Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The mystery of the Melungeons -- solved?

by Sandra Parshall

Two continuing characters in my Rachel Goddard series, Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger and Rachel’s young friend Holly Turner, are Melungeons, descended

from mixed-race people who have lived in the southern Appalachians for hundreds of years. Unlike most Americans, who know where their mothers’ and fathers’ families originated, Tom and Holly have no firm answers to the most basic human questions: Who am I and where did I come from? For them, the quest for identity requires navigating through centuries of misinformation and huge gaps in history, and overcoming an entrenched sense of shame.

Myths and legends abound. Melungeon DNA projects, including a widely-reported study released in 2012, have produced conflicting results and no indisputable answers. 

As the most popular legend goes, Melungeons were “discovered” by explorers 400 years ago, living deep in the mountains in houses with windows, a European feature of dwellings unknown to Native Americans. Their dark skin and straight black hair, together with European features and, in some individuals, blue eyes set them apart from both Caucasians and the native tribes in the area. According to the legend, which many have long accepted as history, they spoke broken English and identified themselves as “Portygee.” Who were they? Where did they come from? And what does the name “Melungeon” mean?
Their self-identification as “Portygee” created speculation that they descended from Portugese sailors whose ship sank off the coast of Virginia, forcing them to make new lives in a new land. Moving into the mountains, as the legend has it, they became farmers and found mates among Native Americans and escaped slaves. Certain names – including Bridger and Turner – have always been common among Melungeons.

No one is certain where the term Melungeon originated, although it could be a corruption of the French word melange, meaning a mixture, the Old English word malengin, meaning deceit or trickster, or the African word malungu, meaning shipmate. Wherever it came from, it was an insult. Melungeons have always suffered from racial discrimination, so it’s not surprising that for most of their history they have despised the label. Those who moved away from the mountains usually left the name behind, and their children grew up believing they were “Black Irish” or Spanish or Italian.

In recent years, largely thanks to Virginia scholar Brent Kennedy’s exploration of his own roots in The Melungeons: Resurrection of a Proud People, many Americans have uncovered and claimed their Melungeon history. The Melungeon Heritage Association, based in Wise, Virginia, has opened a window on the past, and its website ( is a treasure trove of information.

For most Melungeons, though, the basic questions remain: Who am I? Where did I come from?

A study of Melungeon DNA conducted more than a decade ago by Kevin Jones, a biologist at the University of Virginia College in Wise, was intended to shed light on diseases such as Familial Mediterranean Fever, sarcoidosis, and thalessemia, which appear to occur more frequently in Melungeons than in the general population. Thirty men and 120 women participated. In the course of the study, Jones discovered a rare DNA sequence that is common only to the Siddis, a northern India tribe of “untouchables” descended from African slaves, sailors, and merchants. Brent Kennedy had previously learned through a private study of his own DNA that he was genetically linked to the Siddis.

Results of the more recent study, begun in 2005, were published in "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population" in the Journal of Genetic Geneaology, April 2012. Participation was restricted to 69 male lines and eight female lines that can be traced unbroken back to Melungeons in the 1800s and early 1900s. The evidence showed that these genetic lines were descended from sub-Saharan African men and from white women of central or northern European origin. The authors of the study theorized that the first Melungeons were the offspring of black and white indentured servants who lived in Virginia in the 1600s, before slavery.

Lead researcher Roberta Estes told the press that the study left “a whole lot of people upset” because it appeared, according to news media accounts, to refute claims to Mediterranean heritage and define Melungeons as a simple black/white biracial group.

But Wayne Winkler, a leader of the Melungeon Heritage Asssociation, doesn’t see it that way. In comments to Blue Ridge Country magazine, he said “there are still a great many possibilities open to exploration.” While the study found genetic links to sub-Saharan Africa in the male descendants of some early Melungeons, it did not rule out Native American or Portuguese ancestry. In fact, one man participating in the study has Native American genes.

