1. Who Are the Melungeons?
Melungeon is a term that first appeared in print in the 19th century, used in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to describe people of mixed ancestry. Melungeons were considered by outsiders to have a mixture of European, Native American, and African ancestry. Researchers have referred to Melungeons and similar groups as “tri-racial isolates,” and Melungeons have faced discrimination, both legal and social, because they did not fit into America’s accepted racial categories.
2. Are there other groups of people similar to the Melungeons?
As many as 200 different mixed ethnic groups have been identified in the eastern and southern United States, ranging from New York to East Texas. These include the Chestnut Ridge People of West Virginia, the Piscataway of Maryland, the Nanticokes and Moors of Delaware, the Ramapough Lenape Nation of New York and New Jersey, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians, and the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. These groups share a “mysterious” origin and have historically been stigmatized by neighbors. While each of the various groups possesses its own unique history and culture, historical and cultural evidence suggests a broad kinship between the groups and a possible common origin (especially for some families), though centuries of population dispersion and admixture have influenced the ethnic and social character of each of the separate populations.
3. Do these groups still exist?
Through intermarriage and migration away from their home regions, many of these groups have lost their collective identity in the last half-century and have blended into the majority population. Some groups with a predominantly Indian heritage have organized as tribes, and a few have gained limited government recognition. Others, like the Melungeons, are recognizing and celebrating their unique multi-ethnic heritage.
4. What does the word “Melungeon” mean?
The traditional explanation for the word “Melungeon” is the French mélange, meaning “mixture.” Another proposed theory for the origin of “Melungeon” is the Afro-Portuguese term melungo, supposedly meaning “shipmate.” Yet another is the Greek termmelan, meaning “black.” Other researchers have speculated that “Melungeon” derives from the Turkish melun can, (meaning “cursed soul”); the Italian melongena (“eggplant,” referring to one with dark skin), or the old English term “malengin” (“guile; deceit”). Nearly everyone who has written about the Melungeons agrees that they fiercely resented the name. However, in recent years, many Melungeons proudly bear the name and acknowledge their heritage.
5. What do Melungeons look like?
The earliest descriptions of the Melungeons varied widely, so it is unlikely there was ever a “typical” Melungeon appearance. They were described variously as having European, Native American, or African features, a reflection of the mixed ethnic nature of the Melungeons. Over the years, Melungeons intermarried primarily with whites, so most of today’s Melungeons appear “white.” However, some Melungeons consider themselves African-American, while others have a distinctly Native American or Mediterranean appearance.
6. How do people know who is a Melungeon?
Melungeons, like most of the other tri-racial groups, are known by family names. The surnames of the first recorded Melungeons included Collins, Gibson, Mullins, Goins, Bunch, Bowlin, and Denham. Over the generations, many other surnames have become associated with the Melungeons. Of course, these surnames are common names in America, and are only considered “Melungeon” names in the areas where Melungeons live.
7. Where do Melungeons live?
During the 19th century the name Melungeon was applied to people of mixed ancestry in Virginia and the Carolinas, but in the 20th century it was used mostly in northeastern Tennessee. Land and tax records show that some of the earliest Melungeon families in this region migrated from the tidewater and Piedmont regions of Virginia and North Carolina. The best-known Melungeon area is Hancock County, Tennessee, and particularly Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater (or Vardy) Valley. Other Melungeon communities or family groups were found in neighboring Hawkins County and Lee, Scott, and Wise Counties in Virginia. From these areas, Melungeons migrated and established communities in southeastern Kentucky, southeastern and middle Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, and as far north as eastern Ohio. Of course, not all Melungeon families stayed within their communities; many moved away where they would not face discrimination because of their ethnic heritage. During the 20th century, many Melungeons joined the outmigration from Appalachia to urban manufacturing centers.
8. What sort of discrimination did Melungeons face?
In a society where people were classified according to European concepts of race, the Melungeons, like other, similar groups, were in an awkward position. Neither white, black, nor Indian, their social status was below that of whites, but usually somewhat above that of African-Americans. Different groups faced different social and legal restrictions, depending on local customs and attitudes. In the 1840’s, several Melungeons were tried for illegal voting on the grounds that they were not white, and therefore ineligible to cast a ballot. However, they were acquitted. In Virginia, Melungeons were classified as “colored” by the Racial Integrity Act, which was in effect from 1924 to 1971. Most of the discrimination faced by Melungeons was social rather than legal; they were considered low-class, untrustworthy, and “tainted” by their African ancestry.
