Melungeons: Up on Newman’s Ridge

Melungeons: any of a dark-skinned group of people of the Appalachians in East Tennessee, of mixed Indian, White, and Black ancestry

Home of Jimmy Martin

 I begged my cousin to take me to Sneedville.  (Doesn’t that sound like a town Dr. Seuss named?) My cousin said he would, too, come September, even though his momma warned us both that we had no business prowling around them thar hills. Everybody told me not to go. So you know what I did, don’t you?

Main Street in Melungeon country.

Yep. I did. I mean it wasn’t like planned or anything. I was headed to Knoxville when I passed the sign that said Sneedville. So I pulled off and figured out how far it was from that sign to the town. Thirty miles. Well, gosh, I live in Oregon. Who knows when I’ll be that close to Sneedville again? And, besides, there is a Melungeon character in that upcoming novel of mine — Mother of Rain. But, yeah, it did kind of creep me out when I got out of the car and the gun store was the first thing I came upon.

The family connection

Granny Leona was a Lawson. There are Lawsons all over Sneedville. Above Sneedville is a place called Newman’s Ridge. That’s where the Melungeons isolated themselves. One of my uncles remembers going up there to see family when he was younger. He said that Granny’s sister and her kids would hide behind the trees soon as they saw them coming. Hill people don’t take to outsiders.

Overlooking the town.

The dead keep watch over Sneedville. In Tennessee, you can bury people in the backyard. Or the sideyard. Or even the garden if you wish.

No bodies here.

There weren’t any dead bodies in Pat’s garden. Just some good eats. Pat was out in the midday sun, tending to the corn and squash. She said she spends nearly all day everyday there. When she’s not teaching, that is. Pat’s been teaching in these hills some thirty years. We talked about the people up on Newman’s Ridge. We talked about the drugs and the killings over the drugs and the poor kids who suffer the consequences of their parents choices. We talked about our kids and how well they’ve turned out. And we talked about books. Always books. Especially the B-I-B-L-E. How people keep ignoring the truths of it.
It was a good day in Sneedville. I’ll go back. I hope to see Pat’s flowers next time. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll look into the Melungeons. That new novel of mine has a main character who is Melungeon. I think you are going to really take to her.
I hope to get up to Newman’s Ridge next trip.
What stories have you heard lately? Do you know any Melungeons?
About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

  • Gary Nelson

    I do know some folks with melungeon ancestry. I went to Sneedville once. In Tennessee there are usually several, prominent gun shops. If you go to the flea market in Crossville on any given Saturday morning, you’ll see so many guns you might feel you have to duck and take cover.

  • BULL

    Careful what your digging for up there. Hancock co–A lot of good God fearin people, some not so pleasant–Lived up there for 3 years–Meet a lot of good folk, some not so. I have a cabin up on one of the mountains and across the valley is Newman’s Ridge. It’s beautiful country. I am from WV and was accepted in. Hill people believe in spirits amongst other things. Heard a lot of history and good stories–Like I said you got to be a little careful–They don’t cotton much to strangers and might suspect your intentions–or think your the law. Hancock Co-has some of the most well kept secrets and would probably make a good novel in it’s self. I have my place up for sale now, but made some life long friends. Drugs are pretty bad(like a lot of county’s up there) I only tell you this to maybe help you understand and be safe when your up that way. Good luck with your book—GB–BULL

  • John in PDX

    Some people have called me a curmelungeon. I never knew what it meant before.

  • http://www.karlaakins.com/ Karla Akins

    I’m married to a descendant of the Mullins family from the Newman’s Ridge area and my work in progress also has a Melungeon family in it who are fleeing the Trail of Tears. My husband’s family was on the trail but some stayed there in the mountains. In fact, there is a big reunion this year in Jay, OK that he and his Mama are going to. Jay, OK is 40% Cherokee and they are descendants of the trail of tears Cherokee and Melungeons. I look forward to your book!


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