What Is A Melungeon?

For the online book Melungeons and Other Mestee Groups

go to http://www.melungeonmestee.webs.com


What is a Melungeon?


 Mike Nassau


Arch Goins and family, Graysville Melungeons
Photo from the 1920's, from a great-nephew in Chattanooga,
provided by and used with the permission of Barbara Goins.

A Melungeon (during the formative period from about 1700 to 1860) was someone who was free but thought not to be pure White in the area where the word was used - northern North Carolina, southern and western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southern Ohio, western Louisiana, the eastern edge of Texas, the panhandle of Florida, and northern Alabama. The person might actually be White, but of a darker strain like a Greek or Portuguese. The person might be mixed White and Black, White and Indian or all three. The White might be northern European or Mediterranean or both. A few people may have been of other races, such as South Asian (Tzigane, Asian Indian, etc.).

After becoming a Melungeon by coming to live in one of these areas, these persons tended to intermarry and produce a more uniform mixed population. People who were definitely considered to be Black or Indian or were members of a Black or Indian group probably would not be counted as Melungeon unless they joined or married into a Melungeon group. There are many members of Black and Indian communities who have a lot of Melungeon ancestry and even with Melungeon names, and some are gradually coming to think of themselves as Melungeons. Today, most Melungeons have quite a little of both northern European and Mediterranean white, some Black and at least a trace of American Indian. But anyone who traces back to someone considered Melungeon before the Civil War is definitely Melungeon, and that is many thousands and a very diverse group.

Perhaps the most important element in the formation of the Melungeons was the descendants of Indian groups which were no longer racially mostly Indian. Indian groups were genetically swamped in many cases due to their susceptibility to diseases which were brought to America from Europe and Africa. This particularly worked by the survival of children who had better immunity due to non-Indian ancestry. In an Indian village, the child of one Indian and one non-Indian parent was much more likely to reach reproductive age than one with both parents being pure Indian. Likewise, one with a mixed parent and a non-Indian parent (one quarter Indian) was more likely to survive than one who was half Indian. During the Seventeenth Century, most of the Indian groups of Virginia and North Carolina either simply died out from the imported diseases or were genetically swamped by mixing with non-Indians coupled with this selection for better disease immunity. The Indians incorporated genetic input from many groups very early in Virginia. Probably the biggest single input was from free Mulattos actually joining the Indian groups. English and Mediterranean settlers, soldiers and seamen contributed a large input even earlier, and, with the Tidewater Algonquians, were a major factor. Brent Kennedy has been investigating the contribution of certain Mediterranean groups.

The Spanish were colonizing the Southeast before the English got there. The most northwestern fort of Spanish Florida was near Knoxville, Tennessee. The coast of Georgia and both North and South Carolina had several Spanish settlements. Santa Elena (Parris Island) was the largest and is being excavated at the present time. Most of the colonial population was not ethnically Spanish, but was drawn from other groups. Marrano Jews (Jews pretending to be Catholic in order to escape persecution), Moriscos (Moorish Arabs and Berbers who joined the Catholic Church to avoid the Inquisition), Portuguese (Portugal was ruled by Spain for a while at this time), and Catalans from Minorca (an island in the Mediterranean) were all important elements in the colonists. Since many of the Jews and Moors were from Portugal, they were frequently called Portuguese. The Spanish also had many slaves in their colonies, who were mostly Muslim prisoners captured from Moorish and Ottoman ships. While their presence in Spanish Florida in large numbers is not known, there must be some reason why the Indians of the Southeast went from wearing almost no clothing but decorating themselves with tattoos to wearing elaborate, woven clothing with bright colors, including sashes and turbans, seemingly in imitation of Ottoman and Moorish styles. When the Spanish withdrew from North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia under British pressure, they left behind many part Indian children and probably quite a few Jews, Moors and Muslim slaves.

Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke for some months on his way back from raiding Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. He had several hundred Muslim seamen with him who had been freed from the Spanish and were being returned to Morocco and the Ottoman Empire. These would definitely include Berbers and Maghrebine Arabs from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Bosnians, Kurds and Turks from Anatolia and the Balkans, and other Ottoman peoples such as Syrians, Egyptians, Georgians, Circassians, etc. During several months spent ashore in Virginia, they must have left progeny among the local Indian population. Some of them may have stayed and actually joined the Indians. Shipwrecked sailors may have been contributing to the population even earlier. Portuguese would probably be the earliest and maybe the largest component. Their ships from anywhere in the Americas usually followed the coast north to around Cape Hatteras to take advantage of the Trade Winds from there to the Azores and back to Portugal. Spanish, English and French ships also wrecked on these coasts, of course.

These mixed Mediterranean and Indian people formed or contributed to mixed groups. South of the Melungeons there are many groups such as the Brass Ankles, Red Bones and Turks of South Carolina who claim to have Mediterranean ancestry. Members of these other mixed groups joined the Melungeons. Many part Mediterranean people were incorporated into the Indians of eastern Virginia and the mixed race communities along the NC-VA border which became the Melungeons.

Donald Ball has given a good short history of the origins of the Melungeon groups in the paper which he presented at the Melungeon Third Union in Wise, VA, in June, 2000. The formative area was a strip of land which was disputed between the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina because it was given to both by British Royal Grant. This strip is now the northern tier of counties of North Carolina. Since it was a no-man's land claimed by both colonies but administered by neither, it attracted people who didn't want to have government supervision. That included many mixed race people who didn't fit in White society but were neither part of Indian or Black society. This included many people from the Indian groups which had been genetically swamped by people from across the Atlantic and many people who were free but part Black. The free Mulattos have traditionally been thought to be the children of slave owners with their slave mistresses, who were frequently raised free and who would join the Indians or mixed communities. Dennis Maggard recently pointed out that Paul Heinegg's study of the records of colonial Virginia shows that most of them were actually the children of indentured White women by Black slave men. The owners were mostly English whereas the indentured servants were more frequently Irish, so this finding indicates a larger Irish component than previously thought.

As Donald Ball pointed out, the history of the Melungeons starts with these free Mulattos, the status of the Melungeons as Free People of Color resulted from their African ancestry and not from a small amount of Indian, Portuguese, Moorish, or Ottoman ancestry, and the presence of large numbers of free Mulattos very early in the formative groups means that they are in the ancestry of all Melungeons. The Indians in the ancestry of the Melungeons were very mixed with a lot of both Black and White in them, one cannot claim Indian ancestry from eastern or central Virginia and North Carolina without including the very large Black element in these Indians. Any Melungeon who tries to deny African ancestry is not only perpetuating the racism which removed the Melungeons from White society, but is deluding himself as well.

The principal groups of Indians contributing to the Melungeons were the Siouans of the Virginian and North Carolina Piedmont (mainly the Saponi or Eastern Blackfoot), the Algonquians of the Coastal region of these states (Powhatan, Pamunkey, Nansemond, etc.), and the Appalachian tribes, Southern Iroquoian (Cherokee and Tuskarora) and the Yuchi (Yuchean language is related to the Siouan languages, but not considered close enough to actually be called Siouan). The Indians of the Coastal and Piedmont regions were the mixed groups that formed the original mixed race groups that became the Melungeons and several remnant groups which still identify themselves as Indian. Appalachian Indians were less mixed with Black and White, but they did not become involved with the Melungeons until the Melungeons had already formed and moved from the Virginia - North Carolina border in the Piedmont to the Appalachia area. The Cherokee particularly inter-married with the Graysville Melungeons of the Tennessee River Valley. The Saponi are probably the most important Indian element in most groups of Melungeons. As they broke up and scattered, they were generally known as Blackfoot. That is the name used for them in the Melungeons of Appalachia, the Cherokee and in the Black community. There are many Blackfoot descendants in all three of these groups.