9. Where did the Melungeons originate?
That is the million-dollar question, the one that has fueled the imagination of journalists since the mid-19th century. Until recently, most scientists studying the Melungeons believed them to be – like most of the other tri-racial groups – the product of intermarriage between Anglo/Celtic Americans, Indians, and free African-Americans along the American frontier. Hancock County Melungeons, when first interviewed by outsiders about their heritage around 1890, defined themselves as Indian and Portuguese, but also acknowledged English and African ancestry. While most whites discounted the claim of Portuguese ancestry, believing it to be a means of denying African ancestry, generations of feature writers tapped into folklore and their own imaginations to develop theories to explain the origins of the Melungeons. Various writers suggested they were descendants of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, descendants of deserters from Hernando de Soto’s expedition, one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, descendants of shipwrecked pirates, or descendants of Carthaginian sailors. In each of these suggested scenarios, these overseas visitors intermarried with Indians and moved inland. Genetic studies have shown that Melungeons share genetic traits with populations in the Mediterranean, South Asia, and Middle East, as well as with northern Europeans, Native Americans, and African-Americans. Not all Melungeons share all these genetic traits; every family has its own unique ethnic history. These studies do not answer all of the questions about the origins of the Melungeons, of course. We cannot tell when these various ethnic components entered a particular family line. However, these findings do open the door to further speculation and study; the Melungeons’ origins are almost certainly more complex than originally thought.
10. Was there a unique Melungeon culture?
The Melungeons, like nearly all the other tri-racial groups, were culturally almost identical to their neighbors. Some Melungeons were fairly well off economically, but most worked on small farms – just like the whites in that region.
11. Why are people now discovering their possible Melungeon ancestry?
Even those who lived in Melungeon communities, or had close ties to those communities, often never heard the word “Melungeon” applied to themselves or their families; the term was considered an insult and was rarely said directly to the person it was describing. As Melungeon families and individuals migrated away from their home areas, they frequently wanted to leave the stigma of their ethnic heritage behind them. Their children and grandchildren were not told of their family’s heritage, since many considered it shameful, something to be hidden. Over the years, family legends about “an Indian great-grandmother” or “a Portuguese grandfather” seemed to explain the swarthy appearance of ancestors and descendents, but many genealogists found inexplicable gaps in their families’ histories, census designations for ancestors indicating “mulatto” or “free person of color,” and other mysteries.
The rise of the Internet in the mid-1990s coincided with the publication of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud Peopleby Brent Kennedy. This book suggested Turkish, Moorish, Jewish, Spanish, Portuguese, African, northern European, and Native American ancestry for the Melungeons, and theorized that the population of Melungeon descendents was much larger than previously assumed. Web pages and e-mail groups were devoted to the study of Melungeons, and the first Melungeon Union celebration was held in 1997. The Melungeon Heritage Association was formed in 1998 to facilitate research and disseminate information. In 2002 a joint resolution signed by presidents of MHA and the Vardy Community Historical Society agreed to cooperation between the two organizations, and made a statement of principles affirming kinship among all mixed ancestry groups.
12. How can I find out if I have Melungeon ancestry?
If you have a connection to a documented Melungeon family, you obviously have Melungeon ancestry. However, it can be very difficult to find a “documented” Melungeon family. Prior to 1900, the entire written record of Melungeons consisted of less than a dozen newspaper and magazine articles, nearly all focusing on the Hancock County group, and only a few individual Melungeons were identified in these articles.
Researchers have identified several surnames as “Melungeon” names (see the surname lists elsewhere on this website). Again, these names are common in America, and only in areas where Melungeons lived were they associated with that population. If you find records of ancestors in these areas who have “Melungeon surnames,” there is a strong possibility you have Melungeon ancestry – particularly if some family members are listed as non-white in census reports.
Remember, Melungeons did not begin to identify themselves as such until the mid-1960s. Their neighbors imposed the name on them, and their neighbors defined who was and who was not a Melungeon – and those definitions were not always consistent. There were no tribal rolls, no records identifying a certain group of people as Melungeons. As a result, most people will find it difficult to establish a Melungeon ancestry with any certainty.
13. Can DNA testing establish a Melungeon ancestry?
There is no “Melungeon gene.” Melungeons are an ethnic and racial mixture and genetic tests reflect that mixture. Furthermore, this mixture is different in each Melungeon family. DNA testing, combined with genealogical research, can provide clues that might suggest Melungeon ancestry