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The Mystery of the Melungeons

The Melungeons are described by those who study such things as a 'tri-racial isolate'. They're a group of people of different ethnicities who have intensified their bloodline by not venturing far from where they were born and raised. Before I started my research, I tried to recall where they tend to be found. Part of me thought somewhere in America, but I had doubts because that unique moniker had me wondering if they were of a more exotic locale, like Bulgaria or Peru.

Part of what drew me to this topic is the word itself. It looks intriguing, all those letters jumbled together in a unique way. And when you say it and hear it, it had a woven quality, meshing together very much like the ethnic origins of the people themselves.

The Melungeons are described by those who study such things as a 'tri-racial isolate'. They're a group of people of different ethnicities who have intensified their bloodline by not venturing far from where they were born and raised. Before I started my research, I tried to recall where they tend to be found. Part of me thought somewhere in America, but I had doubts because that unique moniker had me wondering if they were of a more exotic locale, like Bulgaria or Peru.

I was right the first time. The Melungeons are typically found in Appalachia where eastern Tennessee and Kentucky border Western Virginia. The 'tri-racial' term comes into play because they are theorized to be a mix of African American, Native American, and European American. They tend to have dark hair (often straight), dark eyes, and swarthy skin.

Not everyone agrees it is the African American and Native American cultures that are responsible for the Melungeons' darker physical features. Some suggest Portuguese, Black Dutch, Turks, Sephardic Jews, even Phoenician bloodlines may be responsible. Basically, if you were ever a sailor and may have shipwrecked on the Mid-Atlantic Coast in the 1600s, there is probably a Melungeon theory about you.

The simplest explanation is often the correct one, and the simplest is that early settlers who came to America as indentured servants, and therefore free people (as opposed to slaves), intermarried. Over time, their offspring became a challenge to identify precisely as one race or another. As time passed and laws shifted, claiming African American as your ethnic group became less attractive. When slavery became more widespread in the Mid-Atlantic and elsewhere, it was powerful motivation for those of mixed race to self-identify as something other than African (such as Native American or Portuguese). Other laws and cultural conventions contributed to this confusion.

  • In some cultures, children claim the ethnic group of their mother, regardless of what their father contributed to their DNA. So a child of a white mother and a non-white father would identify as white.
  • Bureaucracy intervened in the 1700s for tax reasons, basically trying to close a loophole by insisting anyone of mixed race could no longer identify as Native American which left African American as the only other option. They got a higher tax rate on African Americans, you see.
  • Flash forward one hundred years when slavery was going full blast, and they put the clamps on self-identifying by requiring you figure out some math to validate your ethnicity. Anyone who was less than 1/8 non-white was allowed to identify as white.
  • In the 20th century, some states including Virginia espoused the 'one drop' rule, reversing the 1/8 standard by saying anyone with one drop of African American blood was considered African American.
  • On top of all this, add laws that prevented marriage between different races. Mixed race peoples often intermarried to punitive measures. It was just easier.

The people now referred to as Melungeons did not come to be called so until around the 1800s. The word itself has some mixed etymology, which is only appropriate. The phrase mal engin appears in a 16th century poem, translating to 'ill intent'. But I like this other theory better: that it comes from the Angolan word malungu or malungo meaning companion, often used to refer to fellow shipmates and seen in Portuguese records. This theory meshes nicely with the colonization and melting pot image of early America and therefore is my favorite. Highly scientific.

Members of the Goins family

The Melungeon culture is not something banished to a few posts online. They still exist in their corner of Appalachia. The surnames Gibson, Collins, Riddle, and others often can trace their lines to Melungeon origins. Family tree researchers generate many leads and interesting theories for your Googling pleasure. If you have relatives from that part of the country, you might have some Phoenician blood. Who knew?

This post first appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

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