Media Information Sheet
Updated: March 8, 1998
1. Who Are the Melungeons?
The Melungeons are a sizable mixed-ethnic population spread throughout the southeastern United States and into southern Ohio and Indiana. While the term "Melungeon" is most commonly applied to those group members living in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southern West Virginia, related mixed-ancestry populations also include the Carmel Indians of southern Ohio, the Brown People of Kentucky, the Guineas of West Virginia, the We-Sorts of Maryland, the Nanticoke-Moors of Delaware, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Probable Native American kinship for the various groups includes the Algonquin tribes of eastern and central Virginia, as well as the Lumbees, Monacans, Saponi, Catawba, Cherokee, and Muskogee/Creek tribes of the deeper south. 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 probable common origin, though centuries of population dispersion and admixture have influenced the ethnic and social character of each of the separate populations. Regardless of the original ethnic and/or racial background of the "first" Melungeons, today we find Melungeon descendants among all mixed-ancestry groups, even some raised to think of themselves as 'white' or Caucasian.
2. What is a Melungeon?
A growing body of evidence supports the now centuries-old Melungeon claim to be variously of Portuguese, Turkish, Moorish, Arabic, and Jewish origin, mixed with Native Americans. Oral tradition, cultural evidence, linguistics, and physical phenotypes point toward a strong Mediterranean and Middle Eastern component among most of the Melungeon related populations. Genetic and medical evidence confirm the same probable linkages, regardless of how it came to be. A 1990 gene frequency study (Guthrie, Tennessee Anthropologist, Spring 1990) utilizing 177 Melungeon blood samples showed no significance differences between east Tennessee and southwestern Virginia Melungeons and populations in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Iran and Iraq, and the Levant (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon). Diseases identified in the Melungeon population include thallasemia, Behcet's Syndrome, Machado-Joseph (Azorean) Disease, sarcoidosis, and Familial Mediterranean Fever. More than 1000 Melungeon and related Native American terms have been preliminarily linked with Ottoman period Turkish and Arabic words with identical pronunciations and meaning. Even the long-standing mystery term "Melungeon" is itself pronounced identically to the Arabic and Turkish terms "Melun jinn" and "Melun can" meaning "cursed soul." This term was in common usage among sixteenth-century Ottoman Turks, Arabs, and Muslim Conversos in Spain and Portugal, and is still understood by modern Arabs and Turks as a self-deprecating term by a Mulsim who feels abandoned by God. A recently initiated linguistics study involving American and Turkish/Arabic linguists is now underway to take a truly qualified look at such evidence in order to rule out coincidence (see the Melungeon website for detailed information regarding all of the above).
Importantly, "Melungeon" was NOT, is NOT a racial or ethnic group.
>From the beginning, the term was applied to a diverse group of primarily sixteenth-century Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/Central Asian immigrants who suffered great prejudice and united in an effort to survive encroaching Anglo-American racism and depopulation, but which later splintered into numerous ethnic enclaves in the continuing effort to survive. While most modern day Melungeon groups have preserved at least some cultural artifacts of their earliest population characteristics, each group has gone its own way. For this reason, some Melungeon groups and individuals have totally assimilated into the American mainstream, while others cling to, variously, predominantly Turkish, or Portuguese, or Native American, or African, or European roots. All are valid claims and simply represent the primary direction into which some of the spinter groups and families moved. This is common sense, though it was misinterpreted by some early researchers as representing "contradictory" stories of origin and thus leading to tragic dismissal. In reality, it was in no way "contradictory" for a people who were, from the very beginning, of mixed ancestry but who were denied the opportunity to retain and relish their multi-cultural heritage.
3. How Did These People Get Here?
First of all, as the mixed-ancestry descendents of native Americans as well as other ethnic identities, many Melungeons will find this question to be offensive-- many of their true ancestors were ALREADY here, prior to contact with European and African in-migrants. Furthermore, new evidence, or rather old evidence re-examined without prejudice, show a significant Spanish and Portuguese presence in sixteenth-century America, including the large South Carolina coastal colony of Santa Elena, as well as five outlying forts in what is now present day South Carolina, North Carolina, north Georgia, and east Tennessee. Additionally, many of the Spanish and Portuguese newcomers were so-called "Conversos" - that is, ethnic Jewish and Moorish people who had converted to Catholicism prior to or during the Spanish Inquisition. Evidence is also strong (see the work of English historian David Beers Quinn) that in 1586 Sir Francis Drake deposited several hundred Turkish and Moorish sailors, liberated from the Spanish in present-day Central America, on the coast of North Carolina at Roanoke Island. No trace was found of these people when later English vessels dropped anchor for re-resupplying. It is possible, if not likely, that many of them survived and were absorbed into the surrounding Native American tribes. This is particularly intriguing when one considers that most sixteenth-century Turkish sailors were themselves of central Asian heritage, thus making them literal cousins to the Native Americans they would have encountered, if the purported Bering Strait-migration thesis is to be believed. Furthermore, there is documented evidence of the importation of Karachai and Kavkaz Turkish, as well as Armenian, textile workers, artisens, and servants by both the English and the Spanish into sixteenth-century Virginia, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Mexico, lending even more support to previous Melungeon claims of a Turkish origin. All these people survived by blending into the various Native American, European, and African communities, and over time were generally pigeon-holed into one of the four permissable (and inflexible) American racial classifications: white (northern European), black (African), Indian, or mulatto (a mix of the first three, or anyone of questionable racial background). And thus an entire layer of our early American ethnic and cultural fusion was effectively "erased." By the time the first U.S. census was conducted, the admixing and cultural fusion had been underway for 200 years, ensuring that the story would remain buried and certainly never be told via standard census records (see the archives relating to W.A. Plecker to gain an appreciation for the inaccuracies of the early United States census records).
