Sleeping in the shadow of an ancient Spanish silver mine

Mention the words, “ancient Spanish silver mine” and most readers would immediately visualize an arid desert landscape, rusting conquistador helmets, burros, cacti and perhaps an adobe hacienda. In this case, however, one should imagine a deep, verdant gorge, dense rhododendron thickets and a raging white water river.

You see this past Friday night, this writer camped out on Lost Mine Road in the North Carolina’s Nantahala Gorge, one of the great white water canoeing locations in the nation. The “Lost Mine” refers to a small Melungeon silver mining and smelting operation that the Cherokees discovered when they first entered this part of the North Carolina Mountains in the mid-1700s.

In 1690, an exploration party composed of Native Americans and British Dragoons were traveling through what would one day be northeastern Georgia. They crested Tray Mountain and looked down upon the Nacoochee Valley. Many plumes of smoke could be seen. The Cherokees told the British that the Spanish were smelting gold in the valley.

When they first entered the near by Tuckaseegee River Valley in 1745, the Cherokees reported to the British Colonial authorities in Charleston, SC that there were no Native Americas around, but white men with olive skin and long, dark beards. These families were making gold and silver jewelry for trade with nearby tribes and the French in Alabama. They lived in log cabins with arched windows. The Cherokees added that these strange people worshipped a “book” like the English.

In 1783, Captain John Sevier and Colonel John Tipton (the builder of the writer’s former farmhouse in Virginia) led a party of 80 families from Shenandoah County, Virginia to northeastern Tennessee. In Tennessee they encountered several villages occupied by long bearded Jews, who worked as gold and silver smiths,

In 1824 when the nation’s first gold rush began in the North Georgia Mountains, workers for John C. Calhoun’s gold mining company found the ruins of a European-type village along the banks of Duke’s Creek in the Nacoochee Valley composed of log houses, gold smelting furnaces and a deep pit, lined with longs, which was apparently a mine. Several 17th and 18th century Spanish artifacts (such as a cigar mold) were discovered by the workers as they stripped soil away in search of gold.

Who were these dark-haired, olive skinned people who worked gold and silver, and worshiped a book? They were the Melungeons. Today, at least 250,000 Americans are descendants of the Melungeons. Their homeland is the highlands of western North America, northeastern Tennessee, southeastern Kentucky and northeastern Virginia. The word, Melungeon, is believed to be derived from a Portuguese word meaning “lost.”

More about the Melungeons

In 1492 King Ferdinand of Leon and Queen Isabel of Castille issued an edict which banned all Jew, Moslems and heretics from their newly assembled kingdom. Jews and Moors were given a month to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Those who didn’t convert, would be stripped of all their possessions and deported. Those who pretended to convert to Catholicism, but secretly practiced their ancestral religions would be tortured, then burned at the stake. The Holy Inquisition was founded during this era to enforce “religious purity.”

It has been estimated at about 75% of the sailors on Cristobal Colon’s first voyage were Converso Jews. Several historians in recent years have found substantial evidence that Colon was himself a Converso Jew from Barcelona. They think that the story of him being an Italian from Genoa was totally fabricated to disguise his Jewish heritage.

The depredations of the Spanish Inquisition worsened in the 16th and 17th centuries. Spaniards, who accused neighbors of relapsing to Judaism, were promised half their assets if the accused were burned at the stake. The Spanish Crown took the other half. Thus, the Inquisition became lucrative money making machine for a cash-starved Crown and an instant ticket to wealth for those willing to inform on their neighbors.

Devout Catholic families with Jewish or Moorish heritage lived in terror of being falsely accused by greedy neighbors. Genealogy became an obsession with prominent families as they tried to prove ethnically pure heritage. Converso families often had no other option than selling their property and migrating to the New World.

It is also known that from time to time Moorish slaves escaped Spanish chains or galleys, then struck inland to live among the Indians. The first documented case of a Moor escaping the Spanish was when the de Soto Expedition was in northwestern Georgia in the Province of Kusa.

Once in small, remote colonies such as those in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, some Converso families would slip into the mountainous hinterland, where there was known gold and silver deposits. Perhaps they married local natives to cement good relations. It is quite likely that Spanish administrators helped keep these mining colonies secret, in return for “a share of the action.”

The Melungeons apparently kept very low profiles so they would not be the target of either the Inquisition or later on, greedy British raiders. The extreme violence of the French & Indian War and the American Revolution probably drove them out of western North Carolina and Northern Georgia. These Melungeons probably fled to Louisiana, which became a Spanish colony after 1763, when the French were defeated by the British. The northern Melungeons disappeared as a non-English speaking ethnic group as they intermarried with Scottish, Ulster Scot and Irish immigrants. Perhaps some Melungeons also married Jewish immigrants from England. Their exotic heritage was lost.

The empty pieces of a jigsaw puzzle

The only information that architectural historians have about the Melungeons is the description of log houses with arched windows that was made by the Cherokees in 1745. Archaeologists have shown little interest in the Melungeons, so architects know little about these interesting colonists’ settlements and architecture. Did the Melungeons build synagogues? Were some of them Moslems, and therefore built mosques? There is also the possibility that they maintained a form of Christian belief and therefore built chapels.

Every area of North America probably has equivalent gaps in the knowledge of their history; especially during the Early Colonial Era. There is still much work to be done by historians, archaeologists and historic preservation architects.

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