Joseph Scolnick presentation, 2004

Scolnick: 6/17/04

From Anatolia To Appalachia

by Joseph Scolnick

Presented at Fifth Union
Kingsport, Tennessee
Thursday, 17 June 2004

In deciding which aspects of From Anatolia To Appalachia: A Turkish-American Dialogue to emphasize in this afternoon’s talk, Brent Kennedy and I decided that it would be useful both to lay out the possible evidence for the Ottoman/Turkish-Melungeon relationship as well as to discuss several issues that relate to “proof” of the validity of the relationship and so these are the two major topics of my talk. When they have been covered, a couple of brief remarks about other aspects of our book will serve as my conclusion

To start, why does today’s subject interest me? Because it is unlikely that I am a Melungeon, how did I become interested in Melungeon affairs in general and in the Ottoman/Turkish-Melungeon relationship in particular? Actually, it all began during a lunch with Brent Kennedy at a local restaurant in Wise in the fall of 1997. It was at this meal that I first heard about Melungeons and the possible Ottoman/Turkish- Melungeon connection. Every aspect of our conversation interested me, especially the part about the Mediterranean connection. Let me say a few words about this.

My main academic field is International Relations. When I first heard about the subject of Melungeons and their background, I was already interested in Southern Europe. I had become a naval officer (via NROTC) after receiving my B.A. degree in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia in 1961. For 8 ½ months in 1962, my ship, the U.S.S. Taconic (AGC-17), cruised the Mediterranean. During that voyage, we visited ports in Italy, Spain, France, and Greece. Those countries were fascinating and their attraction has never weakened.

During my introduction by Brent to the subject of the Melungeons, I realized that despite my having already earned three academic degrees and having taught at the college level for twenty-eight years, my knowledge of the Ottoman Empire and of modern Turkey was essentially nil. As a result of that initial conversation and what has followed it, I have been reading for the last five years plus about these subjects, especially modern Turkey.

What else? I have visited Turkey three times with Melungeon groups. Wonderful, exhausting, unforgettable trips! Far too much occurred during them for me to even begin to discuss it all here. What else? I presently offer a course in Southern European Governments And Politics (France, Italy, and Spain) and also one on Modern Turkey at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Moreover, I had a hand in my school becoming a sister institution of Istanbul and Dumlupinar Universities in Turkey; it is splendid having students from Istanbul University on our campus every year. And then there is the book with Brent that I’m going to discuss today and, hopefully, another we will collaborate on. “Inshallah” as the Turks say; if God wills it! So this gives you a little of my background as a speaker. Let me go directly now to my first major topic.


In my introduction to the Melungeons, I first heard about something called a “tri-racial isolate.” This was entirely new to me. Apparently, it was not only commonly believed but also enforced law in Virginia that all of the people of this region were Caucasian (Northern European), Black, Native American, or some combination of the three. Nothing else! And the results of this belief and law had horrendous effects on all of the people who did not claim to be and look Northern European. These laws were cruel, unfair, almost certainly inaccurate, and could not ultimately stand. But from what direction would a successful challenge to the belief and law come? One answer is the Melungeon hypothesis: that many of the people of this region have elements of their genetic backgrounds other than only those three just mentioned. One additional genetic element comes from the Mediterranean region; part of this is the Ottoman/Turkish connection.

As the Melungeon hypothesis was laid out for me, it had basically three parts. The first part is that the people of the Mediterranean were of greatly varied ancestry; “Spaniards”, “French”, “Turks” then were really mixtures of different groups. This was obviously true. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Mediterranean region knows that these peoples have been mixing with each other since before recorded history. (The reasons for the mixture are too numerous to go into here.) So, for example, many, if not all of the “Spaniards” who sailed to the New World were almost certainly a very heterogeneous group. Among them, in all likelihood, would be people with ties to the Ottoman Empire; an enormous area covering, at different times, up to the gates of Vienna, Southern Russia, Anatolia (the heartland of modern Turkey), to the borders of Persia (Iran), the Arabian peninsula (including the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina), the entire Middle East, and all of North Africa except Morocco. So, to be “Spanish” or “Portuguese” in that time period was to likely possess at least some Ottoman (i.e. Turkish) heritage.

The second part is that the Spanish, French, and Portuguese sent ships to the New World, including the southeastern part of the United States, and these ships contained people of mixed backgrounds including peoples of Ottoman/Turkish background. That the ships were sent is beyond dispute. That these ships contained people of mixed background is almost as certain. And it is highly likely, given the situation in the Mediterranean during these centuries, that people of Ottoman (and Anatolian) backgrounds were on them. Is it conceivable that all of the people on the Spanish ships were Spanish grandees? That boggles the mind. So the second part of the Melungeon hypothesis is also almost certainly correct.

