1. Who Are the Melungeons?
Melungeon is a term that first appeared in print in the 19th century, used in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to describe people of mixed ethnic ancestry. Melungeons were considered by outsiders to have a mixture of European, Native American, and African ancestry. Researchers have referred to Melungeons and similar groups as “tri-racial isolates,” and Melungeons have faced discrimination, both legal and social, because they did not fit into America’s accepted racial categories.
2. Are there other groups of people similar to the Melungeons?
As many as 200 different mixed ethnic groups have been identified in the eastern and southern United States, ranging from New York to East Texas, many with names (applied by others) suggesting exotic origins. These include the Guineas of West Virginia, the We-Sorts of Maryland, the Nanticokes and Moors of Delaware, the Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. These groups share a “mysterious” origin and have historically been stigmatized by neighbors. While each of the various "subgroups" possesses its own unique history and culture, historical and cultural evidence suggests a broad kinship between the groups and a possible common origin, though centuries of population dispersion and admixture have influenced the ethnic and social character of each of the separate populations.
3. Do these groups still exist?
Through intermarriage and migration away from their home regions, many of these groups have lost their collective identity in the last half-century and have blended into the majority population. Some groups with a predominantly Indian heritage have organized as tribes, and a few have gained limited government recognition. Others, like the Melungeons, are recognizing and celebrating their unique multi-ethnic heritage.
4. What does the word “Melungeon” mean?
The traditional explanation for the word “Melungeon” is the French mélange, meaning “mixture.” Another proposed theory for the origin of “Melungeon” is the Afro-Portuguese term melungo, supposedly meaning “shipmate.” Yet another is the Greek term melan, meaning “black.” Other researchers have speculated that “Melungeon” derives from the Turkish melun can, (meaning “cursed soul”); the Italian melongena (“eggplant,” referring to one with dark skin), or the old English term “malengin” (“guile; deceit”). Nearly everyone who has written about the Melungeons agrees that they fiercely resented the name. However, in recent years, many Melungeons proudly bear the name and acknowledge their heritage.
5. What do Melungeons look like?
The earliest descriptions of the Melungeons varied widely, so it is unlikely there was ever a “typical” Melungeon appearance. They were described variously as having European, Native American, or African features, a reflection of the mixed ethnic nature of the Melungeons. Over the years, Melungeons intermarried primarily with whites, so most of today’s Melungeons appear “white.” However, some Melungeons consider themselves African-American, while others have a distinctly Native American or Mediterranean appearance.
6. How do people know who is a Melungeon?
Melungeons, like most of the other tri-racial groups, are known by family names. The surnames of the first recorded Melungeons names included Collins, Gibson, Mullins, Goins, Bunch, Bowlin, and Denham. Over the generations, many other surnames have become associated with the Melungeons. Of course, these surnames are common names in America, and are only considered “Melungeon” names in the areas where Melungeons live.
7. Where do Melungeons live?
During the 19th century the name Melungeon was applied to people of mixed ancestry in Virginia and the Carolinas, but in the 20th century it was used mostly in northeastern Tennessee. Land and tax records show that some of the earliest Melungeon families in this region migrated from the tidewater and Piedmont regions of Virginia and North Carolina. The best-known Melungeon area is Hancock County, Tennessee, and particularly Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater (or Vardy) Valley. Other Melungeon communities or family groups were found in neighboring Hawkins County and Lee, Scott, and Wise Counties in Virginia. From these areas, Melungeons migrated and established communities in southeastern Kentucky, southeastern and middle Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, and as far north as eastern Ohio. Of course, not all Melungeon families stayed within their communities; many moved away where they would not face discrimination because of their ethnic heritage. During the 20th century, many Melungeons joined the outmigration from Appalachia to urban manufacturing centers.
8. What sort of discrimination did Melungeons face?
In a society where people were classified according to European concepts of race, the Melungeons, like other, similar groups, were in an awkward position. Neither white, black, nor Indian, their social status was below that of whites, but usually somewhat above that of African-Americans. Different groups faced different social and legal restrictions, depending on local customs and attitudes. In the 1840’s, several Melungeons were tried for illegal voting on the grounds that they were not white, and therefore ineligible to cast a ballot. However, they were acquitted. In Virginia, Melungeons were classified as “colored” by the Racial Integrity Act, which was in effect from 1924 to 1971. Most of the discrimination faced by Melungeons was social rather than legal; they were considered low-class, untrustworthy, and “tainted” by their African ancestry.
9. Where did the Melungeons originate?
That is the million-dollar question, the one that has fueled the imagination of journalists since the mid-19th century. Until recently, most scientists studying the Melungeons believed them to be – like most of the other tri-racial groups – the product of intermarriage between Anglo/Celtic Americans, Indians, and free African-Americans along the American frontier. Hancock County Melungeons, when first interviewed by outsiders about their heritage around 1890, defined themselves as Indian and Portuguese, but also acknowledged English and African ancestry. While most whites discounted the claim of Portuguese ancestry, believing it to be a means of denying African ancestry, generations of feature writers tapped into folklore and their own imaginations to develop theories to explain the origins of the Melungeons. Various writers suggested they were descendants of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, descendants of deserters from Hernando de Soto’s expedition, one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, descendants of shipwrecked pirates, or descendants of Carthaginian sailors. In each of these suggested scenarios, these overseas visitors intermarried with Indians and moved inland.