4. What is the Importance of the Story?
First, it is important to accurately understand the truth of how we developed as a Nation, including the challenges we faced. While myth may be enjoyable, it does little to teach us the realities of how we emerged as a homogeneous Nation, and it denies us the opportunity to learn from - and thus avoid repeating - past mistakes. Seeking the truth does not mean we are disparaging our country, nor does it change anything about who we are as Americans. Melungeons are proud to be Americans but deserve the same self-identifying privileges allowed other ethnic populations and denied to them by census-takers and scholars alike. We appreciate the precious freedoms guaranteed by our constituion that allow us to explore controversial issues such as this. But we are a great Nation precisely because of our experiences - it is ahistorical to discard any aspect of our history simply because it conflicts with a majority viewpoint, or with the previously published theories of particular scholars who may be resistant to new evidence, or to change itself. The search for truth is a hallmark of democracy and of our Nation and we do not apologize for seeking it.
Second, it is important to understand who we are as individuals and as 'communities' of people. Self-identity and self-respect must come before respect for others and love of Nation. Melungeons and other mixed-ethnic groups have historically been told that they MUST fit into ONE of the single racial categories offered via the census. This is ahistorical, asinine, even irrational. The results of such narrow-mindedness can be seen today, where mixed-ancestry children have generally been forced to self-identify with one parent only when the child naturally identifies with BOTH parents. For this reason - the right of self-identification and dignity - this story is important.
Third, the story of the Melungeons is important because it shows the previously obscured and often vehemently denied human kinship between us all. The tangled web of the Melungeons and their mixed-ethnic cousins demonstrates the human family's connections linking brown to white to red to yellow to black, and also of Americans in general to not only Englishmen, but to Turks, Jews, Spaniards, and yes, even Iraqis. In a world increasingly torn apart by ethno-racial tensions, the Melungeon odyssey is a beacon of hope - of what can be, of tolerance and toleration, of acceptance and appreciation for diversity and democratic ideals. A story of survival through blending and, consequently, a resultant unlimited human kinship. There may indeed be a lesson for the whole world in the story of one of the most disparaged people on earth: the Melungeons.
5. Where Can I Go for More Information? There are many research efforts underway. A forty person Melungeon Research Committee is chaired by Dr. Brent Kennedy, Vice Chancellor, Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia, in Wise, Virginia (540-328-0129). Dr. Kennedy can provide the names and contact information for specific scholars concentrating on anthropological, archaeological, historical, linguistics, genetics, and other aspects of research.
The primary information data bank for Melungeon research is A Melungeon HomePage, the website maintained by Darlene Wilson, historian and member of the Melungeon Research Committee. A significant amount of data can be found at the site and many questions can be answered via a visit to: http://www.clinch.edu/appalachia/melungeon/.
A number of books, audio tapes, and video tapes from various sources are now available on the subject, with contact and purchase information available at the website.
UNDER ONE SKY, published in Alcoa, TN, is a journal/newsletter devoted to research and the dissemination of information relating to the Melungeons. Edited by Bill Fields, UNDER ONE SKY is published semi-annually, is available by free subscription, accepts contributions to offset printing and postage costs, and is also available electronically via the above-named website. Anyone interested in subscribing can do so by writing to Bill Fields, PO Box 342, Alcoa, TN 37701.
The Wise County Historical Society maintains a "Melungeon Registry" for individuals desiring enrollment as a Melungeon descendant; registrants make their genealogical research available to one another via the Society's data-bank. Interested persons may contact the Historical Society in Wise, Virginia at (540) 328-6451.
The Melungeon Heritage Association, Inc., a new organization that aims for non-profit [501 (c) 3 IRS] status serves as a policy and planning body for the Melungeon people. The President of the Board is Mr. Audie Kennedy of Wise, VA.
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