Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Melungin is just a word

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word Melungin as :


noun \məˈlənjən\
sometimes offensive
: one of a group of people of uncertain ancestry in the southern Appalachians especially of eastern Tennessee

The Collins Dictionary defines Melungin as:
melungeon (məˈlʌndʒən)
1. (Peoples) any of a dark-skinned group of people of the Appalachians in E Tennessee, of mixed Indian, White, and Black ancestry

I can remember the first time I saw the word Melungeon, I had no idea what it meant, or even how to pronounce it. Actually it was spelled ‘Melungin’ on the Book of Records of The Stony Creek Baptist Church in 1813. I first found this researching my 4th Great Grandfather, Valentine Collins who was Baptized there in 1801. (Note: In 1801, 1803 and 1813 The Stony Creek Baptist Church was located in Russell County, Virginia, Scott County, Virginia was formed from Lee, Russell, and Washington Counties in 1814).

At the time I had no idea this was the first place in time this word was written and recorded."The book is written on paper and bound between covers made of home spun cloth. The handwriting is very good and the ink has lasted well."
 Copied August, 1966, by Emory L. Hamilton, Wise, Virginia, with a copy filed in 
the Archives of the Southwest Virginia Historical Society, at Clinch Valley College, 
Wise, Virginia and a copy sent to the Virginia State Library, Richmond, Virginia.


Church Meeting December 1801
"Valentine Collins received by experience and baptized."  
April the 23 day 1803
"Brother Valentine Collins and wife to receive a letter of dismission.  Dismissed in order."
September the 26, 1813
Church sat in love.  Brother Kilgore, Moderator.  Then came forward Sister 
Kitchen and complained to the church against Susanna Stallard for saying she 
harbored them Melungins (Melungeons).  Sister Sook said she was hurt with her 
for believing her child and not believing her, and she won't talk to her to 
get satisfaction, and both is "pigedish", one against the other.  Sister Sook 
lays it down and the church forgives her."

I have no idea how or by who, the original spelling of the word 'Melungin' was re-spelled to 'Melungeon'. 
  I’m not all that fond of the word, and at times wished I never heard of it, in fact myself and a fellow family historian in our correspondence use terms like 'M' word, or the 'M's', when we refer to the people who were called 'Melungin'. I have no reason to believe that the people who were called 'Melungin' ever self identified as such. In fact it was an insult, and could be a 'fightin word'. Of all the descendants of the people called 'Melungins' I'm acquainted with, I don’t know a one that states it was a word that was part of their families history. Besides being a colloquial term used in East Tennessee, it appears the word was used early by journalist mostly as part of the early construction of a 'Myth' and a 'Legend'. In modern times there have been a few theories of the source of the word. All the way from being a Turkish Word (melun can) meaning "cursed soul" , an African word Kimbundu / Mbundu word meaning "shipmates from a common country" , an Italian word melongena / or melanzane meaning "dark skin like that of an eggplant", an English word (malengin) meaning "ill intent, deceit, guile” from Spencer’s 'Faerie Queene', and last but not least, a French word 'mélange' which translates to mixture. I have my own theory, I think it came from the French word 'mélange' , that is based on the historical fact that there were French Huguenots (French Protestants), in both Louisa County, Virginia and Orange County, North Carolina. Both counties were in the migration path going West of the 'Core' historical people who were called Melungins. Both the Huguenots and the mixed bloods were found in these counties in the mid 18th century. By this date in time the mixed bloods were well mixed, thus 'mélange'. Here is an interesting fact, the French speaking Swiss, call coffee with cream, 'Café mélange'. That’s from a good source,a Collins from Zurich, Switzerland. This Swiss Collins also related to me that she has a friend, she has known for years that refers to mixed bloods as 'Café mélange'. This is the only 'theory' that makes sense to me. I also think what started out as descriptive nickname, over time turned into a nickname used to express bigotry, based on the skin tone of the mixed bloods. That’s just the opinion of this Collins descendant. Another observation I've made, is when the very same families migrated from East Tennessee to Eastern Kentucky, they didn't bring the word with them. The only place where I've seen the word used in Kentucky is in literature, written by authors that are Kentucky born. In Harry M. Caudill's Book "The Mountain the Miner and the Lord", on page 93, a Betty Sexton Fields is mentioned: " Betty Sexton Fields was a Melungeon who lived to the age of ninety. The origins of the "dark people" are lost in the mists of our Country’s History. They are found in many parts of the Appalachians and are called by many names. In some places they are known as "Guians", in others as "Red Bones", "Ramps", "Wooly-boogers", and "Portagees". "They left the old settlements too late in the year and passed through Pound Gap in the Pine Mountain" Mr. Caudill understood that these mixed bloods were called different names in different areas. Then there is the novel written by Kentucky author Jesse Stuart, "Daughter of the Legend". This novel didn’t have a setting in Kentucky, but in the hills of East Tennessee. Historian Darlene Wilson mentions that Kentucky author John Fox Jr. (1861-1919), carried a notebook c. 1890, with a notation "malungian = mountain nigger". Did Mr. Fox hear the word 'Melungian' in Kentucky ? I don’t know, he was born in the Blue Grass region of the State, not Eastern Kentucky. He also lived in Big Stone Gap, Wise County, Virginia. His house at Big Stone Gap was built in 1890. Wonder where he first heard the word ? In the early 1990’s the word Melungin started taking on a new meaning do to neo-melungeonists Brent Kennedy. Kennedy is a self identified melungin, probably the prototype of such. His book, published in 1994 set in motion a 'Melungin Fad', that whole subject is worth a whole post to it's own. When all is said and done, Melungin is just a word, a word made East Tennessee, in the Southern Appalachian region of the United States of America. A word that will go down in the annals of that region. It's not a word to be played with.
That's my 2 cents....

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