The Indian Ancestry of the Melungeons
|A Summary of the Lecture Series Delivered Before the
Melungeon Heritage Association 2000 – 2006 Regarding the
Indian Ancestry and Other Origins of the East Tennessee Melungeons
James H. Nickens
|My first encounter with the Melungeons was through a daily newspaper. The reference was to a mysterious people living in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, a historic people of unknown origin. Until then I had never heard the word Melungeon. A trip to the Bull Run Library in Manassas, Virginia produced a copy of a book about Melungeons written by Brent Kennedy. To my astonishment I found the name Niccans (Nickens) listed by Kennedy as a Tennessee Melungeon surname.
In late October of that same year I received a call originating from the Meherrin Tribal Pow Wow in Winton, North Carolina. Rose Powhatan, a cousin from the Pamunkey Tribe of my Gr Gr Grandfather, had met a dancer there who was a Tennessee Indian Commissioner by the name of James Nickens. Rose was certain that James and I were related, and stated that “from the looks of you two, you have got to be cousins”.
That night I received a call from James, better known as Eddie, and the Tennessee connection was made. Later conversation with Eddie’s father, Thomas Nickens, revealed that his ancestors were of the Meherrin Tribe, who in Tennessee had called themselves “Portagee” since the time that Indian removal was threatened in the 1830’s. At that time, an ugly component of American thought was that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
Thomas gave me the address of a Florida cousin, Dr. Carolyn Nickens , an anthropologist by training. In a letter of December 29, 1999, Dr. Nickens related an incident which had taken place about 15 years earlier, when she accompanied a Collins descendant to Sneedville, Tennessee on a heritage quest. There they met “a very old man whose name was Bill Grohse”. To Carolyn’s surprise, Grohse stated “You do know that Nickens is a Melungeon name.”
Until that time, The Virginia Indian Historical Society had devoted its efforts to the genealogical tracking of a close kinship group from the Jamestown era Rappahannock Indian Nation to the old Cuttatawomen Indian Town, and thence to the Meherrin, Chowanoke, and Nansemond, with earlier links to the Lower Cherokee and the Shawnee of Winchester, and later links to the Catawba, Pamunkey, Tuscarora, and the supposedly “extinct” Nanzatico and Chiskiack people. With the letter from Carolyn Nickens, our attentions took a sharp turn to the west into the great state of Tennessee, home of the Melungeons.
Tennessee was a lay-over point in the migration of coastal Indian people to the western Indian Nations. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, migrants from east of the Appalachian Mountains pushed westward into contested Indian Lands. The new United States Government erected The Territory of the United States Southwest of the Ohio River. Revolutionary war veterans were encouraged to settle these territorial lands. Much of this territory today lies in the state of Tennessee.
Among the pioneers were specific Indian descendants of specific colonial era tribes of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Many were patriots in the American Revolutionary cause. Others had good reason to see the colonials as their true enemy, and supported the King by default. It is no accident that the names Bass, Collins, Gibson, Hart, Minor, Riddle, and Sizemore are prominent among the Tories, Loyalist, and North Carolina Regulators.
These citizen Indian migrants came in kinship groups, acquired land, established farms, and raised families. One such group settled a remote area in the mountains of East Tennessee. These were reputed to have been “the friendly Indians who came with the whites as they moved west”, and who had helped to build Fort Blackmore.
Over time these settlers were joined by and intermarried with other migrants from the east. The citizens of this distinctive community came to be recognizable by their relatively darker skin tone and unexplained exotic physical features. Local whites noted the unique nature of this community and gave a name to the swarthy mountain people – Melungeons .
The ethnic identity and origins of the Melungeon people have perplexed investigators of every stripe for more than a century. Imaginative theories have suggested Phoenician, Carthaginian, Portuguese, Turkish, and early Welsh origins. Others believed the Melungeons were a lost tribe of Israel or survivors of the Roanoke Colony. Speculation grew that Melungeons were descended from Spanish explorers or shipwrecked Portuguese sailors. Court cases established Melungeon as a distinct yet problematic racial identity – that of a relatively dark mountain people formerly classified as Free People of Color but later reclassified as white. Melungeons thus became the stuff of legend.
