“Practically all Melungeons preferred a care-free existence with members of their own clan. For many generations they seldom married outsiders, and virtually all families in each area were related. Nearly all Melungeons, young and old chewed tobacco. They lived largely on bacon, corn pone, mush, and strong coffee. In early spring they gathered crow’s foot from the woodlands, and bear’s lettuce from spring branches, and ate them raw with salt. They liked wild fruits and berries to eat from the bush, but cared nothing for canning and preserving them. The holiday for Melungeon men was a week in late summer, after the crops were laid by, to be used for a ginseng expedition. No camping equipment was taken along except a water pail, knives, and a frying pan. They slept under the cliffs.
“No fisherman could compete with the Melungeons. He simply waded into the stream, shoes and all, and searched with his fingers for fish hiding under stones. It no time he emerged with a nice string of fish.
“Theirs was a hardy race, and seldom did they rely on a doctor. They applied many home remedies for injuries and brewed herb teas. Childbirth was a casual matter, usually attended by mountain midwife. Babies, as a rule, grew and thrived without any pretense of comfort or sanitation.
“Their religion was of the simple Protestant type. They often attended their neighbors’ churches, and occasionally had a patriarch-preacher in their group. They learned some of the old ballads and gospel songs from memory, for few of them could read or write. They accepted attendance at school, in most cases, an ‘unnecessary evil.’ Church picnics were always attended by Melungeon boys, but my mother once had a difficult time persuading young Willie that he must have a bath and wear a suit in order to participate in a children’s day program. So he appeared, grinning broadly, in my brother’s hand-me-down.
“Then came industry to the Appalachians – coal, timbering, and railroads. The change was slow. World War I drew Melungeons into industry as well as military service. Coal towns grew up rapidly, and the Melungeon, like other tenant farmers, loaded up his few belongings on a wagon and headed for the ‘public works.’ A few remained behind and bought little hillside farms. For some reason their number appears to have decreased sharply in the past three decades, probably a result of long intermarriage, or perhaps many have been lost in white blood. Soon they may become just a legend – a lost race.”
The Melungeons, Their Origin and Kin, by Bonnie Sage Ball, self-published 1969
related post: “Educating the Melungeons”