By the way, I need to mention another possibility here and it is that Ottoman galleys could have sailed and landed in the New World. It is commonly thought that the types of ships used by the Ottomans would never have successfully attempted the journey; although fine for the Mediterranean Sea, they would never have successfully made it across the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is recorded that Ottoman ships raided Europe from the Atlantic, some even attacking Britain. So why couldn’t Ottoman ships have made it to the Southereastern U.S. during the most favorable season of the year? We have no hard evidence for this but it was certainly feasible.

The third part of the Melungeon hypothesis is that some portion of the people on the Spanish, Portuguese, and French ships in one way or another landed in the Southeastern United States, were left there, made their way inland, were accepted by Native American tribes, and produced descendants who were in that region when the British later arrived and found them. There is nothing impossible or even implausible about this. If we know anything about humans, it is that some of them are incredibly tenacious and adaptable. They not only survive awe-inspiring hardships but even thrive in the most difficult environments. But what is the evidence that this actually occurred?

Here are some possibilities of how the ancestors of the Melungeons arrived in this region centuries ago. The list is not exhaustive.

1. There were substantial Spanish settlements in the Carolinas. One was Santa Elena in present day South Carolina. Many members of this settlement were stranded when the Spanish abandoned their settlements.

2. There were expeditions from the Southwestern into the South Atlantic regions of the United States centuries ago by the Spanish and Portuguese. Were any of these explorers left behind?

3. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake is believed to have left behind hundreds of Moors and Turks on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Drake’s operations in the Caribbean against the Spanish were extensive. Many ships were involved. Spanish prisoners as well as others held by the Spanish were taken with Drake’s ships. Where did they all come ashore?

4. Karachai and Kavkas silk workers were brought over by the 16th century Spanish to the New World. They worked in Cuba, Mexico, Florida, and the American Southwest. They could have left descendants.

5. Turks and Armenians were among the indentured servants of the Jamestown colony in Virginia in the first quarter of the 17th century. Did they have descendants? Where did they live when they left the colony?

6. Queen Elizabeth I of England is believed to have made an agreement with the Ottoman Sultan and the King of Morocco to populate the New World in order to shut out her enemies, the Spanish and French. To what extent was the plan carried out?

Let me emphasize what I said a few minutes ago that this list is almost certainly incomplete as well as inaccurate. But the main point here is that there were a number of opportunities for people of Mediterranean origin to have been left behind in this region centuries ago. Nevertheless, what is the direct evidence that they existed, admixed with native people of the region, and left descendants, some of whom we call “Melungeon” today? The first two parts of the Melungeon hypothesis are surely accurate. It is the third part for which there is inadequate evidence. So if this is all that exists of evidence for the origins of the Melungeons , we can say that although the situation could well have occurred as just discussed, the evidence is insufficient to be sure about it. A great deal of research remains to be done on a number of aspects of the hypothesis about the origins of the Melungeons.


There is a good deal more than I have discussed so far that indicates that the basic Melungeon hypothesis is essentially correct and that there is an Ottoman/Turkish component to many of these people. In fact, it is likely that the probable offspring of those left behind centuries ago live in this region today. Indeed, they are some of the folks at my college and neighbors. Let’s look at them for a bit and note some of their characteristics

Possible Evidence

1. DNA-Genetic Studies. In 1990, a reanalysis of an earlier study found genetic links of 177 Melungeons to the populations of Portugal, the Canary Islands, Italy, North Africa, Malta, Turkey, and Cyprus. Another test done in 2002 detected links between the Melungeons to Northern European, Black, and Native American populations as well to the people of Turkey and Northern India. And it seems that the genetic links are in both the paternal and maternal Melungeon lines indicating both male and female ancestors in the New World. But I really do not feel capable of discussing genetics at any length. Later today, Professor Kevin Jones of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise is scheduled to be a speaker. He is an expert on DNA and genetics and can probably answer most of your questions about this subject.

2. Diseases. It appears that Melungeons have certain diseases in numerical proportions that they should not have if they are truly tri-racial isolates. These diseases are far more common in the Mediterranean area than in Northern Europe; thalassemia, Tay-Sacks disease, sarcoidosis, Machado-Joseph disease, Behcet’s syndrome, and familial Mediterranean fever are the ones I am aware of. This is not definite “proof” but it is indicative of a Mediterranean connection.

3. Physical Markers. These are physical characteristics of Central ASIANS and Turks, often found in Melungeons, but not in most Northern Europeans. What are they? Here are several: a total lactose deficiency, Asian shovel teeth, a Central Asian cranial bump, six fingers on each hand (commonly removed at birth) – a trait of Turks of the Aegean region – and epicanthic folds on the eyelids. Again, not proof in itself but indicative of a connection.

