Those of us who have been fortunate to hear Dr. Smallwood’s presentations at Melungeon Unions will find much familiar material in this article published by Oklahoma Humanities this summer, “A History Long Forgotten: Intersections of Race in Early America.” The events calendar has been update to include Dr. Smallwood’s June 2013 trip to Canada as part of the University of Memphis studies abroad program.
In 2002, Brent Kennedy issued a statement about the first Melungeon DNA study. Excerpt:
The long-awaited DNA results are in and as many of us have maintained, the Melungeons are indeed a mixture of all races and many ethnic groups. The DNA samples in this study represent the oldest, most established Melungeon male and female lines in the Hancock County community, and the Wise County community. Extensive genealogies for these two populations — and those sampled — are known and documented. Respected members of each community assisted in the collection of the samples, and these samples can be examined separately (by community) and compared against one another.
In addition to Native American (approximately 5% of the sample), African (approximately 5%) and European (approximately 83% of the sample, but representing Europeans from north to south), the study also showed approximately 7% of the samples matching populations in Turkey, Syria and northern India. In other words, the surviving genes from Middle Eastern and East Indian ancestors are in equal proportion to those of Native Americans and Africans. My gut feeling is that the original, seventeenth-century percentages of all three groups (i.e., African, Native American, and Middle Eastern/East Indian) were higher than what we’re seeing today. Time, admixture, and out-movement of some of our darker cousins into other minority groups have likely lowered the genetic traces of their earlier presence. But enough of them were there to still be traceable among the Melungeons of today. The long discounted Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritages are irrefutably there.
In 2010, DNA Consultants issued this report about an autosomal DNA study of Melungeons. Excerpt:
After many years in development, the results of a DNA ancestry project enrolling 40 Melungeons were published and made public, marking the end of an attempt to solve the mystery of a Southern U.S. ethnic group with autosomal DNA.
Seeming to lay to rest an old controversy in American history about Melungeons, the scientific data supporting a genetic mixture of white, American Indian and Sub-Saharan African were placed online today by the organizers of DNA Consultants’ Melungeon DNA Project.
Any media coverage in 2012 purporting to show Melungeons as shocked by evidence of subSaharan African DNA conflicts with this evidence, but also with more than a hundred years of testimony from Melungeons themselves.
DNA Study seeks origin of Appalachia’s Melungeons
In today’s article, Travis Loller of the Associated Press interviewed Roberta Estes and Jack Goins, two of the coauthors of the study’s report, and Wayne Winkler, who will appear at this year’s 16th Union.
comment by K. Paul Johnson:
Having attended the last four Unions and met almost all MHA members, I can report that the African roots of Melungeons have always been part of the general knowledge base of the organization in my experience. [Celebrated and honored, not just grudgingly acknowledged.] The topic has been discussed frankly in our FAQ for years. Each of the last several Unions has featured African American researchers exploring the topic of Melungeons and Melungeon-related groups. This year’s 16th Union will feature an opening lecture by Dr. Arwin Smallwood of the University of Memphis, whose past presentations have been very popular with MHA members. His research emphasizes the possible Native American roots of Melungeons, a topic that is not a simple matter of whites trying to deny African ancestry by substituting a false Indian claim, but rather a shared quest for Native roots by both black and white southerners exploring their mixed ancestry.
(Dr. Smallwood is a Consultant to the MHA Board of Directors and has appeared at the last three Unions, in West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina respectively. This portrait gallery from MHA Consultant Marvin T. Jones shows him at his first Union, in 2009, with many other speakers including Dr. Smallwood, and “one people, all colors” in action.)
“A Code to Live by in Appalachia”– radio documentary covering 16th Union, Vardy, and more
Last summer, reporter Mary Helen Miller came to Big Stone Gap to share the experience of 16th Melungeon Union at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park. She interviewed many of us and was enthusiastic in her interest. Melungeons enjoyed talking to her as will be evident in her long discussions with Johnnie Rhea, at Vardy as well as in Virginia. Prior to the Union, Mary Helen spoke to Jack Goins about the recent DNA study about which Wayne Winkler gave a presentation on Saturday. MHA members Claude Collins, Julie Williams Dixon, and Jim Morefield are among the voices heard in this short documentary.
(one correction– total attendance at 16th Union was almost double the 30 estimated in the documentary; 48 registrations, 11 presenters.)
