Did these mysterious people of Appalachia find the new world 2,000 years before Columbus?
Story and photographs by John Fetterman. Sunday March 30, 1969-Courier Journal .
Soon, gaunt empty houses and overgrown graveyards will be all to mark lovely , lonely Newman Ridge in East Tennessee where they lived. For decades, these enigmatic, dark skin complexioned people confounded sociologist, anthropologist and historians alike. The riddle of their origin appears destined to remain forever unsolved.
Newman Ridge, less than 50 miles beyond Cumberland Gap near Middlesboro, stretches some 25 miles from its northeast tip in northeastern tip of Virginia to its southwestern ending in Hancock County, Tennessee. On the other side it is flanked by lush valleys which drain the Powell River basin on the North and the Clinch River basin on the south. To this height came the dark ridge people to become the strangest legend of the Appalachians.
Some say they descended from Phoenicians, those skilled seagoing people who ruled the known seas before Rome was built. Others say they came from Portugal before the American Revolutionary War. These are handed down stories of Spanish mutineers. Others offer their own theories. The Melungeons are survivors of the lost fleet sent by Portugal to seize Cuba from Spain in 1665. They are descendants of the Welsh chieftain, Prince Madoc, whose party sailed west in the 12th century, moved up the Mississippi Valley and possibly reached falls where Louisville now stands. They descended from inhabitants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost Colony of Englishmen at Roanoke which disappeared around 1560. They are descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. After division of the land of Canaan among the 9 1/2 tribes that crossed over Jordan (Joshua 13 and 14), this became dispersed (James 1:1) and lost its identity. All these theories have their own followers.
These dark complexioned people bear one of the family names found in the riddle of the ridge. Their history is apart from the rest of Appalachian, and a wooded ridge in Tennessee still holds the secret of their origin. It is a secret that has baffled researchers for decades. Were their ancestors skilled seamen from the Mediterranean? Some experts say perhaps-and bits of knowledge from the past seem to bear them out.
The Melungeon legend gained new interest this year with the discovery of evidence that Phoenicians, indeed, may have found the western world at least 2000 years before Columbus.
And this summer, the people of Hancock County hope to stage an outdoor drama to bring needed tourist money into the county of 8,000 people and to keep alive the Melungeon Legend. A script is being prepared by Kermit Hunter, (Walk Toward The Sunset) successful writers of many such dramas, including “Unto These Hills” staged at Cherokee N.C. and the “Horn of the West” production at Boone N.C.
Twenty two year old Corinne Bowlin, a teacher in the county school system, is one of the drama organizers. I have been fascinated by the Melungeon legend all my life, she said. “Bowlin you know is a Melungeon name.” Many of the other workers helped to prepare a site for the drama & seeking financing also bear “Melungeon” names.
Out along the unmapped ridge, away from paved roads, only two people live now, Mr. and Mrs Ellis Stewart. He is 71 and she is 68 and they have spent their lives on Newman Ridge, “They’ll all come back to this ridge someday” Stewart says. “Where they came from first I’ll never know. But someday they’ll come back up here like squirrels.”
But they won’t. As in all Appalachia, the cities have drawn away the young people, and the older people have moved down by the paved roads and nearer the towns. Poverty has entangled some and success has found others. The days of moonshining and dirt farming up on the ridge will no more return to Newman’s Ridge than they will to thousands of ridges like it. There are two versions of what life was like on the ridge which as recently as 50 years ago was home for several hundred people.
The fair of hair and skin Scotch-Irish-English who moved along the wilderness road into the Kentucky territory through Cumberland Gap looked with scorn at the strange, dark people on the ridge. The Melungens were regarded as barbaric and dangerous. Because of their olive skin, Melungeons were sometimes called Negro or Indian and, to some, the name “Melungeon” took on the uncomplimentary connotation suffered by all minority groups.
Henry R. Price, an attorney and historian who lives in Rogersville, Tenn., has traced the Melungeons immigration back through southern Virginia and North Carolina. There at the sea, the trail vanishes. In the 1700, tax lists in North Carolina make note of “mulattoes” including the surnames Gibson, Collins and Mullins. These are among the most populous names that appear on Newman Ridge. Later census reports makes a distinction between whites and “other free persons of color.” When John Sevier, the Tennessee explorer and political leader came to Hancock County in 1784 he made note of a colony of unusual dark-featured people who spoke English, were neither Indian nor Negro, who bore fine European features and who claimed to be Portuguese.
