The Melungeons of Carmel

Larry 'n NassauA few days ago there was a Facebook discussion between two individuals whose ancestors lived in the area around Carmel, Ohio. Back in 2002 I did a little research on that area, specifically about the Melungeon or Carmelite population that once were so common there. The result was published as a column in the Times-Gazette newspaper and raised a little stink because several Melungeons descendants, having never heard the term, thought I was calling them a name. In fact, I unknowingly was calling them a name by using the term Carmelite, which they perceived as being a derogatory term. Anyway, I decided to reprise the article which was based on a statistical study of these people and interviews with primary sources. Here’s the column as it was published eleven years ago.

“It would have been difficult growing up in this area and not heard of the Carmelite Indians who lived in and around the Highland County village of Carmel. I had always heard of these peoples but like many others, never knew much about them.

Recently a friend and I were talking and she mentioned a book she was reading, “North From The Mountains,” about the Melungeon people of Highland County. I had heard that word in college many years ago and vaguely remembered it meaning people of mixed racial ancestry and associated with some historical mystery. Turns out the Carmelites and Melungeons of Carmel are one and the same.

I checked the book out of the county library and gave it a quick read. Though published in 2001 it was frequently a dry (akin to a North African desert) rehash of earlier studies. But, to anyone interested in local history it was, in places, spellbinding. One of the authors, John S. Kessler grew up near Sinking Spring and does an excellent job of recounting what life during the 1930s and 1940s was like for the Carmelites and others living in the southern part of our county.

The Melungeon peoples originated in the mountainous regions of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee and were established in those areas when Irish and Scottish settlers began arriving in the 1700s. The great mystery was, where did these people, who were definitely not Indian, who spoke Elizabethan English, cultivated the soil and lived in log homes come from?

Many theories attempt to answer this question. Suggestions include the lost tribes of Israel, descendants of North Carolina’s lost Roanoke Island Colony, escaped slaves from Spanish settlements and more. Nobody is sure but the Melungeons most likely originated by the blending of Native Americans with European whites, escaped or freed African slaves, free mulattoes, British, French and other coastal raiders and explorers who cruised along the Atlantic coastline during the 1600s. Other possibilities include Portuguese, Moors, Jews and other Eastern Mediterranean sailors who were frequently taken captive by the Spanish and who later escaped or set free when Spain withdrew from the American Southeast.

The Indian influence is thought to be minimal but since Melungeon skin tones tend to be darker, as is their hair, they were frequently mislabeled as Indian. Such was the case with the Carmel group.

The Melungeon community of Carmel began in the mid-1860s and seems to have its roots in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Kessler says his father told him that the Carmelites were, “brought up here to build the Milt Cartright place.” The most common Melungeon surnames in Highland County were Nichols, Perkins, Gibson, Gipson, Wisecup and Lucas. These names were also quite common in other Melungeon communities, especially those in Kentucky.

Kessler and his co-author, Donald B. Ball, conclude that the Carmelites and their culture have long disappeared into the larger cities of Ohio and elsewhere. Studies of area telephone directories indicate that the common surnames still occur in Hillsboro, and to a greater degree in Chillicothe and Waverly.

The old store in Carmel is gone as are the shacks and shanties described by Kessler that once dotted the landscape around Coon’s Crossing just south of town or along the Carmel-Cynthiana Road. In their places are increased numbers of mobile and modular homes and the mailboxes no longer bear names like Gipson and Nichol.

In addition to North From The Mountains, I found a great deal of information about the Melungeon peoples and their history on the Internet. It was all very interesting but none as interesting as Kessler’s account of his young life. Anyone who is a product of this area and a contemporary of Kessler will be taken back to a time and way of living they may have long forgotten.

Finally, I haven’t written a book review since I reviewed “Guadalcanal Diary” in the tenth grade. Hopefully I’ve gotten a little better over the years. Maybe Dorothy, my Sophomore English teacher will grade this for me!”

NOTE: Two of my primary sources were Kenny Estle and Harry V. Turner who both grew up in the Rainsboro and Carmel areas and were an eyewitness to what’s been reported. Estle took me on several driving tours of the area and pointed out the traces that still remain of homes once occupied by these peoples.

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