Gypsy Clan? Mountain Melungeon Enclave?

This blog is intended for all things Phipps, and yet as it has evolved, a primary focus has been on the Phipps families of Ashe County, North Carolina, adjacent Grayson County, Virginia, and surrounding areas. In addition, we’ve focused largely on those families which eventually fanned out across much of the country from that one general area.

This family is a unique one, but so is the tangled web of interconnected relationships with other surnames that characterize this family in Southwest Virginia and Northeast North Carolina. That’s been true even to a remarkably large extent after they moved into other states.

One thing that becomes abundantly clear after examining hundreds, probably actually several thousand, of pages of loose documents among the Ashe County civil action papers is that this collection of families seems to have acted as its own distinct enclave.

The court records make it clear: The interconnected families interacted with each other, but only very rarely did any outsiders interact with them in any way. A group of surnames show up together in records. When a surname shows up in a record that it not among that group of surnames, you can bet money that a Phipps will not appear anywhere in the document. Most likely, neither will anyone else who is outside that group.

This is clear, and it’s striking. This is the group that is represented by such names as Toliver, Long, Reeves, Spurlin, Hash, Blevins, and others. This complex of surnames is also represented to some extent by the names found in the Phipps Eastern Cherokee Applications.

This characteristic was carried over when several of these interrelated families settled in other parts of the country, probably most noticeably in Indiana and Iowa. Perhaps the same phenomenon occurred elsewhere but was not so well documented. Owen County, Indiana, however, seems to have been where it was best documented. That’s largely because some early members of the Phipps family there, along with some of their relatives, became the target of extreme efforts on the part of law enforcement authorities.

Blanchard’s 19th century history of Owen County, Indiana refers to the Phipps family and their relatives as “but little respected in the community.” That was true, said Blanchard, “outside of their immediate associates.” That seems to be a vital telling point: “outside of their immediate associates.” Blanchard centered on the Phipps family, but mentioned the Longs as well, along with Jesse Phipps’s son in law S.G. Taylor from Virginia.

Various records in Owen County and even at the state level in Indianapolis suggest that Phipps individuals and relatives from North Carolina and Virginia may have largely controlled local politics in at least part of the county for a time. Much of the family was more or less forced out due to, first of all, the legal and social ramifications of the Phipps-Long gang’s activities discussed in Edward Bonney’s circa 1850 book Banditti of the Prairie.

Later, concerted efforts were made to weed out the last vestiges of the gang from Owen County, resulting, it is said, in one of the township’s names being changed from its former designation: Grayson, originally named after Grayson County, Virginia. Prior to that, various Owen County records referred to Phipps relatives behaving in a belligerent manner as township authorities.

Things weren’t much better in 19th century Iowa, where Reeves relatives in Iowa, who appear to have had Phipps connections, were the subject of what became known as the Reeves War. And in Missouri, it appears that John Meshack Phipps and associates operated an underground horse stable near St. Joseph for the purpose of keeping stolen horses. There’s even evidence that much of the reason the Mormons were forced out of Nauvoo was because the Mormons were blamed for robberies committed by the Phipps-Long gang.

Were things quieter and more stable back home in the mountains of Ashe County, North Carolina? Or did things just tend to go unreported because the families did form their own remote enclave, and because the county in general was a bit wild? Reading the civil action papers and other records, it becomes clear that this was far from a quiet little idyllic rural area. Assaults and other squabbles were common, and morals were sometimes more than a little loose.

A few accounts of extreme sexual escapades turn up tucked here and there in those records, records that make today’s reality shows seem tame by comparison (and we’re talking 1820s-1830s). By the early 20th century, assaults by some of the Phipps family members and related families would show up in newspaper accounts, often the result of what appears to have been a remarkable Phipps inability to handle alcohol. We can only speculate as to what might have been going on in the hills in earlier decades.

What exactly was this close-knit clan that was tucked away in the mountains, with which at least part of the Phipps family was involved? What was going on with some of those bearing such surnames as Phipps, Toliver, Spurlin, Reeves, Mullins, Hash, Sizemore, White, Blevins, and Long? The suggestion has been made that these were “Melungeons,” but even if that term fits at all, it seems to be a problematic term in that the word was and still is used as a designation for multiple groups of people with different ethnic backgrounds.

Before the 1970s, “Melungeon” was a dirty word (and still is, to some). Now, however, it would appear that a sort of Melungeon aristocracy has developed, with people proud to be descended from certain now-well-known Melungeons. Extreme controversy has centered around efforts to define them: Whites with some black ancestry? People who are mostly white but with some black and Native American ancestry? People of Middle Eastern ancestry who intermarried with Native Americans? Some other combination?

Based on DNA data (most of which is only as good as the genealogical claims associated with it) and on confirmed and unconfirmed discussions, it would appear that if the “Melungeon” appellation fits any group of people, it fits several groups of people with, very likely, radically different ethnic backgrounds.

Whether Melungeon or not, it would appear that the Phipps family of the Ashe County area was – or at least tended to be (another discussion opportunity) – a part of an unusual and tight-knit social, cultural, and perhaps ethnic group. In order to come to an understanding of the origins of the Phipps family, it might be helpful to consider that group as a whole.

That’s what the late Eleanor (Tolliver) Waters, perhaps the most prominent Toliver/Tolliver family researcher, always advocated: Although she utterly rejected the Melungeon concept as applied to these families, she said on a number of occasions that these families could not be studied in isolation.

I remember her telling me that you had to study the Maxwells, the Baldwins, the Longs, the Reeves, the Phippses, the Spurlins, etc. in order to understand the Tolivers (or Tollivers), and that the only way to learn about the Phipps family was to study these other associated families. This was even true, she noted, after they left their primeval happy hunting grounds in the Appalachians and headed into the Midwest.

Some of the wilder Phipps and associated families eventually integrated into mainstream society and became model citizens. To a remarkably large extent, however, this gypsy clan or Melungeon enclave – or whatever it was – persisted even in the Midwest, among some families with names like Phipps, Long, and Reeves. If you don’t believe that, I could tell you lots of tales, lots of tales documented by lots of documents, and perhaps you could too. How many tales remain in those hills, tales that we’ll never know?

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2 thoughts on “Gypsy Clan? Mountain Melungeon Enclave?

  1. Hello. I am working on my family tree. My great grandmother was a Phipps from Grayson County, Virginia. But some of her ancestors were from North Carolina.

    How do I find out if this is the same Phipps family that your article is mentioning? Were they listed as mulatto? Thanks in advance.

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