Ties That Bind – Revisited

by Brent Kennedy

This article is a follow-up of sorts to a speech I made at the Melungeon Fifth Union in Kingsport, Tennessee in June of 2004. In that speech I talked of Melungeon origins, kinship and genetics findings in my own family. For those interested in the background for this commentary, here’s a link to the text of that presentation:

Fifth Union Presentation: June 2004.

Brent Kennedy with his mother-in-law, the late Laverne Vaughan, an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Ojibwa.

First, a note of importance: for the purpose of the discussion here I am putting aside any family connections I have to those wonderful people known as “Melungeons.” I do not, nor can I speak for all Melungeon related families. Other Melungeon descendants may show vastly different “origins” than I do – that’s the nature of admixture over time. Some will be more European, others more Native American, or Mediterranean, or African, or what have you. Every human being is truly special…related to all other human beings, but a unique individual in every aspect. So please bear in mind that what I write here relates tomy specific family and to my specific heritage as an Appalachian whose most recent Old World ancestors arrived here in the late 1700s (a fact which, according to some, should consequently make me almost exclusively “northern European”).

In fact, I was harshly criticized by one major reviewer in the mid-1990s for questioning what she considered to be impeccable records indicating an exclusive northern and/or western European heritage for all my family lines. My work – and the theories I proposed of Portuguese and Turkish and East Indian origins – in her own words, “belied” my true ancestry. This was a pretty serious charge and, in essence, laid the groundwork for a decade of animosity, hurt feelings, and needless bickering that could have been avoided. One can be of many heritages and postulating a Portuguese or Turkish or East Indian possibility does not automatically exclude all others, at least in my way of thinking. Human beings can be, and generally are, a mix. Also, the written record, as crucial as it is, is subject to error because (1) the winners write history, and (2) people make mistakes, sometimes accidentally and sometimes not. Oral tradition, physical phenotypes, and genetic traits and conditions should also be taken into account, with or without supportive historical documentation explaining the presence of those traits (but all too often have not been – just ask Native Americans).

Nancy Kennedy and son Brent, 1950

In short, common sense ought to play at least some part in drawing conclusions about both populations and historical events. To me this was common sense, but the fact that the official records didn’t spell out these ancestries in a traditional, easily accessible format proved an insurmountable obstacle for this particular reviewer.

Following that review, I wrote in reply that I remained convinced of what my family – and my eyes – were telling me, and that the major point of my book was to make people aware of the occasional discrepancies between the written record and real-life experience. And, again, that common sense ought to be a part of the research equation. I closed that response with these words: “I will not go away.” Nearly a decade later, as promised, I have not gone away and the truth, at least for my family, is rapidly unfolding. The genetics trail as presented in my first “Ties That Bind” presentation, and the evidence that follows here, provide increasingly powerful proof that this particular critic – and not me – was the one “belying” my family’s ancestry. The people whom she “reinvented” to suit her academic expectations were human beings, real people who lived, worked, had children and did their best to survive. They were not stick figures, nor simply faceless names on a yellowed page that could be treated as academic fodder. The day I read that “review” I made a promise to myself that I would not allow their lives – and their true identities – to be erased. I have paid a price for that promise, as most of you know, but I would absolutely do it again. They deserved no less.

Louisa Hall Nash, Brent Kennedy’s great-great grandmother

I also pledged several years ago to continue to share my personal genetic discoveries whenever possible, as evidenced in my first “Ties That Bind” (referenced above), as well as in other articles and List posts I’ve made. Today I want to share just one more fascinating discovery. This trek isn’t over by a long shot, but bit by bit it unravels itself, just as similar stories are unraveling themselves for thousands of others on similar journeys. Through the capability of DNA Print Genomics to analyze the human body’s entire genetic “book” via the Ancestrybydna 2.5 and EURODNA 1.0 tests (as opposed to singular Y or mtDNA lines), my brother and I now have an even stronger grasp of who we are. In addition to the genetics evidence of non-northern European ancestry which I presented in the original “Ties That Bind,” we now possess new data – data that once again runs contrary to the exclusive “northern Euro-centric” origins assigned to my family by outsiders. But data, nonetheless, that fits perfectly well with the other genetic results we’ve gathered, and certainly with the physical appearance and on-the-ground experience of so many of our family members.

