Of Melungeons and Other Historical Mysteries

Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee, c. 1920s

Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee, c. 1920s

When Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Boone first explored what they would name the Cumberland Gap, the pass which allowed western expansion by the colonists in the Mid-Atlantic region in 1750 – they found a group of folks living in the area who were not Native Americans. They spoke English, and by appearances were neither white, black, or Native American. They became known as Melungeons, partially based on an early statement by one of the group that they were “Portugee”.

Theories have abounded as to how thee folks got there, and from where they came from. The most romantic of which claimed that they were descendants of survivors of the “Lost Colony” and Virginia Dare on Roanoke Island near the border of Virginia and North Carolina who mysteriously disappeared in 1586/7. Others have it they were the descendants of Portugese sailors and Turkish slaves who had been shipwrecked along the Barrier Islands protecting the Carolina and Virginia coasts during the 15th or 16th Century. Still another had them as descendents of slaves originating from the first Spanish Colony located on the Virginia/North Carolina Coast founded by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526, which was destroyed by a slave revolt.

None of these historical theories was true.

Another long standing mystery is what happened to the initial African slaves brought to Virginia in 1619. Because there were no slave laws in Virgina at that time – they were purchased as Indentured Servants. Serving of a period of years to pay back the cost of their voyage – or “purchase” cost…

After which they became free, along with the hundreds of thousands of white Europeans who had been brought to the Colonies as Indentured Servants typically to pay off their debts. Permanent black slavery wasnt legally institutionalized in Virginia until about 1670, when a number of “Slave Codes” were ratified in response to several slave revolts, and complaints of slave owners about the economic cost of having to free their slaves.  So what happened in the intervening period to these black folks who were brought to America – served as Indentured labor and paid off their debt to be free? The commonly accepted story is that they intermarried with Native Americas – which is only partially true.

Laws against miscegenation between black and white were codified about 1660 in Virginia. The issue was in large part that by treaty (with Native Americans) and law – the status of a couple’s children, slave or free – was based on the status of the Mother. Thus if an African male slave married and had children with a white female Indentured Servant – any resulting children were freedmen. This posed an economic conundrum for Virginia slave holders, and a loss of valuable property in the form of new slaves. Thus we start to see laws being put into place to prevent this.

Unions between black and white was far more common than many historians would have you believe – and not just the result of the slave Master raping their slave women. By some calculations, supported by DNA tests – about 30% of what is now considered the white population of the US, whose families lived in slave states before the Civil War have black Sub-Saharan ancestry. The result of these marriages was the establishment of large bi- and tri- racial communities in Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Louisiana. The groundbreaking work of Professor Paul Heinegg, of the University of Virginia “Free  African American Families of Virginia and North Carolina” and which has been expanded to now include Maryland, Delaware, and other states  – found that the genesis of most Free African American families before the Civil War in Virginia and North Carolina was the result of these unions between black males and white women. If you will recall, Thomas Jefferson kept his offspring from Sally Hemmings in slavery.

Unions between black slaves and white indentured servants were not rare – a situation creating the need (at least from the slave owners viewpoint) for laws prohibiting such unions. Which leaves the question – where did these families, established before the permanent slave laws,  go after finishing their indenture?

Part of my own family were what is called”Atlantic Creoles” (descendants of a white Sea Captain and an “Indian” woman who moved to Montgomery County  from what is now the Norfolk/Newport News area in 1719) whose children migrated from Montgomery County, Virginia on the lower Rappahannock River to an area near the Cumberland Gap on what is now the Virginia – West Virginia border to escape re-enslavement. They would fight a nearly 50 year legal battle in the Courts to retain their freedom. There was already a thriving black (or tri-racial) community there. What they did was to follow the path after the American Revolution of many European-American settlers and move west to the “frontier”, forming stable communities along the Virginia -West Virginia border.

Indeed there is evidence through letters that Confederate troops stayed out of certain counties in Virginia and North Carolina because the majority of the residents were freedmen who took a dim view of Confederates and would shoot any Confederate who wandered into the wrong territory. I have more then anecdotal evidence that being a slave catcher wandering onto some of those counties was a terminal profession. You can track some of that looking at General Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah – looking at where they DIDN’T fight the Rebs.

