Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Melungeons (from melungeons.com)

For more than a century, the Melungeons have been the focus of anthropologists, social scientists, and (especially) feature writers for newspapers and magazines. The most common adjective used to describe the Melungeons is “mysterious;” no one seems to know where the Melungeons originated. More significantly, the Melungeons did not fit into any of the racial categories which define an individual or group within American society, they were considered by their neighbors neither white, black, nor Indian.

The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry, found primarily in northeastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, southeastern Kentucky. Similar groups of “mysterious” people, or at least remnants of these groups, are found all along the Atlantic seaboard. While these other groups have no known connection to the Melungeons, they have suffered similar problems due to the difficulty of placing them within an established racial category. Anthropologists called them “racial islands” or “tri-racial isolates.”

Several surnames are associated with the Melungeons, including Collins, Gibson, Goins, Mullins, Bowlin. The Melungeons have historically been associated with Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee. Newspapers and magazines have found the Melungeons a fascinating topic since the 1840s, but the Melungeons have resented most of the publicity they have received over the years. Most of the articles on the Melungeons speculated on the legends, folklore, and theories surrounding their ancestry.

Some of these legends and theories have suggested descent from Spanish or Portuguese explorers, from the “Lost Colonists” of Roanoke Island, from shipwrecked sailors or pirates of various nationalities, from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or from ancient Phoenicians or Carthaginians. More recent theories have proposed that the Melungeons descended from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern ancestors.

None of these theories originated with the Melungeons themselves. Early accounts reflect the Melungeons’ self-description as “Indians.” Some Melungeons reportedly described themselves a “Portuguese,” or, as many pronounced it, “Portyghee.” Most of their white neighbors considered the Melungeons a mixture of black and Indian, or white, black, and Indian.

There is no consistent definition of the word “Melungeon.” Some anthropologists have limited the term to a few families located near Newman’s Ridge, while others have expanded “Melungeon” to include other mixed-race groups in the southeastern United States. At one time, the word was used as a racial epithet against a mulatto, at another time as a political epithet for east Tennessee Republicans. The common usage of the term had an element of socio-economic status attached to it; families who were financially successful were not necessarily considered Melungeon, no matter who their ancestors were.

By the early 1960's, newspaper articles predicted the disappearance of the Melungeons; out-migration and intermarriage with whites had nearly rendered the Melungeons indistinguishable from their white neighbors. However, by the end of that decade, Melungeons in Hancock County were acknowledging and celebrating their heritage with an outdoor drama. By the mid-1990s, a “virtual community” of Melungeons had developed on the Internet.

One question which has been examined by nearly every writer on this subject is the origin of the name “Melungeon.”1

The most commonly accepted theory is that the word derived from the French mPlange, meaning mixture. A French colony in southwestern Virginia in the late 1700s may have dubbed these people with the plural form of mPlange, which is mPlangeon or mPlangeons, which could conceivably have been corrupted to “Melungeon. Another proposed theory for the origin of “Melungeon” is the Afro-Portuguese term melungo, supposedly meaning “shipmate.” Yet another is the Greek term melan, meaning “black.”

Author Brent Kennedy, in arguing a Turkish origin for the Melungeons, maintains that “Melungeon” derives from the Arabic melun jinn and the Turkish melun can, both pronounced similarly to “Melungeon” and both translating to “cursed soul” or “one who has been abandoned by God.” Kennedy maintains that the Melungeons identified themselves by that name.2

Historian C. S. Everett suggests another possible origin for the term: melongena, originally an Italian term related to the more modern melanzane (pronounced meh lun’ zhen eh) which means “eggplant.” The eggplant has a dark skin, and the term was used to describe sub-Saharan Africans.3

Karlton Douglas and Joanne Pezzullo suggest that the word “Melungeon” originated as the old English term “malengin” (singular) or “malengine” (plural). An old copy of Webster’s Dictionary defines “malengine” as “Evil machination; guile; deceit.”4 Douglas and Pezzullo write, “It is well known the people of Appalachia, and Melungeons in particular, used words that were becoming archaic, and not much in use beyond Appalachia.”5

Nearly everyone who has written about the Melungeons agrees that they fiercely resented the name. Even in the mid-20th century, to call a Hancock Countian a Melungeon was to insult him. The stigma attached to the name “Melungeon” leads most researchers to the conclusion that the name was imposed upon the people, that it was not a name they ever used for themselves.