But to the fair-haired settlers in the valleys, the Melungeons remained a frightening “bogeyman” for nearly 200 years. Early writers told of fierce, bloodthirsty renegades lying in wait upon the ridge, of an uncivilized clan of “half breeds” living in caves and hovels.
Col. W. A. Henderson, a prominent member of the Tennessee Bar and once president of the Tennessee Historical Society, wrote in 1912, the “Melungeon were never adherents to the Indian Religion and rites, but adhered to the Christian religion. The cross was held by them as a sacred as a sacred symbol.” Miss Will Allen Dromgoole, the novelist and poet, visited Hancock County about 1890 and wrote, “the men are very tall and strait with small, sharp eyes, high cheek bones and strait black hair worn rather long.” From talking with Anglo Irish pioneers, Miss Dromgoole learned that the Melungeons were “rogues, close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly and sneaky.” These “Melungeon tales” were repeated by other writers and embellished by the white settlers in the valleys. They were probably lent some truth by reports that men from the ridge had joined Bill Sizemore, a bloodthirsty outlaw who terrorized the Clinch region in the 1860s. Sizemore was finally killed in Rogersville in 1867 and a sow was driven up the street to devour his remains. These stories are still told in the small towns nestled in the Tennessee and Virginia hills and the people still talk as though the ridge were alive with people.
The ridge people, who bore the names Gibson, Collins, Bell, Bowlin, Goins, Gilbert and Campbell of the restrictive legislation aimed at slaves and former slaves during the 1700s and 1800s. Price in searching through the records, found these people exercising privileges by voting, paying taxes, acquiring land, making wills, securing marriage license and suing. Written records put them on Newman Ridge early in the 1800s, and they moved along the natural valley routes which were to be the Wilderness trail of Daniel Boone and the later immigration to the west.
The strange customs attributed to the Melungeons, upon closer examination, appear to be little more than usual pioneer traits. Moonshinning ,of course, was not confined to Newman’s Ridge. A walk around the ridge and conversations with people who once lived there produce a picture of a life on the ridge that is contrary to the perpetuated “Melungeon” tales.
Claude Collins at 33 is supervisor of materials and Libraries for the Hancock County School system. Dark and fine featured in the Melungeon tradition, he speaks fondly of his youth on the ridge, and he goes back frequently to walk the disappearing roads and reminisce. “It’s a good life.” he said. “We worked hard and our fields were clean. I can still see those oranges and apples my mother gave us at Christmas time.”
Around 1900 a Presbyterian mission and school was established at Vardy, a community in the valley north of the ridge. The children walked down daily for their education and many, like Collins, went on to college. There were socials and parties and a society that well may have been superior to that of the “town” people of Sneedville and other hamlets were Melungeon was considered a derogatory word.
Another with found memories of the ridge is miss Martha Collins. Her ancestors settled on Newman Ridge at some date lost in history and she thinks perhaps “they were people who came with Desoto, Hernando DeSota, the Spanish exployer, is believed to have reached what is now East Tennessee in 1540. Miss Collins is president of the Citizens bank of Sneedville where she has worked for 50 years. She is 75 now and speaks with a gentle fondness of her ancestors.
“Those people were very persevering, and honest. And many of them did not live in little cabins like people say. They had huge houses of hewn logs. I mean really big logs. Some house were two stories high.”
A frequently told story of the ridge concerns Aunt Mahala Mullins, who sold the product of thewhiskey stills from her cabin upon the ridge. Attempts to arrest her were fruitless because Aunt Mahala weighed in excess of 400 pounds and could not pass through her cabin door. “Everyone was found of Aunt Mahala,” Miss Collins said. “When she died they took away the boards from a wall that was left unfinished for a chimney, wrapped her in quilts and gently rolled her down the hill to be buried.”
Most people whose roots go back to the ridge speak of it with warmth and pride. “They always had money,” Miss Collins said. ”My grandfather once paid for a farm with $700 dollars in gold.” Sometime before the Civil War the ridge people became famous for the fine gold and silver coins they produced. Storekeepers made profits from accepting the Melungeons double eagles, which usually contained more gold than the legitimate Coins. Now, no one seems to know where the gold came from.
