Melungeon Mystery Solved?

Melungeon Boys
Nowadays, it seems that every other black-haired, mountain dweller claims Melungeon roots. The name refers to a specific set of families. Traditionally dark-featured and visibly different from their white, black and Native American neighbors, they have lived in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee for centuries.

Their ethnic origin has been a source of debate for nearly as long. Over the years, they’ve been called American gypsies, descendants of the “lost colony” of Roanoke, and members of a wayward Israeli tribe. Many Melungeon’s themselves claim that their ancestors are Portuguese; some identify as Native American; and still others profess to have originated in Africa.

This ambiguity made early Appalachian whites suspicious. They isolated the Melungeon’s to their own small communities in places like Newman’s Ridge and the Blackwater Valley of Tennessee.

ArchGoins

Early references to the group speak volumes. Dating to 1813, minutes from an area church describe someone as “harboring them Melungins.” This less than neighborly phrasing suggests that area congregants regarded the group with disdain, and according to the Melungeon Heritage Association, the discrimination did not end there. In nearly a dozen court cases, the ethnicity of Melungeon people was challenged, including one case in which several members of the group were tried for illegal voting. They were accused on the grounds that they were not white and therefore ineligible to cast a ballot. While they were acquitted, this kind of legal discrimination, along with a general social stigma, dogged the Melungeons well into the twentieth century.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when other racial groups found a new pride in their identity, that the Melungeon’s revisited their own. Rather than reject the name that had been used against them, they reclaimed it.

Ever since, popular interest in the group has grown. Melungeons have inspired news articles across the country; several books; the 2007 documentary Melungeon Voices; and at least one song called “Little Carmel.” Performed by the rock band The Ready Stance, the tune riffs on the questions surrounding these now notable people:

Little Carmel

Try to trace the roots along
Melungeon family tree
Each branch divides in triad
Settler, slave, Cherokee
Outcast, exiled miles behind
Some seaside colony
Legend holds in manifold
Dash Turk or Portuguese…

Once an ethnic mystery has been memorialized in song, you know it is the stuff of legend, but that legend is slowly being unraveled. A recent DNA study, published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, dove deep into the backgrounds of Melungeon families. The researchers compared the families’ oral histories, documentation such as court records, and DNA patterns. They found that, in spite of a wide range of ethnic claims, the overwhelming majority of their subjects were the offspring of men who originated from sub-Saharan Africa and women from northern or central European. That is, Melungeons are the most common kind of mixed-race in the United States–black and white.

2001 Melungeon Winter

A 2001 novel inspired by the Melungeons

A conflicting study, conducted at University of Virginia College at Wise, claims to have found more complex DNA evidence with a different sampling of Melungeons. While this research has not been peer reviewed, it states that “about 5 percent of the DNA indicated African descent, 5 percent was Native American, and the rest was ‘Euroasian,’ a group defined by clumping together Europe, the Middle East and India,” according to a 2012 article in Wired Magazine.

It seems the Melungeon debate continues. Researchers are jockeying to crack the group’s ethnic code, and their DNA evidence is undoubtedly inching us closer to a final answer.

This, of course, begs a whole new set of questions. What happens to the Melungeons once their mystery is solved? Will they still inspire songs? Will people still clammer to claim Melungeon roots when they know exactly what that means? Will journalists and bloggers like me still bother to write about this unusual clan, or will they fade into history, another mixed-race group assimilated into the mainstream?

It would be great to hear your thoughts. Please post a comment below.


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158 Comments

  • Franklin l gibson

    I am very proud to be related to the above people. And esp. The gibsons who came from sneedville tenn. and varrdy. Tenn & virg

  • Linda Gibson Thomas

    After searching our roots for forty plus years I’ve have come to the conclusion we the so-called Melungeon were a lost people.. mixed and mixed and mixed again until Ww2 when the men and women started leaving the mountains and started mixing with others groups of people where they settled. Just some more mixing , but at least not relations of the new people..
    So there are no longer any Melungeons , the mixed race.. Blood has spread and thinned out to make a new race of Americans… The lost ones are no longer lost.. They have come into their own,,

  • Linda Gibson Thomas

    Susan Croyle

    Factor Five is known to be one of the Melungeon diseases.
    I have it , my children, most of my relations.
    Any one claiming to be Melungeon should have a Factor IV blood test..
    It is a blood clotting disease..