Most Melungeons in Hancock County look very much like their “white” neighbors, many of whom are quite swarthy from a lifetime of outdoor work. In 1963, Brewton Berry wrote, “[N]either in their culture nor their economy are they distinguishable from other mountain folk. Among those bearing the telltale surnames are individuals of dark complexion and straight black hair ... But the physical features of most of them suggest no other ancestry than white.”6

Some historic descriptions of Melungeons include

They are tall, straight, well- formed people, of a dark copper color ... but wooly heads and other similar appendages of our negro.7

They are of swarthy complexion, with prominent cheek bones, jet black hair, generally straight but at times having a slight tendency to curl, and the men have heavy black beards...Their frames are well built and some of the men are fine specimens of physical manhood. They are seldom fat.8

While some of them are swarthy and have high Indian cheekbones, the mountain whites, too, often display these same characteristics. Also, many of the Melungeons have light hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.9

The color of the skin of a full-blooded, pure Melungeon is a much richer brown than an Indian’s skin. It is not the color of a part Indian and part white, for their skin is lighter. The full-blooded, pure Melungeon had more the color of skin of a person from India and Egypt.10

In 1946, William Gilbert presented the first comprehensive survey of tri-racial groups in the U.S. He estimated that there were at least 50,000 persons who were “complex mixtures in varying degrees of white, Indian, and Negro blood.”11

Gilbert listed ten major tri-racial groups with several related groups. These included:

1. Brass Ankles and allied groups in South Carolina, including Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, Marlboro Blues, and others.

2. Cajans and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi

3. Croatans of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia

4. Guineas of West Virginia and Maryland. (Other names included “West Hill Indians, “ ”Cecil Indians,” and “Guinea niggers.”)

5. Issues of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia.

6. Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey.

7. Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians.

8. Moors and Nanticokes of Delaware and New Jersey.

9. Red Bones of Louisiana.

10.Wesorts of southern Maryland.12

In addition to their uncertain ethnic background, Gilbert noted that “These small local groups seem to develop especially where environmental circumstances such as forbidding swamps or inaccessible and barren mountain country favor their growth.”13

Gilbert estimated in 1946 that there were 50,000 inhabitants of these “racial islands.” He saw little evidence that these groups were being absorbed by either the white or black communities, and noted, “Their native breeding grounds furnish a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of population which periodically swarms into cities and industrial areas.” Gilbert did not fear that further investigation of these tri-racials could “prejudice their social prospects since the vast majority cannot possibly hope to pass as ‘white’ under the present social system.” 14

Legend has it that the Melungeons were in the Hancock County area prior to the arrival of the white settlers. The best evidence, however, places the first Melungeon families in the area at about the same time the first white settlers arrived. As in most other aspects of Melungeon history, legend competes with documented fact for popular attention.

Lewis Jarvis was an attorney in Sneedville, the Hancock County seat. He was born in Scott County, Virginia, in 1829 and spent most of his life near Melungeons. In 1903 Jarvis gave an interview which placed the arrival of the Melungeons simultaneously with the white settlers.

These people, not any of them, were here at the time the first white hunting party came from Virginia and North Carolina in the year 1761...Vardy Collins, Shepherd Gibson, Benjamin Collins, Solomon Collins, Paul Bunch and the Goodmans, chiefs and the rest of them settled here about the year 1804, possibly about the year 1795, but all these men above named, who are called Melungeons, obtained land grants and muniments of title to the land they settled on and they were the very first and came here simultaneous with the white people not earlier than 1795. They had lost their language and spoke the English very well. They originally were the friendly Indians who came with the whites as they moved west.15

Jarvis traced the migration of these families, white and Indian, from Cumberland County and the New River area of Virginia. Some of the family members stopped at various points along the Blue Ridge Mountains, while others came to Stony Creek in Scott County, Virginia. “The white emigrants and friendly Indians erected a fort on the bank of the river and called it “Fort Blackmore’... From here they came on to Newman’s Ridge...They all came here simultaneously with the whites from the State of Virginia between the years 1795 and 1812 ...”16

The Melungeons did not arrive penniless after being driven from better land in Virginia and North Carolina. They purchased their land, sometimes for cash gleaned from the sale of property in their former states of residence, sometimes for credit. Many Melungeons had relatively substantial holdings prior to moving to Tennessee and acquired more property after moving.

