Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Best of - Will Allen Dromgoole

The Mysterious Tribe Known as Melungeons

On the Ridge, the real stronghold of this peculiar people, life is a great deal harder than in the swamp or on Blackwater creek.  They live more like Indians than the dwellers in the valley, and are entirely content with their life.  I visited several huts, spending a month among them, living on corn bread, honey and black, sugarless coffee.  They were as utter strangers the day I left as on the day I arrived among them.

 The Saponi village was a musket shot from Fort Christiana (which taught 77 children), the village cabins were all joined making a circle with
3 passages 6 feet wide each, the doors all faced inside the circle
 while the center of the circle was a tree stump which the 12 head men spoke on.

 Calloway Collins in an Indian if ever one set foot on Tennessee soil.  He is very fond of his red skin, high cheek-bones and Indian like appearance.  His cabin has two rooms, connected by a kind of shed.  There are dirt floors in one room and the shed, but the other room has a floor of oak logs with the bark still on them and laid side by side, just as they came from the forest.  A bed of dry, last year's leaves was the only furnishing the room could boast.

The cooking and eating were done in the connecting shed, and a large coffee-pot always occupied a low shelf just above the table, for Calloway, like most of the Malungeons, is a slave to coffee and drinks it instead of water throughout the day and night.  Calloway himself is a king, a royal good fellow, who, seated upon a great stump that marks the fate of a giant beech that grew precisely in the center of the site selected by the Indian for his shed, or hallway,  would entertain me by the hour with his songs and banjo-picking and stories of his grandfather.

The man's very instincts are Indian.  He sleeps in leaves, inside or out, as he feels inclined.  He smokes almost unceasingly; so often, in fact, that his wife, Ann Calloway, finds it necessary to cultivate a 'torbacy spot'' for her ''ole man ter smoke up.''


The records show that by act of the Constitutional Convention of 1834, when the “Race Question” played such a conspicuous part in the deliberations of that body, the Malungeons, as a “free person of color,” was denied the right of suffrage. Right there he dropped from the public mind and interest. Of no values as a slave, with no voice as a citizen, what use could the public make of the Malungeon?

In appearance they bear a striking resemblance to the Cherokees, and they are believed by the people round about to be a kind of half-breed Indian.
In Western and Middle Tennessee the Malungeons are forgotten long ago. And indeed, so nearly complete has been the extinction of the race that in but few counties of Eastern Tennessee is it known. In Hancock you may hear them and see them almost the instant your cross into the county line. There they are distinguished as the Ridgemanites or “pure Malungeons.” There among whom the white or negro blood has entered are called the Black Waters.”

Their complexion is a reddish brown, totally unlike the mulatto. The men are very tall and straight, with small sharp eyes, high cheek bones, and straight black hair, worn rather long. The women are small, below the average height, coal black hair and eyes, high cheek bones, and the same red-brown complexion. The hands of the Malungeon women are quite shapely and pretty. Also their feet, despite the fact that they travel the sharp mountain trails barefoot, are short and shapely. Their features are wholly unlike those of the negro, except in cases where the two races have cohabited, as is sometimes the fact. These instances can be readily detected, as can those of cohabitation with the mountaineer; for the pure Malungeons present a characteristic and individual appearance. On the Ridge proper, one finds only the Pure Malungeons; it is in the unsavory limits of Black Water swamp and on Big Sycamore Creek, lying at the foot of the Ridge between it and Powell’s Mountain, that the mixed races dwell.


Many of the Malungeons claim to be Cherokee and Portuguese. Where they could have gotten their Portuguese blood is a mystery. The Cherokee is easily enough accounted for, as they claim to have come from North Carolina, and to be a remnant of the tribe that refused to go when the Indians were ordered to the reservation. They are certainly very Indian-like in appearance. The men are tall, straight, clean-shaven, with small, sharp eyes, hooked noses, and high cheek bones. They wear their hair long ( a great many of them) and evidently enjoy their resemblance to the red man. This is doubtless due to the fact that a great many are disposed to believe them mulattos, and they are strongly opposed to being so classed. The women are small, graceful, dark and ugly. They go barefooted, but their feet are small and well shaped. So, too, are their hands, and they have the merriest, most musical laugh I ever heard. They are exceedingly inquisitive, and will ask you a dozen questions before you can answer two.


