Melungeons in Virginia
the Melungeons community is concentrated in the Valley and Ridge province of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee
Source: US Geological Survey National Map
The Melungeons are an ethnic group in southwestern Virginia, concentrated in the Powell River and Clinch River watersheds of Lee, Scott, and Wise counties. The center of the Melungeon community is around Newman's Ridge in Tennessee, near Sneedville in Hawkins County.
The Melungeon are a mixed-race group which has claimed to be descended from Portuguese and Turkish ancestors. That was an effective story developed in the early 1800's to minimize increasing racial discrimination.
Fear of slave revolts and increasing racial bias among whites after 1800 led to new limits on social and economic opportunity for anyone with African heritage. A claim to being "Portuguese" could create sufficient ambiguity for people to be classified as white, so long as a neighbor did not contest the claim in court in order to gain some advantage. For example, some people classified as "free people of color" in the 1830 Census in northeastern Tenneseee were categorized as "white" in the 1840 Census.
However, as described in a 2021 report published in Journal of Genetic Genealogy:1
- Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.
Mixed-race families formed initially on the boundaries of English settlement, as white indentured servants brought from England and blacks imported involuntarily from Africa had children together. Mixed-race families faced racial discrimination in Virginia as "black" became associated with "enslaved" during the 600's, and a legal system evolved to maintain chattel slavery. Children born to a white mother were technically free, but anyone with a dark skin color risked being accused of being an escaped slave.
Mixed-race communities developed in all the southern colonies. In southeastern Virginia, maroon communities survived in the Dismal Swamp on lands that white settlers did not desire to farm. As the English population grew in the Piedmont, mixed-race families had to migrate west to stay in the borderlands and avoid being surrounded by white farmers.
The people who ended up being labeled "Melungeons" moved west from early Hanover County and Louisa County in the 1720's, ultimately crossing the Blue Ridge into the New River Valley of Tennessee and Virginia. As more settlers moved south along the Wilderness Road, the Melungeons moved further south. As English settlers crossed the Blue Ridge to occupy Tennessee after the American Revolution, the Melungeons were squeezed out of the fertile valley bottomlands with limestone soils. They moved uphill to lands not desired by the white farmers, clearing patches of forest on mountain ridges with less-productive farmland on top of sandstone and shale bedrock.
By the early 1800's, there were around 40 families living near the Virginia-Tennessee border who had physical features that distinguished them from the settlers with English, Scottish, Irish, and German ancestors.2
An 1848 article reprinted in the Knoxville Register reported on the distinctive Melungeon population living in a narrow gorge between Powell's Mountain and the Copper Ridge:3
- A great many years ago, these mountains were settled by a society of Portuguese Adventurers, men and women - who came from the long-shore parts of Virginia, that they might be freed from the restraints and drawbacks imposed on them by any form of government. These people made themselves friendly with the Indians and freed, as they were from every kind of social government, they uprooted all conventional forms of society and lived in a delightful Utopia of their own creation, trampling on the marriage relation, despising all forms of religion, and subsisting upon corn (the only possible product of the soil) and wild game of the woods.
- These intermixed with the Indians, and subsequently their descendants (after the advances of the whites into this part of the state) with the negros and the whites, thus forming the present race of Melungens.
As described in 1912:4
- The name, Melungeon, is of obscure origin; probably it is from the French melange, a mixture. The Melungeons are a peculiar people living in the mountains of East Tennessee, western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Kentucky, and are of queer appearance and uncertain origin.
- They have swarthy complexion, straight black hair, black or grey eyes - Indian's eyes are always black - and are not tall but heavy-set... They call themselves Portuguese (which they pronounce 'Porter-ghee), and were found in the regions mentioned by our first pioneers of civilization there.
The origin of the Melungeons has been the focus of various hypotheses. Many articles in the popular (as opposed to academic) literature highlight the exotic potential of European ancestry, because that would evade the restrictions of Jim Crow laws which limited the ability win court cases to retain land and property:
- Some of the men from Hernando de Soto's 1540 expedition, or Juan Pardo's explorations of western North Carolina in 1566-67, fathered children with the local Native Americans and triggered a new genetic subgroup.