Not all the Melungeons moved to the vicinity of Newman’s Ridge, and not all of those who did move to that area moved at the same time.One important early Melungeon settlement is the Stony Creek area, near Fort Blackmore in present-day Scott County, Virginia. The Stony Creek Baptist Church records include several people with Melungeon surnames who joined the church between 1801 and 1804. The church minutes for September 26, 1813, provide the first written record of the word “Melungeon,”or at least a variant spelling.

Then came forward Sister Kitchen and complained to the church against Susanna Stallard for saying she harbored them Melungins. Sister Sook said she was hurt with her for believing her child and not believing her, and she won't talk to her to get satisfaction, and both is "pigedish" ["prejudiced"?], one against the other. Sister Sook lays it down and the church forgives her.17

The Tennessee Constitution of 1834 prohibited voting by non-whites. The Melungeons may have considered themselves white, but that opinion was not shared by all of their neighbors. On January 25, 1846, eight Melungeons were charged with illegally voting in an election held the previous August. After two defendants were acquitted, the state declined to prosecute the others. In 1849, a magazine entitled Littel’s Living Age took note of the Melungeons.

... [T]here is a watering-place, known hereabouts as 'Black-water Springs.' It is situated in a narrow gorge, scarcely half a mile wide, between Powell's Mountain and the Copper Ridge ... Now this gorge and the tops and sides of the adjoining mountains are inhabited by a singular species of the human animal called MELUNGENS.

The legend of their history, which they carefully preserve, is this. A great many years ago, these mountains were settled by a society of Portuguese Adventurers, men and women--who came from the long-shore parts of Virginia, that they might be freed from the restraints and drawbacks imposed on them by any form of government. These people made themselves friendly with the Indians and freed, as they were from every kind of social government, they uprooted all conventional forms of society and lived in a delightful Utopia of their own creation, trampling on the marriage relation, despising all forms of religion, and subsisting upon corn (the only possible product of the soil) and wild game of the woods. These intermixed with the Indians, and subsequently their descendants (after the advances of the whites into this part of the state) with the negros and the whites, thus forming the present race of Melungens.18

During the Civil War, the loyalties of the Melungeons paralleled those of the neighboring whites; the majority fought for the Union, but a significant minority sided with the Confederacy.

After the war, the Melungeons were accused of bushwhacking and raiding white settlements, but these incidents likely exaggerated over the years.

In the summer of 1890, a young writer from Nashville made the journey of over 300 miles to Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County. The writer was a woman with the masculine-sounding name of Will Allen Dromgoole. She worked as an engrossing clerk in the Tennessee Senate and wrote poetry and feature stories. “In the course of her Senate duties, Dromgoole very likely heard the term “Melungeon” used as a political and/or regional epithet. After reading about the Melungeons in a newspaper article, she began asking questions about them, and traveled to Newman’s Ridge. She eventually wrote two articles for the nationally-distributed Arena magazine.

When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks, and who called themselves Malungeons, and claimed to be of Portuguese descent. They lived to themselves exclusively, and were looked on as neither negroes nor Indians.19

Dromgoole described how she learned of the Melungeons from a Tennessee legislator.

“Senator,” I said, “what is a Malungeon?”

“A dirty Indian sneak,” said he. “Go over yonder and ask Senator _____; they live in his district.” I went at once.

“Senator, what is a Malungeon?” I asked again.

“A Portuguese nigger,” was the reply. “Representative T____ can tell you all about them, they live in his county.”

From “district” to “county” was quick traveling. And into the House of Representatives I went, fast upon the lost trail of the forgotten Malungeons.

“Mr. ____,” said I, “please tell me what is a Malungeon?”

“A Malungeon,: said he, “isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a white man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket.”20

Dromgoole’s articles were the foundation for most of what was written about the Melungeons for the next 100 years. Most writers have used her as a source, whether credited or not, and many have used her observations in lieu of traveling to Newman’s Ridge to collect their own.

