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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135 Comments

  • DEBRA TROXELL HAYES

    am wibdering about this myself. i am decended from jacob troxell and cornblossom; of their children, i descend from either 4 or 5–will have to get in to recheck, the names are troxell, vaughn, matthews, spradlin, foster; bell, gregory……etc…..
    anyone know about the melungeon connection>?? out of wayne co ky,

  • Virginia

    My great grandmother “little dove” hopkins (married name) died in Influenza outbreak after my grandmother was taken to the orphanage in KY. from the tri state area, but with cherokee and supposed Mulujean ancestry. My parents are cousins by marriage and there are 12 of us kids. We have a variety of skin, eyes and hair coloring. I and my daughter have kinky hair, hers in dark brown /black and mine is blonde/brown. We all have high cheekbones, with olive or tan skin, except 2 kids who are blonde and blue eyes. My grandma always said we had gypsy blood and part of the mullujean ancestry. Our family comes from the western part of Virginia, KY and NC. I guess we need some DNA tests.

  • gary a elam

    i was reading in ancestry. comor some where john back father of susannah back was melungeon thats my kin folks

  • Angela

    Does anyone have an Albert Collins in their bloodline? He would have been born in 1910.

  • mete apak

    Several years ago a group of people came to Turkey from USA claiming that their ancestors were Turkish sailors who were held captive by the Portuguese about 500 or so years ago and were deported at some area in America. These people were curious to find out what the Turks looked like and also to see how the Turkish family composition was made. Melungeon said to come from the Turkish word MEL’UN CAN. They called themselves this name because they thought they were betrayed by God and would never go back to Turkey at that time it was the Ottoman Empire. Can anyone inform me about whereabouts of this people in USA?

  • Stephanie

    My paternal grandparents’ surnames were Vanover and (I believe) Casteel, both common Melungeon family names. Grandma was supposedly 1/4 Cherokee and Dutch, and nobody knew anything about Grandpa. My dad, who never met or knew his own dad, was born in Arkansas. I suspect Melungeon ancestry, based on this and the connection to the South. I am sending in my ancestryDNA sample tomorrow, and eagerly awaiting the results!

  • Linda Benefield

    My gr,gr, grandmother was Mourning Star Hendricks. Her Father was Alexander Clark. The are said to be full blood Cherokee, I can not find them any where. I was using Ancestry. Family will ot share info, one is said to have a picture of her but will not show it, all they say is she was heavy and dark. I just found out about the Melungeon people and would like ant other info. Her Married name was Boyd. Her Husband was Robert Boyd, They migrated to North Ga. from South Carolina. They lived in the area in the far north corner where Ga., Tn,. N.C. S.C meet.

  • Donna Tubbs

    My grandmother told me she was melungeon when I was doing a medical research in nursing school.because my sister was diagnois withsarcoidosis and later my grandmother was diagnosed.I later read an article about sacoidosis being genetically prevalent Iin melungeon populations.also like sickle cell disease those female relatives of ppl with full diagnosis carry straight genes and suffer from ailments tho not as severe.My poor grandmother was called a hypochondriac for 75years because doctors didnt know she wasnt all white so wouldnt diagnosis sarcoidosis.I would like at least one of my family to be tested both for melungeon origins and for medical dna testing so family and doctors know what they are dealing with.I wish to be a participant in any further research for this reason.as futher proof my greatgreatgrandmother and grandfather were from clint westvirginia s known melungeon community please help with this endeavor if you can

  • james a sanders

    My great,great mother last name was wright(Cherokee) and black,Gibson,Campbell and Collins run in our family as well. My family tree also has the name duty,wimberley among others who were considered mixed race or mulatto.Most of the look white.My uncle whose last name is rogers(Rodgers) has gray and almost a yellowish brown skin tone as well the rest of mother’s family.I did my dna test at family tree dna in Houston texas and my original dna was r 1 b Euroasian background with Ashkenazi and Iberian as well as African bloodline. My grandfather on my dadside was name Flauk which is in the Houston Tx dna bank.

