BIG STONE GAP — While a controversial study published earlier this year offers hints as to the ancestral origins of the Melungeons, some of the group’s membership maintains that much of the mystery surrounding their heritage still remains.
The study was among the topics discussed at the Melungeon Heritage Association’s 16th union, “Home to the Hills: Melungeon Heritage and Appalachian Communities,” held last weekend at the Southwest Virginia History Museum and State Park in Big Stone Gap.
The event featured 11 speakers, including Wayne Winkler, past president of the association, who spoke in part about the controversy surrounding the study, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” which was published in April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy.
Historically, “Melungeon” was a derogatory term used to describe several families of unknown ancestry who lived primarily in Hawkins and Hancock counties of Tennessee and in southern Lee County.
The mystery surrounding the Melungeons has long been debated. Some theories purport that the Melungeons were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, the Ottoman Turks, Native Americans, Portuguese, escaped slaves, Juan Pardo’s or Hernando de Soto’s expeditions, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, Melungeon families have claimed to be Native American, Portuguese and white.
The study attempted to gain more insight into the group’s ancestral origins through DNA testing. Those tested were selected from a small group of descendants whose surnames are most commonly associated with Melungeon ancestry. In order for a surname to be included in the study, at least one historical record from the 1800s and early 1900s — such as census, court and voting records or tax lists — related to Hawkins and Hancock counties or adjacent areas had to exist that stated the family was considered to be Melungeon.
The study’s authors note that a participant also had to be a paternal descendent “from an individual within this core group of surnames from the relevant counties, or their direct ancestors.”
The paternal DNA tests revealed that subjects were of both European and African origin. The female, or mitochondrial DNA, lines tested yielded only European ancestry, however.
Winkler, whose Melungeon connection is through his father’s family, said the study shows that at least some Melungeon families have African ancestors. A lot of people, including the association, have always accepted this, he said, but until now have had no verification.
Winkler was not a subject of the study nor did he help with the project, but he was interested in the research.
“One of the things that was pointed out by this study is that it was a very narrow focus, very narrow in terms of who was eligible for the study, and that was intentional,” he said. “No one was ever trying to restrict the definition of Melungeons to this small group.” Instead, he reasoned that the authors were looking to establish a baseline to help better define who Melungeons are and what can be genetically said about their ancestry.
An article written by the Associated Press concerning the study has generated some controversy regarding these findings, and Winkler also addressed this.
While he called the article accurate, he said there is a difference between being accurate and true. The article missed a lot of important background information, he said, and did not mention several nuances noted in the 108-page study. It also seemed to definitively state that Melungeons did not have Native American ancestry, which Winkler said the study does not express.
Julie Williams Dixon, a filmmaker who was also a presenter at the conference, said she gave Jack Goins and the study’s other authors a lot of credit, but wished they had been “more savvy in controlling the AP article.” Dixon, a Wise County native, filmed the documentary, Melungeon Voices.
“You can’t understate the damage that that article did,” she said. “I personally believe that they should have come forward after that article and written a counterstatement because the AP article was extremely poor reporting, so all their good work is not going to get its due unless they come forward.”
Winkler noted that some people have also criticized the methodology used in the study, but said this is how academia works. If someone finds an issue with how the study was written, he encouraged them to write their own paper and submit it to the same peer review.
One person in a blog post even suggested the study was false and that it was a war on “Indian heritage” and “sheer genocidal activity” against Native American groups of Appalachia.
“Genocide is a pretty strong term to use for a dispute about an academic paper,” said Winkler. “There are people who have been touched by genocide, who have lost families to genocide. Using that term is inappropriate.” He also mentioned that Goins has researched Melungeons for three decades, and he finds it difficult to believe that Goins would invest all his time and effort into publishing a false study.
Despite the debate surrounding the study, Winkler said he believes it is a milestone in Melungeon research and provides a foundation for future inquiries. It’s also important that these studies be done now, since individuals considered to be Melungeons are disappearing as an identifiable group. He said trying to find those who had an unbroken male line dating back to 1830 was difficult.
At the close of Winkler’s presentation, one audience member asked him what he thought this and other DNA studies have contributed to living a Melungeon experience.
Winkler paused and then responded that he didn’t know that this knowledge would have made any difference in the way his grandmother or great-grandparents lived. “Those of us who have had our DNA tested, we don’t live on Newman’s Ridge without a telephone and television and indoor plumbing, which is a big part of the historic Melungeon experience, a big part of the historic Appalachian experience,” he said. “For people today, it’s just our wanting to know more about our ancestry. We’re kind of living that Melungeon life a little vicariously through what we learned about our ancestors.
“DNA helps us to visualize who they might have been, where some of these ancestors might have come from, but I don’t think it really makes much difference in how we see ourselves.”