In short, I asked my brother to volunteer his cheek cells for this new analysis, trying to incorporate both of us into the genetics testing arena. Since we share the same parents (and verifiably the same mtDNA and Y sequences), his results would be just as reflective of our ancestry as mine. Richard agreed, we swabbed his inner cheeks, sent off the sample, and waited two months. Here are the results:

From the DNAPrint 2.5:
2% sub-Saharan African
98% Indo-European

From the Euro-DNA 1.0 breaking down the 98% Indo-European):
50% Northern European
25% South Asian (India-Pakistan, etc.)
10% Middle Eastern
15% Southeastern European (Turkish-Greek/Aegean region)

Richard Kennedy, 1973

In other words, we are approximately 49 % northern European, with the other 51% consisting of a mix of south Asian, Turkish-Greek, Middle Eastern, and sub-Saharan African. A far cry from the 100% northern European argued for by this early critic (and a percentage that may be significantly lower than what might have been found in my late mother. In fact, as follow-up we are having both my and my father’s DNA analyzed as well to see if we can better establish the sources of our various heritages. I plan on releasing those results, as well).

To further appreciate my brother’s results, and for comparative purposes, DNAPrint Genomics (http://www.ancestrybydna.com) provides the following “average results” for northern Europeans:

The “average” northern European is:
82% Northern European
05.5% Greek-Turkish (now termed southeastern European)
01.5% South Asian (India-Pakistan)
11% Middle Eastern

And this is an average for modern Europeans: several centuries back one would expect the more “southerly” ethnic admixtures to be even less significant than they are today, with “northern European” genes having been even more dominant then. Too, many modern northern Europeans, including some examples at the above website, test out in the 90% to 95% Northern European range, with generally no south Asian. In fact, here are results of the same test provided to me in confidence from a Turkish friend (both parents from the Anatolian region) and a British friend (now living in the D.C. area):

Turkish Friend
Northwestern Europe 21%
Turkish-Greek/southeastern European 35%
South Asian 32%
Middle Eastern 12%

British Friend
Northwestern Europe 91%
Turkish-Greek/southeastern European 5%
South Asian 0%
Middle Eastern 4%

I also received the following results from an Appalachian cousin who had her father’s DNA analyzed, a gentleman who is related to my mother via a half dozen or more lines and also has no recent (i.e., post-1500s) Old World ancestors to “explain away” his results. This gentleman, now is his late eighties, showed the following:

Native American/east Asian: 35%
Indo-European: 65%

His 65% Indo-European broke down as follows:

Northern European 40%
Middle Eastern 0%
South Asian 5%
Turkish-Greek/Southeastern European 55%

Richard Kennedy and family, 2004

In short, the genetic northern Europeanism of this gentleman constitutes less than one third of who he is.

Whatever the case, my brother’s percentages, coupled with the variety of non-northern European mtDNA and Y sequences discovered in our family (ranging from Middle Eastern to Native American to central Asian to African), should convince even the most die-hard northern Euro-centric proponent that something else has been going on in the southern Appalachians, and likely along the eastern seaboard, for quite some time. I remain absolutely convinced that significant numbers of people of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage came to this nation under the flags of northern and western European nations, intermarried not only with other, more “traditional” Europeans, but with Native and African Americans as well. They then carried their combined genes and cultures from coast to coast, most becoming lost to “history” as it would be written.

While the DNAPrint and the Euro-DNA are still being refined and will undoubtedly become even more accurate in the future, my brother’s results do not surprise me and, in fact, generally align with what I had expected based on real-life experience. However, had I “bought” into what I have been taught by outsiders all my life (i.e., that Turks and Greeks and Middle Easterners and south Asians were likely never on these shores, or at least hadn’t married into MY family), I probably would be questioning the accuracy of this test. But I stopped buying into it a long, long time ago and I do believe this analysis to be generally on target.

Incidentally, to be sure of my conclusions, I asked Dr. Tony Frudakis of DNAPrint Genomics to review my data and general conclusions before posting this article. While I take full responsibility for the article, he did have this to say:

“I found that Mr. Kennedy responsibly and soundly interpreted the significance and bearing of his autosomal admixture results, and he demonstrated a solid understanding on what autosomal tests can and cannot do and how they should and should not be interpreted.”

Of course, from a “records” standpoint we cannot prove with absolute certainty how these ancestors arrived. For example, does our south Asian come from the Asian Indian wives of Portuguese settlers, or seventeenth century Tidewater Virginia servants with English surnames, or Romany Gypsies, or the self-proclaimed “Portuguese-Indian” ancestors in my family (Reeves, Roberson, Mullins, etc.)? Can this finally explain the eccentric, long standing south Asian names we have in our family (such as “Canara,” the original name for the Indian region known today as Karnataka?). Does our Greek-Turkish/southeastern European/Middle Eastern come from converted Ottomans sent as Spanish and Portuguese settlers, or Jamestown’s textile workers, or Sir Francis Drake’s abandoned Turkish and Greek sailors? The answer to all of the above questions is, I don’t know, and I may never know. But not knowing how they arrived is not proof that they didn’t arrive. They DID come: my brother and I, and undoubtedly others, are living testimony to this fact.

