The Melungeon Conundrum

Now you better act right or the Melungeons will get you!


In Appalachia, the older generations generally use that threat as a means to terrify unruly children into behaving. The fear of being kidnapped by the Melungeons has continued to loom heavily over the heads of young mountaineers for generations. Because what’s more scary as a child than the thought of a mysterious group of people sneaking out of the woods at any given moment to potentially snatch you up from your family forever? It’s a fear even worse than the Boogieman. But unlike the indefinable Boogieman, Melungeons are real people – severely misunderstood and all too often vilified – who have a history as old as our country.

Historically speaking, Melungeons are considered to be bi- or tri-racial individuals, of varying and debatable ethnicities ranging from African to Jewish to European, living in the Appalachian region. These people have been particularly famous for living in small enclaves in Hawkins and Hancock Counties of Eastern Tennessee, Lee, Scott, and Wise Counties of Southwest Virginia, and Western North Carolina. Smaller communities of family groups were once known to live in Western South Carolina, Southern West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky. According to the Melungeon Heritage Association, at least 200 other mixed-ethnic groups have been identified in the Eastern United States, such as the Guineas of West Virginia, the We-Sorts of Maryland, the Nanticokes and Moors of Delaware, the Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana.[1] A common mystery surrounds the origins of these minority groups, which suggests similar beginnings for them all.

Even the word Melungeon is as mysterious as the people to whom it is attached, as no definitive origin for the word has yet been identified. A likely possibility is from the French word mélange that translates into mixture. Or it could be the Afro-Portuguese word melungo, meaning shipmate. The Greek word for black, melan, is another option. Or it could even come from the word melun can, Turkish for cursed soul. Whatever the word’s real meaning, Melungeon has historically been used insensitively and pejoratively against the group.

Exact physical characteristics of Melungeons are difficult to describe and appearances varied greatly within families. Many Melungeons have been described as “swarthy,” with features darker than their Caucasian neighbors except their blue eyes. In fact, the key Melungeon identifier is not by physical characteristics, but by surnames. A few common Melungeon surnames are Collins, Mullins, Carrico, Bunch, Bowlin, Adams, Gibson, Goins, Cole, Denham, Barker, Carter, Campbell, Powell, Russell, Counts, Sizemore, Orr, Perkins, and Cox.[2] As with any sense of identity, only in historically Melungeon areas do these names suggest that specific heritage. Aside from the darker countenance of these individuals, nothing else existed to culturally separate them from their white counterparts, despite the ideas portrayed by early-twentieth-century caricatures. Melungeons lived, farmed, believed, and spoke in the same manner as their neighbors. But because of such discrimination as outlined in the first paragraph, Melungeons did not normally marry outside of their cultural group until recently.

During the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-centuries, the Eurocentric racial ideals of the Western world culminated into legal restrictions against African Americans, Native Americans, and other minority groups in the United States. This obviously included Melungeons. Since Melungeons were considered neither white nor black nor native, into what social category they were placed depended upon the state government in which they resided; most of the time they became mulatto. As early as 1705, Virginia had already set the standards for what constituted as mulatto as well as defining the separation between free and tithable individuals. Virginia and North Carolina both legally forbade the intermarriage between whites and Africans, Native Americans, and mulattos several times in the first half of the eighteenth-century. Tennessee followed with the same racial restrictions in the nineteenth-century. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act in 1834, as heinous and genocidal as that legislation proved to be, contributed to the dehumanization of the bi-racial population that remained in the state.

Though many Melungeons were racially stereotyped as mulatto, the vast majority were never enslaved because they were also considered free persons of color. Being a free person of color allowed for many Melungeons to possess more social rights than their minority counterparts. But full rights for most of these individuals were never fully granted until the end of Jim Crow laws in the mid-twentieth-century, especially in Virginia. To avoid the mulatto label all together, Melungeons began claiming themselves as Portuguese in the early-to-mid-nineteenth-century. Despite their Moorish background, the swarthy Portuguese were considered white by European standards of the time.[3] And by claiming heritage to Portugal, many Melungeons began passing as free white persons and effectively began creating a new ethnicity for themselves (especially in Tennessee where the treatment of Native Americans recently worsened).

