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TN History for Kids

Hancock County

Four generations of Melungeon females from Tennessee's
Ramey family (ca. 1915)
PHOTO: Elizabeth C. Hirschman

This county, along with parts of neighboring Virginia, is associated with one of the mysteries of American history.

There is a community (some describe it as a race) here known as the Melungeons. People have for a long time been trying to figure out who the Melungeons are and from where they came. Based on a combination of DNA testing, legend and appearance, many Melungeons appear to be traceable to north Africa and/or southern Europe.

There is some evidence that Melungeons were here before white settlers began migrating west of the Appalachian mountains in the late 1700s. Assuming this is true, no one knows for certain how the Melungeons got here. Among the theories is that they are the descendants of people who established a now-forgotten colony, or that they are the descendants of Portugese slaves who escaped from Hernando de Soto's army.

Until quite recently, it was taboo to even talk about Melungeons (throughout history they have been subject to racial discrimination). But in recent years people have become more proud of their Melungeon ancestory and have begun to celebrate it. If you would like to read a scholarly book on this subject, you might try Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America by Elizabeth C. Hirschman.

Before Hancock County was formed

Here's another story about Hancock County: Lawyers, as you probably know, are people who argue in court and conduct complicated legal transactions. They generally get paid well. In fact, you don’t need to go any further than Hancock County for evidence that lawyers are well paid.

In 1844 citizens of this part of Tennessee employed Knoxville lawyer W. H. Sneed to try to get this county created from parts of Hawkins and Claiborne counties. It took two acts of the legislature and a case that went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court to get the county formed.

Hancock County today

The commissioners decided to put the county seat near a large rock on the Clinch River called Greasy Rock, which is where hunters cleaned game. But they wanted a name other than Greasy Rock. So why did they decided to name the county seat Sneedville? Maybe Mr. Sneed said he wouldn’t charge them for all the legal work that he had done for the county if they did. Kind of like the Melungeons; no one knows for sure.

By the way, this isn't the only Tennessee county seat named for the lawyer who did the legal work to get it formed. Maynardville, in Union County, is named for attorney Horace Maynard.

Here's the place where lots of lawyers gather in Hancock county today: the Hancock County Courthouse.

Hancock County

County seat: Sneedville

Population (2015 estimate): 6,572

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