The earliest responsible first hand accounts are consistent in identifying the Melungeon patriarchs as the Indians Vardeman Collins and Sheppard Gibson. Among later migrants were descendants of “Gowin the Indian“ of York County, Virginia. Many and varied physical descriptions have been recorded of the Melungeons. Among those recorded descriptions are “Indian “, “not as dark as the Indian “, and “a race of light skinned Indians”. Note was later made of a dark skinned exotic strain with straight black hair, further adding to the Melungeon mystery. This strain has proven to be of particular interest.
The systematic investigation of the Melungeons began by lumping the Melungeons with a variety of so-called mystery people, populations which fell outside of the white-black-mulatto racial construct. The term Tri-Racial Isolates was adopted in reference to these aloof rogue elements of American society. The uninformed assumption was made that these populations were some ill defined mixture of the perceived races, presumably Indian, white and Negro.
The conclusions of the Tri-Racial Isolate theorists are marred in four critical areas:
1. Lack of sufficient knowledge of Indian history
2. Lack of knowledge of Indian genealogy
3. Failure to identify Indian people outside of a historical tribal context
4. A race driven paradigm which ignores ethnicity
In short – Insufficient Research.
Minimal genealogical effort and research into Indian history would have clearly identified the so-called Lassiter Tribe as Chowanoke Indians. These same Chowanokes, who settled among the Alabama Choctaw in Mobile and Washington Counties, Alabama were called Cajans by tri- racial isolate proponents. They are still there among the Choctaw.
In fairness to Tri-racial isolate theorist, it should be noted that the research upon which their theories were based occurred in a timeframe which predated the information age. The information disseminating power of the internet is not to be understated.
Genealogical examination of colonial records has demonstrated that not one single group in the south, formerly termed a Tri-racial Isolate group, is composed of only Indian, white, and Negro components. Most, if not all, have been shown to include the descendants of seventeenth century East Indian and Gypsy ( Rom ) Virginians. These are not new findings discovered in some obscure archaic source. This information has been available to the Virginia public for more than two hundred years, ignored by scholars who apparently preferred an American history composed only of white, slave, and free “African American“ components. Such a “preferred history” ignores the diverse ethnic fabric of colonial America, and disposes of Indian people in favor of a simple race-driven black-white social construct.
Given that those populations previously referred to as Tri-racial Isolates have been proven to be neither tri-racial nor isolated, it is the considered opinion of this investigator that Complex Ethnic Populations be coined as the more accurate and appropriate descriptor. It should be noted that each Complex Ethnic Population has an ancestry and history unique to that group.
The Melungeon Genesis lecture series is presented as an historical road map to the origins of the Melungeon people of East Tennessee. The genealogical focus is placed upon the Collins, Gibson, and Goins families. Several aspects of American ethno history have been chosen for presentation in this series. These topics have been selected because of their historical importance bearing on the evolution of the Melungeon people. The narrow focus of this series is directed upon that Melungeon population in the environs of Newman’s Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Melungeon Genesis is an evolving and ongoing effort. This one’s for Brent.
|May 18-21, 2000
University of Virginia’s College At Wise, VA
Jamestown & Some History Relevant to the Origin of the Melungeons 1607-1705
The recorded oral history of the Newman’s Ridge Melungeons states that they were originally migrant Indian people, citizen Indians, from east of the Appalachian Mountains. Distinguished by their swarthy skin color, Melungeon people were victorious when challenged unsuccessfully in several court cases. The issues revolved around the questions of whether Melungeons were a people of color, more specifically if the hint of skin color may have been the result of distant Negro ancestry. Creative notions of Carthaginian, Phoenician, and Portuguese ancestry found their way into print. Still in the 1890’s a Tennessee legislator defined the Melungeon as a “dirty Indian sneak.”
Today we will examine some of the historical factors which have contributed to the formation, historical experience, and unique identity of the Melungeons people.