4. Physical Phenotypes. On this topic, let me quote Professor Doctor Turan Yazgan, President of the Turkish World Research Foundation with its headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey. This is from page 87 of the book Brent and I wrote: “When I first looked at Brent Kennedy’s face, I was looking at my nephew. Physically, he is the twin brother of my nephew, Atakan Yazgan. While this is not DNA, physical phenotypes do tell us certain things about probable kinship.” Very interesting; physical phenotypes should not to be ignored.

5. Family Memories and Tales. When asked about their origins, Melungeons commonly mention “Portyghee”, “Jew”, and “Turk,” along with Native American, as some of their family origins. Naturally, the family memories could be incorrect for many reasons. For one thing, we know that people often lie about their backgrounds either to gain some advantage or to avoid some harm. For example, when speaking to British people in the 16th or 17th centuries, Spaniards might usefully claim to be Portuguese because Portugal was a British ally and Spain, an enemy. But why claim to be of Turkish origin? What is the possible gain? Thus, these family memories may be incorrect but are not likely to be the result of deliberate lies. And they ought to be taken seriously when found in conjunction with other facts.

6. Non-Verbal Movements. People of different areas and cultures tend to use different non-verbal head, facial, hand, and body gestures that show agreement, disagreement, impatience, pleasure, anger, confusion, uncertainty, and much more. These non-verbal movements also are often passed from one generation of a family or group to the next. Without attempting to show examples of this today, let me just state that there appears to be some commonality between a number of these non-verbal behaviors in Melungeons and Turks (e.g. The “clicking” of one’s tongue against the teeth to indicate “no.”). As with much else mentioned here, this is worthy of extensive further study.

7. Life Style – Social/Cultural Elements. I mean “culture” here in the broadest terms. I have been to Turkey three times with Melungeon groups. The Turks and Melungeons tend to easily and quickly take to each other; they seem very compatible. The reasons for this are complex and outside my expertise. But it seems a worthy enterprise to study common social and cultural attributes of both groups. What sorts of things would be looked at? Here are a few. We would study family organization and interpersonal expectations and behavior. We also would perhaps compare their foods, design patterns, stories/tales, superstitions, musical instruments, music, dances, and perhaps language itself as some of the comparisons to make. At any rate, the Turks and Melungeons I have observed interact with each other tend to find a lot in common and do this almost instantly. At the least, this apparent commonality of the two groups is very interesting although again not conclusive “proof.” So there is a great deal just waiting to be studied in this category.

Is all of what I’ve just discussed convincing “proof” of the Ottoman/Turkish-Melungeon relationship? No. Some of the similarities may be superficial and are not a sign of genuine common identity. But, and it is a big “but”, all of what I’ve just discussed is surely strongly suggestive that a connection exists. And there is more than enough to make it evident that the proposed Ottoman/Turkish-Melungeon relationship is worthy of extended, intensive study.


Let me talk about “proof” in the Social Sciences for a few moments in layman terms. Let’s start by stating that nothing will ever show the validity of the Melungeon hypothesis with its Ottoman/Turkish- Melungeon component in such a way that it will be unanimously accepted and never questioned again. This is not mathematics. This is not mathemathical proof. I am discussing a subject that involves a variety of fields of study. Many aspects of it though not all involve the Social Sciences. A lot of the truly interesting and important questions in the Social Sciences will never have precise, totally convincing answers. That’s just the way things are. We almost never can say absolutely “yes” although sometimes we can say definitely “no” and that is the situation with the Melungeon hypothesis. So no standard of evidence, of proof, should be expected beyond what the nature of the subject permits.

In much Social Science research, what is meant by “proof”? Actually, it is examining all of the evidence presented for and against a particular hypothesis (statement) and then, as objectively as possible, attempting to determine whether the pros or the cons regarding a specific hypothesis appear to be stronger. In this regard, much Social Science research is done in terms of levels or degrees of “probability.” In other words, scholars look at all of the evidence and attempt to determine as well as possible how probable (likely) it is that something is correct. At times this can be done fairly precisely and with a good deal of confidence in the final decision. And, yes, sometimes the results are too murky to say almost anything definite. So I am talking here about determining as well as possible how likely it is that the Melungeon hypothesis is substantially correct. Right now, among other things, there is a need for further study in many fields in order to determine just what is and is not relevant evidence in support of the hypothesis. But even at this relatively early stage of the study of the subject, it appears that there is sufficient solid supportive evidence for people to make two tentative conclusions.

What are they? First, the evidence definitely suggests that the tri-racial isolate hypothesis is almost certainly incorrect. It is far too simple a view of the genetic and cultural makeup of the people of this region. That is clear although it may take a long time before this conclusion is widely accepted. The second tentative conclusion is that there is sufficient reason to vigorously push ahead with many areas of study related to the Melungeon hypothesis; there is more than enough evidence to make it worthy of serious study. But what will it take to encourage, financially support, and communicate this research? Now this is a separate subject in itself that I will not take up today.