My Dad, who was a Historian always claimed that the Melungeons of the region were actually the descendants of the first Africans brought to America who had intermarried with white Indentured Servants and had served out their indenture and moved to the remote area to escape persecution.

Turns out he was right. He referred to these folks as “cousins” – although I never figured out why, or have proven any direct family relationship with any of the 40 or so Melungeon families. He was also good friends with one of the Goins family descendants.

Melungeon history researchers at various times have claimed that several famous people were descendants of Melungeons, including Elvis Presley, Ava Gardner, and Abraham Lincoln. That is in all likleyhood wishful thinking – as I have never heard on any evidence to back such claims. The truth of which would be explosive.

Melungeon DNA Study Reveals Ancestry, Upsets ‘A Whole Lot Of People’

For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: 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.

And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.

“There were a whole lot of people upset by this study,” lead researcher Roberta Estes said. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”

Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon (meh-LUN’-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.

In recent decades, interest in the origin of the Melungeons has risen dramatically with advances both in DNA research and in the advent of Internet resources that allow individuals to trace their ancestry without digging through dusty archives.

G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who’s spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn’t part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn’t a new phenomenon.

“All of us are multiracial,” he said. “It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history.”

A group of Melungeon descendants at a historical event in New York

Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery.

They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee.

Claims of Portuguese ancestry likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study’s authors.

The study quotes from an 1874 court case in Tennessee in which a Melungeon woman’s inheritance was challenged. If Martha Simmerman were found to have African blood, she would lose the inheritance.

Her attorney, Lewis Shepherd, argued successfully that the Simmerman’s family was descended from ancient Phoenicians who eventually migrated to Portugal and then to North America.

Writing about his argument in a memoir published years later, Shepherd stated, “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.”

In another lawsuit in 1855, Jacob Perkins, who is described as “an East Tennessean of a Melungeon family,” sued a man who had accused him of having “negro blood.”

In a note to his attorney, Perkins wrote why he felt the accusation was damaging. Writing in the era of slavery ahead of the Civil War, Perkins noted the racial discrimination of the age: “1st the words imply that we are liable to be indicted (equals) liable to be whipped (equals) liable to be fined … “

Later generations came to believe some of the tales their ancestors wove out of necessity.

Jack Goins, who has researched Melungeon history for about 40 years and was the driving force behind the DNA study, said his distant relatives were listed as Portuguese on an 1880 census. Yet he was taken aback when he first had his DNA tested around 2000. Swabs taken from his cheeks collected the genetic material from saliva or skin cells and the sample was sent to a laboratory for identification.

“It surprised me so much when mine came up African that I had it done again,” he said. “I had to have a second opinion. But it came back the same way. I had three done. They were all the same.”

In order to conduct the larger DNA study, Goins and his fellow researchers – who are genealogists but not academics – had to define who was a Melungeon.

In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities in the eastern U.S. – from New York to Louisiana.

Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks, Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas and South Carolina the Redbones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others. In Louisiana, which somewhat resembled a Latin American nation with its racial mixing, there were Creoles of the Cane River region and the Redbones of western Louisiana, among others.

The latest DNA study limited participants to those whose families were called Melungeon in the historical records of the 1800s and early 1900s in and around Tennessee’s Hawkins and Hancock Counties, on the Virginia border some 200 miles northeast of Nashville.

The study does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage, but none were detected among the 69 male lines and 8 female lines that were tested. Also, the study did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred, for instance with Native Americans.

Goins estimates there must be several thousand descendants of the historical Melungeons alive today, but the study only examined unbroken male and female lines.

The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown, but there is no doubt it was considered a slur by white residents in Appalachia who suspected the families of being mixed race.

“It’s sometimes embarrassing to see the lengths your ancestors went to hide their African heritage, but look at the consequences” said Wayne Winkler, past president of the Melungeon Heritage Association. “They suffered anyway because of the suspicion.”

The DNA study is ongoing as researchers continue to locate additional Melungeon descendants.

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