As a new century dawned, Melungeons and other tri-racial groups were becoming better known, and experienced increased contact with outsiders. Some of those outsiders meant to help, and provided educational opportunities, health care, and sometimes even a sense of ethnic and cultural identity. Others had less beneficial intentions.

The Northern Presbyterian Church established the Presbyterian Church of Vardy in 1899. This mission eventually grew into the Vardy School, which provided educational opportunities for Melungeons until the 1970s. ”They taught vocational education there at that time,” according to W.C. “Claude” Collins, a Vardy alumnus. “I guess they were the first vocational school in Tennessee. They taught home economics and manual training and all these different things to the upper grades.”21

The head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Walter Ashby Plecker, believed “there is a danger of the ultimate disappearance of the white race in Virginia, and the country, and the substitution therefor of another brown skin, as has occurred in every other country where the two races have lived together.”22

Plecker and lobbied hard for the passage of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. This law, in effect, recognized only two racial categories: “white” and “colored.” Any people of mixed racial ancestry were to be considered “colored,” including the Melungeons.

In January of 1943, Plecker sent a circular to all public health and county officials in Virginia, listing, county by county, the surnames of all families suspected of having African ancestry. The cover letter stated that they were “mongrels” and were now trying to register as white. The names listed in the southwestern Virginia counties included Collins, Gibson, Moore, Goins, Bunch, Freeman, Bolin, Mullins, and others described as “Chiefly Tennessee Melungeons.”23

Plecker served as Virginia’s Registrar of Vital Statistics until his retirement in 1946. However, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act would not be officially repealed until the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in its 1971 Loving v. Virginia ruling.24

Many of today’s tri-racial descendants see Plecker as a villain who arbitrarily persecuted their parents and grandparents. However, in the view of Plecker and most Virginians (if not most Americans), these individuals were not white, and only whites were entitled to the full range of rights and privileges guaranteed to all American citizens. Race-mixing was unacceptable to the majority of white Americans. Plecker took the logical steps to prevent further mixing and to segregate those with mixed ancestry, and there was never any serious (white) opposition to his policies.

During the late 1930s and 1940s, the Melungeons were featured in several newspaper and magazine articles. Few of these pieces added any significant new information about the Melungeons; instead, most presented folk tales and increasingly fantastic theories of origin. While journalists found the Melungeons a source for interesting feature articles, scientists began the first serious academic research of the Melungeons and other tri-racials.

In 1950, Edward Price of the University of California at Berkeley completed his doctoral dissertation on eastern “mixed-blood populations.” As a professor of geography at the University of Cincinatti, he concentrated on the Melungeons for a 1951 article in the Geographical Review. Price acknowledged that folklore made up much of what people “knew” about Melungeons.

The persistent folk tale ... insists that the Melungeons are unusual racially; it defines them as a dark-skinned mixed-blood group of uncertain origin whose center is on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County. An oriental appearance is attributed to them, but they are most commonly thought to be at least partly of Portuguese descent. The peculiarity of the mixture, however, is its supposed inability to blend color in crosses with whites; the Melungeon appearance may be lost for a generation or two, only to show up again in full strength.25

Price observes that most of the Melungeons were “indistinguishable from other white farmers; many of them would not even be called brunet.”

Many of the dark-skinned group belong to families all or some of whose other members lack such a trait. Thus, though an unusual strain is indicated, the Melungeons evidently do not exists as a physically separate community; nor is their social separation official, for they attend white schools rather than the school for the few Negroes of the area...The recognition of Melungeons in this area is tacit; no strong lines are drawn. Parents may warn their daughters against entanglement with people of this strain. Some members of the community may regret to see a lax society allow a Melungeon to rise to a position of influence, but to others this is a matter of small concern. Though the separation of the Melungeons is not sharp, and though there is considerable intermarriage, it will probably take more than one generation to wipe out such a deep-seated caste distinction in this quiescent rural society.26

Price estimated the number of Melungeons in the county at 1,000. Melungeon populations were also noted in Bristol and Kingsport, Tennessee, Dungannon (Scott County), Virginia, and Wise County, Virginia. In addition, a group of Melungeons was cited in the eastern Kentucky counties of Letcher and Knott; while not identified locally as Melungeons, many of this group of a few hundred had the names Collins, Gibson, and Sexton. 27

In 1957, Calvin Beale coined the term “triracial isolates” to describe “a class more numerous than the Indians remaining in the East, more obscure than those in the West, less assured than the white man or negro who regards his link of Indian descent as a touch of the heroic or romantic.”A demographer for the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Beale published “American Triracial Isolates” in the December 1957 issue of Eugenics Quarterly.

