The Melungeons are a tri-racial group, descended from Europeans, Africans, and Indians. Although the term Melungeon refers to a specific group, it has become a generic label for many similar groups: 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 Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The earliest dictionary definition says a Melungeon is “One of a very dark people living in the Mountains of Tennessee” (Funk & Wagnells, 1893). A slightly later definition called them “a dark people of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina with a discernible mix of ‘white, Indian and black blood'” (Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia, 1906). The name probably derives from the French word mélange, a mixture.
The Melungeons lived originally in Appalachia, primarily in the Cumberland Plateau of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Roberta Estes says, “The Melungeons were a group of individuals found primarily in Hawkins and Hancock Counties of Tennessee and in the far southern portion of Lee County, Virginia which borders Hawkins and Hancock counties in Tennessee. At one time isolated geographically on and near Newman’s Ridge and socially due to their dark countenance, they were known to their neighbors as Melungeons, a term applied as an epithet or in a pejorative manner.” (Estes, 2012)
The ethnic mixing that resulted in the Melungeons began in 17th century Virginia at a time when African servants were not yet considered to be chattel slaves, but were indentured servants who were freed when the period of indenture expired. Typically, the European ancestors of the Melungeons were marginalized colonists in Virginia, whose ancestors came from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany. The African ancestors of the Melungeons were Bantu Africans — the Kimbundu-speaking people from Angola and Kikongo-speaking people from the historic Kongo region along Africa’s lower west coast.
This mixed group began to form separate communities when the first anti-African laws began to restrict their freedoms about 1660. Their descendants were pushed to the margins of society and many of them eventually gravitated to the mountains of southern Appalachia where they mixed with Indians, chiefly the Cherokee and Choctaw.
Because of racism in the American South, the Melungeons historically denied their mixed ancestry and attempted to explain their color by various stories. Some claimed to be descendants of Turks and Moors liberated from the Spanish by Sir Walter Drake and dumped at Roanoke Island, North Carolina in 1586. Some said they were descended from Portuguese sailors shipwrecked or abandoned by the Spanish before the English arrived in Virginia and discovered in the Appalachian Mountains by the English in 1654. Some looked to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony or to the DeSoto Expedition. Others looked further back and claimed to be descendants of settlers from ancient Carthage, of the Lost Tribes of Israel, of Old World Gypsies, or of the mythical Welsh Indians.
A DNA study by Roberta Estes, et al. in 2013 showed “the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin” (Estes, 2012; Loller, 2021). FamilySearch criticizes the study on various grounds.
In 2013 I warned, “A lot of nonsense has been written about the Melungeons, with infighting among groups who advocate competing theories. Sources must be used with extreme caution.” That’s just as true today.
- FamilySearch Users, “Melungeons,” FamilySearch Wiki, retrieved September 26, 2021.
- Roberta J. Estes, et al., “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” Journal of Genetic Genealogy, April 2012, retrieved Sept. 24, 2021.
- Travis Loller, “‘A whole lot of people upset by this study’: DNA & the truth about Appalachia’s Melungeons,” News Leader, March 8, 2021.
Revised Sept. 21 & 26, 2021 to incorporate details of the DNA study.