The Melungeons: Appalachia's ethnic mystery
For centuries, a small community living in the Appalachian Mountains claimed to descend from shipwrecked sailors and Portuguese explorers. Who are they really?
In the eighteenth century, land surveyors in the Appalachian Mountains reported encountering bronze-skinned, light-eyed people who fell to their knees in prayer five times a day. The mysterious mountain-dwellers, who lived far beyond the Western border of the thirteen colonies, referred to themselves as “Portuguese” in broken English. While their outward appearance suggested they were Mediterranean, the custom of praying five times a day hinted at Islamic roots. The French-speaking explorers, unsure what to call this mysterious community, described them as mélange, “a mix.”
That descriptor eventually evolved into the word “Melungeon.” For years, it was used as a slur to describe the mixed-race people living in and around Hancock County, Tennessee—although the Melungeon population extended well into neighboring Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. Outsiders have long wondered about the true origin of Melungeons. Countless theories abound. People have speculated they descend from the lost colony of Roanoke, or from shipwrecked Spaniards transporting African slaves. The real story, it turns out, might be surprisingly simple, especially in light of America’s history of segregation and racial strife.
Before I wrote this article, I used social media to find and interview several people who self-identify as Melungeon. I didn’t want to sensationalize their story, or “exotify” an ethnic group to which I do not belong. I began by asking a simple question: “What were you told about Melungeons and their origins?”
Luckily, I found people eager to share their family stories. Some grew up believing their ancestors were “Black Dutch,” Spanish Jews who fled to Holland after the Inquisition. “Black Irish” was another common explanation, as was Native American. Some had heard that Melungeons descended from the Roma—the much-maligned European minority group, often referred to as “Gypsies.”
Many had been told they were Portuguese. I expected this one: Melungeons throughout history have claimed Mediterranean ancestry. This was certainly true of Margaret Collins, nicknamed “Spanish Peggy.” Spanish Peggy was married to Vardy Collins, considered the “patriarch” of the Hancock County Melungeons. (Spanish Peggy’s restored log cabin is still standing in the Appalachian Mountains as a local tourist attraction.)
The Melungeons’ claim they were Spanish or Portuguese fueled local urban legends that they descended from marooned sailors, shipwrecked and lost off the coast of Virginia. After all, these Mediterranean countries were great sea-faring powers around the time the first European settlers arrived in North America. But how they ended up so far west, in the remote and inhospitable Appalachian foothills, was anyone’s guess.
Modern DNA testing has shown there is truth to these claims. A young woman I connected with on Facebook posted her aunt’s ancestry test. The results: 51 percent African and 48 percent European, roughly. The interesting part, though, is that Megan’s aunt did indeed have 17.8% Iberian ancestry—Spanish and Portuguese, as many Melungeons have always believed. (Most white settlers of the American South were Irish Protestants, as well as British and Scottish people from the borderlands of the British Isles, known as the “Celtic fringe.”) And while most of her African DNA came from West Africa—the ancestral homeland of American slaves—a small but significant amount actually came from Central and East Africa. About 1 percent of the aunt’s DNA was Oceanic—specifically, Papuan. Therefore, for at least one Melungeon family, stories about descending from a mélange of people from all the corners of the Earth ring true.
But Keith Bohannon, another person of Melungeon ancestry, sent me documents he’d found about his family. These documents suggested another reason Melungeons have long evaded questions about their history.
Keith’s documents included some of the far-fetched origin stories: “The late Judge Lewis Shepherd, prominent jurist of Chattanooga, went further in his statements in his personal memoirs, and contended that this mysterious racial group descended from the Phoenicians of Ancient Carthage.”
But in nineteenth-century Tennessee, something more sinister was at play. White settlers, competing with the locals for scarce plots of fertile land, hoped to get Melungeons labeled “negro” in order to strip them of their rights and property.
“The Melungeons were a very unaccepted people,” one of Keith’s documents states. “The Commonwealth of Virginia had a State Registrar in the 1940s, W. A. Pelcker, who was very racist, and he did all in his power to have the Melungeons classified as black.”
Because most Melungeons had ethnically ambiguous features, this was a difficult task—but it didn’t stop their neighbors from trying. As racist attacks on Melungeons increased, they fled higher into the mountains. They doubled down on keeping their family origins a secret.
As formal racial segregation in the South fades into historical memory, researchers have revisited the Melungeon mystery. Thanks to the Melungeon DNA Project, we have some answers. It turns out many Melungeons do have DNA similarities to Southern European and Native American populations, among other ethnicities. However, through genetic analysis, scientists uncovered a simpler, more familiar American story: most Melungeons descend from African males and white females from the British Isles. Rather than being the descendants of shipwrecked pirates or lost colonists, it’s more likely Melungeons were the product of interracial couples who fled into remote mountain regions to avoid persecution. Knowing they would lose everything, from their land to their voting rights, if they were classified as “negro,” they simply made up a story about being Spanish or Portuguese, or even “Black Dutch” or “Black Irish.” Anything but Black.
Today, the Melungeons are reclaiming the heritage and cultural pride that was stolen from them centuries ago. Through DNA projects, researchers have discovered that many famous Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, were probably of Melungeon ancestry. They’ve even reclaimed the word itself. “Melungeon,” once a slur meaning “mixed race,” is now a word that describes a complex, unique—and uniquely American—culture.
Mélange, a mixture of different things. Not too long ago in America, it was considered a bad thing. But Melungeon culture and identity is a testament to the beautiful things that can happen when people aren’t afraid to put their differences aside and mix.