Letter to Tennessee State Librarian and Archivist re: Melungeon Classification

August 20, 1942
Walter Plecker Letter to
Tennessee State Librarian and Archivist
Regarding Melungeon Classification

August 20, 1942

Mrs. John Trotwood Moore
State Librarian and Archivist
State Department of Education
Nashville, Tennessee

Dear Mrs. Moore:

We thank you very much for your informative letter of August 12 in reply to our inquiry, addressed to the Secretary of State, as to the original counties from which Hancock County, Tennessee, was formed. We are particularly interested in tracing back, as far as possible, to their ultimate origin the melungeons of the Newmans Ridge section, especially as enumerated in the free negro list by counties of the states in the U. S. 1830 census. This group appears to be in many respects of the same type as a number of groups in Virginia, some of which are known as “free issues,” or descendants of slaves freed by their masters before the War Between the States. In one case in particular which we have traced back to its origin, and which we believe to be typical of the others, a slave woman was freed with her two mulatto sons and colonized in Amherst County in connection with a group of similar freed negroes. These sons were presumably the children of the woman’s owner, and this seemed to be the most satisfactory way of disposing of them. One of those sons became the head of one of the larger families of that group. All of these groups have the same desire, which Captain L. M. Jarvis says the melungeons have, to become friends of Indians and to be classed as Indians. He referred to the effort which the melungeon group made to be accepted by the Cherokees, apparently without great success. It is interesting also to know the opinion expressed by Captain Jarvis that these freed negroes migrated into that section with the white people. That is perfectly natural as they have always endeavored to tie themselves up as closely as possible either with the whites or Indians and are striving to break away from the true negro type.

We have a book, compiled by Carter G. Woodson, a negro, entitled “Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830,” listing all of the free negroes of the 1830 census by counties. Of the names that Captain Jarvis gave, we find included in that list in Hawkins County, Solomon Collins, Vardy Collins, and Sherod (probably Shepard) Gibson. We find also Zachariah Minor, probably the head of the family in which we are especially interested at this time. We find also the names of James Moore (two families by this name) and Jordan and Edmund Goodman. In the list for Grainger County we find at least twelve Collins and Collens heads of families. This shows that they were evidently considered locally as free negroes by the enumerators of the 1830 census.

One of the most interesting parts of your letter is that relating to the opinion of the Judge mentioned, in his “Personal Memoirs,” who

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Mrs. John Trotwood Moore, #2
August 20, 1942

seemed to have accepted as satisfactory certain evidence which was presented to him that these people are of Phoenician descent from ancient Carthage, which was totally destroyed by Rome. We have in Virginia white people, descendants of  Pocahontas, who married John Rolfe about 1616. About twelve generations have passed since then, and we figured out that there was about 1/4000th of 1% of Pocahontas blood now in their veins, though they seem to be quite proud of that. If you go back to the destruction of Carthage in 146 B. C., or to the destruction of Tyre by Pompey in 64 B. C., when all characteristic features of national life became extinct and with it racial identity, you will see that the fraction of 1% of Phoenician blood would reach astronomical proportions and be totally lost in the various mixtures of North Africans, with which the Carthaginians afterwards mixed. The Judge also speaks of the inclusion of Portuguese blood with this imaginary Phoenician blood. It is a historical fact, well known to those who have investigated, that at one time there were many African slaves in Portugal. Today there are no true negroes there but their blood shows in the color and racial characteristics of a large part of the Portuguese population of the present day. That mixture, even if it could be shown, would be far from constituting these people white. We are very much afraid that the Judge followed the same course pursued by one of our Virginia judges in hearing a similar case, when he accepted the hearsay evidence of people who testified that they had always understood that the claimants were of Indian origin, regardless of the documentary evidence reaching back in some cases to or near to the Revolutionary War, showing them to be descendants of freed negroes.

We will require other evidence than that of Captain Jarvis and His Honor before classifying members of the group who are now causing trouble in Virginia by their claims of Indian descent, with the privilege of inter-marrying into the white race, permissible when a person can show his racial composition to be one-sixteenth or less Indian, the remainder white with no negro intermixture. We have found after very laborious and painstaking study of records of various sorts that none of our Virginia people now claiming to be Indian are free from negro admixture, and they are, therefore, according to our law classified as colored. In that class we include the melungeons of Tennessee.

We again thank you for your care in passing on this information and would be delighted if you ever visit in Virginia and in Richmond if you will come into our office. Miss Kelley and I would be greatly pleased to talk with you on this and kindred subjects and to show you the work which Miss Kelley is doing in properly classifying the population of Virginia by racial origin. She is doing work which, so far as I know, has never before been attempted.

Very sincerely yours,

W. A. Plecker, M. D.
State Registrar

WAP:w


  • August 5, 1942 Letter from Walter Plecker to Tennessee Secretary of State
  • August 12, 1942 Letter from Mrs. Moore to Walter Plecker
  • August 20, 1942 Letter from Walter Plecker to Mrs. Moore
  • September 10, 1942 Letter from Mrs. Moore to Walter Plecker
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