Many articles and books have been published on the Melungeons over the years but Bonnie Ball's insight into their history, customs, etc, is invaluable as her father had grown up with them in the late 1800s and she not only knew them as a child but taught their children. Here are some excerpts from her letters in the 1990s and also from her book which can found here online The Melungeons by Bonnie S. Ball, or purchase here.
February 24, 1990
I've just read your letter which had gotten misplaced in my big pile of mail... Not that I am 88 I have had to give up most research , but I still write letters and reply to those of others, even though I cannot do much active research.
As to the Melungeons, I had known them since childhood, since my father had them living as tenants on our farm when I was 8 or 9 years old. He had grown up in the Blackwater, Va., area and known them all his life.
When the Goins family came to live on our farm their children attended our school, and after I grew up and began teaching I had them as pupils, and had even played with their children. However it never occurred to me t write about them until a Norton, Va., editor began publishing articles about them, even though he knew little about them. Then it occurred to me "why not write about them myself?" So, I wrote a brief article for the Read Magazine, which sent me $75. I began receiving letters from all over the U.S.A. I had no idea that so many people were interested. A few years later I wrote one for a magazine in Ky., then the head of the ? paid me to write one for it. And in the early 1960s I decided to put it into a booklet and I had more than 2,000 copies published.
We had the Goins family for only a year or so, but we had Gibson, and Collins families living on our [land] for several years. My mother had a Collins family there long after I grew up and married.
Other Melungeon names that I remember were; Freeman, Moore, Sexton, Minor, and Sheets. Some of the Gibsons intermarried with other families like Phillips, Fanning, and Clark. [The Fannins, known as "Fanon," were slightly related to me and one of the Collins families who educated their children in Hancock Co., Tenn. [the man was a banker] had a daughter who married my father's step sister. They had only daughters. One took over the bank after he died and another became a high school principle in Bristol, Tenn.
So this has been a fascinating subject for me and I still feel convinced that they are a mixture of Moorish, Portuguese, Croatan Indians, and a small portion of Anglo-Saxon blood that was left from the final massacre of the Roanoke Island colony in North Carolina. If not, how can we explain why they use old Elizabethan English expressions and all the older ones said they were "Porty-gee." The Portuguese who were often shipwrecked off the stormy N.C coast and chose to stay there and marry Indian women. The small segment that escaped from the final massacre by the Va., Indians evidently retained the old English words that the Melungeons used, like "Hit" [for it] "ferninst'[?] for opposite, etc. Please excuse my rambling and crooked lines.
Bonnie S. Ball
I have your material but am now 88 years old and not carrying on any further research on the Melungeons. However, I grew up with them living and working on my father farm in Lee Co, Va, and he knew them well during his youth, and I have never doubted their real origin. I have sold over 2000 copies of my booklet. A step-sister of my father married a man of that group. He attended a mission school for that group, and was president of the local bank, which was later managed by a daughter. Some of them are still in this area and have become worthwhile citizens.
A Goins man once lived on our farm with his family, a large and strong man but was married to a woman that was probably not a Melungeon Others whom I knew in childhood were named Gibson, Freeman, Collins, and Sexton, which appear to be Anglo-Saxon names. However there is no doubt that they have a Portuguese ancestry a few generations back, but they also have some Anglo-Saxon names and speech.
Bonnie S. Ball
I have just taken the time to read all your data on the Melungeons. I guess that the mail that I have received re this subject would weigh several pounds. And truly, most of it presents new or different ideas.
In fact I grew up in Lee County, Va, when my father and mother had decided to move off the little ridge top farm, and move down into the valley among the blue grass hills and limestone springs, where we would be near a public school. There were woodland along the side and top of Powell Mountain, and he realized that if we were to continue raising cattle and sheep the wooded area along the mountain side would have to be cleared.
He had been born and reared as a boy in the 'West Blackwater section of Lee County," which adjoins Hancock County, Tenn, and was familiar as a young man with Mahala Mullins and other Melungeons. And he admitted that he had bought some of Mahala's product.
By that time he had lost his father during his childhood and his mother had remarried. So he went to live with an uncle in another valley in Lee Co, Va. Later around 1900 he bought a small farm along Wallen's Ridge where I and 3 or 4 others were born. However we were over a mile from school and attendance was difficult in winter so the bought the bluegrass land along the creek and mountainside which was rapidly growing up into a forest So dad knew some of the Melungeons he hand known as a boy on Blackwater, but they had then scattered and some were living in a remote area of Wise County known as the High Knob area Some of them had even ventured to work in a nearby coal mine, but that life apparently did not suit them very well. So he sent a man with teams of horses and wagons to move them over into Lee county to clear the mountain land of forests, and take care of his livestock. that was about 1909, and they lived in the 'shanties' on our farm for 8 or 10 years.
As they moved back into the remote areas of Wise County, Va., the forest along the mountain top began to grow and grow and by now it extends all the way down to our once vegetable garden where a brother lives.
Occasionally we read of one of their cousins who, like most Melungeon men there, did some hunting and fishing. For extra spending money and chewing tobacco "they dug and sold the dried roots of ginseng to sell (it grows in wooded areas and is claimed to have medicinal value.)
You may get tired before you read all these details. Even though several people have "stolen details" from my book, from which I have 'leased' to a Tenn. firm, I don't mind others using my material but they should, at least, ask for permission.
Bonnie S. Ball
Some interesting excerpts from the book;
The older Melungeons insisted that they were Portuguese. I have known the Melungeons from childhood, when three families lived as tenants on my father's farm in Southwestern Virginia. Their children have been my pupils, and I have done first-hand research on their traits, customs, and past, but can give here only the proposed theories of their origin.
There is a doubtful theory that the Melungeon was a product of frontier warfare when white blood was fused with the Indian captor's and that of the Negro slave.
There also persist stories (that are recorded in history) that DeSoto visited Southwestern Virginia in the sixteenth century by way of a long chain of mountain leading into Tennessee. One ridge known as "Newman's Ridge" (which could have been "New Man's Ridge") was once the home of a teeming colony of Melungeons who were strongly believed to have descended from members of DeSoto's party lost or captured there.
In both Carolinas Melungeons were denied privileges usually granted to white people. For that reason many migrated to Tennessee where the courts ruled that they were not Negroes.
In weighing this last statement it is interesting to note that the Moors of Tennessee called themselves Portuguese, that the Moors of North Carolina came from Portugal, and that a generation ago the Melungeons called themselves Portuguese.
The Portuguese tradition seems to persist in connection with the Melungeons much more than even that of the Lost Colony.
She (Will Allen Dromgoole) gives no authority whatsoever for this tale, and further states that; "A Collins came to Newman's Ridge and reared a family by a wife whose ancestry was more vague than that of Cain's wife."
In a column called "The Southwest Conrner" published in the Roanoke News, Roanoke, Virginia, on February 25, 1934, Dr. Gooridge Wilson wrote the following .......
........"Mr. Robert Gray, one of the last survivors of those who drove the great herds of cattle, horses, and mules from the mountains to the sea, says that the Melungeons were in much demand for this work, being expert handlers of the stock on long treks...... ... when he was a boy some of the oldest of the clan told him that they were "Croatans," survivors of the Indians tribe supposed to have destroyed or absorbed Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony on Roanoke Island."