...[T]hey seem to have formed through miscegenation between Indians, whites, and Negroes -- slave or free -- in the Colonial and early Federal periods. In places the offspring of such unions -- many of which were illegitimate under the law -- tended to marry among themselves. Within a generation or so this practice created a distinctly new racial element in society, living apart from other races. The forces tending to perpetuate such groups, and the strength of these forces, differed from place to place. Some groups subsequently dispersed or were assimilated during the 19th century. Some waxed in numbers; others waned. Most have persisted to the present day.28

For nearly all the tri-racial groups, particularly those in the southern states, segregation was a daily reminder of their social status. There were exceptions; despite a few squabbles over whether Melungeons and whites should attend the same schools, most Melungeons were considered white. Legal acceptance is one thing, however; social acceptance is quite another. Even where tri-racials were considered black, the local customs and mores often differentiated between the two groups, granting the tri-racials a marginally higher status than blacks -- but certainly lower than that of whites.

Author Brewton Berry cited instances of discrimination against tri-racials in hospital wards, libraries, jails, even in 4-H clubs and Home Demonstration Club meetings. A Red Cross official told Berry, “We conduct all kinds of classes -- nutrition, first aid, and all kinds of things ... No, we haven’t done anything among the Melungeons. You see, we conduct classes only where they are asked for, and the Melungeons haven’t asked us for any.”29

By the 1960s, the stigma of being a Melungeon was disappearing – but so were the Melungeons themselves. In March of 1966, Rogersville attorney Henry Price spoke to the Spring Meeting of the American Studies Association of Kentucky and Tennessee in Cookeville, Tennessee. An amateur historian and Melungeon researcher, Price’s topic was “Melungeons: The Vanishing Colony of Newman’s Ridge.” He concluded:

The pure Melungeon (if there is or was such a thing) is rare today. Only among the older folk – deep in the ridge – does one see what must have been the original skin color characteristics, experience the wary, ‘don’t tread on me’ atmosphere; hear the lament that young people are leaving the ridge in ever increasing numbers ... The future for this remnant of the clan is not bright. Unlike their origin, the destiny of the Melungeons of Newman’s Ridge is certain. The day must surely come when the Melungeon is no more – a vanished people – gone without a trace except perhaps for the dark-eyed raven haired little girl or the olive skinned thin faced little boy who may appear among the posterity of East Tennessee.”30

In the mid-1960s, an idea designed to bring tourism and economic opportunity to Hancock County began to engender pride in the once-hated name “Melungeon.” The Hancock County Drama Association produced an outdoor drama entitled Walk Toward the Sunset. The play was written by Kermit Hunter, who had written more than forty scripts for outdoor dramas, including the successful Unto These Hills, performed on the Eastern Cherokee Reservation in the Smoky Mountains. Hunter also authored a drama performed by the Cherokee nation at Talehquah, Oklahoma, entitled The Trail of Tears, and had helped to found the Institute for Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina in 1963.31

Anthony Cavender claimed in a 1981 article in the Tennessee Anthropologist that, because the Melungeons had become a “hot topic,” Sneedville’s “elite” (merchants, educators, and prosperous farmers) determined to exploit the widespread interest in the topic that had “put the county on the map.” The elite,” as Cavender wrote, “conceived of a way to maximize the commercialization of the strong and growing interest in Melungeons.”32 Corrine Bowlin, the president of the newly-formed Hancock County Drama Association, and Claude Collins, who served as secretary, proudly acknowledged their Melungeon backgrounds.