The ridge proper is the home of the Malungeons. I visited one house where the floors were of trees, the bark still on them, and the beds of leaves.  The owner was a full-blooded Indian, with keen, black eyes, straight black hair, high cheeks, and a hook nose. He played upon his violin with his fingers instead of a bow, and entertained us with a history of his grandfather, who was a Cherokee chief, and by singing some of the songs of his tribe. He also described the Malungeon custom of amusements.

I also visited the cabin of a charmer, for you must know these people have many superstitions. This charmer can remove warts, moles, birth-marks, and all ugly protuberances by a kind of magic known only to herself. She offered to remove the mole from my face for 10 cents, and became quite angry when I declined to part with my lifetime companion. “Tairsn’t purty, nohers,” she said; “an ‘t air ner sarvice, nurther.” I cannot spell their dialect as they speak it. It is not the dialect of the mountaineers, and the last syllable of almost every word is omitted. The “R” is missing entirely from their vocabulary.

There is also a witch among them who heals sores, rheumatism, “conjures,” etc. They come from ten miles afoot to consult her.  They possess many Indian traits, that of vengeance being strongly characteristic of them. They, likewise, resemble the negro in many things.


Somewhere in the eighteenth century, before the year 1797, there appeared in the eastern portion of Tennessee, at that time the Territory of North Carolina, two strange-looking men calling themselves "Collins" and "Gibson". They had a reddish brown complexion, long , straight , black hair, keen, black eyes, and sharp, clear-cut features. They spoke in broken English, a dialect distinct from anything ever heard in that section of the country.

They claimed to have come from Virginia and many years after emigrating, themselves told the story of their past. These two, Vardy Collins and Buck Gibson, were the head and source of the Melungeons in Tennessee. With the cunning of their Cherokee Ancestor, they planned and executed a scheme by which they were enabled to "set up for themselves" in the almost unbroken Territory of North Carolina.  This story I know is true. There are reliable parties still living who received it from old Vardy himself, who came here as young men and lived, as the Melungeons generally did to a ripe old age.

The original Collins people were Indian, there is no doubt about that, and they lived as the Indians lived until sometime after the first white man appeared among them. All would huddle together in one room, sleep in one common bed of leaves, make themselves such necessary clothing as nature demanded, smoke, and dream away the good long days that were so dreamily delightful nowhere as they were on Newman's Ridge.

The Collins, as I said; those who followed the first-comers accepting the name already provided them. There was no mixture of blood: they claimed to be Indians and no man disputed it. They were called the "Collins Tribe" until having multiplied to the extent it was necessary to divide, when the descendants of the several pioneers were separated, or divided into clans.

Then came the Ben clan, the Sol clan, the Mitch clan, and indeed every prominent head of a large relationship was recognized as the leader of his clan, which always bore his name. There was, to be sure, no set form or time at which this division was made. It was only one of those natural splits, gradual and necessary, which is the sure result of increasing strength.

They were still, however, we must observe, all COLLINSES, The main tree had not been disturbed by foreign grafting, and while all were not blood descendants of old Vary they, at all events, had all fallen under his banner and appropriated his name.

The tree at last began to put forth branches, or rather three foreign shoots were grafted into the body of it; the English...or whites....Portuguese....and African.
The English branch began with the MULLINS tribe, a very powerful tribe, next indeed for a long time to the Collins tribe, and at present the strongest of all the several branches, as well as the most daring and obstinate.

Old Jim Mullins, the father of the branch, was an Englishman, a trader, it is supposed, with Indians. He was of a roving, daring disposition, and rather fond of the free abandon which characterized the Indian. He was much given to sports, and was always "cheek to fowl" with the Cherokees and other Indian tribes he like to mingle. What brought him to Newman's Ridge must have been, as it is said, his love for freedom and sport, and that careless existence known only to the Indians.

He stumbled upon the Ridge settlement, fell in with the Ridgemanites, and never left them. He took for a wife one of their women, a descendant of old Sol Collins, and reared a family known as the MULLINS tribe. This is said to be the first white blood that mingled with the blood of the dusky Ridgemanites.
The Mullins tribe became exceedingly strong, and remains today the head of the Ridge people. The African branch was introduced by one Goins who emigrated from North Carolina after the formation of the state of Tenn. Goins was a Negro, and did not settle upon the Ridge, but lower down the Big Sycamore Creek in Powell's Valley.