Author offers mountain research, writing tips (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, Coalfield Progress)
BIG STONE GAP — The southern Appalachians are a region rich in culture and history, attributes that author and educator Terry Mullins said make researching and writing about them an “illuminating” experience.
Mullins, a native of Tazewell and associate professor of education at Concord University in Athens, W.Va., has authored several books, many about places in Southwest Virginia.
He was one of several speakers featured last weekend at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, which was held at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap. In past years, Mullins has presented an overview of the Melungeon people, but this year decided to focus on what resources to use when researching and writing about the mountains for historical and genealogical purposes.
“Researching and writing in the mountains is exhilarating,” he told the audience. “It’s exciting and, to me, it’s challenging, and I hope you will try to do some of it yourself, if you haven’t already.”
Below are some of the tips Mullins gave:
• When recording stories, no matter the subject, make sure you’re inspired to write about that subject and be sure you can find information about it.
• Write about what you know. Mullins’ first book, Pisgah United Methodist Church, Two Centuries of Faith was about his hometown church in Tazewell, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1993.
• When researching the history of a church or organization, inquire about its records. Depending on the denomination, district and conference reports might be available, as well as denominational compilations (membership numbers and other information that offers a feel for that church’s history). Mullins mentioned the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church archives at Emory and Henry College, which offer quite a bit of information about Methodist churches in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Tennessee.
• When researching his book, Bishop, Virginia-West Virginia, a Coalfield Community and Its School, Mullins took advantage of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, a special collection of resources related to the coal industry housed in the Craft Memorial Library in Bluefield, W.Va.
• Businesses and corporations, as well as ethnic and other special interest groups, such as the Melungeon Heritage Association, might have resources not readily available elsewhere.
• Local historical societies harbor invaluable information.
• County courthouses in Virginia keep marriage, divorce, probate and civil court records from the beginning of the county, as well as birth and death records.
• Newspaper archives can reveal what was happening in a community at a particular time.
• Public and college libraries often have state and region-specific sections. Public libraries might have obituary indices, local and family history files, census records and vertical files. Several nearby colleges that have Virginia or Appalachian collections or Appalachian Studies programs include Appalachian State University, Virginia Tech, Radford University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the University of Kentucky, Marshall University and East Tennessee State University.
• Photo archives can be helpful, such as the Library of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s digital library and archives.
• The internet harbors digitized photo archives, historical records, as well as online access libraries, digital projects and genealogy databases.
• Museums have written records, photos/images, thematic files, gallery collections, dioramas and artifacts, all of which might not be on display.
• Oral histories, eyewitness accounts, audio- and video-taped interviews can help uncover information that might otherwise be unknown.
DNA study a hot topic at gathering (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)
BIG STONE GAP — While a controversial study published earlier this year offers hints as to the ancestral origins of the Melungeons, some of the group’s membership maintains that much of the mystery surrounding their heritage still remains.
The study was among the topics discussed at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, “Home to the Hills: Melungeon Heritage and Appalachian Communities,” held last weekend at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap.
The event featured 11 speakers, including Wayne Winkler, past president of the association, who spoke in part about the controversy surrounding the study, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” which was published in April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy.
Historically, “Melungeon” was a derogatory term used to describe several families of unknown ancestry who lived primarily in Hawkins and Hancock counties of Tennessee and in southern Lee County.
The mystery surrounding the Melungeons has long been debated. Some theories purport that the Melungeons were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, the Ottoman Turks, Native Americans, Portuguese, escaped slaves, Juan Pardo’s or Hernando de Soto’s expeditions, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, Melungeon families have claimed to be Native American, Portuguese and white.
The study attempted to gain more insight into the group’s ancestral origins through DNA testing. Those tested were selected from a small group of descendants whose surnames are most commonly associated with Melungeon ancestry. In order for a surname to be included in the study, at least one historical record from the 1800s and early 1900s — such as census, court and voting records or tax lists — related to Hawkins and Hancock counties or adjacent areas had to exist that stated the family was considered to be Melungeon.
The study’s authors note that a participant also had to be a paternal descendent “from an individual within this core group of surnames from the relevant counties, or their direct ancestors.”
The paternal DNA tests revealed that subjects were of both European and African origin. The female, or mitochondrial DNA, lines tested yielded only European ancestry, however.