I. The Multiethnic Character of Jamestown: 1607 – 1624
A. The English and British Islanders
B. Poles and Germans, who preferred to live with the Indians rather than the English
C. White Christians enslaved at Jamestown
D. Italian glassmakers, a Swiss metallurgist, a French boy
E. “20 and odd negors” brought to Jamestown
F. “William Crashaw an Indean Baptized“ – American or Asian Indian?
G. “John Phillip A negro Christened in England“ who provides testimony in court
II. The Multiethnic Character of Virginia : 1625 – 1705
A. “Moors, Mohammedans, Infidels, Jews, Turks, East Indians, Indians, and Negroes” in seventeenth century Virginia law
B. Gleanings from Lower Norfolk County, Virginia: 1640-1652
III. The Jamestown Divide – Critical turning points in English-Indian relations resulting in the persistence and survival of a separate and distinct Indian culture in Virginia: 1607- 2000
A. English plan for relations with the Indians
B. Jamestown policies and actions relating to the Indians
IV. Colonial English policies as the root of 21st Century racism in America
A. Ethnic and cultural condescension by the English of Jamestown
B. Inevitable violence toward the arrogant and greedy English invaders
C. Apartheid as an official practice made part of colonial law
D. English records begin to refer to Indians outside of a tribal context, citizen Indians, as free Negroes. records – See Helen Rountree 1995 and 1997
E. Indians made part of the 1705 “Black Code”-“ The child of an Indian shall be held and deemed to be a mulatto”
V. The ”racialization” of ethnic Virginians in the seventeenth century
A. The development of a two “race”, white vs. non-white social and cultural paradigm – Negative social engineering in colonial Virginia
B. The Moors, Mohammedans, Infidels, Jews, Turks, East Indians, Indians, and Negroes found in colonial laws become the generic “Mulatto“ or “Negro“ in colonial records
|June 20-22, 2002
First Session: The Ancestry and Evolution of the Newman’s Ridge Melungeons
I. The Geographic origins of the Indian ancestors of the earliest Newman’s Ridge Melungeons
II. European Ancestry of the Melungeons – Delaware River to Cape Fear River Settlements
III. The Migration to Tennessee
B. Social Causes
Chicacoan Indian District – The Northern Neck of Virginia
I. Melungeon Surnames List – A listing of early Northern Neck surnames later found among the Tennessee Melungeons – A pattern of surname dispersal
A. Surnames gleaned from published works of various researchers – a lengthy list
C. Northern Neck surnames later found in Louisa County , Virginia
D. Northern Neck surnames later found in relations of East Tennessee Melungeon history
|Kingsport, Tennessee, 2004
Paul Heinegg – Insufficient Research or a Less Than Honorable Agenda?
I. The Racial Reassignment of Colonial era American Indians, East Indians, Gypsies ( Rom ), Turks, and other ethnic groups to the category of “Free African Americans”
A. The Weaver Family – “they seem to like an East Indian“ – Hugh Jones on the Powhatan Indians
B. The Goins/Guan/Gowen,Going Family
C. Gypsies (Roma) – Surnames withheld
D. “Simon a Turk” – A genealogical icon
E. The Vena/Venie/Veney Family
II. Published statements by Heinegg – Insufficient Research or a racial bias against Indians?
A “ Native Americans who adopted English customs became part of the free African American communities”.
B. “There were no Indian communities separate and distinct from the free African American communities”.
C. “Southeastern states solved this problem (light-skinned African Americans) by calling these communities “Indians.”
III. The serious researcher is encouraged to consult colonial court records wherever possible. The records which Heinegg chooses to omit from his genealogical narratives can be more informative and ethnically accurate than those records which he selects for publication.
A. The Walter Plecker syndrome – Expunging Native Americans from official records
B. The Paul Heinegg syndrome – The racial reassignment of Native Americans to the category of “Free African Americans”
Current Melungeon Issues
I. The Failed Melungeon Definition of 2004
A. The Myth of the Melungeons vs. the historical record
B. Competing personal agendas, “preferred history”, and the recurring theme of insufficient research
C. Melungeon Drift – The clouding historical perspective by redefining various unrelated Complex Ethnic Populations as being Melungeons.
II. Interpreting and Misinterpreting Results of the 2000 Melungeon DNA Project
A. Understanding the limitations of DNA testing
B. Correctly interpreting DNA findings
Author’s Note: Genealogical data regarding descendants of Virginia Gypsies is being withheld in the hope that it can be offered in a responsible historical context. Suffice it to say that there is no evidence to date of a tribe of Gypsies roaming colonial Virginia, nor did John Sevier encounter a caravan of Gypsy wagons high upon Newman’s Ridge. These comments are made in the hope of dissuading a wave of irresponsible “faction”.
