"It is handed down by our forefathers..." John Sevier and the Melungeon mystery

   In previous blog posts on The Posterity Project, I have endeavored to document my ancestral links to the Melungeons, and most recently I have extensively chronicled my research interest in John Sevier. These two divergent points of interest converged during the research phase of my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. While I had no space to include this particular story in my manuscript, I wanted to delve into this topic here on The Posterity Project, since both subjects seem to carry significant reader interest.

   For the uninitiated, the Melungeons occupy a mysterious and often misunderstood place in Tennessee history. Beginning in the early 1800s the term Melungeon (meh-LUN'-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of close-knit and secluded families living along the Tennessee-Virginia border. They have been described within popular literature as a "tri-racial isolate" population thought to be of mixed European, African and Native American ancestry. Recent DNA studies suggest, however, that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. With each succeeding generation, the Melungeon families of East Tennessee and elsewhere increasingly intermarried with European Americans and integrated into mainstream white society, thus avoiding much of the racial discrimination experienced by blacks and Native Americans throughout our nation's history.

   Sevier's connection to the Melungeons first appeared in the published writings of Will Allen Dromgoole, a Murfreesboro native and prolific author and poet known particularly for her unflattering articles about a community of "Malungeons" [sic] located in East Tennessee. In the 1890s, Dromgoole published, "A Month Among the Mysterious Tribe of Malungeons," which appeared in the Nashville Daily American (1890) as well as several other national newspapers. Dromgoole's descriptions of the Melungeons perpetuated long-held cultural biases about the mountain people of Appalachia, and her assertions about their racial origins rested more on hearsay than documented fact.

This illustration entitled "A typical malungeon" was published by Will Allen Dromgoole in the Nashville Sunday American, August 31, 1890.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons


   In her article, Dromgoole claimed that, "When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks and who called themselves Malungeons and claimed to be of Portuguese descent." Dromgoole's article was filled with errors and conjecture, and she failed to provide any source citations to verify her claims. Nevertheless, other writers seized upon this story and repeated the narrative in subsequent works. As with many stories surrounding Sevier's life and frontier exploits, time and again chroniclers repeated oral traditions and narratives recalled many years after alleged incidents took place without backing up claims with hard proof.

   Another connection between Sevier and the mysterious Melungeons rests upon a letter, allegedly written in Sevier's own hand in reply to a Major Amos Stoddard. In 1810 Stoddard, an officer in the Revolutionary War who later served in the War of 1812, began preparing materials for a book entitled, Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana. He wrote to Sevier seeking to confirm a rumor that he had witnessed an ancient book containing information about a long-lost tribe of "Welsh Indians" that had once settled the area. I'll get into the connection between these "Welsh Indians" and the Melungeons in a moment. But first, in his letter to Sevier, Stoddard wrote:

   As I am an utter stranger to you, I should not venture to address you on the present occasion, were I not in some measure encouraged to do so by your old friend, Governor Claiborne, who had just left this place.

   The object of this communication is to request a statement of particulars of a story, which Governor Claiborne thinks you detailed to him some years ago. According to his account, you once saw an ancient book in the hands of a Cherokee woman which you supposed was written in the Welsh characters, said to be given to her by an Indian from the west side of the Mississippi, and which was afterwards burned with her house.

   I have been some time collecting material to prove the existence of a Welsh colony on this continent, which landed here, according to the testimony of history, as early as 1170. If you can call to mind the circumstances to which I have alluded, and will be so good as to communicate them to me, I shall feel myself under many obligations to you.
AMOS STODDARD, Major
2nd. Corps, U.S.

   On October 9, 1810, Governor Sevier replied to Major Stoddard. In his letter, Sevier recalled an amazing story told to him by the respected Cherokee Chief Oconostota. He wrote:


   With respect to the information you have requested, I shall with pleasure, give you the information required, so far as my memory will now serve me, and the help of a memorandum I hastily took on the subject, of a nation of people called the Welsh Indians. In the year 1782, I was on a campaign against the Cherokees, and during my route, discovered traces of very ancient fortifications. Some time after the expedition, I had occasion to enter into a negotiation with the Cherokee chiefs, for the purpose of exchanging prisoners. After the exchange had been settled, I took an opportunity of enquiring [sic] of a venerable old chief, named Oconostoto, (then, and for nearly sixty years had been, a ruling chief of the Cherokee nation,) if he could inform me of the people that had left such signs of fortifications in their country and particularly the one on the bank of the Highwassee river? The old warrior briefly answered me as follows:

