"Mulungeons and Eboshins": Ethnic and Political Epithets

by Wayne Winkler




Of all the mysteries surrounding the mixed-ethnic population known as Melungeons, one of the most emblematic is the mystery surrounding the origin of the word "Melungeon." Many possible origins for the term have been suggested by various researchers over the years, ranging from a supposed Afro-Portuguese word, "Melungo" meaning (depending on the source) "shipmate" or "white person," to the old English term "malengine," meaning "cunning" or "full of guile," to the Arabic "Melun-jinn," meaning "cursed soul." Historically, most researchers have opted for the French term "mélange" ("mixture") as the root of the term "Melungeon."

Among the many significant Melungeon-related documents uncovered over the years by researcher Joanne Pezzullo are newspaper references to the term "Melungeon" or some variant spelling. Many of these references are particularly significant because they do NOT refer to the mixed-ethnic family groups first documented in the Clinch River region in the early 19th century. Rather, these articles use "Melungeon" as an insult toward political opponents, none of whom presumably were connected with these family groups. Today’s Melungeon researchers tend to see the term strictly in reference to the mixed-ethnic people. The significance of the articles uncovered by Pezzullo is that they demonstrate the term being used in a very different context. While these references may shed no light on the origin of the people known as Melungeons, they bring up intriguing questions about the word itself and the way it was used in the 19th century. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the fact the word "Melungeon" was far more widely used and understood as a generic insult 150 years ago than we could ever guess from today’s dictionaries, none of which ever refer to any meaning other than regarding the Melungeon people. Understanding the ways in which the word "Melungeon" was used in the mid 19th century might help us understand the origin of the word itself and the various meanings the word has had over time.

As a political slur, "Melungeon" seems to have always carried a degree of racial innuendo, which was sometimes valuable in creating a whispering campaign against opponents. Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, was swarthy enough to inspire rumors of "other-than-white" ancestry, and legend persists to this day that President Warren Harding had African ancestry (although the Harding family stoutly denies this). And in some press accounts, the political usage of the word "Melungeon" seems to correspond rather closely with the meaning of the word as applied to the Melungeon people, suggesting that the term "Melungeon" was used generically to indicate some sort of mixture.

For example, an 1869 article in the Staunton, Virginia, "Spectator" referred to Virginia’s proposed post-Civil War constitution as an "abomination…as it came from the hands of a Molungeon convention." During the Reconstruction Era, African-Americans participated in the constitutional conventions that brought their respective states officially back into the Union, and later served in state legislatures. The fact that African-Americans were serving in any sort of official capacity was outrageous to the majority of white Southerners; the fact that former slaves would help devise an oath of loyalty to the United States and determine whether their former masters would be granted the right to vote was intolerable. In this context, the term "Molungeon" almost certainly refers to a mix of black and white, similar to the definition applied to the mixed-ethnic people first mentioned in the Clinch River region of Tennessee and Virginia.
However, the "Melungeon = racial mixture" theory is challenged, to some degree at least, by pre-Civil War references to political (as opposed to ethnic) Melungeons. The first known printed use of the word "Melungeon" seems to be used in both the political and ethnic senses. In 1840, William Gannaway Brownlow, a prominent Whig and later the much-reviled Reconstruction-era governor of Tennessee, referred to an "impudent Malungeon" who attempted to speak at a political gathering. Brownlow defined a "Malungeon" as "a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian," and later referred to this specific individual as "the big Democratic Negro."

In the decades prior to the Civil War, both Whigs and Democrats fought internal battles over the issue of slavery, and by the late 1850s the intensity of passions had created dozens of warring factions within both parties. The 1820 Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30' north except within the proposed state of Missouri. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 essentially repealed the provisions of the Missouri Compromise and the Supreme Court’s 1857 "Dred Scott decision" ruled that restrictions on the spread of slavery were unconstitutiuonal.