As the project drew closer to becoming a reality, the attitudes of many locals began to change. While many Hancock Countians had expressed skepticism about the drama and its topic, others grew enthusiastic. John Lee Welton, who directed the drama, noticed that several locals “who had never said that they were Melungeons [began] to come up and sort of nudge me on the shoulder and say, ‘You know, I’m a Melungeon. We were quite proud that at least that change had come about.”33

Walk Toward the Sunset opened on July 3, 1969 The first season closed with a total attendance of over 10,000. The second season of Walk Toward the Sunset opened on July 2, 1970, with improved lighting and seating. A few minor changes were made in the play itself, and word-of-mouth advertising attracted visitors from as far away as Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, and elsewhere.34

In the spring of 1971, Collins, as secretary of the Drama Association, spoke with a reporter about some of the problems facing the production. “Our biggest problem is our lack of motels and restaurants. We can’t keep people here when they come to see the play, and that keeps the drama from having as big an impact on the county’s economy as it should have.” Through ticket sales and donations, the Drama Association hoped to raise $30,000, which would wipe out the previous year’s deficit of $2,600 and leave the production a profit besides. Collins hoped to see the production become profitable enough to pay the local actors and workers; only the production staff and principal actors were paid, and Hancock Countians were volunteers. “We have young people who are so interested in the play that they walk across Newman’s [Ridge] each night to take part in it. It just doesn’t seem right that we can’t afford to pay them something.” Collins saw the drama as a potential means of keeping young people in Hancock County, as well as a reason to develop motels, restaurants, and other tourist-oriented businesses in the county.35

Production of Walk Toward the Sunset was cancelled for the summer of 1972 due to financial problems. Director John Lee Welton had left the production to pursue his doctoral degree; during the 1971 season, the play had been directed by members of the drama department at the University of Tennessee.36

Dr. Welton returned to direct the drama in the summer of 1973, but the energy crisis caused the production to be cancelled again for the summer of 1974. Gas shortages were causing panic across the country, and Sneedville was a poor place to be stuck without fuel, considering that there were no motels and only one restaurant in the county.37

Walk Toward The Sunset closed permanently after the 1976 season, due to lack of attendance. While ultimately unsuccessful, the play brought a sense of pride to the Melungeons. Author Jean Paterson Bible called Walk Toward the Sunset “a happy rendition of the Melungeon swan song. It is a fitting memorial to a vanishing race.”38

In 1969, University of North Carolina anthropologists William Pollitzer and William Brown published the results of a genetic survey conducted in Hancock County. In 1965, Pollitzer and Brown made a health study of 72 individuals, identified as Melungeons by a local doctor. The following year, Pollitzer and Brown included 105 more Hancock Countians in their study.

In a later article, Pollitzer concluded that, based on comparisons of blood types, the Melungeons were “about ninety percent White, almost ten percent Indian, and relatively very little Negro in their origin. The analysis is not capable of differentiating between English versus Portuguese as the White component.” Pollitzer did not specify what he meant by “relatively very little.” By comparison, the Lumbees were determined to be “about forty percent White, forty-seven percent Negro, and thirteen percent Indian.” Pollitzer concluded that the Melungeons were an ethnic group of the verge of dissolution through intermarriage with whites.39

In the late 1980's, James Guthrie re-analyzed the data collected by Pollitzer and Brown. Using techniques not available to the original study, Guthrie reached similar conclusions, but raised more questions relating to the age-old Melungeon controversy: the question of possible African ancestry. In the 1960's, Pollitzer and Brown were unable to tell whether the European component of the Melungeon makeup was English or Portuguese. Guthrie couldn’t determine definitively either, but concluded that an African component was present in the genetic background of the Melungeons either way. “If it is assumed that the Melungeons are basically English,” Guthrie wrote, “a considerable Black component is required” to account for the Melungeons’ genetic makeup. That “Black component” would almost certainly have been added after the English arrived in North America. However, Guthrie stated that his finding were consistent with the Melungeons’ tradition of Portuguese ancestry, and cited the “early incorporation of a Black component into Mediterranean populations.” In other words, the mixture of African and European genes would have occurred much earlier, probably during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsula.40

Guthrie cited similarities in the Melungeons’ genetic makeup to populations in Italy, Malta, Portugal, Cyprus, France, Spain, and the Canary Islands. He speculated that the Melungeons were primarily of Portuguese origin, with about five percent each of “Black and Cherokee.”

