A STRANGE PEOPLE OF TENNESSEE
The Malungeons and Their Curious Customs
There is a Mystery as to Their Origin
Claims of Indian-Portuguese Descent Discussed
Their Chief Occupations Are Farming, Milling, Hunting
and Digging Medicinal Roots
September 20, 1897
September 20, 1897
Times Picayune (Louisiana)
The Manchester correspondent of the New York Evening Post writes; A party of London writers and artists are now in the Tennessee mountains studying the peculiar race of people known as the Malungeons. The Malungeons are probably the most mysterious race in America, and less is known of them than of any other people. Whence they came to America or how they obtained their peculiar name is unknown.
Those who assert that the Malungeons are of mixed negro or Indians and white blood do so utterly upon hearsay. There is no proof to show that the Malungeon is of Indian, African or Portuguese descent, nor any reliable history of his origin. The Malungeons are themselves ignorant of their ancestry. Some of them claim to be of Portuguese blood, but they can give no intelligent reason for this claim. They say that their ancestors emigrated to America about 150 years ago from the interior of Portugal and first settled in South Carolina, whence they came to Hancock County, Tenn., settling in a beautiful mountain cove on Blackwater creek. The records of Hancock county show that they were first known there in 1780. In that year they were granted public lands on Blackwater creek. They refused to hold any intercourse with the settlers, except in trade skins and furs for arms and ammunition. It was many years after the revolutionary war before they could speak broken English.
The Malungeons at first sight seem to be a cross between white and Indians. They are of a copper color with prominent cheek bones, coal black hair, straight noses, black eyes and an air of intelligence. Some say that they are of Moorish descent. Their color and foreign appearance weighed heavily against them in the pioneer days of Tennessee. The mountain whites ostracized them severely in school and church matters and refused them the right of citizenship and it was not until 1852 they were allowed to vote. This right was only obtained by them after a long struggle in the courts. The courts of Tennessee had looked upon them as of negro origin and therefore the slave laws were applied to them. All of them made oath that there was not a drop of negro blood in their veins and when this fact was thoroughly established they were allowed to vote and send their children to the public schools of Hancock county. There were about sixty heads of families who came to Hancock county in 1798 and they now number upwards of 400.
The customs of the Malungeons are in some respect peculiar. Every year they hold two fairs, spring and autumn on Blackwater. Every family attends these fairs and buys such goods and provisions as will supply them for the ensuing six months. Their chief occupations are farming, milling, hunting, fishing and digging medicinal herbs. By reason of the last named occupation they are sometimes called "Diggers" for in spring and autumn they wander through out the Tennessee mountains gathering roots, barks, leaves and plants for the medicinal laboratories of northern and eastern cities, and they make more money at this business than any other. They live very plainly and frugally.
Each man and his family sit down to a rough wooden table at meals. A tablecloth is unheard of and dishes or plated, knives, forks or spoons are luxuries for which they have no use. Before sitting down to a meal every man, woman and child bows and returns thanks in concert. When the meal is finished thanks are again returned. They drink neither coffee nor tea, and do not use tobacco. Bread is the principal food eaten, summer and winter. One Malungeon will eat enough of their heavy bread to last an American workman three or four days. Other articles of food used are onions at every meal, cucumbers, mushrooms, dred fish, melons, buckwheat and fruit. Before the war the Malungeons were the most desperate and notorious moonshiners in the mountains. Whiskeymaking was then their chief occupation, and the early marshals and revenue collectors did not dare go among them to capture their illicit distilleries. When the officers persisted in their efforts to arrest them, a half-dozen deputy marshal were killed before the government succeeded in interfering with their stills. When the war came the Malungeons enlisted on the union side and were good soldiers. About twenty of the old men are now drawing quarterly pensions from the government for wounds received.
They are a very religious people, and commune with God many hours every day. It is not an uncommon sight to meet a Malungeon walking or idling along blackwater devoutly engaged in prayer and the appearance of a stranger neither disturbs him nor his devotions. Until a few years ago they held their meetings in some neighbor's home but now they have a capacious church, though in the summer the meeting are held in groves. No bell calls them to worship on the Sabbath or their children to school on week days, but a long dinner horn is used, and its shrill piercing call reaches far beyond Blackwater cove. Every man is a lay preacher, though there are half a dozen Malungeons set apart for that special work. The mountain missionaries who have gone among them from time to time were hospitably received, but made no impression upon them. Two Mormon elders were tarred and feather some years ago for daring to preach their doctrines among them.
The women do almost as much work as the Indian squaws. While the plowing is done by the men, the plantings is the part of the women. Drawing water, cooking and care of children is also their labor. The men build the framework of the cabins and fences, milk and take care of the cows, and watch the gardens. The make the best peach brandy in the mountains and drink it as freely as water. Strangers are welcomed and generally invited to the brandy still.
While the Malungeons have finally fallen into American ways and legal ceremonies, until about 1848 their marriage customs were unique. Courtship was carried on as far as possible between the parties favorably disposed to each other without the knowledge of the parents. When the matter was finally settled between them the girl ran away from her own cabin to that of the young man. The next day the father and brothers of the young man, driving several head of cattle in front of them, walked to the cabin from which the girl came to negotiate, if agreeable, the proposed union. In case no objection was made more cattle were exchanged and the two families met at their pastor, and a short ceremony was followed by a great festival. The marriages generally took place in August (which is still the favorite month) after the harvests had been gathered and all had plenty of leisure. Both parties had new songs and dances, and it was a matter of emulation as to which should excel.
Before the war the Malungeons were whigs, and when the party died they became Republicans, to which party they still cling.