Efforts to reinstate at least some provisions of the Missouri Compromise were met with scorn by many southern political factions, and in Virginia the term "Melungeon" reappears in a political sense, albeit one with a distinct racial overtone. A segment of a pamphlet located online by Pezzullo quotes one Charles Allen concerning those who would try to restore at least some of the 1820 agreement: "The Mulungeons of Richmond endorsed the 'late convention' at Philadelphia too; but will any southern man-- a Stuart or an Imbodin even -- endorse this letter for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise.''

John M. Botts, a former Whig congressman from Virginia, referred to Melungeons in a letter to the Richmond "Whig": "......when the Sheriff came to count up the votes at the close of the polls, they counted but five -- and if I had received the vote of one ''Molungeon,'' and he had been authorized by the Constitution to vote, and had 'had' a majority of only one--- it would have been difficult to tell, whether I was most indebted for my election to the "Molungeon" or to the Chief Justice of the U.S.; and if my competitor had received six "Molungeon" votes, or the votes of six worthless and degraded locofocos (supposing they could be any such) they would have more than balanced these five of the first men of the State could boast..."

Interestingly, just two days after this letter was reprinted in a Maryland newspaper, an Alabama paper printed an item about Botts and his supporters: "Thirteen congressional electors, fifty senatorial electors, and three hundred and sixty county electors have been notified to hold themselves in readiness to repel the Dragoon of Rockbridge. Botts too, will dash to the rescue at the head of a noble band of ‘Molungeons and Eboshins’ as soon as the weather becomes sufficiently warm to render his odoriferous forces efficient."

The particulars of this particular political skirmish are of little importance to this examination – just another of the hundreds of political debates raging across the United States on the eve of the Civil War. Of more significance is the pairing of the political/racial epithets "Molongeons" and "Eboshins." "Eboshin" is an even more obscure and archaic ethnic slur than "Melungeon." The term was associated with Henry Wise, governor of Virginia and one of the Southern "fire-eaters" who threatened secession if the Republican candidate Fremont had won the election of 1856. Wise was quoted as saying that African-Americans were "ebo-shinned" and "gizzard-footed." The Ebos are an African tribe, so presumably the term refers to some supposed peculiarity in the tibia of Africans and their descendents. ("Gizzard-footed" presumably also refers to a physical distinction common to Africans.)

Wise also provided a unique definition of "Melungeon" that appeared in an 1863 publication: "Whether their own children were sold may be imagined from an anecdote long current in Virginia, relative to ex-Governor Wise, who, in a certain law case where he was opposed by a Northern trader, decided of a certain slave, that the chattel, being a mulatto, was of more value than 'a molungeon.' And what, in the name of God, is a molungeon?' inquired the astonished 'Northern man.’ 'A mulatto' replied Wise, ' is the child of a female house-servant by 'young master' --a molungeon is the offspring of a field hand by a Yankee peddler."

Melungeon researchers have long known that the term "Melungeon" was used as a political epithet for East Tennessee Republicans in the years following the Civil War. In fact, Will Allen Dromgoole, the infamous author of several articles on Melungeons in the 1890s, first heard the term used by late 19th century Tennessee politicians. But from the newspaper articles cited above, we can see clearly that the term "Melungeon" was in use as a political as well as ethnic slur well before the advent of the war.

The use of the term in newspapers is significant as well. Newspapers in the 19th century were written for mass circulation, usually for readers of no more than average levels of literacy for that time. The relatively frequent use of the term "Melungeon," often without any accompanying explanation or definition, indicates that this word was one that would be known and understood by the average reader, in both its ethnic and political contexts.

This is a very significant point. The very first known written use of the word "Melungeon" was a cryptic reference in the minutes of Stony Creek Primitive Baptist Church in southwestern Virginia in 1813. There is no indication that the term refers to ethnic background; in fact, there is no explanation of the term at all. The word doesn’t find its way into print until Brownlow’s 1840 "Whig" article, in which "Melungeon" is an ethnic slur but is used against a political opponent.
Although both Brownlow and Wise offered definitions of Melungeons in the ethnic sense, their definitions differed. Brownlow contended that Melungeons were "half Negro and half Indian," while Wise contended "a molungeon is the offspring of a field hand by a [presumably white] Yankee peddler."