In the late 1980s, Brent Kennedy, a native of Wise, Virginia, began investigating his own ancestry. “I had known that [my family] had a different heritage,” said Kennedy in 1997. “The purely physical characteristics of my family told me that. My mother, my brother, my aunts and uncles all had a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern look, but it didn’t make sense because the family said ‘No, we’re English and Scots-Irish.’And frankly, the genealogy said that. The census records said that.”41

Kennedy tried to interest scholars and scientists in examining the ethnic background of the Melungeons, but to no avail. In 1992 he organized a group of researchers into the Melungeon Research Committee. This group included researchers from various institutions, including historian Eloy Gallegos, Arlee Gowen of the Gowen Research Foundation, Robert Elston of Louisiana State University, Khalid Awan of the University of Virginia, Jeffrey Chapman, Charles Faulkner, Benita Howell, Richard Jantz, and Jack Williams, all from the University of Tennessee, and Chester DePratter from the University of South Carolina. Some of these researchers have since left the Committee and disagree to varying degrees with the conclusions Kennedy eventually put in a book, entitled The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America.42

I contend that the remnants of Joao (“Juan”) Pardo’s forts, joined by Portuguese refugees from Santa Elena, and possibly a few stray Dominicans and Jesuits, exiled Moorish French Huguenots, and escaped Acadians, along with [Sir Francis] Drake’s and perhaps other freed Turkish, Moorish, and Iberian captives, survived on these shores, combined forces over the ensuing years, moved to the hinterlands, intermarried with various Carolina and Virginia Native Americans, and eventually became the reclusive Melungeons.43

A relative told Mary Goodyear about Kennedy’s book, and she began researching the Melungeons in the belief that she would find a connection to her own family. “I wanted to know who [the Melungeons] were,” says the Shauk, Ohio, native. “People weren’t talking about it. I asked many people and nobody had an answer who they were, or if they really existed or if they were a figment of somebody’s imagination. I searched the Internet, encyclopedias, dictionaries, everything – you couldn’t even find the word.” Believing that others shared her interest in the subject, Goodyear began coordinating a Melungeon e-mail list in the fall of 1996.44

On weekends, Mary Goodyear’s mail list had as many as 650 messages from people seeking genealogical information or general information about the Melungeons. The Wall Street Journal printed an article about the renewed interest in the Melungeons and the role played by the Internet in feeding that interest. With so many people talking to each other, Goodyear felt that they were almost like family, and proposed a get-together in Wise, Virginia, home of Clinch Valley College where Brent Kennedy worked. Someone suggested this would be like a family reunion, but Goodyear pointed out they’d never gotten together before, therefore it couldn’t be a re-union. Thus the name “First Union” was given to the gathering; organizers expected about 50 people to show up. 45

Instead, more than 600 people showed up in tiny Wise, Virginia on July 25, 1997. Later Unions were organized by t he Melungeon Heritage Association, chartered in the summer of 1998.

The mission statement posted on the MHA website outlines the purpose of the organization:

The Melungeon Heritage Association is a non-profit organization.

OUR Purpose is to document and preserve the heritage and cultural legacy of mixed-ancestry peoples in or associated with the southern Appalachians. While our focus will be on those of Melungeon heritage, we will not restrict ourselves to honoring only this group. We firmly believe in the dignity of all such mixed ancestry groups of southern Appalachia and commit to preserving this rich heritage of racial harmony and diversity that years of legalized racism almost annihilated from our history and memory....

OUR goals include:

1.To set up a "clearinghouse" of Melungeon related information and an archives of Melungeon related materials

2.To facilitate future Melungeon gatherings and events.

3.To make research and information about the Melungeons and other similar groups available to the general public.

4.To become a central exchange registry for mixed - ancestry groups in the southern Appalachians whereby we can exchange relevant information and documents. 46

Alumni of the Vardy Mission School in Hancock County formed the Vardy Community Historical Society in 1998. The online mission statement of VCHS reads:

The mission of the Vardy Community Historical Society, Inc. is to record and report on the lives, times, and culture of the people living in the Vardy Valley along Blackwater Creek in East Tennessee; to document the Presbyterians’ contributions to the health, education and religious needs of the resident families from 1862 to 1974; to restore and maintain certain properties of historical interest built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and to participate with individuals, groups, and educational institutions with like interest in the origins, migration, and lives of people living in Vardy and elsewhere known as Melungeons.47