  • Rissa

    Linda Benefield,
    After researching on Ancestry briefly, I found Robert Boyd who was married to Mourning Boyd. There were pictures of Robert and two of their children, Rachel Boyd and Warren Boyd. Those are on public trees. I’m not related at all but felt so badly for you. I’ll continue to look for a picture of Mourning.

  • Tanya Stamper

    Are there any Stalcup’s in this group that you know of? I’ve heard some things on our family FB page, but don’t know.

  • jennifer

    I just found out that my Collins line goes back to Melungeon, my ancestors lived in n.c, Virginia and in ky and wv. My husband and I are trying to find some more connection along those lines. If anyone has Collins family ancestors that lived in those areas can you please share some info and I’ll do the same if I find any. Thank you….

  • Susan Diane Reed

    My Daddy was Henry Thomas Reed, Jr. his father was Henry Thomas Reed, Sr, we can NOT find any information on Sr. He was married to Ola Bell ( or Belle ) Bentley and we find all kinds of info on her, which is my Great Grand Mother.. If anyone out there can help us please email me. I find it very interesting and so does my Daughter that we can not find any information on Henry Thomas Reed, Sr. even who his parents are.. Please help. Thank you

  • Jack Corrie

    My name is Jack Corrie. I am of the Gibson/Cole blood line. My grand mothers is Litha Harmon/Gibson. Her father was Bascom Harmon/Gibson and mother was Kate Barnett. Bascom’s father was Jefferson Gibson and mother was Evilie Cole. Jefferson’s father was Squire Gibson and mother was Perlina Cole. My grandmother’s brother’s son (Art Harmon) had DNA testing that ties us to directly to Squire Gibson (thru a blood sample connection to Squires brother). DNA had to be male to male connections.
    This family tree has been quite difficult to pull together; but, I am curious as to the Cherokee link via the Cole side and the Sapponi link via the Gibson side. If anyone has information pleas share…. Thanks

  • Claude Hensley

    My name is Claude Julian Hensley (born January 14, 1948. Asheville, N.C). My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Minnie Collins. Her father was Jess Collins. My grandmother or mother didn’t talk or know much about Jess except he was from South Carolina and died at an early age (about 20) there. My grandmother had told me he was Native American but I believe she knew he was Melungeon. If anyone has any information I would appreciate It. Thank you and God Bless…

  • Anonymous

    My great great grandfather is said to have been an Cherokee Chief. His son was Charles (Charlie) Boyd, both were said to be very dark skinned. My freak great grandmother was almost white but Cherokee. Both sides of my family are said to be Cherokee but have no luck finding any of this out. I will be doing a dna test. So if anyone knows of the Boyd, Burk or Jones lineage out of the Virginias any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • John Triplett

    John Triplett – 0r Koeeshta Kaw Ka here from WV- means Wounded Crow- Mingo/Melungia. My DNA is clear- a lot of Native American- yest I have Strawbeery Hair and Grey eyes. Always the Grey eyes- 7 Syblings- we all look different but have the same dreamy grey eyes LOL My sister has brown eyes though. Descended from Mullin and Hopkins both – Born in Logan County. We all got Mingo names so my Grandmother born in 1876 could speak our names- My Maw Maw was a direct Descendant of Cheif Logan Family. Long story short- We burried the hatchets and mixed with everyone- which is good and proper- not googlie eyed at all. This is the way of the Lord- to accept people. Ming tribe was Indian-white- and Melungian in the end.