- During his 1586 raid on Cartagena, Sir Francis Drake captured hundreds of men and women that the Spanish had enslaved. Drake stopped on Roanoke Island on the way home, and chose to leave the "Turks" from Cartegena to make room for evacuating the failing English colony (a year before the "Lost Colony" arrived in 1587). The "Turks" migrated inland from Albemarle Sound over the next 400 years, perhaps intermarrying with Native Americans but retaining their distinctive physical and cultural patterns
- North African Moors (people with light skin living north of the Sahara Desert) sailed to the eastern edge of North America on their own initiative, then moved to the Clinch River valley near Cumberland Gap while maintaining enough cultural and genetic cohesion to start the Melungeon community
The extent of Native American heritage is not clear in modern DNA studies. In contrast to Mexico and other places settled by Spanish and Portuguese colonists in the 1500's, English colonists did not intermarry legally with Native Americans.
Virginia did not develop a mestizo society where mixed-race heritage was common. In 1662, the General Assembly banned fornification between Christians and any Negro man or woman. Starting in 1691, the Virginia legislature began to define "white." Any marriage between English and negroes, mulattoes, or Indians would lead to permanent banishment between the colony, and any child born by an unmarried English woman to a negro or mulatto would be bound out as a servant until the age of 30. In the opinion of the white men in the General Assembly, the measures were needed:5
...for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may increase in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawful accompanying with one another...
in the 1500's, children of Spanish colonists/Native Americans were labeled "mestizo," and children of mestizo/Native Americans were labeled "coyotes"
Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, From Indian and Mestiza, Coyote (painting attributed to Jose de Alcebar)
Nonetheless, the conclusion of anthropologists and geneticists is that Melungeons are the not descendants of "Turks" or Moors who managed to maintain their distinct physical characteristics while migrating through Native American towns to the Appalachians. Modern Melungeons are a mixed-race community with genes from whites, blacks, and Native Americans. One technical term for such genetic mixing is to describe the resulting population as "tri-racial isolates." Describing mixed-race persons in North America as "mulatto" has been associated with social discrimination and legal constraints under Jim Crow laws, and can trigger emotional responses when used today.
Prior to the Civil War, Melungeons faced social discrimination because of their appearance. Emphasizing Cherokee blood lines or the exotic potential of Portuguese ancestors provided a different explanation other than African heritage for physical characteristics.
1890 Census report on Melungeons in Tennessee
Source: Bureau of Census, 1890 Census, Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska)
After the Civil War ended formal slavery, Virginia passed laws to discriminate against people of color and segregate white society from "others." Virginia considered classifying all people with one drop of non-white blood as "colored," then made an exception for the descendants of Pocahontas. Most infamously, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act stated:6
- For the purpose of this act, the term "white person" shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons.
Various Jim Crow state laws required discrimination, blocking equal access to government services such as public schools and seating choices on local buses. Custom, tradition, and often the bylaws/articles of incorporation blocked equal access for people of color to private organizations, businesses, and public services. Water fountains and lunch counters were segregated, so many of the Melungeon chose to isolate themselves rather than accept discrimination.
Melungeons found it wise to claim Native American or non-African heritage. An article by an attorney living at Newman's Ridge in Tennessee claimed in 1915 that the physical expression of the Native American heritage was no longer obvious:7
- They settled here in 1804, possibly about the year 1795, [obtained land grants and] were the friendly Indians who came with the whites as they moved west. They came from Cumberland County and New River, Va., stopping at various points west of the Blue Ridge. Some of them stopped on Stony Creek, Scott County, Virginia, where Stony Creek runs into Clinch River. The white immigrants with the friendly Indians erected a fort on the bank of a river and called it Fort Blackmore and here yet many of these friendly Indians live in the mountains of Stony Creek, but they have married among the whites until the race has almost become extinct.
- A few of the half bloods may be found - none darker - but they still retain the name of Collins and Gibson, &c. From here they came to Newman's Ridge and Blackwater and many of them are here yet; but the amalgamations of the whites and Indians has about washed the red tawny from their appearance, the white faces predominating, so now you can scarcely find one of the original Indians; a few half-bloods and quarter-bloods balance white or past the third generation.