Winkler, whose Melungeon connection is through his father’s family, said the study shows that at least some Melungeon families have African ancestors. A lot of people, including the association, have always accepted this, he said, but until now have had no verification.
Winkler was not a subject of the study nor did he help with the project, but he was interested in the research.
“One of the things that was pointed out by this study is that it was a very narrow focus, very narrow in terms of who was eligible for the study, and that was intentional,” he said. “No one was ever trying to restrict the definition of Melungeons to this small group.” Instead, he reasoned that the authors were looking to establish a baseline to help better define who Melungeons are and what can be genetically said about their ancestry.
An article written by the Associated Press concerning the study has generated some controversy regarding these findings, and Winkler also addressed this.
While he called the article accurate, he said there is a difference between being accurate and true. The article missed a lot of important background information, he said, and did not mention several nuances noted in the 108-page study. It also seemed to definitively state that Melungeons did not have Native American ancestry, which Winkler said the study does not express.
Julie Williams Dixon, a filmmaker who was also a presenter at the conference, said she gave Jack Goins and the study’s other authors a lot of credit, but wished they had been “more savvy in controlling the AP article.” Dixon, a Wise County native, filmed the documentary, Melungeon Voices.
“You can’t understate the damage that that article did,” she said. “I personally believe that they should have come forward after that article and written a counterstatement because the AP article was extremely poor reporting, so all their good work is not going to get its due unless they come forward.”
Winkler noted that some people have also criticized the methodology used in the study, but said this is how academia works. If someone finds an issue with how the study was written, he encouraged them to write their own paper and submit it to the same peer review.
One person in a blog post even suggested the study was false and that it was a war on “Indian heritage” and “sheer genocidal activity” against Native American groups of Appalachia.
“Genocide is a pretty strong term to use for a dispute about an academic paper,” said Winkler. “There are people who have been touched by genocide, who have lost families to genocide. Using that term is inappropriate.” He also mentioned that Goins has researched Melungeons for three decades, and he finds it difficult to believe that Goins would invest all his time and effort into publishing a false study.
Despite the debate surrounding the study, Winkler said he believes it is a milestone in Melungeon research and provides a foundation for future inquiries. It’s also important that these studies be done now, since individuals considered to be Melungeons are disappearing as an identifiable group. He said trying to find those who had an unbroken male line dating back to 1830 was difficult.
At the close of Winkler’s presentation, one audience member asked him what he thought this and other DNA studies have contributed to living a Melungeon experience.
Winkler paused and then responded that he didn’t know that this knowledge would have made any difference in the way his grandmother or great-grandparents lived. “Those of us who have had our DNA tested, we don’t live on Newman’s Ridge without a telephone and television and indoor plumbing, which is a big part of the historic Melungeon experience, a big part of the historic Appalachian experience,” he said. “For people today, it’s just our wanting to know more about our ancestry. We’re kind of living that Melungeon life a little vicariously through what we learned about our ancestors.
“DNA helps us to visualize who they might have been, where some of these ancestors might have come from, but I don’t think it really makes much difference in how we see ourselves.”
Novel focuses on region’s multi-ethnic heritage (Katie Dunn, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)
BIG STONE GAP — America is often described as a melting pot, a nation where different ethnicities and cultures have assimilated into a cohesive union.
In her recently published novel, Washed in the Blood, author Lisa Alther, a Kingsport, Tenn. native, focuses on this notion by exploring the early history of the southern Appalachians and chronicling the story of several generations of a multi-ethnic family who lived in the region.
The book begins with the arrival of Diego Martin, a hog drover who came to the region with a Spanish exploring party in the 16th century. Martin is abandoned by the expedition’s leader in the wilderness, but is rescued by “friendly natives.” Alther’s book chronicles Martin’s descendants through the early 20th century as they struggle to survive and gain acceptance in a racially charged era.
Alther discussed this and another of her recently published books during the Melungeon Heritage Association’s gathering last weekend.
She told those gathered that she had researched the novel for 10 years, beginning in 1996; the book was published last fall.
The novel focuses on the racial mixing that occurred in the region, though Alther said she abstained from using the term “Melungeon,” noting that through her research she has concluded that there is no such thing as the “Melungeon Story.” Each family whose ancestors made their way inland from the coast to the mountains has stories of the different ethnicities that were absorbed along the way, she said.
