Monday, June 7, 2010

Hancock County roots

William Orville Mills was born in March 1846 in what was then Hawkins County, Tennessee but later became Hancock County, and he died in Itawamba County in 1916. Orville is my husband's great-great grandfather. Since we learned about Orville and his heritage in 2005, we have been making pilgrimages of sorts to Hancock County every couple of years. Since Mike's mother lives in nearby Sullivan County, visits to the area serve several purposes. During last week's visit, we drove along the Virginia-Tennessee border to Cumberland Gap and then turned south for a drive along scenic State Highway 63 in Claiborne and Hancock counties.

The county seat of Hancock County is Sneedville, formerly known as Greasy Rock. No one passes through Sneedville unless it is on purpose. Sneedville is not on the way to anywhere, the reason being is that it is situated between two tall ridges, and the shortest and quickest route to anywhere simply bypasses Sneedville. Sneedville itself is unspectacular but once out of town, on any road, in any direction, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Orville was probably born on the North side of Clinch Mountain near the community of Treadway where the Mills family lived among families of Wolfe, Cantwell, Tucker, and Cloud, to name a few.

While our destination was Treadway in the eastern part of the county, our approach on this day was from the other side of the county (from the west), and therefore we passed near the Mahala Mullins cabin. Having read about Mahala on our previous visits, we decided a slight detour to the little community of Vardy was definitely in order. Vardy is nestled in a valley between Powell Mountain and Newman's Ridge, just below the border with Virginia. It was settled by the Collins, Mullins, Goins, Gibson and other families whose ancestry is determined to be of Melungeon heritage. Vardy was named for Vardemon Collins, one of the first Melungeon settlers to the area.

In this picture made along Highway 63 the background you can see Newman's Ridge in the distance. This tall ridge slices diagonally across the northern part of Hancock County and separates Sneedville from its western neighbors. Highway 63 is the only road in Hancock County that crosses the ridge, and it is a beautiful and scenic drive, very rural.

Above is a picture of a picture. It's the log cabin that housed Mahala Collins Mullins, reported to be the most famous Melungeon. Mahala, who had twenty children, earned a living by making and selling illegal moonshine whiskey. For years, she confounded legal authorities who came to arrest her with warrants in hand. You see, Mahala weighed over 600 pounds, and there was no way she could be made to leave her house. No door was wide enough, and then just getting her down off the top of Newman's Ridge was problematic. How many men would it take to carry her down the mountain? So the law would destroy what whiskey stills they could find and then leave Mahala laughing at them from her cabin. "Ketchable but not fetchable" was what they said about Mahala.

When Mahala died in 1898, her body, lying in her bed, was boarded up to make a casket which was removed via an opening made through the fireplace. She was buried near her house and near the graves of her husband, John Mullins, and her deceased children.

The Mahala Collins Mullins log cabin was moved from the top of Newman's Ridge (in the picture, behind the present location of the cabin) below to the Vardy Valley community, with all of the moving and restoration work being done by the Vardy Community Historical Society. The cabin was originally built in the mid-1850s and was home to several different families up until the 1950s. After restoration, many families in the community donated items, and the cabin is well-decorated and outfitted to demonstrate its history. Across the road is the former Vardy Community Presbyterian Church, a beautiful little building that now houses a museum with much information about the community and its schools.

Our visit was made special by the helpful assistance of a couple of volunteers who were there at the cabin, getting it ready for a homecoming day held this past Saturday. My husband, Mike, is seated center, with Mr. Gibson on his right (our left) and David Collins on his left (our right).

Your curiosity about Melungeons may be piqued. Much information abounds on the internet, but the information posted at the Mahala Collins Mullins cabin indicates that although there are several theories about these people, there are no clear answers. Old census records show them as "free people of color" or as "mulattoes" and a popular theory among many Melungeons is that they are of Portuguese ancestry, related to a long-ago ship-wrecked band of sailors. Some folks say that they are from Sir Walter Raleigh's colony at Roanoke, Virginia who mysteriously disappeared around 1560 and lived and intermarried among the Indian tribes further inland. DNA studies seem to indicate a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean ancestry. No clearcut answers have been found, and the controversy over the Melungeon heritage continues, with Newman's Ridge and Vardy Valley being perhaps the most famous of the Melungeon territories.

Mike and I certainly enjoyed our visit to the Vardy community, and if you are ever in the area, might we suggest a leisurely drive from Cumberland Gap to Sneedville via Highway 63, with a side detour to Vardy.

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