In 1874 a lawyer drew on Melungeon lore when he argued that his client was white, and thus entitled to inherit the estate of her father:8
- These people belonged to a peculiar race, which settled in East Tennessee at an early day ... known as "Melungeons."... It was proven by the tradition amongst these people that they were descendants of the ancient Carthagenians; they were Phoenicians, who after Carthage was conquered by the Romans, and became a Roman province, emigrated across the Straits of Gibraltar, and settled in Portugal.... About the time of our revolutionary war, a considerable body of these people crossed the Atlantic, and settled on the coast of South Carolina near North Carolina.
The lawyer also noted that the discrimination was based less on skin color and more on association with Africa:9
- Our Southern high-bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc.
By 1950, there were about 15,000 people who were described as "Melungeons."10
the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics implemented the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, requiring individuals to be according to the state's definition of race
Source: Library of Virginia, Registration of Birth and Color, 1924
Into the 1960's, Virginia's government agencies, private businesses, and social organizations legally discriminated on the basis of race. Even after the US Congress passed new civil rights legislation and Federal court decisions after World War II limited the legal authority to discriminate, the incentive to be classified as Portuguese, Turk, North African Berber, etc. rather than "colored" was still clear.
In the 1990's, those who had been labeled as Melungeon and experienced discrimination chose to acknowledge and research their heritage. Rejecting the label "Melungeon" as a slur. and embracing it instead. led to Melungeon Family Reunions:11
- As the stigma of a mixed racial heritage dimmed in the late 20th century and was replaced by a sense of pride, interest in the genealogy and history of the Melungeon people was born.
- With the advent of the internet and popular press, the story of these people has become larger than life, with their ancestors being attributed to a myriad of exotic sources: Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony, Ottoman Turks, The Lost Tribes of Israel, Jews, Gypsies, descendants of Prince Madoc of Wales, Indians, escaped slaves, Portuguese, Sir Francis Drake's rescued Caribbean Indians and Moorish slaves, Juan Pardo's expedition, De Soto's expedition, abandoned pirates and Black Dutch, among others.
- Melungeon families themselves claimed to be Indian, white and Portuguese.
In 1997, Brent Kennedy published The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People - An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America. Initially, it drew a strong reaction from historians and genealogists who noted the absence of evidence to document the key claim:12
- I contend that the remnants of Joao ("Juan") Pardo's forts, joined by Portuguese refugees from Santa Elena, and possibly a few stray Dominicans and Jesuits, exiled Moorish French Huguenots, and escaped Acadians, along with [Sir Francis] Drake's and perhaps other freed Turkish, Moorish, and Iberian captives, survived on these shores, combined forces over the ensuing years, moved to the hinterlands, intermarried with various Carolina and Virginia Native Americans, and eventually became the reclusive Melungeons.
the Nash Cemetery between Wise and Coeburn is the last resting place for many Melungeon families
Since then, genetics has been able to separate some facts from fiction. Mixed-race heritage has been revealed by DNA analysis of relatives in 69 male lines and 8 female lines which can be raced back without a break to the early 1800's.
Discrimination had forced families to intermarry within each other, facilitating the research. Jack Goins had triggered the research into his Melungeon heritage, and was surprised by how the results contradicted his previous understanding. He had relatives who had been listed as Portuguese on an 1880 census, but after testing his own DNA 13
- It surprised me so much when mine came up African that I had it done again... I had to have a second opinion. But it came back the same way. I had three done. They were all the same.
