Origin Of the Melungeons

By Lowell Kirk


   The Origin of the Melungeons in East Tennessee has long appeared to be a mystery to many scholars. Despite many different theories that have been advanced to explain their origin, it is very clear that they originated from runaway slaves, native American Indians, and runaway white European Indentured Servants. The runaways came from the English colonies of North and South Carolina. That is why that when they first appeared in the historical writing, they had English names and spoke the English language.

   Jean Patterson Bible, in a book published in 1975, The Melungeons Yesterday and Today, explored the history of the Melungeons and discovered nothing certain about the many confusing legends regarding Melungeon origins, except that the Melungeons do exist! But in all of the theories regarding Melungeon origin, what keeps recurring is much strong evidence to indicate that a mixture of Negro, Indian and White is included in the Melungeon ancestry. Their occupation of the mountainous area of East Tennessee, Virginia and Southeast Kentucky was established in the mid 18th Century. Although her book provides worthwhile information about the Melungeons, Jean Bible was not a trained nor scholarly historian.

   William S. Willis, in an article, "Divide and Rule: Red, white, and Black in the Southeast", provides evidence which strongly supports the theory of Melungeon origin: i.e. they were a mixture of Negro, Indian and White people. In his well-documented scholarly paper, Willis shows that in the early 18th Century, the colonial governors and other whites in South Carolina consciously sought to make the Indians and Negroes hate and fear each other. The reason was simple. Whites obviously felt outnumbered and physically threatened by a coalition of Indians and Negro slaves it the colony. Runaway slaves were finding refuge with the Indians. To protect the whites from an attack from a combined group Indians and runaway slaves, a policy of dividing the two groups was established by 1715. Many Cherokee were employed as runaway slave catchers. It was the Cherokee who came to be the most cultivated of Native Indian tribes by the South Carolina colonial government in the early 18th Century.

   The first use of the term "Maroons" being used in the American Hemisphere was by the Spanish in Jamaica. The Spanish brought swine and African slaves to Jamaica and began to export swine products from the island. By the mid 16th century, 80,000 swine were killed annually on Ashanti, who came to be known as "Maroons" a word probably derived from the Spanish word, mareno, meaning porker." (Harcourt-Smith, p. 22) The Spanish lost control of the Maroons on Jamaica. They became virtually free men. "Their occupation bred in them an almost fanatical love of liberty, and martial powers of a singular kind. They came to know every twisting forest track every pool where the water was sweet, every fern-hung cave whence secret rivers gushed. . .Above all; they knew every glade where the wild pig rooted. ." (Harcourt-Smith, p. 22) When the English took Jamaica from Spain in 1655, they inherited the problem of the Maroons. Until 1740, the Maroons were involved in slave revolts against the British. Just like the Maroons in North America, the Jamaican Maroons raided the Jamaican plantation houses by night whenever they had need of supplies, or whenever British encroachments upon their hunting grounds grew unbearable. The Maroons of Jamaica formed the first Free Negro society in the New World. By the late 18th century, a Maroon revolt was put down and many of them were transported to Nova Scotia and to Sierra Leone. But outside of this revolt, the Maroons usually aided the British in putting down other Slave revolts from 1745 until 1865.

   Another interesting note is that one Jamaican Maroon leader named Cudjoe, led one of these revolts. Cudjoe, an Ashanti word means Monday. Ashanti frequently named their children after days of the week. Thus the Cudjoe of Cudjo’s Cavern in North Carolina was most likely derived from the Ashanti language.

   Of the Americans Maroons on the frontier Georgia and North and South Carolina, William Willis wrote:

   "Maroons were the most resourceful of all fugitives. They aimed at nothing less than setting up small self-sufficient societies in the most inhospitable places....Once established in their mountains, Maroons then lived as banditti; they plundered White settlements, killing masters and rescuing slaves" (Willis, p.68)

   This is like many of 18th and 19th Century descriptions of the Melungeons in East Tennessee by their early white neighbors!

