The Mystery of Newman's Ridge
June 26, 1970
By John Fetterman
A journalist and author
specializing in Appalachia.
When the cold season comes,
the wind bites and howls along Newman's Ridge in east Tennessee,
nudging the snow across silent, ancient graveyards and against sturdy
cabins fashioned from monstrous hand hewn poplar logs. Only the wind
knows the origin of the dark-complexioned and handsome people who
settled on the ridge, some say hundreds of years before Columbus found
the New World, and the wind will not tell. And so the swarms of
historians, anthropologists, researchers and writers come here hoping
to unravel the mystery, only to leave frustrated.
The ridge people are called
Melungeons. One is Claude Collins, 35, a director of libraries for the
Hancock County school board. Claude frequently walks the lonely paths
atop Newman's Ridge where he was born. On such a stroll, he turned to
me and demanded: "Look at me. Do I look any different to you? Where do
you think my people came from?" The questions are old ones in east
Tennessee and probably will never be answered. They are asked by all
the Melungeons. Miss Martha Collins, who is president of Sneedville's
only bank; Corinne Bowlin, a college student; Monroe Collins, a dirt
One can only repeat the
legend. The. handsome Melungeons, with their dark eyes and finely
chiseled features, whether they live on the ridge or have moved to the
foot of it in the county seat town of Sneedville, speak fondly of their
years upon the lonely, misty height. Graying, neat and vibrant at 74,
Miss Collins relaxes in her leather chair at the bank and recalls the
frustrations of the local law enforcement officials who tried vainly
for years to arrest the ridge's whisky saleswoman, Aunt Mahala Mullins.
All attempts to bring Aunt Mahala to justice failed because she weighed
in excess of 400 pounds and could not pass through her cabin door.
"Everyone was very fond of Aunt Mahala," Miss Collins said. "When she
died they took away a part of a wall, wrapped her in quilts and gently
rolled her down the hill to be buried."
The Melungeons have always
insisted that they are Portuguese, and their legend insists that they
are descendants of those skilled seamen who sailed out of the western
Mediterranean under Phoenician aegis to the New World, perhaps 2,000
years before Columbus. Many scholars, notably Dr, Cyrus Gordon,
Brandeis University's noted Mediterranean researcher, do not lightly
dismiss the Melungeon legend. There is much evidence of pre-Columbian
transatlantic contacts. White gods with black beards came from the east
and introduced the arts of metallurgy, irrigation, weaving, counting
and writing throughout Central and South America. The Aztecs called the
god Quetzalcoatle to the Mayas he was Kukulcan, to tile Incas
Viracocha. Indians in Georgia observed a harvest festival strikingly
like the Biblical Feast of tabernacles.
In east Tennessee. the
fair-haired, fair-skined Anglo-Saxon pioneers and hunters looked upon
the dark people who lived on Newman's Ridge with distrust. The
Melungeons do not have the copper skin, black eyes or beardless faces
of the Cherokee, nor do they have the features of the Negro. After
talking with them and watching them one can only reaffirm the historic
and somehow unsatisfactory appraisal: Melungeons look "Mediterranean.
"Only the Melungeons, of all the people in the remote rocky folds of
Appalachia, have forgotten their own history.
Elsewhere in the mountains,
you are told proudly, my grandmother walked in from Carolina," or "my
kin was hunters from Virginny. Not so with the Melungeons. Seventy-two
year-old Ellis Stewart has lived all his life on the ridge. He
scratches the stubble on his chin and answers, "I guess the folks up
here been here just 'bout forever. Some's gone now, Where they came
from I'll never know. But someday they'll come back up here like
squirrels." It is a brave prophecy. Many of the Melungeons, like
mountain people elsewhere, are today fleeing the poverty of the hills
and seeking jobs in the cities to the north. Others, like Claude
Collins and Miss Martha Collins, have become successful in the limited
economy of Sneedville.
darkhaired and now a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, is
a puzzled child of the legend. "I've been fascinated by the Melungeon
legend all my life." she said. "Bowlin, you know, is a Melungeon name."
She speaks wearily of the researchers --some scientific and some just
curious, who come to Hancock County to poke through the tiny graveyards
and prowl the abandoned houses on the ridge. "They come in and take
skull measurements and blood samples and make skin pigmentation studies
and they never get any answers," Miss Bowlin said.
One man who has sought the
answers is Henry R. Price, an attorney and a meticulous historian who
lives in nearby Rogersville, Tenn. Price has traced the Melungeon
immigration back through the lush valleys of southern Virginia and
North Carolina, the valleys which were to become the eastern reaches of
the Wilderness Road, the route of Daniel Boone and the great migration
to the West. But the trail ends at the sea. Earliest records, Price
found, referred to people along the valley trails who were called,
"other free persons of color."
They bore the Melungeon names
which appear on Newman's Ridge: Collins, Mullins, Brogan, Goins,
Gibson, Bowlin. They were free of the restrictive legislation aimed at
slaves and former slaves during the 1700s and 1800s. Furthermore, the
Melungeons of that period were voting, paying taxes, acquiring land,
making wills, owning slaves, securing marriage licenses and suing.
They were successful farmers,
whisky makers and traders, and even produced their own gold coins. Miss
Collins recalls that her grandfather once bought a farm on the ridge
and produced $700 in gold from his pocket to pay for it. Historians
have said that the word "Melungeon" may be derived from the
AfroPortuguese melungo, meaning "shipmate." And that Melungeon names,
Brogan, Goins, Collins MulIins, now so English-sounding, may be traced
back to the Portuguese Braganza, Magoens, Colinso and Mollen. (A few
names are shared by many families).
Claude Collins was walking
slowly along the ridge, his eyes on the now abandoned house where he
was born and where he spent his boyhood. It was a good life up here. We
worked hard and our fields were clean." Walking along with him, hearing
that familiar twang of the mountain man coming from that improbably
swarthy face, I found myself going over, in my mind, the legendary
course that brought that face, those dark eyes. that coal-black hair
from some mediterranean shore to this ridge. To the east, a few hundred
miles beyond the misty horizon that is North Carolina, lies Cape
Hatteras, graveyard of ships. I pictured a great ship, such as the
Phoenician's used, long before Rome was built, to explore the African
coast and what is now Britain. It was easy to imagine one of those
vessels, westborne on the trade winds, dashed onto Hatteras' rocks, its
timbers, hewn from cedars o' Lebanon that grew near Sidon and Tyre,
It was a century and a half
before Christ, when the avenging Romans had destroycd the Phoenicians'
metropolis of Carthage and were threatening their colonies on the
lberian peninsula. I saw survivors of the ruptured ship, men and women.
struggle ashore and head west across the flat piedmont, into the green
valleys of the Great Smokies and finally southwest up the beautiful
valley of the Clinch River to this lonely ridge. I even pictured their
commander, a compact man with dark eyes and blackbeard. pointing to it
and saying, "This will he our home."
"When somebody was burned out
we'd have an all-day working," Collins was saying." People would come
in and build a new home in a day." "Yes," I said. "It does sound like a
good life." I almost called him admiral.