty people had assembled, and Dr. Ross said that he never preached to an audience which showed greater appreciation and deeper religious feeling than did that little band of copper- colored mountaineers on Black water."

"Uncle" Vard is Varday Collins, the chief of the first settlers who came to this valley as early as 1789. He lived to be 101 years old, and the springs, post-office and hotel are called by his name.In 1890, Mr. W. M. Elliott was in this valley, under the auspices of the Holston Presbytery, South. He found them very destitute of religious literature, many homes being without Bibles. Some of them thought our Bibles to be different from that of the Baptists or Methodists—not an illogical deduction.

They suspected him of being an internal revenue officer and tried to run him out by threatening to kill him. However, scared as he was, he stayed, preached and placed Bibles in almost every home.

In 1893, Mr. W. W. Baxter, our Sabbath-school missionary at Booneville, Ky., spent several months in this section and is remembered with affection and respect.

Presbyterians, therefore, are not unknown or unwelcome; indeed, although these people are chiefly Baptists, one of their number, Caney Collins, a brother of Beatty, being a Baptist preacher, they are very eager to have us come.

They have been despised and in a measure ostracised by outsiders, and their self-respect impels them to seize every chance of improvement.

They are delighted at the prospect of having two cultured, consecrated ladies locate in the valley, who will carry on their Sabbath-schools the year round in the best manner, teaching the truth as it is in Jesus, showing them how to get hold of it and work it out in their home life and in all their affairs. The people offer them a house and garden. They will help remodel the house, which will cost us about $100, a sum which we hope some reader will send us. The friends in Greeneville and Jonesboro, Tenn., are endeavoring to provide the furniture needed ; others in Knoxville are getting funds for a horse.

The ladies are Miss Annie Brian Miller, of Limestone, Tenn., an excellent teacher, who has fitted herself for mission work by two years' attendance on Moody's Bible Institute, Chicago; and Miss Maggie B. Axtell, Topeka, Kans., a graduate of Washburn College, who has had much experience in Bible teaching, especially in the Y. W. C. A.

Miss Axtell's salary is promised by friends in Kansas. One-half of Miss Miller's is furnished by a gentleman and his wife in Indiana. The other $150 we trust the Lord soon to send us.

" Hotel Varday " will be their home until their house is ready for occupancy.  This building is frame, 12 z 14 feet in size ; has on the first floor three beds, a bureau, fireplace and staircase; on the second floor is one bed.

Since my first visit groups of Westminster picture cards have been hung on the walls.  Many of these people were in the Union army during the war and were noted for their bravery. They love their own people and their homes, and their captain, J. H. Trent, tells of two Collins brothers who died in the army from homesickness.

In their burials they march single file to the grave, which is always on a mountain.  Should you .ask any of these people concerning their origin, all they can say is that they were told that their ancestors came from North Carolina and had Indian blood in their veins. And at this limit of their knowledge I rest until those who hold to the Portuguese, Aztec or Negro theory establish the connection. Before the war the charge of Negro mixture could not be proved, and those of them arrested for illegal voting on this ground were discharged. The slightest suspicion of Negro blood in a person is sufficient to call into active exercise the intense repugnance of some people to associate with him or his, so that it is not surprising that even now children of these people are denied admission to the public schools in districts where they are in the minority. It is said that they are very averse to their men marrying white women, and in such a case recently the man was obliged to cut his finger and the woman to suck his blood before their minister would perform the ceremony. Indian blood mingled somewhat with Caucasian will account for all the peculiarities of color, feature, hair, carriage and character possessed by these people.

We know that the Mullens and Moores received their names from white husbands and fathers, and we do no violence to the probabilities by assuming that the prevalent names, Collins, Gibson, Williams, Goans, Bell, came in the same way.

It is certainly a cause for gratitude that our beloved Church has an agency, the Sabbath-school missionary, that penetrates the darkest mountain recesses to plant Sabbath-schools which shed forth the light of the glorious gospel of the Son of God, and that it provides to "keep the lighta-bumin'," sending the blessed sunshine into every home and every heart, through the labors of trained consecrated women on the "Settlement Plan," projected by the Board of Publication and Sabbath-school Work.

