Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Jim Callahan's Lest We Forget: The Melungeon Colony of Newman's Ridge

The Portyghee people, better known as the Melungeons, have a history that is almost mythical. They came from somewhere, or many somewheres, to form a single people. They fled west, out of the coastal plains and up into the Appalachian Mountains. They lived intentionally isolated lives for decades, perhaps centuries in the mountains, occasionally trading with and/or fighting native Americans of the region, until gradually men of European descent began colonizing what had become the Portyghee heartland: the valleys of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and western Virginia and North Carolina. Gradually, through coercion and discrimination most of the Portyghee people were pushed up, literally up the mountains and onto the ridges that towered over the fertile valleys. Here, in their hillbilly Masadas, they continued to live, though now, given the the limits of their access to good agricultural territory, many began specializing in an activity both brought by the invaders and legally forbidden by them - moonshining. Gradually, however, as development came to the ridge-towns, a diaspora has begun, and the Portyghee have begun moving again into the valley-towns, or even further afield, particularly into the Midwest, often abandoning their identities along the road. And today, though many Portyghee/Melungeons still live in the towns of the Cumberland Mountains and the Clinch and Holstein River Valley, it probably isn't surprising that most Portyghee folk either have no idea that are, well, Portyghee or still hide it, fearing the sort of discrimination that plagued their ancestors in the not-so-distant past.
The book I'm reviewing today is about just such a man. Pardon, let me rephrase. It is the product of just such a man, a man of Portyghee descent, who had no idea he was Portyghee, trying to uncover just what it means to be Portyghee. Specifically, it is a book that he wrote based on his research into 1) the hypothetical origins of the Portyghee people and 2) the definite trials and tribulations of those same people, and more particularly the people of Newman's Ridge, his heretofore unknown ancestral home.
Now, Lest We Forget isn't a scholarly book - it wasn't written by a professor of Southern history or sociology at some big-name university or institute, though it is well written (Callahan is a former Director of Agriculture in Mexico for Del Monte Foods). This is evident in some of the language and turns of phrase used - though this doesn't take away from it. And the book isn't strictly historical - it constantly delves into economics, politics, and most notably physical anthropology. And sometimes it does jump around just a bit. That said, the points where the writing becomes more informal generally tend to strengthen this work, rather than detract from it, making it approachable. And Callahan is unaffected by the dominant scholarly opinions as to origins of the Portyghee - that isn't to say he doesn't weigh them in, nor that he doesn't draw deeply from them, quite the contrary. But it is to say that he throws out every conceivable theory and hypothesis and discusses them in great detail, drawing on both the scholarly and the traditional for evidence, bringing up archaeological evidence that is often too quickly dismissed or simply ignored by professional scholars.
Combine all this with some excellent photographs and maps, a ton of information on particular cultural practices of the Portyghee/Melungeons and a trove of historical vignettes and you get a book that anyone interested in this dimension of Appalachian society, and at a decent price, which frankly just cries out to be read. Thanks for your labor, Mr. Callahan.

Okay, onto the meaty meat - first, you're gonna' want the publisher - head over to see the folks at Overmountain Press for that. Secondly, just to whet your appetite, I want to quote one of the most interesting sociological points that Callahan brings up. Ahem.

". . .[William Allen Dromgoole] stated that people descended from a particular person were named individual given names and their surnames were those of the father or mother of their tribe (for example Benjamin Collins' offspring would be Andrew Ben, Zeke Ben, etc.) to differentiate between the many Collinses. For example, if Jordan Ben (son of Benjamin Collins) were to marry Abby Sol (daughter of Solomon Collins), they would have a son called Callaway Abbey after his mother. Before marriage, the daughter took her father's given name; after marriage, she took that of her husband. For example, Calloway's wife was Ann Calloway. Over time, the Collins prospered, and their increased numbers necessitated the formation of clans, which retained the names of key leaders (Ben clan, Sol clan)." (p.146-147)
Now, that's just flat out interesting.

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