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.
So, I guess we'd better learn to pronounced it, (because I'd read the word before but not known what it was or how to pronounce until I saw on TV). Rhymes with "dungeon".
We have Mullins, Collins, Gobins and Gibsons around here. They call themselves Cajuns. (Lots of French influence around here)
Being Cajun probably makes for better meals; notwithstanding the fact that I'm not sure what constitutes Melungeon fare.
No, they're in West Virginia. Brothers and sisters marrying each other.
Yep! I knew of one more site about these folks, but now I can't find it.
I read that Abe Lincoln was one as well.
I guess Goins is the clinker.
Yikes is right......(cue the banjo music)
thought you might want to ping the Kentucky list to provide us with some insight, if possible.
This may interest you. Mandans?
I don't ave time today for a detailed response, but if interested google Melungeon, Brent Kennedy.
Kennedy is the father of the modern movement to research the subject and his findings are extremely interesting.
Here is a link to a brief discussion on the history of the Melungeons.
Story I heard was they were descendants of marooned (by the British) Portugese seamen who married indians and cohabited with them from the 1500's. Like to eat ramps which are wild leeks. DNA tests would be interesting.
"I read an article on them in the Asheville paper quite a few years ago. I think they claimed they were Portugese."
The Melungeons are concentrated in NE Tennessee, SW Virginia, and perhaps part of SE Kentucky. They are somewhat prevalent in Hancock County, Tennessee, particularly in the Newmans Ridge area. I had heard about them for some time, but had never knowingly run across one until several years back I made a trip to Sneedville (county seat of Hancock County). There I saw two men who fit the descriptions I had heard of perfectly: wiry hair, swarthy complexions, prominent noses. I immediately assumed they were Melungeons. Many people claiming to be of Melungeon heritage, however, look completely Western European. (Indicating, perhaps, that the physical descriptions I had heard of were incorrect or that such claimants had very little Melungeon blood in them.)
My understanding is that some thought that their ancestry traced to Portugal, while others tended to think they were Gypsies (of Egyptian origin?). It is a fascinating issue.
Melungeons is very close to the name Merovingians, who according to legend, were keepers of the Holy Grail or possible descendants of Jesus Christ.
Whoa....do I smell a conspiracy! These black-haired, blue-eyed people could really be the descendants of Christ. < /sarcasm>
population of people described as "possessing European beards, hair color, eyes and spoke a broken form of Elizabethan English." Their olive complexion and past experience with Mediterranean traders led the seasoned French explorers to conclude they had found a colony of "Moors" in the New World of North America. Because the geography of their find was unclear, the stories were dismissed by scholars and the reports discounted as unbelievable. Indian guides leading expeditions into the North American interior often told explorers about the "strange village of hairy people who, three times a day, would kneel with their faces eastward and pray at the ringing of a bell," but the stories were continuously dismissed by Europeans as superstitious legends.
I've researched Melungeons off and on for several years. They are a group of people who were already here when John Smith and gang landed in Jamestown. They were able to tell the Englishmen that they were "Porty-gee," so it's assumed that they may have Portuguese blood. They stayed one step ahead of the early frontier, serving as a buffer and as such, intermarried with Native Americans and probably escaping slaves. One theory says that Sir francis Drake dumped off a load of Turks in NC. So, it's generally believed that the ancestors of these folks are Turkish, Portuguese and more recently NA and African-American. Then, they stayed and intermarried among themselves in the hills of NC, TN, VA and KY. There's lots of theories. A very interesting group.
I just read a story about the blue people. It's a condition that was inherited from one man. I forget his name--Martin.... Fascinating.
Are you telling me the Holy Grail could be in Eastern Tennessee buried next to Buddy's BBQ & Tack Shop? Wouldn't that be something!
Did you see "Braveheart" it starred Mel Gibson. When they went into battle they painted thier faces blue. There may be some connection as it was about early Scotland/Ireland.
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