There are memories of long Sunday church services attended by all on the ridge, of singing and dancing with pretty dark-haired girls, and of “all day workings” in which everybody would pitch in to build new homes for families struck by fire. A white sheet stretched out on a distant, visible rocky point was a signal that a family would come to visit that day.
Bill Grohse lives in the valley along Blackwater Creek beneath Newmans Ridge, and is sometimes mistaken for a “real Melungeon” by curious visitors to the area. This amuses Grohse because “I’m a German raised in a Jewish orphanage in Yonkers.” He is there because he married a Collins and has become the local historian, spending his time poring over courthouse records and early writings. He is convinced that the white Indians with beards” that confounded early explorers could not have been Indians. And he has chronicled the achievements of men from the ridge. Grohse says a Jordan Gibson traveled with Daniel Boone and a Harrison Collins won a congressional Medal of Honor for bravery at Nashville during the Civil War. One o the crack regiments in the major Civil War battle at Franklin, Tenn.,Grohse says was a volunteer calvary unit made up Largely by men from the ridge. Many of the people who came from Carolinas to the ridge came with land grants for service in the Revolutionary War.
The Phoenician theory of origin, until recently, was almost beyond the realm of imagination. Historians rejected those that argue that swarthy seafarers from the Mediterranean came to this continent 2,000 years before Columbus.
But last summer, Dr. Cyrus H. Gordon a leading scholar of Mediterranean studies at Brandeis University, made a discovery. Dr Gordon said that Phoenician inscriptions on a stone found in Brazil in 1872 indicate that they were there sometime during the 6th century BC. The inscriptions tell how 10 Phoenician Vessels left Hzion-Geber, an island in the gulf of Aqaba, sailed down the Red Sea and around Africa. A storm separated one vessel from the others and it was apparently caught is the west-flowing south Equatorial Current. Later safe on a foreign shore, they offered a youth as a sacrifice to the Gods. Charles Michael Boland, in his book, “They all discovered America,” says he is convinced that the Phoenicians made several trips to both North and South America.
From Gordon, Boland, the Bible and other sources, an intriguing “circumstantial” case for the Phoenician theory can be made. First were the Phoenician back in the days before Greek and Roman ascendancy, advanced enough for such a venture?
Phoenician covered what is now Lebanon and the southern part of the Syrian coast. It was settled around 3000 B.C. by waves of Bedouin tribesmen from the desert who called the area Canaan and themselves Canaanites . Phoenicia became the leading world trading power.
Phoenicians were the first to use an effective alphabetic system, which they passed on to the Greeks and Arabs. They were remarkable seamen and the first to learn to use the North Star for night sailing. In fact, the Greeks who took to the seas later, called it the “Phoenician Star.”
From the busy seaport cities Byblos, Sidon and Tyre, the Phoenicians sent out trading ships and established colonies around the Mediterranean and then around the African coast. In maintaining commercial supremacy, they closely guarded their knowledge of the seas. While other thought that the world ended at the Pillars of Heracles (Gibraltar), the Phoenician sent ships to what is now Britain, into the Baltic Sea lands and all along the perimeter of Africa. They were expert metallurgist, slave traders and transporters of all the worlds goods. They invented and sold transparent glass and discovered the complicated process of producing purple dye from sea mollusks. The dye was so expensive it became the preferred color of royalty and nobility.
Phoenician founded the powerful colony-city of Carthage on the North African coast in 814 B.C. Nearly a century before the Romans first built the village that was to become Rome. Phoenician sailors to the seas in ships of advance design, fashioned from the storied conifers of Lebanon and twice the tonnage of Columbus largest ship. They were deeply religious and ceremonies were marked with frequent human sacrifice.
They knew the large sea beyond Gibraltar and had colonized Spain and Portugal, so when Carthage was destroyed in the climax of the Punic Wars in 146 B.C., fleeing Phoenician and Carthaginians may well have known of a haven-The western hemisphere. In the voyages around Africa, such skilled seamen probably would have been aware of the westerly flowing “trades” leading into the Americas. Boland and others think they used these currents regularly.