  • Ashe

    I’m 94%,European, 3% North African, 2% Africa south, and 1% Benin/Togo. <1% Middle East. I am from eastern Kentucky with a last name of Collins. Guess that only means one thing.

  • William Harris

    My family 1750 to 1900 The Harris’s lived in Virginia, Kentucky any Info ?

  • Moore

    I’m a Moore. My GPA Moore was born in Magoffin/Floyd County Kentucky. He moved to where I’m now at, with his parents who’s family were all from that area for about 4 generations.

    His parents are (Moore/Shepherd).

    The previous generation includes (Hicks)/(Shepherd).

    The previous generation includes (Prater)/(Oney)/(Hale).

    The previous generation includes (Pitts)/(Reffitt)/(Sizemore)/(Crager)/(Howard)

    The previous generation includes (Gearhart)/(Watkins)/(Powers)/(Baldridge)/(Allen)/(Mainard)/(Miller)/(Stone)

    They were all in Magoffin/Floyd County and came from Virginia and N.Carolina. Surry County and Rockinham,NC. Some of them lived at Newman’s Ridge for a time and had family there. James Moore is the sibling or dad of my direct ancestor John Moore, they were both in Surry County together along with the Gibsons and Goins, and Bunchs, etc.. and James went to Newmans while John went to Floyd County, KY. John and I believe James also, fought in the Revolutionary War. John is the father of Edmund Moore, who is my direct link.

    I spent time with my ggma on that side (Shepherd), while growing up and she looked rather Indian and still loved mainly off her big garden and she canned everything. Our whole family, even on the other side, even my friends that saw her, assumed she was Cherokee. Just last week, I had a family member swear up and down that everyone knew she was 3/4 Cherokee. She would travel around and play the Harmonica and sing old ballads from the Appalachians at many events across the region after she moved away from Kentucky. I remember her being in the newspaper for giving a concert in my town square.

    She may have been part Cherokee, but there is no way she was 3/4 or 1/2 or even 1/4. Her line is filled with Hale and Shepherd on both parent sides for a good 3 or 4 generations. I have not yet been able to link either to an Indian, African, or Portuguese. If she was that much Cherokee, there would be a full blood in as a parent or couple half breed gparents, and that is not the case. My DNA results doesn’t register enough Native American or African, but I did get 3% Iberian. I did get very small trace amounts of East Africa and Amerindian when I put my DNA raw data through GEDmatch. However, most people don’t understand how quick DNA will get diluted. Your grandparents doubles every generation, something 128 in 6 generations time, diluting is so much you could have a full blood Indian in 5th/6th generation and it wouldn’t show up on the DNA test min. threshold to register. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, but it’s very little.

    My ggma was without a doubt mixed with something, just a lot less than I original thought growing up, and a lot less than a lot of my family members still think. I just haven’t found out yet what or where.

    Now that is just my grandpa’s side, my grandma’s side is Cole, Mullins, Jordan, Collins, Fletcher, Marshall, Prater, Hicks, Hughes, Wireman, Carpenter, Watkins, McDaniel, Howard. In total about another 4 generations all from the same area in Magoffin/Floyd. I haven’t been able to get as deep yet with side, keep in mind I just started looking up my family last week and haven’t even started on my dad’s side.

    Some of my notable direct ancestors include:

    John Moore, husband of Sally Goodman. He was a revolutionary war veteran and brother of James Moore of Newman’s Ridge. He and his sons were listed as fpc or mulatto on multiple census documents. I’m not sure what they were mixed with.