In both cases, however, the term implied partial African ancestry. The belief in African ancestry is also reflected in the 1859 article concerning a Virginia politician "at the head of a noble band of ‘Molungeons and Eboshins’ as soon as the weather becomes sufficiently warm to render his odoriferous forces efficient." Whites believed that Africans and their descendents had a distinctive odor, so hot weather would exacerbate that effect. Again, this is a point that the average reader was expected to understand without explanation.

Brownlow and Wise were both more certain in their respective definitions of Melungeons as an ethnic group than the unnamed Tennessee politician quoted by Dromgoole who said, "A Malungeon isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a white man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket."

This statement not only reflects questions concerning the ancestry of some of this politician’s constituents, but the shifting political use of the term "Melungeon" as well. In 1840, Brownlow’s "impudent Malungeon" was a Democrat. By 1859, followers of Virginia Whig John Botts were labeled "molungeons." By the late 19th century, the term was being applied to East Tennessee Republicans by West and Middle Tennessee Democrats.

Whether these Melungeons were Whig, Democrat, or Republican, they were attracting press attention because of their political influence. Brownlow’s Melungeon was not only presumably a voter, but also had enough influence to presume to answer in rebuttal to the Whig speaker. "The Mulungeons of Richmond" had the political power to support an attempt to head off the Civil War. African-Americans could not vote or hold office in these years, and nearly everyone agreed that Melungeons were of African ancestry.

It is important to understand that we do not know exactly what "Melungeon" meant in the ethnic sense to these 19th century writers. As we have seen, Brownlow and Wise had different definitions, and Dromgoole’s source had no idea what ancestry Melungeons possessed. It is this question of ancestry that is at the heart of the "Celebrated Melungeon Case" of 1872 and numerous other court cases uncovered by Pezzullo’s research. In the absence of any conclusive contemporary definition, we have to assume that "Melungeon" did not have a uniform meaning, but was understood to be an ethnic mixture and generally presumed to include a degree of African ancestry. And while Melungeons and other mixed ethnic groups sometimes had the right to vote prior to the Civil War, Jack Goins’ study of voting records in Hawkins and Hancock Counties in Tennessee suggests that they rarely did; the trial of eight Melungeon men may have intimidated potential Melungeon voters even though the defendants were acquitted, acknowledging their citizenship. It is highly unlikely that anyone whose "whiteness" was truly in question would be in a position of political influence in the antebellum South.

Obviously, "Melungeon" meant one thing in reference to an individual and his or her ethnic background, and another thing in reference to politics. A Melungeon might be an individual of mixed ethnic ancestry (particularly African) or a Melungeon might be a political opponent. In the context of Reconstruction-era Virginia, the term "Molungeon convention" fits both meanings of the word since the convention was a mixture of black and white delegates whose work threatened the pre-war Virginia power structure. But pre-Civil War southern politicians were, without exception, white. When referring to the "Mulungeons of Richmond" or the "Molungeons and Eboshins" supporting John Botts, these newspapers were simply engaging in some racially-tinged name-calling, and were not seriously suggesting that these individuals were of mixed ethnic background.

Just as we don’t know exactly what 19th writers meant when they referred to Melungeons as an ethnic group, we don’t have enough sources to determine exactly what the term meant politically, either. Did they mean that the politicians in question were in some way supportive of the rights of African –Americans and therefore deserving of an ethnically-based slur? Or did "Melungeon" in the political context simply mean a coalition, a mixture – a mélange, if you will – of various political factions united for some purpose, obviously a purpose that lacked the approval of the journal using the term. It is likely "Melungeon" was used in a political sense both of these ways, sometimes simultaneously, in the years before the Civil War.

Based on newspaper accounts located to date, it would seem that the term "Melungeon" began fading from use as a political epithet not long after the Civil War. Dromgoole notes that "Melungeon" was used as an epithet by Democratic Tennessee politicians when referring to the Republicans in the eastern third of the state, but by the last quarter of the 19th century, press mentions of "Melungeons" almost exclusively related to the mixed-ethnic group.

There are a number of possible explanations for this change in the usage of the word. Prior to the Civil War, when politicians were exclusively Caucasian, it may have seemed like a good joke to refer to an opponent in a way that suggested a non-white ancestry. During Reconstruction, African-Americans not only voted but were elected to office. When the last Federal troops left the South in 1876, the political rights of African-Americans went with them and blacks were effectively disenfranchised for nearly a century. Despite the disappearance of black legislators, the joke behind calling an opponent a "Melungeon" may have lost its humor as southern white leaders realized that non-white legislators were no laughing matter.

In Tennessee, politicians from the eastern part of the state grew to resent the term "Melungeon," and not just as a political epithet. The post-Reconstruction era saw the color line drawn more boldly and distinctly than before, and East Tennessee politicians did not like to hear suggestions that their constituents were not completely "white." Melungeons DID vote in the post-war era and their representatives were not only defensive about the term "Melungeon," some even denied the existence of such a people. Gradually, the term fell into disuse as a political epithet and was subsequently used only to describe the mixed-ethnic group.

Today’s dictionary definitions make no mention of the term "Melungeon" as a political slur. While the political use of the term was certainly intended to convey the impression of someone not completely trustworthy (i.e."white") or respectable (i.e."white"), in its political context the word "Melungeon" had nothing to do with the Collins, Bunch, Gibson, and other mixed-ethnic families that settled in the Clinch River region circa 1800. It might be argued that many 19th century newspaper readers were unaware of the mixed-ethnic group but still understood the term "Melungeon" in its political sense. Words change meaning over time and some uses of a word become archaic. However, it seems strange this interpretation of "Melungeon" which was so widely used in the press, so widely understood in its implications, would fall out of favor so completely that within a century, dictionaries would no longer acknowledge the political meaning of "Melungeon."

Historians, like attorneys, like facts – lots of indisputable, documented facts. These are the tools of their trade; the more solid, indisputable evidence they can present, the more persuasive their arguments about those things which are not known. Both historians and attorneys find their tasks much easier when they deal with cases that are well-documented. Melungeon researchers do not have that luxury. If the study of Melungeons were a legal case, a district attorney would likely decline to prosecute due to lack of evidence. There is pitifully little documentation of the Melungeons and much of what does exist is folklore and worthless as historical evidence.

What Joanne Pezzullo has uncovered is a new fact. Actually, she has uncovered several others, but for purposes of this discussion, we will concentrate on the fact that the word "Melungeon "was used in a political sense, apparently not directly related to the people of the Clinch River region, and it was used in such a way as to indicate that the average reader would understand what was meant. Much of what is written above is speculative, educated guesses, and attempts to put these references into historical perspective. Others may interpret these references differently, and further discoveries of the use of the word "Melungeon" may lead to far different conclusions and speculations. But we now have another piece of the puzzle, another fact to add to our collection of evidence. In situations where the facts are few, each newly discovered bit of information poses new questions. In this case, the questions concern the origin of the word, and indirectly, its application to the people so designated.

As mentioned earlier, the first written record of the word "Melungeon" is found in handwritten church minutes in southwestern Virginia from 1813, and the word first appeared in print in "Brownlow’s Whig," published in Jonesborough, Tennessee, in 1840. A full article appeared in a national magazine, "Littel’s Living Age," in 1849, most likely taken from a Knoxville newspaper in the mid-1840s. The fact is that, at present, we have no record of the word being used earlier than 1813 or farther east than extreme southwestern Virginia. But does that mean that the word was unknown in the rest of country until it became a political epithet in the 1850s?

Again, the evidence is scant but there are at least two possible scenarios to compare. The first is that the word "Melungeon" "originated" in the Clinch River region. By "originated," I mean that the word was either unique to the people to whom it was applied – they had always called themselves Melungeons and their neighbors began using the term as well – or that the word was a local variant of another word that was so different from its root that the connection is not recognized – for example, the theory that "Melungeon" originated as the old English word "malengine" or that "Melungeon" was originally "mal-Injun," or "bad Indian." In this scenario, the word would have "migrated" back east where it was used as an epithet in antebellum Virginia politics.

