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Melungeons: Caves, Hills, and Newman's Ridge

My mother always tells the story of her father taking her to see caves on her grandparent's land in Scott County, Virginia. She reminisces about the fact that it was a short distance and her father would tell her not to take anything from the caves. My mother has always loved trinkets  and "pretty things" so it is no surprise that he felt the desire to remind her to not take anything.

My grandfather's sister wrote about the same caves on her grandparent's land in letters and notes that we treasure today. She wrote about how she would walk through the gate and over the creek, while being chased by a goose, to retrieve butter and milk from the caves. These same caves were located in present day Scott County, Virginia.

Where were these caves?  Who lived in these caves?

These are all questions I have regarding the area my grandparents and great grandparents lived.

In "Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree" (Arcade Publishing, 2007) author Lisa Alther begins her first chapter ("The Virginia Club"),

"My younger brother Bill is clutching his teddy bear, the noose still knotted around its neck. My older brother John and I sit on a carpeted step in the front hallway as the gray-haired babysitter with crooked brown teeth informs us that the Melungeons will get us for having hung the bear from the upstairs landing, just out of Bill's reach in the downstairs hall. 
"What's the Melungeons?" I ask. 
"The Melungeons has got six fingers on each hand," she says. "They grab mean chilrun and carry them off to their caves in the cliffs outside of town." 
John and I glance at each other uneasily."

According to her biography, the author, Lisa Alther, grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. Was her family familiar with the caves my family was familiar with? Kingsport is just a "stone's throw" from the caves my mother and great aunt spoke about. Were the Melungeons the "people" who lived in these caves?

My mother also recalls her mother and her aunt (who descend from a Melungeon family) telling her a story similar to the story told to the author above. When she misbehaved (which she claims was often) they didn't tell her she would be carried off to the caves, but, instead, she was told her mother and aunt were going to send her to the hills.

Some people referred to the Melungeons as "hilll people" who lived on Newman's Ridge. Author Karen Spears Zacharias states in her blog article "Melungeons: Up on Newman's Ridge,"

"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."

An interesting note regarding the Melungeons, which has helped me in my own research, is the fact that these people did not literally live ON Newman's Ridge. According to the Blackwater, Virginia website,

"Newman's Ridge extends a total distance of about 28 miles, in which the eastern part extends about 7 miles into Lee County, Virginia.  When the old authors and historians wrote about Newman's Ridge Melungeons they did not mean to infer they all lived ON the ridge.  They were describing an area which includes Kyle's Ford, Fisher's Valley, Flower Gap, Panther Creek (old name was Buffalo Creek), the north fork of Blackwater Creek in which most of it was in Lee County, the south fork of Blackwater Creek which extended into Vardy Valley, and part of Snake Hollow.
Micager Bunch was recognized by Historian William Groshe and others as one of the first Melungeons in the area in 1789.  His land entry was near Kyle's Ford in Tennessee but he signed the petition in 1793 to form Lee County, VA.  Also, Shepard "Old Buck" Gibson's first land entry was in Blackwater in Lee County, Virginia very near the Tennessee/Virginia state line.  These folks were next door neighbors although they lived in different states.  This was not a small area, neither was it a small group and some left early to travel into Kentucky such as Micager Bunch who was believed to have migrated to Cumberland County, Kentucky in 1799."

Caves, hills, Newman's Ridge, and Melungeons. What is this connection to the Melungeons and individuals who, generations later, still carry these stories of caves, hills, and the Ridge?

For further reading and works cited in this article, see the following:

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