Frankfort Melungeon Gathering
|July 30, 2005
Melungeon Myth vs. Melungeon Fact
I. Early research by previous researchers of Melungeon Lore have contributed greatly to our knowledge of that multiethnic effort which was the Making of America. In the twenty – first century America yet struggles to comfortably emulate the Melungeon example ethnic diversity.
A. This investigator was unable to verify any historical data with any possible connection to Melungeon ancestors prior to the invasion at Jamestown in 1607
B. The fruitless Ralph Lane expedition up the Chowanoke River in 1585 stands of this instant as the earliest English record referencing Indian people who may have become Melungeon ancestors – the Tuscarora..
II. Tennessee Melungeons have been demonstrated by genealogy to be an exotic blend of the Indian, white, Gypsy, East Indian, and probable African ancestry. The generally swarthy appearance of Melungeons led to their being described variously as “Indian”, a “ light skinned Indian tribe” and “not as dark as the Indian”. A particularly dark strain of Melungeon was reported as having straight black hair.
A. To date no non-Gypsy East Indian ancestor has been genealogically identified among the Newman’s Ridge Melungeons.
C. The exceedingly widespread finding of people of Gypsy ( Rom ) ancestry in
III. Complex Ethnic Populations Versus the Tri Racial Isolate Paradigm
A. Investigators have for sixty years incorrectly assumed that aloof and rogue ethnic groups were some mixture of Indian, white, and Negro people. The term “Tri Racial Isolate” was coined to describe these so-called mystery populations
B. Not a single population in the south, previously described as a Tri Racial Isolate, has proven to be limited to only Indian, white, and African ancestry. The Gypsy, the East Indian, or both are the most common additional ethnicities.
C. It is the suggestion of this investigator that use of the term “Tri Racial Isolate“ be discarded, said term being both inaccurate and inadequate.
D. Complex Ethnic Population is hereby coined as the more accurate descriptor.
|June 8-10, 2006
Old Themes and New Directions: A Review of Seven Years of Melungeon Research by the Virginia Indian Historical Society
I. Review of six previous presentations in the Melungeon Genesis series – 2000 through 2005
II. The Indian Ancestry of the First Tennessee Melungeons
B. The records of colonial North Carolina are notorious for misidentifying ethnic Indians as some variation of mulatto, colored, or Negro. Virginia and South Carolina records, while imperfect, are noticeably better in this regard. A few exceptions do occur, where an Indian is identified as an Indian.
The ageless Calvin Beale, a speaker and lifetime award recipient at the 5th Melungeon Union, was not aware of this quirk in North Carolina’s records.
III. Reexamining the Melungeon Saga – Exploring possible ancestries of the Melungeons
A. Tuscarora ancestry
B. Spanish Ancestry
C. Welsh Ancestry
D. Portuguese ancestry
E. Gypsy ancestry
F. Cherokee ancestry
G. Catawba ancestry – “Old Ned Sizemore” and the Hart family.
Thanks to Judy Canty Martin, Tom Blummer, Ian Watson, and the Catawba Indian Nation.
|It has been brought to my attention that Paul Heinegg has revised his narratives of the Goins, Vena, and Weaver families since the 2004 5th Union presentation. These revisions reflect a minimal nod in the direction of historical accuracy. Heinegg continues to present these families in the context of Free African Americans, and will in all probability continue to do so.
Goins researchers – simply follow the fortunes of the Bushrod family, wealthy Virginia Quaker merchants, in order to connect “Gowin the Indian servant of Thomas Bushrod” to Thomas Gowen of Westmoreland County, Virginia. As a matter of genealogical curiosity, the cases of Indian Will (Weaver) and Martin Guan were both heard in Westmoreland County Court 25 September, 1707 , p74a. Martin may have been the prisoner to whom reference was made when Thomas Goen was accused of “a certaine force & rescue of a prisoner out of the custody of Wm. Chandler Constable for Machotique” 26 January 1708/9.
Sizemore researchers – Anthony Sizeman, files suit for his freedom 6 November 1651 in Lower Norfolk County, Virginia. On 15 January 1651/2 the court ordered
Bunch researchers – Micajah Bunch was an early Chowan County neighbor of the Sizemores.
Copyright 2006 Virginia Indian Historical Society