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.

60 Comments

  • Hubert Elmer Kiser.

    I have always been conscious of a family secret without actually knowing it. All my ancestors are dead.Brent Kennedy wrote a book that has my family line, I have my records back to 1800. from family bible and have visited several of these people.I have brown skin and do not sun burn but am light enough to ‘pass”. Now I know the family secret.I have black and Cherokee blood and proud of it. Took me 83 years to find out Puck Kiser–Hubert E. Kiser, Jr I

  • Debra hamlin

    Melungeon ancestry answers so many questions I’ve always had.. Why my family is so dark.. With straight black hair, many of us with a white patch. My uncle born with an extra thumb. My sister with Asian eye folds. My daughter with mongolian blue spots.. The rumor that grandpa was Cherokee and grandma was black Dutch. But in searching we could never find the Indian connection.. Being melungeon makes so much more sense.. Now when people ask “What are you anyway” ( and the always do) I tell them we are melungeon..

  • Debra hamlin

    This is for Melissa Wilson.. My ggg grandfather donated the land so that berea college could be built with the stipulation that blacks and women could be educated there as well as white men.. His name was Joel Todd. I believe there is a melungeon connection in our family as we are all very dark and obviously mixed with something.. We were told Cherokee and black Dutch. I was excited to see you mention Bearea and the college my ancestor supported.

  • Laura Baker

    I have tried for years to find my family from Kentucky. But I can never get past my grandparents. Weird? But the stories of an Indian great grandmother, family that moved constantly from TN, KY, VA….It all fits. And my family pictures (few that I have) look exactly like some of the ones on these site. How can I find out more information?

  • Sally Herrin

    My mother and uncle were Semitic and/or Native American looking. They did not sunburn, had black hair and blue eyes. Their grandmother Caroline (nee Mink) Kegley was born in Virginia in the mid 1800s. Her husband was a well to do doctor, and many photographs of the family survive into this century, but no one I know ever saw a photo of Caroline, despite that fact that she was much loved by all. I began to suspect Melungeon roots when I read an essay “Doesn’t Everybody Kill Chickens that Way?” about families which practice kosher slaughter, as my mother’s family did until the late 20th century, a characteristic of some Melungeon families. By the way, African genetics don’t mean folks weren’t Jews. Ethiopia claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant to this day, and the Kushites (Nubians) were ancient allies of Israel.

  • Debra

    Like every other Appalachian I was told our family had Native American blood. I had a DNA test through FTDNA. I have African and European, black and white. FTDNA and Ancestry.com both do test relatively in expensively.

  • Karla Akins

    I have studied the Melungeons for years out of curiosity alone. I am as Indo-European as one gets (had my DNA done) and never suspected any Melungeon ties. I haven’t a drop of Native American in my genes. Imagine my surprise when I learned my husband is related to Mahala Mullins and Flower Mullins! I may not have the DNA but my husband does. I married into the Melungeon clan and couldn’t be more proud.

  • Victoria Sexton-Hallowell

    I have been tracing my roots for several years now, being a native of WV with dark hair and green eyes, I heard whispers about my last name. My grandmother always called us “Portugese.” My great grandfather said he “grew up in the holler with injun cousins.” All we know is that we’re a bit of everything and have a culture all our own. Melungeon used to be such a derogatory nasty word here in the hills. I’m so glad we aren’t forced to live in shadow anymore.

  • Pam Sparks Jones-Hatfield

    My search started with Jesse Bunch who died in Greene County, IN. I traced him back to the Bunch families in eastern TN. Thinking, when I took my DNA test that it would show tri-racial results, my DNA test showed no African origins, and no American Indian origins, but, I do have Portuguese origins. – Pam Sparks Jones-Hatfield

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