“As a result, if we considered the people on Newman’s Ridge with the standard Melungeon names as the Melungeons, it seems to me that they’re just the tip of the iceberg, that there are Melungeon-like groups all over the eastern third of the United States,” she said.
A description of the novel on Alther’s website notes that the Southeast “was not a barren wilderness when the English arrived at Jamestown. It was full of Native Americans, other Europeans, and Africans who were there for various reasons.”
“As the explorers and soldiers and settlers and their servants of varying ethnicities . . . arrived at the coast and as they worked their way inward, they collided with the native tribes and they mixed and mingled, as people always do, and the result was, as the years went by, some racially ambiguous people,” Alther explained. She ventured that those who appeared to be Native American or African or white joined their respective communities, but those whose ancestral origins were uncertain or those who did not want to leave family or friends created their own communities in locations considered undesirable by Europeans — swamplands or ridgetops. Here, they kept to themselves and were largely excluded and stigmatized by the surrounding communities. She said it was assumed these individuals had African ancestry, no matter what their real ancestry might have been.
These communities existed into the 20th century, she explained, with about 200 of these ethnically ambiguous groups located in the northeastern and southeastern U.S.
Through the characters in her book, Alther explores how these different ethnic groups could have blended, as well as what happened to them at a time when discriminatory laws regarding race were being implemented.
Alther has published six novels, including Washed in the Blood. Most recently, she published the narrative history, Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance. She also has a collection of short stories, Stormy Weather and Other Stories, that will be published in September.
MHA thanks the Coalfield Progress for permission to reproduce this article from the July 6, 2012 edition.
Researcher: Melungeons don’t deny ancestry (Glenn Gannaway, Staff Writer, the Coalfield Progress)
The notion that Melungeons are in denial about their ancestry misrepresents the history of these mixed-race peoples, says a researcher.
A study published last April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy — and mass media reports of the study — were “horribly unfair,” said Paul Johnson, corresponding secretary and vice president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, which held its 16th union last weekend at Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park.
The DNA study was limited to people whose families were called Melungeon in the historical records of the 1800s and early 1900s in two northeast Tennessee counties, Hawkins and Hancock, on the Virginia border.
The word “Melungeon” was used as a slur to describe a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border as long ago as the early 1800s, but the term has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mixed-race ancestry, according to reports of the genetics study.
The study concluded that Melungeon families are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and women of northern or central European origin.
Press reports have claimed that the study’s results upset people who claim Melungeon ancestry and say they can trace their lineage to more “exotic” sources, such as Turkish slaves or Gypsies.
One press report quoted the study’s lead researcher, Roberta Estes, as saying, “there were a whole lot of people upset by this study. They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”
The implication of the report was that, a century and more ago, Melungeons hid their African-American ancestry and that modern-day Melungeons in turn romanticized their origins. The study said that, in the 1800s, Melungeons denied their African-American heritage in order to retain a white identity at a time when laws penalized individuals with African-American blood.
“I find myself disagreeing with the narrative put out there” by reports of the genetics study, Johnson said. “Not to say that that’s not a factor. But that people told lies to cover up the truth is horribly unfair, because what they did was tell stories to cover up their ignorance.”
“You have generations of illiteracy, and even if they’re literate in terms of some reading and writing, what’s their historical literacy?” Johnson said of earlier generations of Melungeons. “They probably didn’t even know what an African was, but the knew what an Indian was. So they reached for an easy explanation.”
Johnson, himself the author of several books, including one related to mixed ancestry, said Melungeons themselves had already affirmed their African-American ancestry.
Johnson’s research into his own ancestry produced the book Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin.
In the core Melungeon area of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, “the general response was, there’s really nothing new here,” Johnson said of reaction to the study. “The affirmation of African-American ancestry was made by Melungeons to outsiders as far back as the 1890s and in 1848.”
Those Melungeons, Johnson said, listed Native American, English, African and Portuguese lines in their ancestry, a result of the “waves of people arriving on these ridges,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing about the data that upsets anybody. The report, and especially the AP (Associated Press) story portrayed Melungeons as in denial about their ancestry. The idea was that these were people who could not face the truth about their ancestry. … Nobody has a problem with the truth of the data, only the interpretation.”