   "It is handed down by our forefathers, that the works were made by white people, who had formerly inhabited the country, while the Cherokees lived lower down in the country, now called South Carolina, and that a war existed between the two nations for many years. At length, it was discovered, that the whites were making a number of large boats, which induced the Cherokees to suppose, that they intended to descend the Tennessee river. They then collected their whole band of warriors, and took the shortest and most convenient route to the muscle shoals in order to intercept them down the river. In a few days, the boats hove in sight, and a warm combat ensued, with various success for several days. At length the whites proposed to the Indians, that if they would exchange prisoners, and cease hostilities, they would leave the country, and never more return ; which was acceded to, and, after the exchange, parted in friendship. The whites then descended the Tennessee to the Ohio, and then down to the big river, (Missouri) then up that river to a very great distance. They are now of some of it's branches : But they are no longer a white people; they are now all become Indians; and look like the other red people of the country." [EDITOR'S NOTE: This statement has led some Melungeon researchers to assert that the Welsh Indians were the ancient ancestors of the Melungeon people.]
    I then asked him, if he had ever heard any of his ancestors say what nation of people those white people belonged to? He answered:

   "I have heard my grandfather and other old people say, that they were a people called Welsh ; that they had crossed the great water, and landed near the mouth of Alabama river, and were finally driven to the heads of its waters, and even to Highwassee river, by the Mexican Indians, who had been driven out of their own country by the Spaniards."

   Many years past I happened in company with a Frenchman, who lived with the Cherokees, and had been a great explorer of the country west of the Mississippi. He informed me, "that he had been high up the Missouri, and traded several months with the Welsh tribe ; that they spoke much of the Welsh dialect, and although their customs were savage and wild, yet many of them, particularly the females were very fair and white, and frequently told him, they had sprung from a white nation of people ; also stated they had yet some small scraps of books remaining among them, but in such tattered and destructive order, that nothing intelligible remained."
   He observed that their settlement was in a very obscure part of the Missouri, surrounded with innumerable lofty mountains. The Frenchman's name had escaped my memory, but I believe it was something like Duroque. In my conversation with the old chief Oconostoto, he informed me, that an old woman in his nation named Peg, had some part of an old book given her by an Indian living high up the Missouri, and thought he was one of the Welsh tribe. Unfortunately before I had an opportunity of seeing the book, the old woman's house, and its contents, were consumed by fire. I have conversed with several persons, who saw and examined the book, but it was so worn and disfigured, that nothing intelligible remained ; neither did any one of them understand any language but their own, and even that, very imperfectly.


According to folklore, a Welsh prince sailed to America in 1170, over three hundred years before Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492. Subsequent explorers claimed to have encountered the "Welsh Indians" in their travels. Thomas Jefferson had heard of Welsh speaking Indian tribes, and believing the legend, he instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the descendants of the Welsh Indians in their expedition of the Louisiana Purchase.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons


   While Sevier made no direct mention of Melungeons in his letter, some Melungeon researchers have drawn ancestral links between these alleged "Welsh Indians" and the Melungeons, using Sevier's purported words as proof that Melungeons lived in early Tennessee. Others Melungeon scholars, however, remained unconvinced.

   In her book, Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend, Pat Spurlock challenged the accuracy of Stoddard's transcription of the letter, noting that Sevier's words published in Stoddard's journal were transcribed from a heavily-edited rough draft with many words crossed out and corrected, and with some portions of the letter completely undecipherable due to Sevier's extensive notations. Spurlock further stated that she had been unsuccessful in locating the final draft of Sevier's letter, which may have revealed with more accuracy Sevier's true words. Sadly, the letter Sevier sent to Stoddard has been lost to the ages. Thus, historians have had to rely upon Stoddard's transcription as a source for analysis.