- Appalachian Journal
- Annals of the Association of American Geographers
- Battles in Red, Black, and White Virginia's Racial Integrity Law of 1924
- Family Tree DNA
- Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia, by Paul Heinegg
- Gowen Research Foundation
- International Storytelling Center
- Houston Chronicle
- Journal of Genetic Genealogy
- Law and History Review
- Melungeons: Notes on the Origin of a Race, by Bonnie Ball, Randy Hodge
- Melungeons and Other Mestee Groups, by Mike Nassau
- Melungeon Heritage Association
- The Melungeon Indians
- National Genealogical Society Quarterly
- "The Melungeons," by Virginia Easley DeMarce (Vol. 84, pp.134-149, June 1996)
- "Looking at Legends-Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-racial Isolate Settlements," by Virginia Easley DeMarce (Vol. 81, pp.24-45, March 1993)
- "'Verry Shitly Mixt': Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South-A Genealogical Study," by Virginia Easley DeMarce (Vol. 80, pp.5-35, March 1992)
- National Public Radio
- Southern Cultures
- With Good Reason
1. "'A whole lot of people upset by this study': DNA & the truth about Appalachia's Melungeons," The Progress-Index, March 8, 2021, https://www.progress-index.com/story/news/2021/03/08/new-dna-study-melungeons-attempts-separate-truth-fiction/4611383001/; Ariela Gross, "'Of Portuguese Origin': Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the 'Little Races' in Nineteenth-Century America," Law and History Review, Volume 25, Number 3 (Fall, 2007), pp.481-482, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27641498 (last checked March 11, 2021)
2. Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, Janet Lewis Crain, "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population," Journal of Genetic Genealogy, Fall 2011, pp.17-21, https://www.jogg.info/pages/72/files/Estes.htm; C. S. Everett, "Melungeon History and Myth," Appalachian Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer 1999), p.359 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40933999; "'A whole lot of people upset by this study': DNA & the truth about Appalachia's Melungeons," The Progress-Index, March 8, 2021, https://www.progress-index.com/story/news/2021/03/08/new-dna-study-melungeons-attempts-separate-truth-fiction/4611383001/; Ariela Gross, "'Of Portuguese Origin': Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the 'Little Races' in Nineteenth-Century America," Law and History Review, Volume 25, Number 3 (Fall, 2007), pp.475-476, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27641498 (last checked March 11, 2021)
3. "The Melungens," Littell's Living Age, March 1849, http://www.historical-melungeons.com/littels.html (last checked March 11, 2021)
4. Will Thomas Hale, Dixon Lanier Merritt, A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans, Lewis Publishing Company, 1913, p.80, http://books.google.com/books?id=iOsxAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA180&lpg=PA180 (last checked May 30, 2012)
5. "'An act for suppressing outlying slaves' (1691)," Encyclopedia Virginia, https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/an-act-for-suppressing-outlying-slaves-1691/; "Legislating Reproduction and Racial Difference," Women and the American Story, https://wams.nyhistory.org/early-encounters/english-colonies/legislating-reproduction-and-racial-difference/ (last checked March 11, 2021)
6. Virginia General Assembly, "An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity," 1924, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/encounter/projects/monacans/Contemporary_Monacans/racial.html (last checked May 25, 2012)
7. Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, Janet Lewis Crain, "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population," Journal of Genetic Genealogy, Fall 2011, pp.17-21, https://www.jogg.info/pages/72/files/Estes.htm (last checked March 11, 2021)
8. Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, Janet Lewis Crain, "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population," Journal of Genetic Genealogy, Fall 2011, pp.17-21, https://www.jogg.info/pages/72/files/Estes.htm;Ariela Gross, "'Of Portuguese Origin': Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the 'Little Races' in Nineteenth-Century America," Law and History Review, Volume 25, Number 3 (Fall, 2007), pp.487-495, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27641498 (last checked March 11, 2021)
9. Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, Janet Lewis Crain, "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population," Journal of Genetic Genealogy, Fall 2011, pp.17-21, https://www.jogg.info/pages/72/files/Estes.htm (last checked March 11, 2021)
10. David Henige, "Origin Traditions of American Racial Isolates: A Case of Something Borrowed," Appalachian Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Spring 1984), pp. 202, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40932573 (last checked May 30, 2012)
11. Roberta Estes, "Melungeons: A Multi-Ethnic Population," Native Heritage Project blog, April 25, 2012, http://nativeheritageproject.com/2012/04/25/melungeons-a-multi-ethnic-population/ (last checked May 30, 2012)
12. Brent Kennedy, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People : An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America, Mercer University Press, 1997, p.137, http://books.google.com/books?id=Jqhd3tVSJNkC (last checked May 30, 2012)
13. "'A whole lot of people upset by this study': DNA & the truth about Appalachia's Melungeons," The Progress-Index, March 8, 2021, https://www.progress-index.com/story/news/2021/03/08/new-dna-study-melungeons-attempts-separate-truth-fiction/4611383001/ (last checked March 11, 2021)
Population of Virginia