In talking further about the issue of “proof”, let me touch briefly on three issues: written evidence, unanimity, and finality. First, what about written evidence? Is it necessary for valid scholarship? No, it is not. In some fields, there is little or no written/printed material to even consider. Moreover, written materials, among other things, may be incorrect, incomplete, accidentially false, and deliberately false. For one example, consider The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th century Czarist Russian police fabrication, that claims to show that Jews have a secret plan to take over the world and is believed by many people in Europe and the Middle East; it is completely false yet has been believed and acted on by millions of people. So there definitely is no good reason for faith in the truth of something merely because it has been published or is in writing. My field is International Relations. Many government and national leaders deliberately or accidentally distort much of what they say and write. Good written material can be tremendously valuable in studying many subjects. It ought always to be looked for. But its absence does not necessarily prevent learning a great deal about a subject and drawing intelligent conclusions about it.

By the way, the relative absence now of documents in the study of the Melungeons and the Ottoman/Turkish-Melungeon relationship does not mean that exceptionally valuable written material does not exist, just that it has not come to light yet. I suspect there is a great deal of useful material in the Ottoman, Spanish, and Portuguese national archives just waiting to be discovered.

Well, how about “unanimity”? Forget about it. It will never exist. Take the subject of the Jewish holocaust in WWII. Among other things, the Nazi were meticulous record keepers. All of their records are in safe keeping. And there is SO much else! The evidence for the occurrence of the holocaust can be measured by the miles and tons! In factual terms, arguing against it is almost as absurd as arguing that WW II did not occur. Yet there are some people today who deny that the holocaust ever occurred or claim it was far less bad than the evidence overwhelmingly shows. Books have even been published with these ridiculous claims. So, no, unanimity of agreement about the Melungeon hypothesis almost certainly will never exist regardless of the extent of the evidence supporting it.

What about “finality”, a closing of the subject? But in the Social Sciences at least (and in most other subject areas too), no subject is ever closed. Scholars are always free to challenge any fact or conclusion and to attempt to show why they are correct. When they can successfully do this, the subject is re-opened. And it is desirable. To freeze a subject once and for all tends to be harmful in the long run. So most likely controversy about the Melungeon hypothesis will continue as long as someone remains interested in it but that is very okay. It is healthy.


I was hesitant about choosing today’s main topic for a number of reasons. One of them was that it would present a distorted picture of the nature and subject matter of the book. What I’ve discussed are important aspects of the book but they are far from dominating it. Even more important topics of the book are the development of current and growing relations between Melungeons and Turks, why they are developing, how the people involved feel about it, and what hopes they have for it. All of this has been omitted so far from my talk but it is exceptionally important.

In addition, it should be emphasized that the relationship is ongoing, all of the people involved are alive and many are active. There is no final story to tell. The future will be what is made of it. Why wait to tell this story until most of these people have passed from the scene? Now is the time to explore it, near its inception, and so that is what Brent and I have done in the book. I needed to say that.

Finally, I want to say a few words about why the Turkish-Melungeon relationship matters. After all, it is not famous or important, is it? Well, it certainly is not “famous” but how about “important”? Let’s talk about what is important. The story deals in part with self-discovery, identity, freedom, connectivity with others, and belonging. It also involves intelligence, courage, integrity (personal and professional), kindness, generosity, endurance, decency, even love. Do these matter?

In our society today, “conflict” is news, “sex” and “violence” sells products, and insults qualify people as “experts” on television political discussion shows. Our book has virtually none of this, I am delighted to state here. I view it as a fairly joyful story, clean, kind, and optimistic.

What matters in life? Connectivity with others matters, simple decency matters, fairness matters a lot, integrity, kindness, inner strength, they all matter more than I can say. They always have and they always will. Perhaps stories with these qualities do not sell well in the modern market place but life would be hell without them. They are a good part of what many people attempt to live by and for. So the Melungeon story with its Ottoman/Turkish-Melungeon connection matters. The people involved matter. And the book matters too; it has its story to tell, small in some ways, larger in others. It is part of the story of human survival. It is part of the story of the attempt of people throughout centuries to live decently and well. In short, it is part of what humans have made of themselves so far. It definitely has value.

I am pleased I had the opportunity to work on the book with Brent. It was well worth my time and effort. Just having had it published is sufficient reward for me. My hope now is that others find something of value in it.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Joseph Scolnick is professor of Political Science at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and the author, with Brent Kennedy, of From Anatolia to Appalachia: A Turkish-American Dialogue.