The second possibility is that the word WAS known and used in other places, and simply does not show up in print until well into the 19th century. Its lack of earlier usage in print would suggest that it was not a widely-used word but in the context of the newspaper stories we have seen, its meaning was certainly clear to that average reader. This scenario would also suggest that the word was in existence prior to its first known appearance in 1813, and was applied to the dark-skinned people of the Clinch River region by their white neighbors.

Of these two scenarios, I find the second more plausible. The idea of a term originating with an obscure mixed-ethnic group evolving within a half century to a widely-understood political epithet is not impossible, but the group itself did not become widely known in that half century, so why would their name? The simplest explanation would be that the word was already known and used before anyone ever applied it to the Collins, Gibson, Bunch, Bowlin, and other Melungeon families.

If that is the case, who DID apply the name to these families? Recent online discussions have focused on Baron Pierre Francois de Tubeuf, who attempted to set up a colony of Frenchmen in southwestern Virginia, very near the same Stony Creek where the word "Melungeon makes its earliest appearance. If, as many have long speculated, the word "Melungeon" comes from the French word "mélange," these Frenchmen would be very likely to have given the name to the dark-skinned families who were arriving in the area at the same time. Apparently Tubeuf did not like some of his neighbors; Pezzullo writes, "The Frenchmen had great difficulty with the English language and experienced very bad treatment at the hands of the backwoodsmen every time they had to trade or bargain for goods." If Tubeuf felt badly treated by some of his dark-skinned neighbors, the term "Melungeon" (assuming he was the source of the word) would not only imply mixed ethnic heritage, but a certain lack of respectability as well – exactly what the word DID imply until the mid-20th century. Furthermore, since some of Tubeuf’s party decided against settling in the wilderness and chose to remain in Richmond, they may have applied that same term to people with whom they had differences, establishing "Melungeon" as a synonym for "scoundrel" with a hint of miscegenation thrown in for good measure – eventually leading to references to "The Mulungeons of Richmond…"

Baron Tubeuf may well have been responsible for labeling certain families in the southwestern Virginia wilderness "Melungeons;" in any event, the story of his settlement is quite interesting and potentially very important to the story of the Melungeons. But even if we accept that Tubeuf applied a term to these people that would later become a political epithet, we are still left with questions. For example, was "Melungeon" as a political epithet unique to Virginia? Although one of the newspapers located by Pezzullo was published in Alabama and another in Maryland, they were both reporting on events in Virginia, and the other references to the word as a political term originated in Virginia as well. One might argue that if the word was used in an Alabama newspaper, the editor of that newspaper assumed that his readers would understand it. However, 19th century editors borrowed freely from other periodicals in an effort to fill up space, and this Alabama editor may have been more interested in the length of the story than in the meaning of the words within it. Aside from Reconstruction-era Tennessee, was "Melungeon" a political epithet elsewhere?

And if "Melungeon" became a commonly-used political epithet, even if only in Virginia, why did it not become a widely-used or even generic term for people of uncertain mixed ancestry? Researcher William Gilbert estimated that there were as many as 200 such groups still existing in the United States in the mid-1940s. Yet only the group centered in the Clinch River region was labeled Melungeons – even relatives of this group that migrated elsewhere were known as "Goinses" or "Carmel Indians" rather than Melungeons.

What was the potency of the word "Melungeon?" There were colloquial names for other mixed ethnic groups but we don’t have instances of politicians being called "Croatans" or "Redbones." But we didn’t have so many instances of politicians being called Melungeons until Joanne Pezzullo found them, and modern dictionaries give no clue to that use of the term in the 19th century. Another researcher, or perhaps Joanne herself, might find references to politicians being called by other names associated with mixed-ethnic groups. Or another, entirely different piece of the puzzle will suddenly appear and revise our entire concept of Melungeons. (In fact, Joanne has found other interesting facts about the South Carolina origins of some Melungeons.) That’s what makes Melungeon research so exciting: the bits of real evidence we find are often small, but are nearly always very significant.

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