The Origins of the Melungeons

Melungeon_family“Melungeon” is a term applied to many people of the Southeastern United States, mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia: East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky. The most common adjective used to describe the Melungeons is “mysterious;” no one seems to know where the Melungeons originated. The Melungeons often did not fit into any of the racial categories that define an individual or group within American society; their neighbors considered them neither white, black, nor Indian.

The Melungeons appear to be of mixed ancestry, and contradictory claims about the origins of these people have existed for centuries. Most modern-day descendants of Melungeon families are generally Caucasian in appearance, often, although not always, with dark hair and eyes, and a swarthy or olive complexion. Descriptions of Melungeons vary widely from observer to observer, from “Middle Eastern” to “Native American” to “light-skinned African American.”

A common belief about the Melungeons of east Tennessee was that they were an indigenous people of Appalachia, existing there before the arrival of the first white settlers. Many Melungeons believed that their ancestors have lived in the hills since the 1500s or early 1600s. Some claimed to be both Native American and Portuguese. One early Melungeon was called “Spanish” (“Spanish Peggy” Gibson, wife of Vardy Collins). Such claims were questionable, however. Because of the social problems associated with race, many Southern families with multiracial ancestry claimed Portuguese and/or American Indian (specifically Cherokee) ancestry as a strategy for denying African ancestry.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, speculation on Melungeon origins produced tales of shipwrecked sailors, lost colonists of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin, hoards of silver, and ancient peoples such as the Carthaginians, Turkish, and even Sephardic (Iberian) Jews.

In the past twenty years or so, genealogists have documented through tax, court, census and other colonial, late 18th and early 19th century records that the ancestors of today’s Melungeons migrated into the region from Virginia and Kentucky. This evidence seems to refute earlier claims that the Melungeons were a “lost tribe” from Portugal or some other European nation that had arrived in the 1500s or 1600s.

Dr. Kevin Jones carried out a DNA study on Melungeons in 2000, using 130 hair and cheek cell samples. The results were vague: Jones concluded that the Melungeons are mostly Eurasian, a catchall category spanning people from Scandinavia to the Middle East. He also found these people to be a little bit black and a little bit American Indian.

More recently, Jack Goins started a Melungeon DNA Project, with the goal of studying the ancestry of hypothesized Melungeon lines. So far, Y chromosomal DNA testing of male subjects with the Melungeon surnames Collins, Gibson, Gill, Goins, Bunch, Bolin, Goodman, Stowers, Williams, Minor, and Moore has revealed evidence of European and sub-Saharan African ancestry. Such findings appear to verify the early designation of Melungeon ancestors as “mulattos,” that is, descendants of white Europeans and Africans. Many of the Melungeons, but not all, have DNA haplogroups that show roots in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. These people likely are descendants of enslaved or servant people in the Chesapeake Bay colony with European fathers connected to the African slave trade run by Spain and Portugal.

You can find much more information about the Melungeons at http://whatisamelungeon.webs.com, http://melungeon-studies.blogspot.com, and at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melungeon. Information about the Melungeon DNA Project can be found at https://www.familytreedna.com/public/coremelungeon.

25 Comments

I attended a presentation at the ACPL in Fort Wayne, Indiana, back in 2012, I believe, where Roberta Estes and her colleagues stated the results of their DNA studies of this group called “Melungeons.” I even wrote a short article on the presentation for the Allen County Genealogical Society (ACGSI) quarterly about the program. I don’t believe that this is really news in the sense that it has been previously been reported. But thanks Dick for reminding people of the original study!

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I read a few years ago the hypothesis that the name Melungeon came from blending the term mulatto with the derogatory term ‘injun’ = Mul-injun.

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Thank you for this information. I’m fairly new to searching genealogy with DNA information, and so far have no documentation to support it, but my belief is that this article applies to a part of my family history.

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I am wondering if you have heard of a Dr Brent Kennedy, now deceased, who wrote on the Mulgeon subject . A couple of my cousins are pictured in his book.
There is a physician in Kingsport Tn. who does a simple blood test to confirm . I think his last name is Sturgill.
Was curious to know if you had heard of these people, may be an avenue for you to look into .
Thanks for your insite as well.
Addie Moore Rynes

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    I just bought his book, and look forward to reading it. “The Melungeons, the Resurrection of a Proud People”…I believe someone asked the name.

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    Addie ~ Brent was a cousin of mine. You can find our relatives in Wise County, VA and surrounding areas. You can most likely contact UVA Wise and learn of others that assisted Brent with his research. He was a professor there at one time. Many trips back & forth to Turkey which they called the Reunion collected additional information as well as added additional relatives.

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    FYI–Brent Kennedy is not deceased. He suffered a serious stroke in 2005, but he is still with us and lives in Kingsport, TN with his wife.

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Interesting….are there books?

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Reblogged this on familytreegirldotcom and commented:
Yes, learn about the melungeon’s. My maternal grandmother is a Goins/Goings/Goens, believed to associated with the melungeon’s. I read Jack Goin’s book but have a hard time with his ignoring and denying after two DNA tests that he hosts African DNA! Thank you Dick Eastman for blogging this.

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My ancestors are from western va. pennington gap, black water etc. and i was told my 2nd great grandfather was Melungeon. No one has ever been able to tell me other than part black but he never looked that way. interesting article

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Thank you for this article Mr. Eastman, I have downloaded it to use as a reference. My line with the Melungeons is GOODMAN, and am enjoying connecting with others through the FTDNA site…quite revealing.

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There are lot of books exploring Melungeon heritage. Click on the link above that Keith Baker provided. My father is from Dickenson County in SW Virginia and he always said that the Melungeons were looked down upon due to possible mixed race (he grew up in the 1930’s-1940’s). We don’t know of any Melungeon in our background, as most surnames in our family tree are English and Irish.

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Dr. Brent Kennedy is living in Kingsport, Tennessee.

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Living here in the mountains of southwest Virginia, Melungeon is a relatively common word. I’ve often heard of a physical characteristic shared by many in our area. Many have a raised ridge at the base of the skull found about 2 inches agive the neck. Don’t know if it’s accurate but it is unusual.

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I have shared this article with several other professors who teach Introduction to Appalachia at Eastern Kentucky University and its outreach campuses. THANKS!

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My name is JIM COMBS i am dark skin and brown eyed dark haired- my gramd mothers were COLLINS and WILLIAMS -my faimly have lived in this small area before eletricty was here-I have been told that Iwas MELUNGEON –

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I am from southwestern VA, Buchanon County, VA. My mother is a Mullins by birth and her family is very LARGE in this area. I, also, have heard all my life that we were descendants from the Melungeons, and a large number of family members have all the traits described. So much so that some were thought to have “black” heritage. This is really interesting and I look forward to reading a lot more about these people.

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My last name was Vanderpool from clintwood Virginia. So i wondered if I am Melungeon also. I have a lot of the health issues
My father was from McDowell Kentucky and my mother was a Owens from Dickinson county Virginia. Thanks for the info. I would love more info to check more from if i am truly Melungeon. Janis Collins 1503 mabert road, Portsmouth Ohio 45662.

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My Grandmother was a Goin. Searches show they spelled it a number of ways, from Going, Gowen, Gowin, etc. I finally got a picture of my great grandfather. I believe he is part African, from the looks of his “handlebar mustache” that men had back in his time. I would love to know more about him in Amherst, Va.

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