   A well-known Chattanooga writer named Zella Armstrong, however, remained steadfast in her belief of the authenticity of the information contained in the letter. Armstrong referenced the Sevier letter in her 1950 work, Who Discovered America? The Amazing Story of Madoc, claiming to have actually viewed Sevier's original first draft, with notes and corrections made throughout in Sevier's own hand. She offered her own interpretation:

   "The information that they [the Welsh Indians] landed on the Bay of Mobile rests on the word of an Indian who was the greatest man among his people, the Cherokee Nation, most enlightened of the Indian tribes in America, and the written word of Sevier who quoted the great chief... It cannot therefore be part of propaganda which a writer claims was prepared in the Elizabethan period to establish Queen Elizabeth's prior right to America. It is significant that Oconostota's ancestors had told the story from father to son from long before the Elizabethan era."

Oconostota, Cherokee chief (1708-1810), from a painting entitled "The Great Warrior, Chief Oconostota-Cunne Shote" by Francis Parsons, 1762.
Image and caption credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives


   Sevier's letter -- real or imagined -- perpetuated the Welsh Indian legend and stories concerning the origins of the Melungeon people for generations. For some Melungeon scholars, the letter also fueled an already burning hatred for Sevier and his military campaigns against Native Americans. In his book, Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America, Tim Hashaw wrote:

   "After the American Revolution, John Sevier, early Tennessee governor and ruthless land-grabber, promoted tales of pre-Columbian ‘Welsh’ lost colonists as an excuse for his war on the Cherokees. When President Thomas Jefferson, a Welshman, sent two Welshmen named Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest, he first had them consult Gov. Sevier about the Welsh myths. Sevier, who once spent the night with a Melungeon family, pointed out strange stone forts in Tennessee and Kentucky as ‘proof’ that the Welsh ‘discovered’ America. Sevier’s popular Welsh tales got him elected governor with a mandate to remove or kill Cherokees to get the land."

   This is a scathing accusation. I do not accept Hashaw's assertion that these "popular Welsh tales" sealed Sevier's election as governor of Tennessee. Several factors led to Sevier's political ascent, and simply stating that Sevier's popularity rested upon a mythic tale seems sensationalist to me. It is not unreasonable, however, to consider Sevier's land interests as motivation for relaying the "Welsh Indian" story to Stoddard in his 1810 letter. If Sevier could prove that white settlers first laid claim to the land west of the Appalachians, all Cherokee claims recognized under the law would become null and void, thus opening up vast swaths of territory to new settlement and speculative land claims.

   Sevier's alleged encounters with the mysterious Melungeons and the Welsh Indians pose all kinds of questions for serious scholars and researchers. Among them, did Sevier use race as a tool for conquest and land speculation, or was his discovery of stone forts and Oconostota's belief that Welsh Indians once roamed the New World mere folktales written to perpetuate long-held beliefs and oral traditions? No historical evidence for the Welsh journey to Mobile Bay has ever been found, and yet Sevier's story has endured.

   For Melungeon researchers, an even larger question looms. Does Sevier's letter prove that Melungeons lived among the earliest settlers of the Tennessee Valley, and if so, what does that tell us about our own origins? Amateur family historians and professional genealogists have labored for generations to solve the Melungeon mystery. All too often, however, this topic emerges from an uncomfortable cloud of racial identity. Were the Melungeons' origins African, European, Native American, Portugese, or some other mixed ancestry? Did subsequent generations of Melungeons collectively lie about their past to protect themselves against government-sanctioned discrimination and societal pressures to fit in? Melungeon scholars struggle with these questions to this very day.

   These are complicated questions with no firm answers. Sometimes a mystery remains unsolved and a legend lives on. Historians, however, should never give up on attempting to discover the truth about our shared past, "warts and all."


SELECTED SOURCES:

  • Zella Armstrong. Who Discovered America? The Amazing Story of Madoc. Chattanooga, TN: Lookout Publishing Co., 1950.
  • Jean Patterson Bible. Melungeons Yesterday and Today. Jefferson City, TN: Bible, 1975, pp. 83-85. 
  • Richard Deacon. Madoc and the Discovery of America. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1966.
  • Tim Hashaw. Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006.
  • Pat Spurlock. Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend by Pat Spurlock Elder. Blountville, TN: Continuity Press, 1999, pp. 114-117.
  • Amos Stoddard. Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812, pp. 483-485.


 

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.