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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Melungeons

by William S. Powell, 2006

Melungeons are descendants of people of mixed ethnic ancestry who, before the end of the eighteenth century, were discovered living in limited areas of what is now the southeastern United States, notably in the Appalachian Mountains near the point where Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina converge. Earlier they may have lived near the Atlantic coast but, preferring a more secluded setting and seeking refuge from persecution, chose to move west as the coastal region became more densely populated by newcomers from Virginia and elsewhere.

The origin and early history of Melungeons remain relatively unknown. They have been identified at various times as having Portuguese, Spanish, French, Welsh, and Turkish ancestry; some theories even claim that they are descendants of members of Roanoke Island's Lost Colony of 1587. Most modern researchers have concluded that their ethnicity is triracial, with European, Native American, and African lineage. Their earliest ancestors may have been explorers, seamen, or colonists stranded along the Atlantic coast before permanent settlement had begun who later intermarried with Indians and Africans.

Melungeon skin tones varied from dark to light, reflecting their mixed heritage. In time, the U.S. Census Bureau classified them as "free persons of color." Because of their unique appearance, Melungeons faced extensive racial and social prejudice throughout much of their history. Although rarely subject to legal restrictions such as those imposed on blacks and Native Americans, they were often ostracized socially because of their nonwhite heritage. The term "Melungeon" itself was created and used as an insult by whites. Most researchers believe that it derived from the French word mélange, which means "mixture." Other possible linguistic roots include melon can, Turkish for "cursed soul"; the Italian word melongena, technically meaning "eggplant" but used in reference to someone with dark skin; and melan, the Greek word for "black." In any case, "Melungeon" came to signify a person of low social status and "impure" bloodlines, who was ignorant or possessed other negative traits.

The mystery surrounding Melungeons also led to a variety of folk beliefs, some of which portrayed them as frightening mythical creatures capable of evil deeds, including kidnapping children who misbehaved. While Melungeon ancestry is not uncommon in North Carolina Mountain counties such as Alleghany, Mitchell, and Ashe, the majority of Melungeons eventually settled in urban areas throughout the Southeast and became practically indistinguishable as a separate ethnic group. For generations, many people, seeking to avoid being stigmatized, ignored or denied their Melungeon ancestry. By the late twentieth century, however, several organizations were celebrating and seeking information about possible Melungeon family histories. In addition, researchers continue to examine Melungeon origins, at times employing such advanced technologies as DNA testing to trace previously undetectable bloodlines.

References:

Bonnie Ball, The Melungeons: Notes on the Origin of a Race (1992).

Jim Callahan, Lest We Forget: The Melungeon Colony of Newman's Ridge (2000).

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America (2005).

Wayne Winkler, Walking toward the Sunset: Melungeons of Appalachia (2004).

Additional Resources:

"Melungeons ponder their curious heritage," News and Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/07/17/1349598/melungeons-ponder-their-curious.html

Roanoke colonies research newsletter, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Digital Collections, include several resources on 'Melungeons".

PBS- "A Mystery People- The Melungeons": http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots/stories/race-ethnicity/a-mystery-people-the-melungeons/

Origin - location: 

Comments

Comment: 

I have hit a brick wall. There are so much that leads me to believe this is what I have been searching for. My great great grandmother's picture looks pure Native American. But her ancestry is English. No documentation of birth, some say Wilkes Co., N. C. maiden name is not for sure Eades is what we have traced. I have her mtDna which shows Turkish and South American, through National Geographic. She was marriage bonded to a son of a man, well to do, with slaves in Grayson CO., VA. They ended up in Knott CO., KY. Death certificate says parents "unknown" Don't know much about my great Grandmother, other than she had many children with different men some were cousins. My grandmother died when I was 5 but I do know she was known as a "medicine woman" The women in the family all have distinct features, darker skin, dark eyes, high cheek bones. But not all the grandchildren. To top it off, My Grandfather's family are from Sneedville, Handcock CO. TN. My Grands had 14 children, both families intermarried. I don't sunburn, have very curly hair and green eyes, wide nose but considered Caucasian. I do show European, Irish and a small amount of indigenous in both ancestry and National Geographic DNA. I have been though Washington & Eastern BIA and we are on no roll. Up into the late 70's my families forage herbs, roots and all lived off the land, instinctual, some still do. Sir names are Seals from TN. , KY. Knott, Lee, Letcher & Perry Co. are Cornett, Combs, Collins, Bentley, Slone, Amburgey, Sexton, Ward & Reynolds. All areas were very remote and I am uncovering many, "secrets" that no one seems to want to talk about. Any information is helpful.
Smyth and Grayson CO's in VA. seems where almost all the names started. Thank You. I am in Texas so can't really do a lot of research other than online. All info welcomed.

Comment: 

I'm researching a family whose branches extend back to Jamestown (and beyond). I've found numerous references to "Black Scottish" and "Black Irish" so I'm thinking it's a mistake to assume that European/UK roots necessarily mean pure Caucasian lineage.

Comment: 

My mother told me that on her fathers side , surname hensley , he was dark skinned and his mother was very dark almost to the point of being black . She always said that her grandmother was a full blood cherokee but as i have researched , my grandfathers death certificate , he died in 1935 of tb , he is listed as being white . The hensley's came from devon england and settled in virginia before migrating to western nc . My question is , is it possible that they had melungeon ancestry instead of native american ?

Comment: 

It could be, but if you know his origins, probably not. A lot of people with Melungeon ancestry are not able to pinpoint origins like that. It is also possible that he may have intermarried with Melgungeons after coming to America. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

Is anyone currently doing research on Melungeon DNA? I would be more than happy to participate. My dad always said he was melungeon. He had jet black hair, olive skin, facial features not characteristic of Caucasians, etc. Our last name has been changed over the years with its spelling. Everyone I have ever encountered in life thinks I'm not Caucasian, but all I know is my dad saying he was always told that side of the family is melungein. Thanks!

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