Mysterious Melungeons: Decoding an Appalachian Ancestry

May 31, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

Decades before the U.S. Declaration of Independence, English explorers noted an unusual community found in the Appalachian wilderness. They spoke a strange language, unknown to neighboring Native tribes, and their unique combination of dark skin and European features made them difficult to classify.

Were they descended from a lost tribe, remnants of an ancient breed, or a people of mixed race? There have been many theories surrounding the ancestry of the Melungeon people, but a new DNA study from the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate fiction from fact.

Hailing primarily from a few counties in eastern Tennessee, there are a vast number of exotic ancestries attributed to the Melungeon: Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony, Ottoman Turks, ancient Phoenicians, the lost tribes of Israel, Gypsies, escaped slaves, Sir Francis Drake’s rescued Caribbean Indians and Moorish slaves, abandoned pirates, Black Dutch, and several others.

Whatever the background, “Melungeon” is not a traditional name. Instead, it emerged as a disparaging term from local whites, suggesting a “mixed race.” But from the earliest days of U.S. history, Melungeons enjoyed a great deal of freedom that was unknown to blacks, Indians, and other mixed descendants. Documents show that Melungeons voted, owned land, and otherwise functioned as white people.

Researchers believe the unusual combination of dark skin and white status had much to do with claims of Portuguese ancestry. According to nearly all 1800- and early 1900-era documents, Melungeons recorded their own heritage as either Indian, white, or Portuguese. But evidence suggests that the Melungeons’ own historical accounts may not have been entirely accurate.

“If the Melungeons carried Portuguese ancestry, it is not from any of the Y chromosomal lines that have been tested,” the genealogy report states. “There is oral history to support the Portuguese claim, but no historical documents or genetic evidence have been discovered to prove Portuguese heritage for any of these families.”

According to researchers, false claims of Portuguese ancestry are a common pattern that stretches beyond the Melungeon families and that has often been used to explain any “dark countenance” found across the eastern half of the United States.

Researchers say that Melungeon assertions of Portuguese lineage likely emerged out of necessity. Consider an 1834 Tennessee constitutional amendment, which stated that even “free persons of color” were forbidden from a variety of civil rights. At a time when breeding meant everything, descendants from Europe’s dark-complexioned Portuguese could legally claim the same rights as whites.

The true Melungeon are gone for good, but historians say that descendants can be found in U.S. surnames, such as Goins, Shumake, Boltons, Breedlove, and others, pointing to a Melungeon heritage.

However, they are not nearly as widespread as some accounts suggest. According to former National Genealogy Society president Dr. Virginia DeMarce, Melungeon history has been erroneously expanded to provide “an exotic ancestry … that sweeps in virtually every olive, ruddy, and brown-tinged ethnicity known or alleged to have appeared anywhere in the pre-Civil War Southeastern United States.”

The Melungeons may not have been Portuguese, but there is ample evidence of African roots. Researchers say the DNA proof alone suggests a strong African component in Melungeon heritage. This data is corroborated by a multitude of historical documents for many families.

But while there is plenty of support for African heritage, researchers say there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any of the Melungeon ancestors were enslaved—ruling out the theory that they descended from escaped slaves.

As far as other Melungeon origin myths, researchers found no evidence to support that the people originated from Raleigh’s Lost Colony, or from Turkish, Middle Eastern, Jewish, or Gypsy heritage, as some have suggested. Strangest of all, perhaps, are claims that the Melungeon are descendants of Native Americans.

Despite a persuasive oral history of Native heritage, of the 15 primary Melungeon ancestral surnames, only one reveals genetic Native American ancestry, and only on the paternal line.

But unlike claims of Portuguese ancestry, which afforded a notable advantage in 19th-century America, claims of Native heritage would have been a liability, as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in particular, allowed the government to forcibly resettle Native populations west of the Mississippi.

“Beginning in 1830, Indian is not a label one wanted attached to their family, and at that point, almost anything else was preferable,” said researchers.

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