Response of Brent Kennedy to Virginia Demarce, 1997

Response of Brent Kennedy to Virginia DeMarce

I was recently asked by several media representatives to respond to Virginia DeMarce’s most recent statements regarding the Melungeons and me personally. Their questions have tended to revolve around the three basic issues below, so I have crafted a sort of synopsis of my replies to the media for inclusion on the home page if appropriate, or for sharing with others who may also be curious.

Of course, much of this back-and-forth bantering could have been avoided if the National Genealogical Quarterly had permitted me some sort of response to her 1996 book review. But the editors did not, and the rest as they say, is history. But I am grateful to those journals and web-sites which did publish my rebuttal. Their sense of fair play was recognized and there’s no doubt that the entire sordid incident in truth fueled the great debate that has brought the issue to the forefront. In that sense, I must extend my gratitude to the editors of NGQ. Thank you. Time is indeed demonstrating the vailidity of our work.

First, I am generally pleased to see what appears to be Dr. DeMarce’s increasing acceptance of a broader-based Mediterranean gene pool for our Appalachian ancestors. This less narrow view is in stark contrast to the one exhibited in her original review of my book in last summer’s edition of the National Genealogical Quarterly. In each succeeding news account her views on the theory, if not me, are softening. I have heard indirectly that her major contentions now are that:

(1) She sees no rationale or evidence for any theorized Turkish infusion, and

(2) She believes that Melungeons have always been – and remain – a very few isolated families, and that I have broadened the definition of Melungeon to the point of meaninglessness, and

(3) She sees absolutely no evidence that I personally am of Melungeon descent.

I would like to respond to these three points:

Regarding (1): Earlier Virginia saw no rationale for any Mediterranean heritage at all. Her book review is clear evidence of this conviction. I suggest that with time she’ll come to accept this portion of our ancestry as well.

For example, Turks and Armenians comprised some of the “indentured servants” at Jamestown. The Virginia Company kept records, fortunately, and the documented Turkish presence here as early as 1631 is important to say the least. We also now are gathering new evidence of other Turks being brought to the New World by the Spanish as early as the 1580s, with their mission to create and manage the New World textile industry. What happened to these people? Where did they go? Did they just simply disappear because they were neither slave nor European? Or like other human beings did they, too, survive and pass on their genes and cultural memories to their children?

Accumulating evidence is also bolstering Drake’s likely abandonment of Turkish and Ottoman sailors on Roanoke Island in 1586. New documents absolutely prove that Drake did indeed reach England with liberated Turkish captives, of which only 100 (of an original 200 to 300) were sent home to Istanbul. Well documented claims on the part of some of our ancestors to be Turkish, as well as medical, genetic, and linguistic evidence build a strong case for at least some – if not substantial – authentic Turkish and/or Ottoman heritage. As I said earlier, as the research unfolds over the next six months I suggest that DeMarce will indeed soften her stance on this last remaining “ethnic holdout.”

Regarding (2): I continue to be amazed that DeMarce is seemingly genuinely convinced that a few isolated Melungeon families in the 1600s remain but a few isolated Melungeon families in the 1990s. Did these people not reproduce? Estimates from Virginia historians suggest that Pocahontas – who had only one child – could have as many as 500,000 living descendants today! Yet somehow, DeMarce’s Melungeons experienced absolutely no population growth. It is a staggering limitation that we are asked to swallow.

She is wrong. Her mistake falls into the same vein as her other mistakes: she assumes the written record is the only reality and that it is always accurate. DeMarce identifies a few early Melungeon families, assumes that those are the only ones, and then excludes all other populations and individuals from kinship.

The reality is that those she identified were merely the “tips of icebergs,” metaphorically speaking. “Melungeon” is NOT an ethnic group – it was a self-descriptive term, probably originating from the Arabic/Turkish term pronounced identically and meaning “cursed soul” and was applied by these early settlers to themselves to describe their sad circumstances. Over time as the term literally became synonymous with “free person of color”, they dropped it. And most of these people – well before the first census was ever conducted – had already admixed with white, black and Native American groups.