He took a Melungeon woman for his wife (took up with her),and reared a family or tribe. The Goins family may be easily recognized by their kinky hair ,flat nose and foot, thick lips, and a complexion totally unlike the Collins and Mullins tribes. They possess many Negro traits, too, which are wanting to the other tribes.

The Portuguese branch was for a long time a riddle, the existence of it being stoutly denied. It has at last, however, been traced to one "Denham", a Portuguese who married a Collins woman.

It seems that every runaway or straggler of any kind whatever, passing through the country took up with abode temporarily or permanently, with the Melungeons, or as they were then called the Ridgemanites. They were harmless, social, and good-natured when well acquainted with one--although at first suspicious, distant, and morose. While they have never encouraged emigration to the Ridge they have sometimes been unable to prevent it.

Denham, it is supposed, came from one of the Spanish settlements lying further to the south. He settled on Mulberry Creek, and married a sister of Old Sol Collins.

There is another story, however, about Denham. It is said that the first Denham came as did the first Collins from North Carolina, and that he (or his ancestors) had been left upon the Carolina coast by some Portuguese pirate vessel plying along the shore.

So we have the four races or representatives among, as they then began to be called, the Melungeons; namely, the Indians, the English, the Portuguese, and the African. Each is clearly distinct and easily recognized even to the present day.
This , then, is the account of the Melungeons from their first appearance in that part of the country where they are still found .......

And this is the Melungeons according to Will Allen Dromgoole - 1890.  Her research has been accepted as early as 1890 when the U.S. Census Bureau wrote her account into the "Indians Taxed and Not Taxed" report, until the recent 2012 Melungeon paper publshed by Estes, Crain, Goins and Ferguson.

The "Legend of the Melungeons" as pubished in 1848 gave their history.  They were, they said, Portuguese Adventurers who mixed with the Indians and upon migrating to Tennessee had mixed with the whtes and blacks to form their present race.  They didn't lie, didn't leave out the 'black' and didn't try to 'hide their ancestry'.  They gave the 'Four Branches' just as they told this to William Allen Dromgoole forty some years later.

Their story has yet to be written, stalled by books, papers, etc., researchers  rewriting their history, providing 'mysterious ancestries' and connections and ignoring who these people said they were for more than fifty years.

DNA is now proving their story to be true. The Goins do, in fact, carry the Sub Saharan ancestry. Vardy Collins (R1a)  and Buck Gibson (R1b) DNA has came back European.  "Varieties of R1b, a common Y-DNA haplogroup in western Europe, are found in abundance among Portuguese men. About 60 percent of Southern Portuguese and about 83 percent of Northern Portuguese belong to the subclade of R1b known as the Atlantic Modal Haplotype (AMH). There are even some areas in Portugal where the AMH is found in about 90% of men." [Portuguese Genetics]

Records have been uncovered proving the Indian ancestry of the Gibsons as well as the Native DNA of the Sizemore, Helton, Hooker, Riddle, Freeman and others. Many of these descendants of Collins, Gibson, etc., are indeed showing the Native American blood in their autosomal DNA results.

Records found recently have uncovered little pockets of these Portuguese people lving in regions other than Newmans Ridge.  Melungeon research has came a long way in the last 15 years shredding just about everything that has been written about them since the 1940s, making earlier research outdated.
Perhaps the next 15 years will provide us with more answers, perhaps I will have to once again shift my research to a new area but that's alright, as long as their real story gets told.

Will Allen Dromgoole - Articles 

Historical Articles


  1. There is such a fascination with Natives in this blog and only minor references to the Mrlungeons distinct African American heritage. It's almost like the native ancestry to some researchers has to be emphasized so that people won't confuse a Melungeon with mixed race person. You can't prove or disprove native ancestry from physical attributes such as high cheekbones and straight black hair,smh. Such a dated a flawed point ou f view that will lead you to only disillusionment and the adoption of cultures that may not be yours.

  2. If you were to read all of the 'Eyewitnesses to history' at this site you would find that in fact very few identify the Melungeons as anything but Indians. Minor references to African American heritage is because there really is not much found in the records. No manumissions, run away slave ads, nothing. In 1848 they told their 'Legend' they were Portuguese who mixed with the Indians, AND WITH THE BLACKS and whites after they got to Tennessee. Even the male DNA is showing but a few of the 'core lines' had African American DNA and if they mixed with Indians in 1520-1540 they would still have been Indians, don't you agree?


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The Gibsons

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