Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Newman Ridge, Historical Home of the Melungeons

Beginning in 1849 and to this very day researchers have headed to Newman Ridge to find the Melungeons.

(Note :The first time the term 'Melungin' appears in writing, was in the1813 minutes of Stony Creek Church at Fort Blackmore)

You must know that within ten miles of this owl's nest, there is a watering-place, known hereabouts as 'black-water Springs.' It is situated in a narrow gorge, scarcely half a mile wide, between Powell's Mountain and the Copper Ridge, and is, as you may suppose, almost inaccessible. A hundred men could defend the pass against even a Xerxian army. Now this gorge and the tops and sides of the adjoining mountains are inhabited by a singular species of the human animal called Melungeons.

It appears that the Melungeons originally came into east Tennessee from North Carolina, and the larger number settled in what was at that time Hawkins County, but which is now Hancock. I have not been able to hear of them in any of the lower counties of east Tennessee,and those I have seen myself were in Cocke county, bordering on North Carolina.

The Ridge proper is the home of the Melungeons. These people, of whom so little is known, inhabit an isolated corner of the earth, known as Newman’s ridge, in Hancock county. First, I saw in an old newspaper some slight mention of them. With this tiny clue I followed their trail for three years. The paper merely stated that “somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee there existed a remnant of people called Malungeons,......I merely mention all this to show how the Malungeons of today are regarded, and to show how I tracked them to Newman Ridge in Hancock County

The Blackwater Valley lies between Mulberry and Newman Ridges, and is from half a mile to mile wide. Twenty years ago it was still a wilderness, but is now under good cultivation, and divided into small farms upon which are rather poor dwellings and outbuildings. In this valley and along Newman’s Ridge, reaching into Lee County, Virginia, are settled the people called Melungeons. Some have gone into Kentucky, chiefly into Pike County, others are scattered in adjacent territory.

OTIS 1900
These people are called the Malungeons....The Malungeons number between 400 and 500. They live on Black Water Creek, in Hancock County, which section they have inhabited for more than 100 years. The records of Hancock County show that the Malungeon ancestors came to Powell's Valley as early as 1789, when they took up lands on the Black Water.

Greasy Rock Creek, a name by which it has ever since been known and called since, and here is the very place where these Melungeons settled, long after this, on Newman Ridge and Blackwater. ...these friendly “Indians” live in the mountains of Stony creek, but they have married among the whites until the race has almost become extinct. A few of the half bloods may be found-none darker- but they still retain the name of Collins and Gibson, etc. From here they came to Newman Ridge and Blackwater and many of them are here yet....

The northern end is drained by Blackwater Creek, which winds its way leisurely northeastward through narrow strips of verdant meadow land. Here, along the banks of this sparkling stream and on the top and eastern slope of Newman Ridge, is the home of the Melungeons.

Occasionally the student of ethnology may stumble upon a community that is a puzzle, as, for example, that one occupied by the 'Malungeons' of upper East Tennessee.

So far as is known they were first found in Hancock County on Newman Ridge, soon after the Revolutionary War. Now they are settled in several counties, although still most numerous in Hancock County.

PLECKER 1942-1930
We have in some of the counties of southwestern Virginia a number of so-called Melungeons who came into that section from Newman Ridge, Hancock County, Tennessee.........

August 5, 1930
Mr. J.P. Kelly.Trustee of Schools,
Gap,Lee County, Virginia

Dear Sir: office has had a great deal of trouble in reference to the persistence of a group of people living in that section known as "Melungeons", whose families came from Newman Ridge, Tennessee.

It seems the Melungeons came into Hancock County between 1810 and 1851.

From what I gathered from Uncle Wash, the Melungeons started coming to Wise and Scott Counties about 1820. These people came in about equal numbers from Kentucky from Newman Ridge and lower end of Lee County. A few came from North Carolina.

Whatever they are—the Malungeons still are on Newman Ridge, in Hancock, Rhea and Hawkins counties of Tennessee, and a few across the border in Virginia. Many are scattered by ones or two miles from the isolated ridge top they occupied for so long.