Finally, and importantly, it’s critical to remember that DNA testing can only confirm what you have inherited – it cannot discount or disprove any heritage. For example, with an acceptable level of confidence, I know via privately obtained DNA sequencing that I have Native American ancestry through three of my four grandparents (Native American mtDNA haplotypes). The family oral traditions through these three grandparents, unproved through the official written records, turn out via DNA analysis to have a probable basis in fact. Yet, the Native American DNA found via DNAPrints in my older relatives is absent in my brother and me. Why? Because the percentage of any heritage is cut in half with each succeeding generation. Unlike the analysis of mtDNA or Y-chromosomes (which maintain their basic integrity/haplotype generation after generation), a DNAPrint, or a Euro-DNA Print, cannot always pick up those ancestries, particularly after a certain number of generations have passed. Typically six or seven generations will erase their presence in these tests. My great aunts show their Native American heritage via mtDNA sequences, and also in the DNAPrint in percentages ranging from 2% to 23%. But three generations later and that heritage is no longer traceable in Richard or me. But this does not mean we aren’t descended from Native Americans – we are. Again, we can validate what we have via these tests, but not finding a particular heritage does not necessarily invalidate its existence, and this is important to remember.

Canara Nash, Brent Kennedy’s great-great uncle and son of Louisa Hall Nash

What is also important for us, that is, my family in particular, is that our combined south Asian, Middle Eastern and Greek-Turkish ancestors apparently outnumbered the Native Americans and Africans, and at least matched the northern Europeans in our specific ancestral lines. So much so that in 2005 their combined genes still comprise a bit more than half of what we are. In essence, my brother and I are more than 50% non-northern European, and just as closely linked genetically to the people of the Aegean, Anatolia, the Middle East, and India and Pakistan as we are to Ireland and England. And our Mother and her family were likely even more closely linked. Yet, throughout our lives we have been taught – rigidly taught – that in spite of what our eyes could see, this was not true. In the heart of Appalachia, in front of the very noses of academia, an incredible story has been waiting, indeed begging, to be told, but those who could have helped in the telling were either unable, or unwilling, to do so. Who we were and who we are even today – our basic human identity – had already been assigned to us by the outside world, the winners, in effect, engaged in the traditional writing of “history.”

For more than a century the Melungeons (and other mixed race peoples) have been told that their traditions and their beliefs have little or no merit. History books long ago dismissed and excluded any significant Portuguese, East Indian/south Asian, Ottoman Turkish, Greek, or general Mediterranean genes from their ancestral pools. In clinging to Portuguese or other non-northern European Old World origins, according to this stance, Melungeons were simply harboring a deep-seated psychological need for an “exotic ancestry,” clinging to “myth” in order to make themselves feel special. But the truth is, in my opinion, that the Melungeons were doing nothing more than expressing the basic human need – and right – to preserve and to celebrate one’s full ancestry. Just as the northern European side of me is permitted, even encouraged, to celebrate its heritage (which I gleefully do on each and every Saint Patrick’s Day), so should the south Asian and the Turkish or Middle Eastern or African sides of me be permitted to do likewise. There is no such thing as an “exotic” ancestry and I find it offensive to have that term thrown out again and again in the manner that it has been. In India and Pakistan and Turkey, “English” could be considered “exotic.” This terminology, and the argument it supposedly supports, has grown wearisome, offensive and, as growing DNA and archival evidence increasingly demonstrates, erroneous.

The bottom line remains as it did in my original “Ties That Bind” presentation: We are all human beings, comprised and composed of all those who came before us, creations of God, Children of Abraham. Nothing more, nothing less. Not exotic, not mundane. Simply people wanting to know more about those that came before them, so that they might teach those that come after them. My brother’s and my search for origins is confirming for us who we are, but it should not be viewed as a shortcut to the solution of the mystery of the Melungeons: it is not. A great deal more archival research and further refinements/advancements in DNA sleuthing lie ahead before that day arrives, if it ever does. But, perhaps a little selfishly, I do take joy in the fact that I at least know a bit more about my family’s specific ancestry and the cultural and genetic forces that shaped them, and ultimately me.