  • John Triplett

    Never met a Cherokee that did not tell me this is not an Indian word – Indian including The “cherokee” do not use this word- it is white man word. I tell you the truth- you will find many of stories- this is Potugesee- the Potugessee gave them this name Cher = “beloved” and Kee= People in Iberian old tounge- and now there is a real Melungeon secret for yu folks lol

  • John Triplett

    Y-Haplogroup G DNA – comes from Kazakstan- the People of the Crow- this DNA creeps up in Indians and Melungeons and Jews – Egyptians- It is same DNA as the Merovingians- the Scientist call it “MouNtaineer” DNA and here i am in West Virginia- coincidence? LOL I Love Melungeons- they taught the world- we all cousins 🙂

  • Janet Bullard

    Through genealogical research, I can verify some things about Melungeons, of which, I am sure, come down through my mother’s side of the family. I have known Cherokee ancestry and have now traced the genealogy back to the Algonquin, Pohawton, Indians as well. My mother’s DNA showed a tiny amount of Southeastern Bantu Africa which ran out on me. I don’t have it. But we do have DNA from Portugal or Spain, and from northern Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, possibly Egyptian), and Italian and Greek. I can find no other explanation for this through the genealogy other than the Oxendine/Exendine Melungeon branch of the family . Archibald Exendine was one of my grandfathers. I suspect that all the small amounts of Mediterranean DNA come through this line of the family.

  • JT Bingham

    I’m a Appalachian from eastern Kentucky. My family have always claimed Cherokee ancestry to explain our dark skin. I took the Ancestry DNA test. I was shocked to find I had No Cherokee DNA. I found I was 95% British and 5% Portuguese or Spanish.

  • Brenda Turner Kemp

    I just received my DNA results. My Grandpa had dark skin, straight black hair, skinny as a rail, and had a marble size bump on the back of the middle of his head above the collar. He looked just like the drawing of an elderly man sitting on stump with a very pointed nose that I have seen in my research. I have the raised area behind the back of my front teeth, The DNA was a surprise as I was told that Grandpa said his mother was 1/2 Indian. The DNA shows he misunderstood. That the Indian that they were referring to was India. His mothers maiden name was Scott. Grandpa married an Orr. The DNA report shows 86% Great Britain, 34% Scandinavia, 17% W. Europe, 10% Iberian, 9% Finland/NW Russia, 8% E. Europe, 9% Ireland, 4% Italy/Greece, 8% Caucasus (India, etc). We have very light skinned natural blondes that have dark skinned, black haired siblings in my family. My dad’s family is very English/Irish. But his last name is Turner! A Melungeon surname. But Turner’s came over on the Mayflower (then passed within 3 months). I find this all fascinating!

  • Brenda Carol Stacey...Maiden Name June1,2016.

    I am so glad to find this group. I am from Southeastern KY. I joined Ancestry over a year ago after a serious surgery. I have always been told …I don’t know what you are….but you are something but I don’t know what. I just smile as I really did not know. Parents like gypsies and not a word of Melungeon that I heard. My Poppie always told me my Granny was Native and laughed . Such a wonderful woman. I lived there until 10. I was told the man on my BC was not my father when I was 49 . Talk about shock. Every one in the hollars knew but me. These folk will keep a secret for sure. I am Olive as Mommy said with brown eyes. What scares me is that I have the diseases of a melungeon and fear for my family. My son has the biggest knot on his head….The FMF…I have Fibromyalgia,Metabolic syndrome and others diseases. It is better to know.

  • William Alan Baize

    will.
    My gr. grandmother was a Burdon before marriage, and very dark with a very dark complexion shiny black hair and dark brown eyes. My gr. grandfather was very tall and also dark he was a Daugherty. Their children all except my grandmother were very dark. Daugherty, and Burdon, are proven surnames of Irish, and Ashkenazi Jewish, people who married repeatedly into Cherokee people and possibly Melungeon people in the Appalachian mountains from the 17th century to the late 19th near the Cumberland gap. I have been able to find evidence that the Daughterys helped Daniel Boone open the wilderness trail through Kentucky as did the melungeons. The Daughterys had the first mill west of the Appalachian Mts. and eventually as did the Burdons settle in western Kentucky. The thing is I cant find their surnames in Melungeon lists. My surname is Baize and in one place its listed as Cherokee and another as melungeon. If anyone has information on these names I would appreciate the help thank you.