Research will undoubtedly continue, because this sort of mystery is irresistible both to the researchers and the people hungry for answers about their heritage. Wherever the first Melungeons may have come from, they and their offspring married not only other Melungeons but also whites, blacks, and Native Americans. Today Melungeons are part of the great melting pot like the rest of us, and due to intermarriage many lack the physical characteristics that would identify them at a glance as mixed race.

Appalachian writers from Jesse Stuart to Sharyn McCrumb have included Melungeons as characters in their fiction, usually presenting even present-day Melungeons as mysterious, isolated, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. But Melungeons no longer live in distinct communities, and many left the mountains long ago. My characters Tom and Holly both have dark olive skin and black hair, and Tom’s profile makes Rachel think of a Cherokee chief, but they are very much a part of the mainstream community. They are, more than anything else, Americans.


Sheila Connolly said...

What an interesting post! DNA analysis is gradually changing genealogy as we know it (often with some undesired surprises!). I wonder how long it will be before the persistent myth of the "Cherokee princess" somewhere up the line will be either debunked or confirmed (my husband's family claims one, as well as a rather bloody murder, never explained).

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sounds like some theorists are disregarding DNA evidence, ie "Don't confuse me with facts." My thought on reading "explorers 400 years ago" was that 400 years ago was 1613, 7 years before the Mayflower landed. Jamestown was settled in 1607. Did they have glass in their own windows six years later? And time to go exploring? I guess my basic question is: How do you sort out the myth-making from legit research?

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, I've never seen any claim that the settlers who were "discovered" in the mountains in the 1600s had glass in any form. But they were described as living in houses (not typical Native American shelters)with window openings in the walls.

The DNA Project tested a narrow sampling of people who can trace their Melungeon ancestry, without breaks, back to written records. Since the word "Melungeon" didn't appear in print anywhere until the early 1800s, that's not far back, historically speaking.

Melungeons were spread out over the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virgina, and Tennessee, so intermarriage with blacks, whites, and Native Americans could have (and has) occurred anywhere and at any time, producing a varied group of people who call themselves Melungeons. The DNA Project is an attempt to discover the original roots of the group, though, and it seems to me that the limited number of people tested has, not surprisingly, produced a limited answer.

Llyn K. said...

Great post, Sandy! Clever of you to have included people from this background in your books.

Alice Duncan said...

This was fascinating! Thanks.

Sandra Parshall said...

Here's an excellent newspaper piece about the DNA study and its inherent biases, as well as the skewed way it was reported in the press.

Kaye George said...

After I read about these people in your books, I mentioned something to my son and he said he went to medical school with one. My son had no idea what it meant, just that the guy was Melungeon. Fascinating people to learn about!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth's "Don't confuse me with the facts" comment is very apt. There was a DNA testing done several years ago with a British researcher. The results were, as he delicately put it, that if you lived in this area and read a book that said you were Melungeon and wanted to call yourself that, you could. He added that genetically speaking, he himself could qualify as a Melungeon. The idea, as I recall, was that the Mediterranean elements were probably introduced BEFORE the people immigrated to the New World through intermarriage to various peoples of Europe, including Moors, Spanish, Italian, etc.

Kennedy had done a lot to publicize Melungeons but he's done a great deal of damage to research. His broad definitions have caused people to decide that based on common surnames (Adams, Bolling, Mullins) that they are Melungeon descendants. This makes it difficult to determine who is really Melungeon. In times past, everyone in the area claimed Native American descent; now claiming Melungeon descent is every bit as prevalent, and with about the same amount of evidence. He also chose to disregard his own genealogical background and information given to him by family researchers when it didn't suit his purpose.

What bothers me is the disservice it does to those who really ARE of Melungeon descent. It makes it much harder to discover the truth. It widens the pool those claiming Melungeon decent, which means DNA evidence is less reliable, i.e. if someone claims Melungeon descent who has never been considered Melungeon previously, then their DNA sample may skewer results.