In the spring of 2000, Dr. Kevin Jones of the Univeristy of Virginia’s College at Wise began a DNA study of the Melungeons. Taking DNA samples from Melungeons, Jones compared these samples to the thousands available through GenBank and the Mitochondrial DNA Concordance, databases containing DNA sequence information Looking at the maternal lines of the Melungeons who were tested, Jones found considerable variation in ethnicity among the samples. About five percent indicated African ancestry, about five percent indicated Native American ancestry, about seven percent matched Middle Eastern or Mediterranean peoples, and most were of a rather indistince, or “generic” European type

Some of the sequences closely match sequences found among the Siddi population of northern India. During medieval times, European slave traders took East Africans to India as slaves. Many of these slaves took advantage of the complicated kingdom boundaries and dense forests of northern India to set themselves free. Those that converted to local religions, including Islam, Hinduism, and Roman Catholicism, and adopted local ways became known as Siddis. Many became sailors and established kingdoms along the western coast of India and eventually spread throughout India. The Siddis are ancestors of the modern-day Romany, or Gypsy, people.48

Though the number of sequences consistent with Turkish or northern Indian ancestry were few, their distribution indicates the strong possibility that some of the Melungeons’ ancestry came from those regions. “I think one of the problems here is that we tend to think of ‘Turkish’ in terms of the dimensions of modern Turkey, not of the original scale of people of Turkish origin who, in essence, were spread throughout the European world. Perhaps the best I can say is that some of those sequences are a little more ‘exotic’ than Anglo-Irish sequences, and some of those could reflect, perhaps, populations that were associated with or moved through Turkey.”49

Many of the male haplotypes studied are quite common in Europe, and could have originated in a variety of places. But some of those haplotypes only match an Anatolian Turk; another type was definitely Arabic. Jones stressed that the Melungeons were not at all identical in their genetic makeups, and that the genetic mixture was different in each subject.

Such testing is not perfect, of course, and does not tell researchers everything about an individual’s inheritance One drawback to this DNA testing is that the tests show only one ancestor. “We’re looking for patterns that exist in the population as a whole,” according to Jones. “Now, obviously, each individual sample contributes to that, but I think that for an individual you can say relatively little. Looking at the patterns that occur throughout the population becomes important. And that means the number of samples that are looked at is also significant, and we’ve tried to do as many as is reasonably possible.”50

In short, the DNA study indicates today’s Melungeons are primarily of European descent, with some Native American and African-American ancestry. Some Melungeons have genetic sequences matching the Siddis of northern India, others reflect a Turkish or Syrian ancestry. Some of those who consider themselves “Melungeon” possess all of those “exotic” genes; others have some of them – and others reflect only the “generic” European genes. The Melungeons are by no means uniform in their genetic backgrounds; they are a mixed-ethnic population with varying degrees of mixture within that population.

The surprising revelation in Jones’ study is that some of these Turkish- and northern Indian- like sequences have been passed through the Melungeons’ maternal lines, indicating that their overseas ancestors included not only male sailors and explorers, but females as well. What Darlene Wilson called the “offshore male other” in the genetic makeup of the Melungeons was, in reality, often a female. While the legends of shipwrecked sailors and pirates marrying Indian women may still have some validity, we know that some women made the voyage to America.

These are the people who have been largely left out of America’s English-oriented history books. How they arrived in America, how they banded together in family groups and eventually migrated to the mountains of southern Appalachia, is a question for future historians and genealogists. The European/Middle Eastern ancestors of the Melungeons arrived in America with the intention of establishing their families in a new land. Through intermarriage with Indians and African-Americans, they managed to do so; their descendants are at the forefront of the effort to find out who they were and how they eventually became the people known as Melungeons.

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Helen Campbell said...

Very interesting, you sure do have a lot of history condenced into this web page.

Gary J. Gabehart said...

Interesting commentary.

Bottomline, without all the "let's suspose," appears to be they were Repubicans and that's okay with me;however, there is no such gene, so DNA will not help here.

I think we can say that they were likely of "mixed blood" rather than the monicker of bi or tri-racial identities. Can an explanation of who they were ever be found? For now, I think the grains may forever blow in the wind.



Janet Crain said...

Unfortunately, Jones' DNA testing was badly flawed and unscientific and should not be referred to as proving or disproving anything.

For a description of a valid Melungeon DNA Project now underway, go here: