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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Living on the water

My current work in progress is about a young Melungeon girl who ends up living on a steamboat. Part of my research for this story includes the steamboats of the 1830s-1840s period.

I had the privilege several years ago to have dinner and a show aboard the Branson Belle.

My protagonist, Flora Jean, starts out living on a shanty boat with her parents. Much like this one here: 

I don't know the source of this picture or the location but as you can see there is a body of water in the background and by the looks of the trees, it looks like it might be winter time. Apparently those who lived on the water were able to pull their boats up to land during the winter months. 

Why live on the water? During the Indian removal and the time of the Trail of Tears, people of color lived on the water to escape the US Cavalry that tried to herd Native Americans into internment camps. African Americans were almost always seen as runaway slaves or they were kidnapped and sold. The Melungeons were considered either Indian or African American but were actually sometimes a mixture of both or simply neither. It is thought they are descended from either from Native Americans mixed with Portuguese or even Turkish or Middle Eastern descent. Still, if caught, they could have been mistaken for Native Americans and herded into the internment camps before marching onto Oklahoma.

Shantyboat living fascinates me. I love the water and I particularly enjoy boating. I have always wanted to rent a family houseboat for a vacation but haven't talked my husband and kids into thinking it's a great idea:

What about you? Would you like living on a houseboat? Or do you think I'm nuts?



  1. I was pleasantly surprised to see anyone mentioning Melungeons as I almost never hear anyone say anything about them. I grew up in Tennessee, which has a interesting history with many, many over looked elements to it's history, at times, whole worlds almost entirely forgotten. I heard my Dad talk of Mulungeons. He told how a boy on on his college foot ball team claimed to be one. He said that the boy had such a a big head, they had to take two helments and make extra room and weld the two together to make it fit. I don't know much about the boy. Aside from that, he never really said much about the people, except that they were supposedly here before the first documented settlers got here, and how they could have been vikings mixed with cherokee, or some escaped white slave colony of the nordic tribes that were along the upper coast line and even made settlements far before Columbus. Dad said he thought they could even have been from a lost colony, like Jamestown. I don't know, but I doubt it was the only colony, and it is not ridiculous to assume some how some group of whites may have made it into the mountains.

    The only other reference I've found in print was in a book by Cormac McCarthy. I believe it was The Orchard keeper, where in describing a family he said, "not Mulungeons, and not really anything else either." It was something to that effect. I sat up straight and re-read the sentence, smiling a little. It some how made the whole work more familiar to me. Just that brief reference, pulled me into that forgotten world. I suppose to bring all this full circle, I should mention my favorite work of his "Suttree" where we discover another forgotten Tennesseean word... this time of Knoxville in the early 1950's, and a man who leaves a life of privilege to go and live on a dilapidated house boat. Here too we see a world that, had it not bee for this book, may have been completely forgotten. The work focuses mainly upon the poor or homeless population of Knoxville, many of whom found a way to scrape a living together by the catfish and oysters of the polluted river, following down from the mountains damned 20 years earlier. Often, these are the descendents of the people who lost their lush bottom farm land in the T.V.A.'s path. It is a interesting read, and though thick and dark at times, it is immensely funny in others.

    It even inspired me to build a boat!

    1. This is fascinating information. Thanks for sharing it! There are actually quite a few books on Melungeons now that weren't around before. Do a search on and you'll find them! Thanks for posting!


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