Racial mixing has been common since the colonial period, and Melungeon heritage has more to do with culture than with DNA. As sociologist G. Reginald Daniel, who has spent more than 30 years examining mulit-racial peoples, was quoted as saying, “all of us are multi-racial.”
CULTURE, NOT DNA
The term “tri-racial isolate,” used to describe populations with Native American, African-American and white European ancestry, is “not a description of an individual’s DNA; it’s a description of a community,” Johnson said. “In isolated locations, people white, black and Indian were able to intermarry. By living that way, they became outlaws or outcasts who were not living according to the rules of the society around them. It doesn’t mean Melungeons were necessarily discriminated against, but because they were living up on a ridge” they were isolated and held ideas that were outside the mainstream, Johnson said.
Or, as Arwin Smallwood put it, referring to two Native American tribes of the Southeast, “it’s not genetics or blood that makes you Tuscarora or Iroquois, it’s the culture. So you had Africans, Native Americans and whites who were brought into the nation that way.”
Smallwood, who holds a doctorate in American history, studies the intersections between Caucasian, African-American and Native American peoples in the colonial period.
“When the Tuscarora and other native peoples adopted people — all kinds of people — in that adoption process, the genetics aren’t going to change. The white women, for example, are considered Indian, but their genetics won’t change,” Smallwood said.
Racial mixing in the New World dates to the 1500s, said Julie Williams Dixon, who is originally from Wise and who filmed “Melungeon Voices.”
Or, as Smallwood explained, intermarriage was common as the native peoples migrated from east to west ahead of the European settlers. “Pocahontas was not unusual; that was the norm,” Smallwood said. “A lot of single men came and took native wives.” Ties with the native peoples allowed European men to establish themselves in such enterprises as fur trading.
Media reports of the recently published genetics study “boiled a complex, beautifully nuanced story into a conflict,” Dixon said. “The story is hard to report on or summarize, and that’s what this group (the Melungeon Heritage Association) is trying to do. What’s the context in which the Melungeon story even unfolded?”
The mountainous frontier was a “magnet” for people attracted to freedoms that weren’t available in more settled areas, Johnson said, drawing individuals to the “free and easy life” of the Native Americans. “The first generations of Melungeons supposedly lived like Indians, regardless of their genetics. They might have been purely European or African, but when they arrived, their way of life was Indian.”
Or, as Johnson summarized with one striking image, people in Melungeon communities twisted their tobacco the way Native Americans did, not the way Europeans did.
MHA thanks the Coalfield Progress for permission to archive this article from the July 6, 2012 edition.
MHA at National Genealogical Society 2011
MHA’s four day presence at NGS was the perfect antidote to any perception we might have had that our interests are a small niche, relevant only to a tiny percentage of Americans. Julie Williams Dixon’s showing of Melungeon Voices on the first night of the conference drew a sizeable audience, as did Terry Mullins’s lecture presentation on Melungeons, “Cultural Diversity Comes Home.” But the combined 150 or so attendance at these programs was dwarfed by the number of people who visited the MHA booth in the exhibit hall. Most of the hundred and twenty booths were hosted by vendors of books and online databases, or local and state genealogical societies. The MHA booth was consistently once of the most visited, and often was swarmed by visitors between the sessions for genealogists. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that we had three authors and one filmmaker at the booth. Terry Mullins, Frank Sweet, Julie Williams Dixon, and I all spent hours responding to inquiries, as did S.J. Arthur, Elizabeth Williams, and Mary Lee Sweet. But all this activity was from the 1600 registered conferees who had paid to attend the event. On the final day, more than 600 more people arrived for free genealogy classes offered by ancestry.com, and they greatly increased the traffic in the exhibit hall. The influx of new people kept all of us busy answering nonstop questions; the most frequent being simply “What is a Melungeon?” Each of us heard story after story about mixed ancestry backgrounds, or family secrets and mysteries that hinted at such. We left feeling that the interest shown in the past for MHA’s work is only the tip of the iceberg and many thousands of Americans continue to discover that their own ancestry is more complicated than they had suspected.
One of the questions asked at the showing of Melungeon Voices was about the connection of the Melungeon story to the new book by Daniel Sharfstein, The Invisible Line. This provided an opening for MHA to announce the author’s participation as a featured speaker at 15th Union.