A few, of course, held out and became known as the mysterious or reclusive Melungeons. But these smaller groups were in no way the total population. They were just the identifiable population. When I’m out fishing on Cherokee Lake, I may only see one or two bass swimming around, but from experience and common sense I don’t conclude that they’re the only ones in the lake. In a sense, Virginia DeMarce has done just that. So, my contention is that the population was far larger and more diverse than DeMarce ever dreamed possible based on the official records, and that it spread exponentially, but silently, in an effort to survive.

This does not mean, as DeMarce has also suggested, that I believe that the Pamunkey Indians or the Cherokees or any other tribal group are simply Melungeons. On the contrary, I believe instead that these Melungeons (i.e., Turks, Portuguese, Berbers, etc.) were accepted into the tribes and became part of the tribal structure, thus creating kinships between the various groups. And that in this sense their cultures merged to some degree. Which is not difficult to imagine, especially since Turks are themselves Central Asians – that is, literal cousins to the Native Americans!

In this regard, I believe that this broad Melungeon admixture into the tribes does not lessen the “Native American” component, as DeMarce assumes, but instead replaces at least some of what historians have traditionally considered simple white and black admixture with Melungeon admixture (again, Turk, Portuguese, Spanish, Berber, etc.).

Finally, I remain mystified by DeMarce’s view that expanding the definition of Melungeon renders it “meaningless.” I take the opposite viewpoint. The truth is that the population was and is much broader, and that this very inclusiveness renders the term far more meaningful, as opposed to meaningless. We have here a story that can literally relate millions of Americans in a way they never deemed – or dreamed – possible. The potential for improving race and ethnic relations in our country is incredible. If a population must be small and isolated to have meaning for DeMarce, then I’m certain she is indeed disappointed in my viewpoints. And they remain unchanged. There were – and still are – a lot of Melungeons, whatever they call themselves.

Regarding (3): Given DeMarce’s exceedingly limited view on what a “Melungeon” was, or is, I now understand her inability to rationalize how I fall into this category. Because of DeMarce’s very narrow view of what it is that defines a Melungeon, other mixed-race individuals that I absolutely consider to be Melungeon related, DeMarce casts aside as simply “Mulatto” or “Black” or “White,” depending upon the census classification. I personally know of no litmus test for Melungeonism, nor do I have a Golden Tablet with the names of all Melungeons inscribed upon it. But DeMarce seemingly does have such diagnostic tools stashed away in her genealogical bag.

I do know this: that my family verifiably looks Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Native American, and African, though our census records agree with DeMarce’s book review assertion that we are nothing but white northern European. And I know that my ancestor, Betty Reeves, claimed to Portuguese, and that all the neighbors in the Castlewood area considered my Robersons/Robinsons to be Portuguese. And I was very surprised when Virginia DeMarce announced that W.A. Plecker’s infamous letter of 1943 (see website: listed only one of my family surnames – Mullins. First, she fails to mention that I have SIX lines of Mullinses (as opposed to the insinutated single line), and second, she overlooks the other NINE family surnames found on that list that undoubtedly pertain to me. She conveniently does this by looking only at Wise County, but my ancestors migrated westward from the very regions where the surnames are listed by Plecker as non-white. For the curious, those other surnames are: Adams, Adkins, Bolin (Bowlin), Gibson, Hammond, Keith, Phillips, Robinson, and Weaver. DeMarce conveniently overlooks these names because they aren’t specifically called Melungeons by Plecker. But this single letter lends great credence to my contention of both the mixed-race background of so many westward moving Virginians, as well as the preponderance of related surnames that characeterize my – and other – so-called “white” families of this region.

I trust this response is helpful.

N. Brent Kennedy
21 August 1997