The Church at Home and Abroad - Page 507

by Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly - Presbyterian Church - 1898

Dr. C. Humble writes of successes in Tennessee. " At Vardy twenty or more conversions have come out of Bible teachers' work and the good work of 'heart-picking' goes onNot being ready for a church organization, the converts go into the Baptist church; but they want us to organize." (See Sulphur Springs Baptist Church -

Home Mission Monthly‎ - Page 112
by Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Woman's Executive Committee for Home Missions, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Woman's Board of Home Missions - Home missions - 1899

July, 1897, Rev. C. Humble started from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., to visit Blackwater Valley. The drive was a long one, over rough and rocky roads, and Dr. Humble p.nd his companion were glad, as night came on, to find hospitable entertainment in "Mulberry" Valley. In the morning, resuming their journey, they crossed over Mulberry Ridge and a drive of a few miles brought them to the little community in Blackwater Valley, known as the Melungeons, a name whose origin is variously defined, but it is supposed the people are partly of Portuguese origin. This community has been greatly isolated, and in consequence deprived of a stimulus to progress. Dr. Humble found that they were desirous of a better life and of advantages which they had not hitherto known.

In a very fully illustrated article, giving among other views the picture of the head of the clan and his family, which appeared in the September Home Mission Monthly, for 1897, very interesting particulars of this first visit of Dr. Humble's are given. Dr. Humble closes his article by saying that land was pledged for a building if Bible teachers could be sent to labor in the region and adds, "The door is open, the call is in our ears, the response will surely come."

In a short time Dr. Humble's labors and faith were rewarded; he succeeded in securing the teachers and sufficient money for their support. The people welcomed the missionaries gladly, and their initiatory efforts were crowned with much success. The Arch Enemy, ever watchful to throw hindrances in the way of Christian work, was not long idle, however. The following communication, just received from Dr. Humble, will explain the condition of affairs at present:


The work of Misses Miller and Axtell at Vardy, Hancock Co., Tenn., among the Melungeons, grows in interest. From the first these people made our teachers their own, and when sectarian opposition was aroused by a new preacher not of the Melungeon blood, who turned our Sunday school out of the building where it had met, a friendly home was opened and the people who had been led into the Light by our workers, stood by them and now call earnestly for the organization of a Presbyterian church.

This conflict has been thrust upon us, for our teachers have appreciated and reciprocated the hospitality of the people, and in all their teachings and labors have exercised the utmost consideration and Catholicism, that no sectarian opposition should be aroused, for nothing is more antagonistic to true Christianity than a little religion in the hands of a zealot. In spite of this opposition from outside, the Son of Righteousness has arisen in Blackwater Valley with healing in his wings, and these despised people who, for a hundred or more years back sat in comparative darkness, have seen a Great Light and are rejoicing in it.

Eight weekly religious meetings and one day school are conducted by two workers. To these should be added another Sunday school just organized—the third conducted by these devoted missionaries — together with another Bible class which they supervise. One of the Hible classes meets every Friday evening on Newman's Ridge. Previous to the advent in the valley of the opposing element this class had been held in the house of a local minister, and had two other native preachers as students. After the onslaught this house was closed against us. A number of the best men of the class—the leading men on the Ridge—arose and said they would fix up a vacant house for the meeting. On the next Friday evening this house was opened, a bright fire burning in the fireplace, and benches ready for the class. Thus again was the " wrath of man made to praise the Lord."

Wider the interest spreads. A man on the far side of the Ridge — six or seven miles distant—came to invite our Bible Readers to start a school in his neighborhood. This has been done, and now still another community calls for similar work. Two more Bible Readers could enter at once into most needy fields. The people of the county seat are calling loudly for a Presbyterian teacher, the field is white, the grain is ripe. A Presbyterian minister should be located in that county at once.

The Ohio Synodical Sunday School Association are hoping to raise the salary of a Sabbath School Missionary to take charge of this county, whose arms are outstretched to welcome him. May the Lord grant the needed additional Bible teachers and the missionaries at a very early day. C. Humble, M. D.

Home Mission Monthly‎ - Page 19
by Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Woman's Executive Committee for Home Missions, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Woman's Board of Home Missions - Home missions - 1900



About two years ago we began work among a people called Melungeons (see this magazine for Sept., '97, page 243, for history of this people) living on Black water River, Hancock Co., Tenn. Last spring we organized the Vardy Presbyterian Church with thirty-five members, to which a number of additions have since been made. This spring one of our Sunday schools was turned out of its meeting place and found shelter in a neighbor's house.

