Letter to W. A. Plecker re: Melungeon Classification

 

August 12, 1942
Mrs. John Trottwood Moore
Letter to Walter Plecker
Regarding Melungeon Classification

 


August 12, 1942

Mr. W. A. Plecker,
State Registrar
Bureau of Vital Statistics
Richmond, Virginia

My dear Sir:

The Secretary of State has sent your letter to my desk for reply.

You have asked us a hard question.

The origin of the Melungeons has been a disputed question in Tennessee ever since we can remember.
Hancock County was established by an Act of the General Assembly passed January 7th, 1844 and was formed from parts of Claiborne and Hawkins counties.

Newman’s Ridge, which runs through Hancock county north of Sneedville, is parallel with Clinch River and just south of Powell Mountain. The only map on which we find it located is edited by H. C. Amick and S. J. Folmsbee of the University of Tennessee in 1941 published by Denoyer-Geppert Co., 5235 Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, listed as [TN 7S]* TENNESSEE. On this map is shown Newman’s Ridge as I have sketched it on this little scrap of paper, inclosed. But we do not have the early surveys showing which county it as originally in. It appears that it may have been in Claiborne according to the Morris Gazetteer of Tennessee 1834 which includes this statement: “Newman’s Ridge, one of the spurs of Cumberland Mountain, in East Tennessee, lying in the north east angle of Claiborne County, west of Clinch River, and east of Powell’s Mountain. It took its name from a Mr. Newman who discovered it in 1761.”

Early historians of East Tennessee who lived in that section and knew the older members of this race refer to Newman’s Ridge as “quite a high mountain, extending through the entire length of Hancock County, and into Claiborne County on the west. It is between Powell Mountain on the north and Clinch River on the south.” Capt. L. M. Jarvis, an old citizen of Sneedville wrote in his 82nd year: “I have lived here at the base of Newman’s Ridge, Blackwater, being on the opposite side, for the last 71 years and well know the history of these people on Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater enquired about as Melungeons. These people were friendly to the Cherokees who came west with the white imigration from New River and Cumberland, Virginia, about the year 1790…The name Melungeon was given them on account of their color. I have seen the oldest and first settlers of this tribe who first occupied Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater and I have owned much of the lands on which they settled.. They obtained their land grants from North Carolina. I personally knew Vardy Collins, Solomon D. Collins, Shepard Gibson, Paul Bunch and Benjamin Bunch and many of the Goodmans, Moores, Williams and Sullivans, all of the very first settlers and noted men of these friendly Indians. They took their names from white people of that name with whom they came here. They were reliable, truthful and faithful to anything they promised. In the Civil War most of the Melungeons went into the Union army and made good soldiers. Their Indian blood has about run out. They are growing white… They have been misrepresented by many writers. In former writings I have given their stations  and stops on their way as they emigrated to this country with white people, one of which places was at the mouth of Stony Creek on Clinch river in Scott County, Virginia, where they built fort and called it Ft. Blackamore after Col. Blackamore who was with them… When Daniel Boone was here hunting 1763-1767, these Melungeons were not here.”

The late Judge Lewis Shepherd, prominent jurist of Chattanooga, went further in his statements in his “Personal Memoirs”, and contended that this mysterious racial group descended from the Phoenicians of Ancient Carthage. This was his judgment after investigations he made in trying a case featuring the complaint that they were of mixed negro blood, which attempt failed, and which brought out the facts that many of their ancestors had settled early in South Carolina when they migrated from Portugal to America about the time of the Revolutionary war, and later moved into Tennessee. At the time of this trial covered by Judge Shepherd “charges that Negro blood contaminated the Melungeons and barred their intermarriage with Caucasians created much indignation among families of Phoenician descent in this section.”

But I imagine if the United States Census listed them as mulattoes their listing will remain. But it is a terrible claim to place on people if they do not have negro blood. I often have wondered just how deeply the census takers went into an intelligent study of it at that early period.

I have gone into some detail in this reply to explain the mooted question and why it is not possible for me to give you a definite answer. I hope this may assist you to some extent.

Sincerely,

Mrs. John Trotwood Moore
State Librarian and Archivist


 

 

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