In closing, the photographs included in this article may better illustrate why I might have questioned my family being so adamantly labeled by a modern researcher as exclusively northern European.

With appreciation for all those engaged in family research, Melungeon or otherwise.

Brent Kennedy

Nancy Kennedy, 1970


ADDENDUM; 24 April 2005

As promised in the above article, I’m now sharing both my father’s and my DNAPrint and EuroDNA results. As you might recall, my brother’s results were:

DNAPrint 2.5:
Indo-European: 98%
Sub-Saharan African: 2%

EuroDNA (based on his 98% Indo-European):
50% Northern European (northern/western Europe)
25% South Asian (India-Pakistan)
15% Eastern European (Turkish-Greek/Mediterranean)
10% Middle Eastern

In order to gauge both the accuracy of the tests and to hopefully better determine our genetic origins, my Father and I also participated in both the DNAPrint and EuroDNA testing process. My results were as follows:

DNAPrint 2.5:
100% Indo-European

EuroDNA (based on 100% Indo-European):
45% Northern European (northern/western Europe)
25% Middle Eastern
25% Eastern European (Turkish-Greek/Mediterranean)
5% South Asian (India-Pakistan)

My results very closely reflect what we expected, given my brother’s results and the fact that we are full siblings. We also expected my South Asian to be less, as his features show “south Asian” more than mine, though physical appearance isn’t always reflected by measurable genes. In summary, I tested 55%, or thereabouts, non-northern European while my brother tested approximately 52% non-northern European.

Since our Mother is deceased, we could only test our Father. While he has a mixed heritage also, we have assumed that Dad’s results would show more northern European than ours, given his more “traditional” northern/western European appearance. In fact, Richard and I estimated that he would test out at 70% northern European and the remaining 30% a mixture of the others. His actual results were:

65% Northern/western European
15% Middle Eastern
10% Eastern European (Turkish-Greek)
10% South Asian (India-Pakistan)

While we can only estimate our Mother’s DNAPrint and EuroDNA results, based on my and my brother’s results, when coupled with my Father’s more northern European results, we are led to estimate that her results would have approximated 30% northern European, 4% sub-Saharan African, and the remaining 65% or so divided among the remaining Middle Eastern, Turkish-Greek, South Asian categories. Again, exactly what one might expect from her physical appearance. Our hope is to even more closely approximate her likely genetic heritage via the testing of two surviving great aunts.

In short, our experience with the DNAPrint and EuroDNA analyses has been extremely enlightening and absolutely confirming of what we have suspected all along.


Final Addendum: July 9, 2005

As promised, here are the results of the testing of two surviving great aunts, siblings of my late Mother’s parents. A photo of my grandmother’s sister, Helen Nash Mayo, is included, along with a photo of my late grandfather, Taylor Hopkins. I appreciate both of my great Aunts’ willingness to do this as their cooperation has provided me with a rare opportunity to better understand my maternal ethnic heritage.

In each case I have combined the DNAPrint 2.5 and Euro-DNA Print 1.0 for simplicity of understanding. Also, I am using the original genetics nomenclature from the original test results received (i.e., Turkish/Greek as opposed to Southeastern European) to avoid confusion when making comparisons).


From Great-Aunt # 1, a sister to my maternal grandfather Taylor Hopkins (Helena Hopkins Dale):

Taylor Hopkins, 1980

33% Northern/western European

30% Middle Eastern

16% Turkish/Greek

11% sub-Saharan African

7% Native American

3% South Asian (India/Pakistan)

100% (33% northern/western European/67% other mixture)


From Great-Aunt # 2, a sister to my maternal grandmother, Rexie Nash Hopkins (Helen Nash Mayo):

Helen Nash Mayo, 2005

63% Northern/western European

12% Middle Eastern

23% Turkish/Greek

2% Native American

100% (63% northern/western European/37% other mixture)

The results are almost precisely what I had expected.

Incidentally, it’s important to remember that the Northern/Western European results may include the genes of settlers from not only Scandinavia, Scotland and Germany, but also of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, etc. In other words, any genetic legacy of Portugal and/or of “Mediterranean” Europeans to the west of Greece would most likely be included in the Northern/Western European category.

Again, for my family, the DNAPrint 2.5 and Euro-DNAPrint 1.0 have performed with impressive accuracy, as each generation has fallen into place with predictable, logical results that do not contradict previous findings. I’m sure the science will be continually refined, but I am impressed, to say the least. And again – and importantly – the genetics continue to confirm what my family’s eyes and common sense have always told us.