The log school house in which the other Sunday school meets, and in which all our preaching services are held, is so open and cold that while preaching there last winter I was compelled to wear my overcoat, and the people, in companies of twenty or more, gathered in turn around the little stove in the center of the room in order that they might with the least discomfort remain through the service.

The need and desire for a church building are great. The people are very poor, but have agreed to furnish the logs for the lumber at the saw mill and do some work besides. The building needed is 30x40, with two rooms and a vestibule, which is to be surmounted with a tower. There is not a decent church building in the county. This one will cost beyond what the people can do, about $800 finished and furnished—when the property will be worth $1000.

Should the Board of Church Erection aid us, the least additional sum with which we could get along would be $500. The lumber is now being sawed, and we would like to have the building ready for occupancy by the New Year. Here is a unique opportunity of gaining Christ's commendation for helping some of the least of his brethren. Our elder's conversion runs thus: "I could not read a word in the book. I heard the minister preach and wanted to be a Christian. I went out into the mountain to pray, but I didn't know how to pray: so I just began to talk to the Lord and I told Him I could only remember part of the verse, He that believeth shall have everlasting life,' and I believed and right there the Lord blessed me."

Now Mr. Ordeal Collins can read and is a living epistle known and read of all men.

One of our deacons is a son of the massive moonshiner, Aunt Mehala Mullens, and was once himself a notorious moonshiner, but now a new man in Christ Jesus. Another deacon is a son of one of Aunt Mehala's daughters, who herself is perhaps our most zealous member.

Should there be some individual who would crown the work of our Church among these poor and condemned brethren by erecting for them a house of worship—possibly a memorial of some loved one "gone before"—or who would share in the erection of this Presbyterian church, the first of its kind in the country, communicate with Miss S. F. Lincoln, 15(1 Fifth Ave., New York, or with the writer, C. Humble, Parkersburg, W. Va.

Home Mission Monthly

Vol. XVI. No. 5.
MARCH, 1902.

PhotobucketQuick returns, these, all will say who recall the " Visit to the Melungeons" in the September number of this magazine, some four years ago. In that article Dr. Humble told of his visit to these interesting people at Vardy, Tenn., and of the effort then inaugurated to sustain Bible Readers among them. We have since made frequent mention of this work. A year or so ago a church was organized. Miss McBride now sends word of another rich blessing, resulting from a week of preaching services by the Rev. Mr. Wallins. Rain was pouring clown in torrents when the appointed time for the meetings drew near, the streams were swollen, footlogs were swept away (there arc no bridges). Added to the discomfort of the storm, the homes of the people are scattered on the top of a steep ridjre on one side and a mountain on the
other, while most of them live at a distance of two or three miles or more from the church. But as soon as the rain was stayed the people came—twice each day— through the mud, down steep, narrow paths, over slippery rocks—where one misstep might lead to a dangerous fall many feet below, theattendancegrowing— thein- terest deepening. Christians were revived, those who had fallen were reclaimed, and seventeen were added to the church, with more to follow.

Reports of the Boards - Page 133
by Presbyterian Church in the
U.S.A. General Assembly - 1919

Community Work

As the Board is still conducting a number of community stations
in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, it is pertinent
to note in general some of the features of these enterprises in the
light of the new conditions. One community worker reports that
during the past year the people gave over $800 toward the Red
Cross and the Government drives, and the members of the local
church contributed nearly $70 for the support of the pastor, the
largest amount given in five years. She further states that many
of the people now realize that they should have an education if
they expect to work outside of the mountains. They now realize
as never before what an education means. She further testifies
that the greatest work in her community, according to her judgment,
is to take the children out of the homes and place them
in boarding schools. Along this same line another writes that 
one of the most inspiring things that has happened in Vardy 
has been the return from the school of some of our Farm School 
boys and our Pease House and Dorland-Bell children. The parents
look forward eagerly to the homecoming of their children,
and when they find them improved so much physically and mentally
they begin to plan to send them back another year, and add a
few more to the number. 

Melungeons at Fort Blackmore

    THE MELUNGEONS  & FORT BLACKMORE SOME NOTES Attorney Lewis Jarvis was born 1829 in Scott County, Virginia and lived in the area and ...