In Tim Hashaw's book, Children of Perdition, he states,
"Melungeons have lived in the mountains so long that no one remembers where they came from. Early accounts said the first Melungeons were '"dark-skinned devils with blue eyes."' Shunned by black folks and white folks alike, they were tricksters, '"children of perdition"' ?? ? the unholy offspring of the devil and a Cherokee woman in Tennessee ??? ?? rowdy hellions so mean they drove ole Scratch back to hell and his lawful wife."
The term "Melungeon" was traditionally considered an insult, reserved for Appalachian whites who were, by appearance or reputation, of mixed race ancestry. Thankfully, these malicious rumors and derogatory references to the Melungeon name have been laid to rest, but the Melungeon ancestral roots are still a mystery and highly speculative. Some researchers suggest these mysterious people have been in the United States since before the first Mayflower landing. They are considered an ethnic group mainly because of their distinctive physical characteristics; distinguishing features include olive or darker skin complexion, brown or blue eyes, black or dark-brown straight hair, and European features.
The Melungeons were first recorded about 200 years ago, but they were not widely known until the late 19th century. They were found living, in isolation, in the central Appalachian Mountains, predominantly in Northeastern Tennessee, Southwestern Virginia, and Southeastern Kentucky. They have been historically linked with Newman's Ridge in Hancock County which is located in northeastern Tennessee, close to the Kentucky border. "Anthropologists called them "racial islands" or "tri-racial isolates." It is believed they migrated from the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, through North Carolina and then into Kentucky and Tennessee.
Beginning in the late 19th century extensive research, by professionals and amateurs, began on this isolated group with little agreement as to their origins. The internet and the recent interest in genealogy has fueled the research and created even more speculation. It was originally thought the Melungeons were "tri-racial"; mixed European, sub-Saharan African, and Native American ancestry. The Melungeon DNA Project provides overwhelming evidence for the tri-racial mix in families considered traditional Melungeon. The original definition of Melungeon referred exclusively to one tri-racial group; the descendants of Collins and Gibson and other related families of Newman's Ridge, and the Vardy Valley in Hancock County, Tennessee. Alternate DNA research supports additional ancestries: Semitic , Turkish and Moorish. Some theories speculate that the Melungeons were descended from Spanish or Portuguese explorers, shipwrecked sailors, or even from the "Lost Colonists" of Roanoke Island in Virginia. In the past, self-described Melungeons have referred to themselves as "Indians" or "Portuguese." Most of the white neighbors considered the Melungeons as a mixture of black and Indian, or white, black and Indian.
Adding to the confusion is a lack of consensus as to the etymology of the term "Melungeon." Most scholars support the French term m�lange meaning mixture. This root term carries a lot of significance in understanding how the Melungeons were treated. Because they are of mixed race they cannot be defined as a single racial composite. Defining racial categories became ambiguous when it came to "free persons of color" when related to Melungeons. Generally they were not classified as Indians, but classifications changed with each census. At times "mulatto" was used, then "free persons of color", and then "free-colored". Now, they are mainly classified as white, although, the U.S. Census category offers "Some other race 600-999." This lack of consistency in classification can make it difficult in tracing family in the census reports.
Location and surnames may help in tracing Melungeon ancestor roots. The surnames most associated with the Melungeons are the Irish name Collins, and the English name Gibson. Other researchers have added Powell, LeBon, Bowling, Bunch, Goins, Goodman, Heard, Minor and Mullins. Not everyone with these surnames can be considered Melungeon; it is suggested that research be conducted on each family line to provide a supported conclusion.
Location is also important as the Melungeons were mainly isolated in the Appalachian mountains of Northeastern Tennessee. The Melungeons found themselves caught in the middle; they were neither white nor black; but they were free. Nevertheless, they suffered discrimination, in varying levels, because of the color of their skin. The hills of Tennessee provided a place for them to live freely without the adverse criticism of the colonies and the plantation owners. It seems as though they could upgrade their status through their appearance and being a good citizen. Many fought in the Civil War on the Union side, a few on the Confederate side and some became slave owners.
Appearance and community perception contributed to the assimilation of Melungeons into the communities - moving from being labeled persons of color to white. Many moved out of Tennessee and settled in other parts of the U.S. Newer sociological studies indicate that the Melungeons have become indistinguishable from their non-Melungeon white neighbors.
Because the Melungeons are of mixed race, many scholars do not believe they should warrant a distinct identity as there were many mixed races originating in Colonial Virginia. So the debate, speculation and research continues; some adding credibility to known theories, some creating more confusion. The fact remains that the Melungeons made a valuable contribution to the early foundations of America and it is our responsibility to acknowledge their existence. Perhaps the real story is one of survival.
Hirschman, Elizabeth Caldwell. Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America. N. Brent Kennedy, editor. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005.
Start your free trial today to learn more about your ancestors using our powerful and intuitive search. Cancel any time, no strings attached.