    Hicks Line – I know for sure in order youngest to oldest, my direct ancestors are Emiline Hicks, Emery Hicks, William J. Hicks. I highly suspect Reuben Robert Hicks as William’s dad, but I had previously thought it was Charles Hicks, Reuben brother. Either way it doesn’t make much difference, they both have the same dad. And that is another non fact, most people have it as Aulse Hicks and a few people have Claiborne Hicks. Some say Reuben and Aulse are brothers. Either way they all lead the Chief Charles Hicks, principal chief of the Cherokee, with the unknown of Claiborne Hicks. I have not found out if he is related to Chief Charles Hicks yet. Even if I am a descendant of him, he was only half blood and a few say only 1/4. So with him being like my 7th great grandfather, the Indian DNA in him would be diluted to almost untraceable in me.

    William J. Hicks married Naomi Reffitt which I traced back to a French immigrant.

    William’s son Emery, married Sidney Oney who mother is a Susanna Sizemore.
    Susanna is the daughter of William Black Hawk Sizemore, who is the son of George Golden Hawk Sizemore, who is the son of George Chief of All Sizemore, who was half blood Indian, and who was married to a supposed full blood Indian, Agnes Shepherd. DNA test have confirmed the Sizemore to be of the Native American Haplogroup. If you haven’t read up on both George Sizemore and Agnes Shepherd and their stories, you should, they are very interesting, but in that time and area, not unheard of by no means. Again this would make them my 7th great grand parents and even if he was half and she was fill blooded, it would be pretty diluted by the time it got to me.

    Hale – The Hales are considered Melungeon by a few researchers, but it is controversial. I don’t know where their line got mixed, but I am pretty certain they are descendants of Nichola Haile Sr., an immigrant from England, whose likely father is George Haile of a very prominent family in Hetroshire, England. They owned Kings Walden for over 300 years and built the Richard Hale School that still exist today. It is also believed they are descendants of royalty themselves in England and eventually all the way back to the possible connection of Clovis The Great.

    I’m going to end here although I haven’t quite finished, mostly left that are notable are just some Civil War and War of 1812, and Revolutionary War veterans. It’s hard to say who was mixed and who wasn’t after a certain point.

  • Shawnda

    Marshall. I just started researching My Family . My family came from Saylersville ?
    Kentucky . Macgoffin ? My Grandma was a Barnett . My Cousins are Coles, Watkins , Poes,. My Dads, half – sisters were Jordons .
    My Grandpa was Ernie Marshall . There were like 13 kids in his Family . My DNA should be back in 3 weeks . Some of My Grandmas side is shocked , No American Indian , but African and Northern European .
    My Gpa was born in 1884 . I was born in 1966 and remember him as a dark , little Indian man . I will see soon enough .

  • annabella price

    My family ancestry is Rose Hill, Va….Lee County…Cumberland Gap area. My mother (b 1931 d 2012) was always taken for Hispanic in Southern California, where I grew up …Of my two sons one is mistaken for Spanish, Turkish or Jewish; while my other son has the map of Ireland in most cliche way, blonde red hair, broad open face and chiseled features…no one believes they are related, at times hard for me to believe.
    I was asked in Los Angeles was I…Armenian, Turkish, Hispanic—anything but Scots Irish/Welsh which is what I was told we were. The names on my Mother’s descendants side are Hoskins, Thompson, Breeding, Britton and there is a photograph of my Great Grandmother who is as Native American as anyone I have seen…as a person of color….I understand her marriage was not recognized to the ‘Scots Irish Thompson….’ I would be interested in any information anyone has as to always having family members looking so ‘ethnic’ but seemingly so “American” Earliest noted relative was a Captain Carter of Va…approx 1764…way back. Thank you. PS: I noticed a woman with name ‘Gibson’ has a family disease re: blood clotting…**one of my sons,’ at age 3, was stricken with blood disorder “ITP” (Idiopathicthrombocytepenicpurpura) ** for no apparent reason blood platelets drop and bruises appear…when they drop to zero, as his did, it can be fatal….fortunately, was resolved with hospitalization/ infusions…. he has remained free of since then.

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