How the Catawba Hooked up with the Melungeons and Wound up in Kentucky, part III of my Melungeon Series

I’m attempting to pick up where I left off with my Catawba story. Now, keep in mind that I am mostly going to focus on those who intermarried with Melungeon families and wound up in Kentucky, but in order to do that, I need to touch on other things as well. In my last post, I established that there was contact between Spanish explorers and their slaves, many who were from Basque Country, North Africa and Italy, as well as Spain and Portugal. Hence, there is a logical possibility that European DNA was introduced into the Catawba and Saponi in the early part of the 1500s. By the 1800s, wars and Small Pox epidemics wiped out the majority of the Catawba people. Struggling to survive, they set out in groups.

After the Revolutionary War, some of them went back to the land they had fled from. In 1826, they leased about half their reservation to Whites and the money they got from this leasing allowed those few survivors of what I call the Catawba Holocaust to survive. But the survival was meager.

 In 1840, the Catawba signed a treaty with the government of South Carolina and sold all but one square mile of their original homeland of thousands of acres. But the treaty was invalidated by the federal government on the grounds that the state of South Carolina didn’t have the right to make it in the first place. Surrounded by Whites on all sides, some of the remaining Catawba went to join the Eastern Cherokee in North Carolina, but the cultural differences were just as pronounced among the Cherokee as they were among the Whites and life among the Cherokee was unpleasant for most of the Catawba. The Cherokee, although willing to extend a hand of mercy, never truly saw the Catawba as their people. All but a few who had intermarried with the Cherokee and one elderly woman who died in 1889, returned to their tiny parcel of land in South Carolina.

Some of these remaining Catawba later moved to Indian Territory in Oklahoma as a result of the Indian Allotment Act. Indians were supposed to receive free land and the excess land was to be sold to settlers and the revenue given to the tribes. Some Catawba went as part of the Cherokee Nation to receive free Indian Land but they were denied the land because the Cherokee knew their own and they knew the Catawba and Melungeons. The White Top Laurel group was considered a mixed people and though they definitely had “Indian” blood, neither the Cherokee nor the federal government would recognize them as Cherokee, so they were denied. It didn’t mean they weren’t “Indian.” It just meant that weren’t the right” Indians. These Catawba remnants who had mingled and become associated with the Melungeons in order to survive were literally being robbed of their identity at every turn. Small Pox, war, forced removal, broken treaties—it was forced assimilation, genocide. By the mid-1800s, the federal government had what it wanted concerning the Catawba people, they basically were “Indian no more.” They had been stripped of everything except their desire to live and provide for their families.

Some of those who went to Oklahoma were received by the Choctaw Nation and literally gave up their cultural ways and identities. They became Choctaw and their descendants live among them to this day. Others met with Mormon missionaries in Oklahoma and became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They continued westward with the Mormons. Still, others returned to the southeastern areas from whence they had come, to Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia and the Carolinas. I think that it was during this time that my own great grandfather, William Wallen (descended from an unknown gal named Jane Collins) and his wife, Mary Caroline went to receive land but instead of land, they received tuberculosis and William died in Oklahoma. He is buried there. Mary Caroline died back home in Wayne County, Kentucky, and their children were left orphans.

At this point, I need to travel back in time and revisit some things in order to get myself back on track; it does seem that the Christianized Catawba had “English-sounding” names and I won’t even attempt to say where they got them. I suppose that living among English speakers and having taken sides with the colonists in the Revolutionary War may have had some influence on their changing their names. These Christianized Catawba were known to have learned the English language and therefore, it makes sense that they would have also learned the ways of the settlers. The names they carried were names like Collins, Goins, Blevins, Coles, Clonchs, Nuckolls, Moore, Perkins and others. These Christian Catawba were known as “friendly Indians,” and were often found in the company of European settlers. When asked who they were by English settlers, some of them answered that they were “Portugy.” Was there a legend among these people dating back to the days of the Conquistadors? Did they carry the DNA of those long gone explorers?

 Eventually, these families and many others would become the signposts names of Melungeon families. Members from one of these “friendly Indians” groups, the Sizemore (from which I am descended through my maternal grandmother’s father, who was the great grandson of Nancy Sizemore), are suspected by some researchers to have been affiliated with the Catawba but later when they applied for tribal recognition as Cherokee, in hopes of receiving free land, they were denied. The reason they identified as Cherokee is because, at one time after they had been decimated by war and disease, the Catawba were under the jurisdiction of the Cherokee.  Thus was born a trend, numerous families that would populate the southeastern United States and claim Cherokee heritage, only to be turned down again and again by the U.S. government and by the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee didn’t recognize them as Cherokee so the government didn’t recognize them as Indian. For a long time, the world forgot who the Catawba were. Their language was almost completely gone, their culture became a legend and even they forgot who they were, many only remembering that somewhere back in time, Granny or Paw-paw had been “Indian” and they believed it was “Cherokee.” Some settled in the Greasy Rock area and some in Pilot and some in the White Top Mountains, but it appears that others continued to move out from these places. The Sizemore (White Top Laurel Clan who identified as Cherokee but some records indicate they were originally Catawba). These Sizemore seemed to move with the Blevins, Perkins, and Baldwins. Some migrated on into Ohio and are now known as Carmel Indians.  Some migrated to “Indian Territory” in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

I’m skipping a lot of details, mainly because this is an overview, not an all-inclusive, exhaustive and comprehensive breakdown of how Catawba-Melungeon families got to Kentucky.

Many of these families, the names of some which have become lost in the layers of Appalachian soil, migrated to Hancock and Hawkins Counties in Tennessee, and later into the southeastern Kentucky. The last known migrations of these “Melungeons” with Catawba and White Top Laurel ties (census records of the family names, etc.) shows them along the Cumberland River of Kentucky in what is now Rockcastle, Pulaski, Wayne, Clinton, Cumberland, Adair, Russell and Casey Counties. They have married extensively into “old” Kentucky families and in many towns, they WERE the first families to settle the area. Their names and the families they married into either right before coming to the area or right after include Harmon, Easley, Smith, Green, Parnell, Rogers, Adams, Riddle, Ramsey, Sizemore, Leach, Wallen, Neal, Guffey, Denney, Wells, Downey, Starnes/Stearns and others that I can’t think of right now.

 As for those whose descendants aren’t the Christian Catawba they were denied the right to vote until the 1940s, even though they had to pay land taxes and were subject to the same laws as their White neighbors. In 1959, the government completely stripped them of the right to even call themselves Indian and terminated them as a tribe, denying them any and all federal benefits that other tribes received. In 1973, the Catawba applied to be federally recognized. They were small in number and had endured enormous hardships as a people in order to survive. Many of them had long ago lost their identities but a few still clung to the knowledge of who they were and in 1975 they adopted a constitution that had been modeled on their 1944 version prior to the government disbanding them altogether. It wasn’t until 1994 that the United States government recognized the Catawba people as a nation. 

The Christian Catawba who ended up in Kentucky were the victims of genocide and forced assimilation. They were never able to reclaim their status as part of the Catawba Nation.

An interesting side note: the Kentucky River was once called the Catawba River.