The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry first documented in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia in the early 19th century. As a group, the Melungeons were considered by outsiders to have a mixture of European, Native American, and African ancestry. Researchers have referred to the Melungeons and similar groups as “tri-racial isolates.”
• Are there other groups of people similar to the Melungeons?
As many as 200 different mixed ethnic groups have been identified in the eastern United States, ranging from New York to Louisiana. These include the Guineas of West Virginia, the We-Sorts of Maryland, the Nanticokes and Moors of Delaware, the Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. These groups share a “mysterious” origin and have historically been stigmatized by neighbors. While each of the various “subgroups” possesses its own unique history and culture, historical and cultural evidence suggests a broad kinship between the groups and a possible common origin, though centuries of population dispersion and admixture have influenced the ethnic and social character of each of the separate populations.
• 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.
• What does the word “Melungeon” mean?
The traditional explanation for the word “Melungeon” is the French melange, meaning “mixture.” Another proposed theory for the origin of “Melungeon” is the Afro-Portuguese term melungo, supposedly meaning “shipmate.” Yet another is the Greek term melon, 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.
• 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.
• 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 Melungons names 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.
The Melungeons were first documented in the Clinch River region of southwest Virginia and northeast 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 Highland County, 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.
• Are Melungeons susceptible to certain diseases?
The diseases most widely reported as relating to Melungeons include Familial Mediterranean Fever, thallasemia, and several other ailments. The only real significance of these diseases in relation to Melungeons is that some people of Melungeon descent have been diagnosed with these diseases, many of which tend to affect people of Mediterranean ancestry, and are relatively rare among the Anglo-Saxon of Celtic people of Appalachia. Those who have one of these diseases have reason to believe that someone in their ancestry had an ethnic disposition to this particular disease. However, it is a mistake to assume this ailment, in and of itself, is an indication that one is a Melungeon. Relatively few people of Melungeon descent have these diseases, but unfortunately several reports have focused on the disease issue to the point where many believe that having one of these diseases is a primary indication of Melungeon ancestry, or that all Melungeons are afflicted.
• Where did the Melungeons originate?
This question 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. The early Melungeons claimed to be of Indian and Portuguese 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 die Mediterranean 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• Can DNA testing establish 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.
For more information, visit the Melungeon Heritage Association website at www.melungeon.org or visit the Logan County Genealogical Society. There is reference materials on Melungeons that can be reviewed.
Logan County Genealogical Society meetings are held on the second Monday of each month at 6 p.m. in the Logan Area Public Library at Logan. Anyone wishing to learn more about researching their ancestors is welcome to attend the meetings or follow them on Facebook at Logan County WV Genealogical Society.