The persistent folk tale, however, insists that the Melungeons are unusual racially; it identifies them as a dark-skinned people whose center is on Newman Ridge in Hancock County. The Newman Ridge-Blackwater area seems to be the locality where they have the deepest roots.

Colony of folks in this end of Tennessee settled along Newman Ridge, and on Mulberry Creek in what is now Hancock County, and a few miles out from Sneedville.

DAVIS 1963
Trapped in poverty, snubbed by their fair-skinned neighbors, some of them withdrew to the poor land along Snake Hollow, deep in the rattlesnake-infested gorge in the shadow of towering Newman Ridge. Some of them settled along the northern end of the valley, at the Virginia line, where Blackwater Creek flows, and some settled on the Ridge.

BERRY 1963
For a century and a half, the prolific Melungeons have migrated in all directions from Newman Ridge. .... There are fifteen hundred in Lee County, Virginia....Five hundred are in Scott Count, Virginia....A thousand are found in Wise County, where they are known as "Ramps."

The only true Melungeons left, however, reside in the nearby mountainside areas known as Snake Hollow  and Mulberry Gap.

They occupied Newman Ridge---rough and steep in places, but offering some table land and numerous hollows. Here they located near springs or creeks.

S. PRICE 1968
But whatever their origin, the group eventually settled in Hancock County, along Newman Ridge and in settlements known as Blackwater, Snake Hollow and Vardy.

Newman Ridge overlooks Sneedville, a poor community of about 700 persons near the Virginia border. In the early 19th century nearly 350 Melungeons settled on the ridge, coming down into the valley only on rare occasions to forage for wild vegetables and sell moonshine whiskey. They lived apart from the whites for generations. The ridge was a hilltop sanctuary against the outside world and its prejudice.

FETTERMAN (Price) 1970
They bore the Melungeon names which appear on Newman Ridge: Collins, Mullins, Brogan, Goins, Gibson, Bowlin. They were free of the restrictive legislation aimed at slaves and former slaves during the 1700s and 1800s.

Those left in Snake Hollow, Blackwater, Vardy and Mulberry - are few in number, Most have left the hills for jobs in cities far and near. And time is catching up with those remaining. In 1931 there were 40 Melungeon families living on Newman Ridge above their ancestral home.

LYNCH 1973
And the white man forced them high into the Clinch Mountains, principally Newman Ridge just outside present day Sneedville, Hancock County, Tennessee.

BIBLE 1975
In East Tennessee, they have spilled over into the neighboring counties in an extension of the Hancock County families......  "Melungeon surnames were noted in southwestern Virginia as early as 1820, but the families were not classified until 1870, when the census enumerators in Lee County listed the county and state of birth of each person. Of forty-six families whose names suggest they were Melungeons, thirty had one or more members who had been born in  Hancock or Hawkins County. Eight had members born in Scott County, and at least one of these also had been born in Hancock County. One person was born in Letcher County, Kentucky of parents born in Hancock and Scott Counties. The adults of a Goins family (one of the few listed as mulatto) were born in Surry and Ashe Counties, North Carolina; their children were born in Knox, Hancock and Grainger Counties, Tennessee. This is the best direct evidence available to confirm the relationship between several different groups of Melungeons and the importance of Newman Ridge as a center of their dispersal, but it is evident that the secondary Melungeon localities were also fed from North Carolina and Virginia

Most of the mountain people refer to them as Blackwaters and Ridgemanites.” But even in that long gorge, winding some 20 miles in a half-mile-wide band between Newman Ridge and Powell Mountain there are few “pure Melungeons” left today.

The only people who were called Melungeon 100 years ago were those who lived in or near Hancock County, Tennessee--including Lee, Scott, and Wise Counties in southwest Virginia.

Hat Tip to Jack Goins
Text courtesy of the Melungeon Historical Society
Photo of  'Blackwater and Newman Ridge' courtesy of Roberta Estes

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