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Sep 9, 2021

The Origins of the Melungeons

“Melungeon” is a term applied to many people of the Southeastern United States, mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia: East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky. The most common adjective used to describe the Melungeons is “mysterious;” no one seems to know where the Melungeons originated. The Melungeons often did not fit into any of the racial categories that define an individual or group within American society; their neighbors considered them neither white, black, nor Indian.

The Melungeons appear to be of mixed ancestry, and contradictory claims about the origins of these people have existed for centuries. Most modern-day descendants of Melungeon families are generally Caucasian in appearance, often, although not always, with dark hair and eyes, and a swarthy or olive complexion. Descriptions of Melungeons vary widely from observer to observer, from “Middle Eastern” to “Native American” to “light-skinned African American.”

A common belief about the Melungeons of east Tennessee was that they were an indigenous people of Appalachia, existing there before the arrival of the first white settlers. Many Melungeons believed that their ancestors have lived in the hills since the 1500s or early 1600s. Some claimed to be both Native American and Portuguese. One early Melungeon was called “Spanish” (“Spanish Peggy” Gibson, wife of Vardy Collins). Such claims were questionable, however. Because of the social problems associated with race, many Southern families with multiracial ancestry claimed Portuguese and/or American Indian (specifically Cherokee) ancestry as a strategy for denying African ancestry.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, speculation on Melungeon origins produced tales of shipwrecked sailors, lost colonists of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin, hoards of silver, and ancient peoples such as the Carthaginians, Turkish, and even Sephardic (Iberian) Jews.

In the past twenty years or so, genealogists have documented through tax, court, census and other colonial, late 18th and early 19th century records that the ancestors of today’s Melungeons migrated into the region from Virginia and Kentucky. This evidence seems to refute earlier claims that the Melungeons were a “lost tribe” from Portugal or some other European nation that had arrived in the 1500s or 1600s.

Dr. Kevin Jones carried out a DNA study on Melungeons in 2000, using 130 hair and cheek cell samples. The results were vague: Jones concluded that the Melungeons are mostly Eurasian, a catchall category spanning people from Scandinavia to the Middle East. He also found these people to be a little bit black and a little bit American Indian.

More recently, Jack Goins started a Melungeon DNA Project, with the goal of studying the ancestry of hypothesized Melungeon lines. So far, Y chromosomal DNA testing of male subjects with the Melungeon surnames Collins, Gibson, Gill, Goins, Bunch, Bolin, Goodman, Stowers, Williams, Minor, and Moore has revealed evidence of European and sub-Saharan African ancestry. Such findings appear to verify the early designation of Melungeon ancestors as “mulattos,” that is, descendants of white Europeans and Africans. Many of the Melungeons, but not all, have DNA haplogroups that show roots in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. These people likely are descendants of enslaved or servant people in the Chesapeake Bay colony with European fathers connected to the African slave trade run by Spain and Portugal.

You can find much more information about the Melungeons at The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People available on Amazon at 0865545162, as well as online at: http://melungeon-studies.blogspot.com, and at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melungeon. Information about the Melungeon DNA Project can be found at https://www.familytreedna.com/public/coremelungeon.