The Spanish, in their conquests of Central and South America after Columbus, made no attempt to link Phoenician Culture with that they found among the Indians. But it is intriguing reread what the Spanish recorded-keeping the Phoenicians in mind.
Ralph L. Roys, writing in his book, “The Americas on the Eve of discovery,” which was edited by Harold Driver, professor of anthropology at Indiana University, said: “When Francisco Hernandez deCorba discovered Yucatan in 1517, he found evidence of a new culture definitely superior to anything which the Spaniards had previously met in the new world.
“The two races (Spanish and Mayan) were impressed by the striking, if superficial, resemblance in their religious rights. Crosses, alters, and incense were sacred to both; confession of sin, baptism of children, fasting, continence and the ceremonial consumption of fermented liquor.” In their dispatches to Spain, the Spanish conquerors frequently told of Indian devotion to human sacrifice.
Dr Gordon had added many other “similarities” between old world and new world Characteristics. Transatlantic contacts are strongly indicated, he says, and he has pointed out in Mexico, the beardless Indians keep alive a tradition that Quetzalcoatl, a white man with black hair, came by sea from the east and introduced the arts of civilization, including agriculture and metallurgy. Irrigation and the metallurgical arts of “lost-wax” casting and use of acid were similar to the Phoenician arts. “Sun” pyramids and temples open to the stars were similar to those of the Egyptians, for whom the Phoenicians had been the trading agents for centuries.
Textiles were similar and Dr. Gordon was amazed to discover that pre-Columbian Old and New world looms Contained the same 11 working parts. Dr Gordon also reminds that historian Zelia Nuttal wrote at the beginning of this century, “America must have been intermittently colonized by the intermediation of Mediterranean seafarers.” In a professional paper, Dr Gordon summed it up:,”What is now shaping up, though we can discern it only in broad outline, is that no high civilization ever developed in isolation without stimuli from the outside.”
It is interesting to speculate that across the centuries, Phoenicians or their Carthaginian kin, wandered North and South America.
In his book Driver says: “The book of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is probably derived from an unpublished manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding in which he postulates that the Indians who built the many mounds in Ohio were descendants of the Lamanites, a rebellious tribe of Jews. Abandoned by God, these renegade Jews of the first millennium B.C. are said to have wandered to the Americas. “The Mormons that the second coming of Christ actually occurred in Mexico , where he is said to have appeared before 3000 Indians on one occasion..The record of the “White Gods“ among the Aztecs, Mayas, Toltecs and Incas are interpreted by the Mormons as further evidence for the appearance of Christ in the Americas.”
Attorney-Historian Price, in tracing the migration from the coast of North Carolina through Southern Virginia and East Tennessee, only confirmed the natural route of any people moving into the area. The wide valleys of the Powell and Clinch Rivers, on either side of Newman Ridge, are the natural routs of travel. This, the early hunters and pioneers soon learned. It was this route that that Dr. Thomas Walker followed on his way to discover Cumberland Gap, at Middlesboro. For speculators, Dr. Walker left this note in his journal: “On the top of the ridge (at Cumberland Gap) are laurel trees marked with crosses.”
Researchers have pointed out that the word “Melungeon” may be derived from the French mélange, meaning “mixture.” Or the Afro-Portuguese melungo meaning “shipmate.” Price says that with a little imagination such English sounding names as Brogan, Goins, Collins and Mullins “could take on a Portuguese flavor as Braganza, Magoens, Colinso and Mollen.”
Visitors-some curious, some scientific-still come intermittently to Hancock County. They search through the graveyards, and prowl the abandoned houses. Outsiders have taken skull measurements and blood samples and made skin pigmentations studies. No answers have resulted. Meanwhile, time and change have sent the Melungeon to mix more and more with other segments of society. Their names appear all across the mountains, including East Kentucky, and in many places far from Newman’s Ridge. It will probably be as Claude Collins says as he walks along the traces of the ancient roads up on Newman’s Ridge: “I have heard all the stories, but, we’ll probably never know the truth.”
[ This original paper was donated to the Hawkins County Archive by H.B. Stamps Library, Rogersville, Tennessee and is in very poor condition, I have made every effort to ensure the accuracy of this Transcription .for educational purposes only, this copy placed in the research room of the Archive.J.G].