   Willis points out that the Maroons preferred the swamps of Florida, and the history of the Second Seminole war in 1835-7 bears this out. But Willis also points out that some Maroons went to the mountains, and that was the Cherokee stronghold. There is a Melungeon story, which could be linked to the early 18th Century South Carolina practice of hiring Cherokee as slave catchers. Bonnie Ball, in here book The Melungeons, published in 1969, wrote of the following story which was said to have happened sometime prior to 1797.

   Two Melungeons, one white, the other obviously black, named Collins and Gibson, went to Virginia, where Collins sold Gibson as a slave for "...a fin price, a wagon and mules, a lot of goods, and three hundred dollars in money, being paid to old Vardy [Collins[ for his ‘likely nigger.’" (quoted in Bible, p.112) Gibson quickly escaped, joined Collins, and both returned to their mountain stronghold. There were Cherokee who were hired as slave catchers who occasionally practiced the same deception. The Cherokee were paid for the return of slaves, and then help them escape again. As a matter of fact, several of the Cherokee braves were known to the whites by the name of "The Slave Catcher."

   Leitch Wright’s book, The Only Land They Knew contains a much-detailed information on the mixture of Negros, Indians and Whites. Wright points out that after the English brutal destruction of the Spanish missions in north Florida in 1702-1704, many Indian women and children were brought to South Carolina. Indian males were sold into slavery into the Caribbean Islands, and African males were brought into South Carolina as slave workers. As a result, the only mates available to Indian women were Black males. Thus a considerable amount of mixing took place. Native Americans were not racially prejudiced, although they eventually learned to be so from their white European conquerors by the late 17th Century.

   When John McDonald and his half-blood Cherokee wife opened a store on south Chickamuga Creek in 1776-77, McDonald wrote that "the only people in this region were a few blacks, located downriver from the present Chattanooga, who were escaped slaves from the coastal settlements." (Evans, "Williams Island", p. 17)

   The Melungeons were in East Tennessee prior to the American Revolution. Most early accounts describe them as having dark complexions, dark eyes and dark hair. The Melungeons were a band of Maroons, from North Caroling, mixed with Cherokee Indian and possible Lumbees, and some whites of dubious origin. The Melungeons spoke Elizabethian English, as did the Maroons. So do many remote white Appalachian Mountain residents today.

   The Melungeons had no history, or clan ties or apparent social order. Jean Bible wrote that the Melungeons have never "had a tribal culture in the form of literature, dance, music or other artistic legacies." (Bible, p.90) As they were fugitives from white men in South Carolina, Georgia or North Carolina, their survival depended upon not being identified as runaway slaves. Thus the confusion regarding their origin served them well. They benefited from it and sought to promote the confusion regarding their origin in order to remain free throughout the era of slavery. Prior to the Civil War, Blacks could be captured and sold into slavery. The Cherokee feared being taken away to Indian Territory, as the bulk of the tribe had been during the infamous "Trail of Tears." Racial prejudice would force Melungeons to remain unidentified right up to the present time, as they obviously have.

   The convincing proof of the Melungeon origin as being Cherokee and runaway slave appeared in the Knoxville Journal on Saturday, Aug. 17, 1991. Fifteen year old Michael Joseph Bullard, died in a swimming accident at Smyrna. At his burial he was honored by the Cherokee leadership as the last of a bloodline, "who was the great-great grandson of Micajah Bunch--who was the last known king of the Melungeon people." According to the many Native Americans who honored young Michael Joseph Bullard with an eagle feather, a medicine bag and a dance stick to his casket, the Melungeons "were considered a branch of the tribe." (Hicks, Mark, p. 1) The Melungeons simply kept the connection secret due to the inherent racism of mainstream America. Since the 1960’s, it has become more and more acceptable for Americans to be proud of their ethnic ancestry. Melungeon’s have a greater claim and justification to being "American" than those who are descended from the European immigrant conquerors who did their utmost to destroy Native American culture. Today, there is no mystery to the origin of the Melungeons.


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