Skip to comments.Melungeon descendants celebrate their mysterious heritage
Posted on 08/02/2005 10:20:13 AM PDT by hispanarepublicana
FRANKFORT, Ky. - (KRT) - When S.J. Arthur started tracing her lineage more than 20 years ago, a fellow researcher stammered as she noticed recurring family names.
Was she connected to a unique group of people known as Melungeons, the researcher timidly asked, afraid Arthur might slap her. The reference was once considered a racial slur.
"I could be," Arthur replied. "I just don't know yet."
This weekend Arthur was one of dozens of Melungeon descendants who gathered in Frankfort, Ky., to shed the stigma that plagued their ancestors and try to grasp their mysterious heritage.
The Melungeons have been described as a "tri-racial isolate," with a mixture of white, black and Native American ancestry. Others have claimed Portuguese and Turkish lineage.
Often, they had olive skin, black hair and blue eyes, setting them apart from Scotch-Irish settlers in their native Appalachia.
The group has been there for more than two centuries, enduring discrimination until recently.
There are thought to be 50,000 to 100,000 Melungeons living in the United States today, still concentrated in Appalachia.
Because Melungeons tried to escape their ethnicity and the prejudice attached to it, their descendants have faced difficulty learning about their roots.
"Melungeons have been extremely misunderstood through the years. Some people don't even think they exist as a group," said state historian Ron Bryant.
Wayne Winkler, president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, said this weekend's conference, "Melungeons: Fact or Fiction," will help people understand better where they come from.
"A big part of Melungeon history is folklore," Winkler said. "Nobody was ever listed on a census record as a Melungeon. There isn't a Melungeon DNA marker."
But, Winkler said, last names such as Mullins, Goins, Collins and Gibson were common to Melungeons. Anyone encountering a relative with one of those names from Appalachia probably shares Melungeon heritage.
Until the past 20 years or so, such a branch in the family tree might not have been welcomed.
Ill-behaved children in eastern Tennessee and western Virginia were told the Melungeons would come for them.
Winkler's uncles weren't allowed to attend public school. Instead, they were forced to attend a Presbyterian mission - the Vardy school - in Sneedville, Tenn., for Melungeon children. The school, which opened in 1902, closed in the 1970s.
Most researchers say the word Melungeon - once a pejorative - comes from the French "melange," meaning mixture. Using the epithet against someone was likely to start a fight.
"There's no pure ethnic group," Winkler said. "There was a lot more to it than genetics. It's how people looked at you."
After a successful 1970s play about Melungeons in Hancock County, Tenn. - the center of Melungeon heritage - they became more accepting of their ancestry.
"Nobody would even say it before, and suddenly people were proudly putting it out there," Winkler said.
The Internet brought greater opportunity for Melungeons to trace their genealogy. But records on them were still murky.
"If you find a census record that says someone is a free person of color, that doesn't necessarily mean they were black," the historian Bryant said.
"They really didn't break it down so nicely in the old days. Now, people are embracing subject matter that was taboo. They're looking at it in a historical context. Even if their heritage is mixed, it doesn't matter anyway."
Arthur, vice president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, brought this year's convention to her hometown of Frankfort. The association meets every two years in Wise, Va., and holds its off-year meetings around the South.
"We're looking to discuss some of the migration patterns, some of the history that explains why we're so diverse," she said.
Arthur found her Melungeon heritage through the Mullins line.
"My people are who they are, whatever the combination may be," Arthur said. "It's only recently become acceptable to have a mixed-race heritage. But my personal journey started long before."
Having the convention in Frankfort also provided access to state archives.
The Kentucky Historical Society keeps a file of research for thousands of last names and books with records from surrounding states. The history center holds three files on Melungeons, including letters from 1942 between the secretaries of state for Tennessee and Virginia trying to figure out who the Melungeons were.
Bobbie Foust of Calvert City, Ky., combed court records at the history center Friday in search of information on her great-great-grandparents.
Their children married wealthy European sisters. Foust has had no trouble tracing that side.
But her great-great-grandmother was a Gibson from Appalachia. Records on her are scant.
After she went to the Melungeons' "Second Union" in Wise, Va., five years ago, she learned why: Her forebears were Melungeon.
Johnnie Rhea from Sneedville looked through marriage records Friday. She had difficulty finding information before the first U.S. Census in 1790.
"They didn't leave a paper trail," she said. "A colored person in our area was low, but Melungeons were even lower. We weren't protected."
© 2005, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).
Visit the World Wide Web site of the Herald-Leader at http://www.kentucky.com
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
I had heard about the Elvis/Melungeon connection but never knew what a Melungeon was. Still don't.
That special discussed the gamut: Cherokee, Black, Portugese, Native American Indian, Turkish......
It's been said that the prehistoric story of America is many times more convoluted than the little we know at present. At the rate things are being discovered, things that were simply bypassed in the rush West, it might be that the history is a thousand times richer than what we know about now.
What? Blue people? I once knew a guy who was blue (actually kind of blue-green). My parents told me he had some kind of heart condition.
Kind of like "keniwic (sp?) man", huh? I agree. There ARE wonders to be discovered and those already discovered that haven't been seen by many in the USA. Near where I live are the most amazing sand dunes that stretch for hundreds of miles in length but are only a few miles wide. They are thought to be the "beach" of the prehistoric inland sea that covered much of the Great Plains.
When the Indians were ordered out of Missouri in the 1800s, many came back, claiming they were "Black Dutch," or something like that.
Just what is "Black Dutch" and "Black Irish"? I'd always heard "Black Irish" were from the days of the Spanish Armada in Ireland, but I'm not completely sure that's right.
I probably wouldn't look too far into my family tree either, were I a Melungeon:
yikes. one never knows what one will find in root digging.
Here's a link about the Blue People: The Blue People of Kentucky
It looks like Kennewick man was firmly resident and his family, too. He wasn't a casual visitor. I wouldn't doubt that anybody who could build a boat could have ended up in America someplace, and people have been building boats for a long time. I would expect to find evidence of every type of people there is as archaeologists continue to dig.
My dad was a Welshman and claimed distant relatives painted their faces blue and built Stonehenge. Never knew if he was kidding...
I personally think they are simply a mixture of white and Indian.
For that matter, there is a tremendous variation among Indian tribes.
I'll bet that's what this guy that was a teacher at a neighboring school had! This hemoglobin "disorder"! I knew my parents said it was some kind of heart or blood disorder! He was more "teal" than outright blue, though. If I could just see a photo of the blue people, I'd know for sure.
PS: I'd heard of the Blue Grass of Ky; the Blue Moon of Ky; even the Blue Ridge Mountains; but I'd never heard of the Blue People. FR is so educational.
Fascinating article and ironic, too, since we're well on the way to becoming a mixture of races. We will all be Melungeons.
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