A Short History of the Melungeon's

By Nancy Sparks Morrison

I am a researcher interested in a fascinating group of people called Melungeons. If you ask, " Who are the Melungeons?" you are like most people. If you have been researching your family in the Cumberland Plateau of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee, during the early migration years, you may be able to find them through a connection to this group of people who are only now being researched with unbiased eyes. The Melungeons are a people of apparent Mediterranean descent who may have settled in the Appalachian wilderness as early or possibly earlier than 1567.  (The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; N. Brent Kennedy, Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, USA, 1997; introduction, p. xiii) The Mediterranean includes areas of North Africa, southern Europe and Central Asia.

According to Dr. Kennedy, the Melungeons were "a people who almost certainly intermarried with Powhatans, Pamunkeys,
Creeks, Catawbas, Yuchis, and Cherokees to form what some have called, perhaps a bit  FANCIFULLY, a `new race.'  Dr.
Kennedy does not believe that the Melungeons can be called a `race of people.'   No dictionary definition of race fits
with what we know of the Melungeons and recently, the American Anthropological Association, declared that `race,'
was an inaccurate, artificial way of defining a people and was no longer of any value.
Finding out about the Melungeons and my possible connection to them is the MOST fascinating thing I have EVER run into
in my 20 years of genealogical research. The `so-called,' Melungeons were  `discovered' in the Appalachian Mountains
in 1654 by English explorers and were described as being `dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people supposed to
be of Moorish descent, who were neither Indian nor Negro, but had fine European features, and claimed to be Portuguese." (Louise Davis, "The Mystery of the Melungeons." Nashville Tennessean, 22 September, 1963, 16.)

In April of 1673, James Needham, an Englishman and Gabriel Arthur, possibly an indentured servant came with approximately eight Indians, as explorers to the Tennessee Valley. There, Needham described finding "hairy people .... (who) have a bell which is six foot over which they ring morning and evening and at that time a great number of people congregrate togather and talkes" in a language not English nor any Indian dialect that the accompanying Indians knew. And yet these people seemingly looked European. Needham  described them as "hairy, white people which have long beards and whiskers and weares clothing."  This bell seems to me to speak of a Latin influence among these people. Other, later explorers, found people who lived in log cabins with peculiar arched windows.  Dr. Kennedy says that by the late 1700's  they were practicing  the Christian

These people claimed that they were descended from a group of Portugese who had been shipwrecked or abandoned on the
Atlantic coast. (Byron Stinson, "The Melungeons," American History Illustrated, November, 1973:41) The term they used
was `Portyghee.' In other documents, some of these peoples were also described as having red hair and others with VERY
distinctive blue or blue/green eyes. This description leads me to believe that these people were not Native American
Indians. Altogether they must have been a striking looking people.

Most Americans have been taught in school about the Lost Colony and Jamestown in 1607, Plymouth in 1620, with a few
Spaniards and a smattering of Viking thrown in for good measure. Where did these people come from?  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, the Official Voice of the Second Union Planning Committee says. But recent research is giving an interesting
answer to  that question. And from that research I am led to believe that. they 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.

There is also new evidence or rather old evidences re-examined without prejudice, which 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. The Azores may have been a stopping place for some Melungeon ancestors. 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-supplying.

By the time that the first U.S. census was conducted, the admixture and cultural  fusing there had been there for 200
years.. This ensured that the story would remain hidden and buried, and that no amount of the census research could ever
tell the story accurately. Traditional genealogy can not be used to find these people. There are no written records, no
censuses, no marriage or death notices.

Dr. Kennedy's interest in the Melungeons began with an illness that took him to the emergency room in Atlanta, Georgia where he was diagnosed with erythema nodosum sarcoidosis. In researching his own illness, Dr. Kennedy found that it is a disease of primarily Middle Eastern and Mediterrean peoples, although it is not unknown among the Irish and Scandanavians.  He later discovered it was equally common among the Portuguese immigrants of New England, and both southeastern Blacks and Caucasians of seemingly unrelated backgrounds. He was told that he would just have to wait to see if he lived or died.  How could a southerner, of Appalachian roots, have a Mediterrean disease? It was this question that Dr. Kennedy set out to answer, by tracing his family background, and in the process  he `rediscovered his heritage.' His book, mentioned earlier, is not about
historical research, but his family's genealogy and theoretical problem solving.

My interest in this genealogy also brought me to realize that I had inherited a Mediterranean illness, one called
Familial Mediterranean Fever and probably saved my life in the process. I have developed a website noted below which
cover 5 inherited Mediterranean illnesses that Melungeon descendants may have. I also can offer more material FREE
and via e-mail on these fascinating people. Just e-mail me directly if you are interested.


SPARKS Genealogy

The Melungeon Home Page