The Portuguese myth became ingrained in Southern Appalachian lore and still persists to some degree to this day. But the postbellum Jim Crow laws ushered in a new identity for Melungeons. Even though the end of the Civil War brought freedom to the enslaved African Americans, society was still based upon color. Segregation became the law of the land as your skin color and heritage defined your social status. It was during this period in American history that Melungeons began claiming Native American ancestry, as well, because being bi-racially black could have some dire consequences. Out of this era came the Cherokee Princess myth. This is not to say that everyone who claims to have Cherokee ancestry is misinformed, but the Cherokee did not have princesses or kings or the European feudal system. The Cherokee were considered to be the most “civilized” of the Native American tribes during the twentieth-century, so it is only fitting that Great-Great-Great-Grandma Collins who had darker features than her husband’s family was a respectable Cherokee Princess. It added a sense of dignity to one’s family when discrimination was rampant.

The Iberian/Cherokee Princess myths were not the only origin legends associated with the Melungeons. Some believed them to be descendants of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, or descendants of Hernado De Soto’s North American expedition, or descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or descendants of shipwrecked Turkish pirates.[4] For decades, the true identity of these obscure people remained a mystery. Thanks to modern DNA testing, the background of the Melungeons has been revealed. DNA results continuously show an overwhelming majority of individuals who claim Melungeon ancestry share a genetic pattern for maternal European genes and paternal Sub-Saharan African genes.[5]

An interesting study conducted by Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janet Lewis Crain titled “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population” for the Core Melungeon DNA Project tested a sample of 112 Hawkins/Hancock County, Tennessee Melungeon descendants and crossed the DNA results with historical documents in an attempt to reveal the origins of this group of people. The results discovered that “the majority of the Melungeon core families [free people of color]… were found together or in close proximity in the Louisa County, Va., or Louisa’s parent county, Hanover’s records in the mid 1700s.”[6] Even though the DNA and historical records revealed African ancestry in the individuals studied, no evidence could be found that their ancestors were held in slavery. Indentured servitude for both Europeans and Africans came along with the colonies early in that century before interracial marriages were prohibited; bi-racial children were thus common during this time. And if a bi-racial child was born to a white mother, the status of the mother was conferred to the child. These research findings forced the authors to ask the question of whether or not the Melungeon families in this study could be the descendants from the union of indentured African men and European women in the period prior to the establishment of slavery in the mid-seventeenth-century, as the study proved with certainty that the ancestors of this group existed in the colonies prior to 1750.[7]

Modern scientific research has opened many doors into the history of the Melungeon people, confirming some truths while denying many others. These individuals have survived some of the darkest periods in our nation’s history; and have been unjustly discriminated against for no other reason than a slight difference in skin tone. Belonging to Appalachia but never really being welcomed, these individuals developed a strong sense of kinship and cultural identity. But the label of Melungeon has by no means been a barrier to success – Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Pressley, Ava Gardner, and Tom Hanks are even believed to have been part of this group themselves. Melungeons and other similar bi- and tri-racial groups constitute some of the oldest families in the country, proving that the United States is truly a melting pot of cultures.


[1] Melungeon Heritage Association, “Frequently Asked Questions About Melungeons,” Melungeon Heritage Association, (accessed October 1, 2016).

[2] Margaret Linford, “String of Pearls: Exploring the Melungeon mystery,” SWVa Today, (accessed October 1, 2016); Melungeon Heritage Association, “Frequently Asked Questions About Melungeons,” Melungeon Heritage Association, (accessed October 1, 2016).

[3] Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janet Lewis Crain, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” DNAeXplain, (accessed October 1, 2016).

[4] Melungeon Heritage Association, “Frequently Asked Questions About Melungeons,” Melungeon Heritage Association, (accessed October 1, 2016).

[5] Jack Goins, “Written records agree with Melungeon DNA results,” (accessed October 2, 2016); Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janet Lewis Crain, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” DNAeXplain, (accessed October 1, 2016).

[6] Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janet Lewis Crain, “Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population,” DNAeXplain, (accessed October 1, 2016).

[7] Ibid.; A small sample found some Native American genetics, and a couple of instances of Portuguese, but no Jewish or Spanish DNA was detected.


© K. Martin-Gross, 2016

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