  • amy

    My dad and his entire family were from eastern Kentucky. He was swarthy looking, although blue eyed and blond as a child. We are Williams/lyons/ferguson/van hoose to name a few. I had my DNA analyzed because I always suspected my father was hiding something. He passed in 2011, and I an but in contact with anyone from that side. My results were 52 British isles 20 Scandinavian 10 Irish, with trace regions of north African, Iberian peninsula, European Jewish, Italy Greece. I was shocked! The native American that I was aware of and is in my mother’s results ran out before me. I just find it fascinating that ask of that is in my blonde haired blue eyed self, and that as I’ve been researching, I keep seeing other people posting with those same trace regions and also from Kentucky.

  • Susan Croyle

    Linda Gibson Thomas, is factor 5 one of the melungeon diseases?

  • Pam Daigle

    I didn’t know the meaning of the term MELUNGEON until I saw the movie “Big Stone Gap” staring Ashley Judd and Woopie Goldberg (2014) with Jasmine Guy and Erika Coleman cast as mother and daughter Melungeons. Since then I have done a little reading and it seems that the DNA debate is propelled by several diverse groups and research teams. Then there is the question of how and why a name became a slur. I’m sure that racism played a large part in the discrimination that was prevalent at the time of its origins. I’m curious because my husband is a Cajun and he tells family stories that are similar. Peace to all.

  • Caligirl1960

    Linda Broomfield have you tried the U.S. indian census or some tribes have tribal dawes roll as well.

  • Lois Olds Hains

    This is so interesting…my family traveled from Virginia to North Carolina to Tennessee in the 1700s through the 1800s…my father and I are very olive skinned, dark haired, always thought there was native blood. My dna test shows 47% Great Britain, 38% Irish, some Scandinavian, and the Spanish/Iberian….the name Boyd, is in our ancestral line…would love to know if we are Melungeon…Lois Olds Hains

  • Lois Olds Hains

    I have been researching my Olds line all afternoon, and I find that my Markham lineage contains the names of Cooper, Wright, Langston, & Freeman, all from Orange Co, Greene Co, Currituck, Pitt Co..North Carolina…I have a sister with gray/green eyes, have the teeth thing..just looking for any connection. Lois Olds Hains

  • Peggy

    I personally do not believe in Melungeon talk. My family came through cumberland gap in like 1600 or 1700. I know my name, who my parents and grandparents were. that is good enough for me. I have cousins I stay in contact with.

  • Billie Southerland Moore

    I took a DNA test last year and I am 33% Scottish/Pictish, 10% Irish,2% Scandinavian, 52% Northern Europeon,and 1%Middle Eastern and 1% Central African. I’ve researched my geneology and have quite a few Melungeon surnames in my pedigree. I have gone back as far as 890 AD, but have only identified a couple of Northern Europeons. The only way I can rationalize that being possible is that a lot of Saxons/Europeon Celts settled in Great Britian, because almost all of my ancestors in my geneology are from Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland. I think my Melungeon Ancestors, who are not from the Mountain group, but coastal VA and NC, are from the sailors dropped off by Sir Francis Drake 500 years ago on the Outer Banks. I have Lumbee Indian Ancestry which also fits in with this theory and explains some mysteries about my family.While researching my father’s ancestry, I asked why my Granny Clyde Lee Moore’s ancestors were all named Lee. A Willis (Mel.)girl married a Civil War soldier named Lee. “WE had to marry within our class and transportation wasn’t what it is today. I found out that mixed-race families such as Melungeons often marry cousins to hide the secret of their heritage. Half of my Dad’s Siblings are Black-Haired and brown-eyed, with dark skin, and others had dark to light brown hair with blue eyes. There is even a kinky-haired blonde with green eyes among the 15 kids, who are all so good looking people ask me if I have a family of Gods and Goddesses. .All my Ancestors since the Civil War including my Grandparents were first cousins. Yet there isn’t a single instance of Down Syndrome,for example. However, I have several Melungeon Diseases. Surnames are: Willis,Moore,Williams,Atkinson,Herring,and so on. I’m getting ready to tell all of my Dad’s siblings about their heritage.

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