After the formative period along the North Carolina - Virginia border, there were many movements and different groups formed. Some have been known by other names. The original group in Henry and Patrick counties, Virginia, and Rockingham, Stokes and Surry counties, North Carolina, has been called the Goinstown Indians. As they moved west, in Surry, Yadkin, Wilkes, Alleghany and Ashe counties, they were called Melungeons. Some have always been called Melungeon, like the community in Hancock, Hawkins and Grainger counties of Tennessee and the one in Wise, Scott and Lee counties of Virginia and the one in Letcher county, Kentucky. The one in Person County, North Carolina, has been called the Person County Indians (they are somewhat organized under that name) and earlier the Cubans. The group in Rhea, Roane and Hamilton counties,Tennessee, are called the Goins locally, but have long been identified as Melungeons by people from the rest of Tennessee. The group in Magoffin and Floyd counties, Kentucky, and Highland county, Ohio, has been called the Magoffin County People in Kentucky and the Carmel Indians in Ohio, and have only recently been called Melungeons. The group in western Louisiana and adjacent Texas is known as the Redbones (not to be confused with the Red Bones of South Carolina) or the Louisiana Melungeons. The group in Gulf and Calhoun counties, Florida, was called Melungeon as long as they were identified as a separate group but was also known as the Dead Lake People. This last group does not trace back to the North Carolina - Virginia border, but to a very similar mixed race group in South Carolina, probably the Brass Ankles or the Red Bones. Each group has its own history and its own special mix of new additions. Ulster Scots (Scots-Irish) is a large addition to many. Cherokees and part Cherokees have joined some groups. Individual families have married to introduce many different elements to the Melungeon mix. Black Dutch and Black Irish are sometimes just euphemisms for Melungeon and sometimes describe people joining the Melungeons. Welsh, English, Scots, Irish, Jewish, Tzigane, Dutch, German and French are claimed by many. The unifying factor is a history of someone in the family who was too dark to be accepted as White without some doubts.

Melungeons today may identify themselves as Mestee (triracial or multiracial), White, Black or Indian. They may be found anywhere, but many are still in the states of NC, VA, TN, KY, OH, WV, AL, LA, TX, AR, MO and FL. The Melungeons formed in the Piedmont of Virginia and North Carolina, not in the Appalachian Mountains, and three of the main groups never were in the Appalachians, the original Goinstown group, the Graysville Melungeons and the Person County group, so those definitions that describe the Melungeons as Appalachian are wrong. Of course, many Melungeons did and do live in the Appalachians, and that is where the word Melungeon was popularized. Of the eleven separate groups identified as Melungeon, five are in the Appalachians and six are not.

For the online book Melungeons and Other Mestee Groups

go to http://www.melungeonmestee.webs.com

This is strictly my personal definition, my best statement at this moment in time. See the Melungeon Definition 2000, put together by a committee collected by Karlton Douglas, at http://melungeondef2000.webs.com/ for another view of this subject.

To see the older definition that was at this site until July 15, 2001, with statements from Martha Short and Nancy Morrison attached, click http://www.geocities.com/mikenassau/oldwhat.htm. This reflects my thinking during the period of 1996 to 1998. Much has been learned since.

For a list of many sites with information on the Melungeons and related topics like the Saponi, Black Irish, Black Dutch, and other Mestees such as the Red Bones, Brass Ankles, Ramapo Mountain People, etc., see the Open Directory list of Melungeon sites at http://dmoz.org/Society/Ethnicity/The_Americas/Melungeon/. Click on "Top" in the upper left corner to see the whole directory.

Mike Nassau, July 15, 2001
Open Directory Editor for Melungeon and related topics.

Mestee, Mêtis, or Mestizo
There are three words in use for mixed race groups of people, Mestee, Mêtis and Mestizo.  Mestee is the English, Mêtis the French and Mestizo the Spanish derivitive of the same Latin root for mixture.  I think Mestee is the best for Anglo-America,  Mêtis for Francophone areas and Mestizo for Latino groups.  I got the word Mestee from Jack Forbes’ book.  It is an English spelling of the Middle French Mestis.  Mestis became Mêtis in modern French.  The circumflex over the e is not an accent mark, it does not change the pronunciation.  It represents the lost s that was there in Middle French.  Août (August) is a good example.  English stage is French êtage, this is a regular change.  All Latin words which started in est- stay est- in Spanish, drop the e in English, and drop the s in French.  Estado, state, êtat; Esteban, Steven, Êtienne, etc.  Mestee fell into disuse because of the one-drop rule after the Civil War, but we are trying to go back to the pre-Civil War view that one can be part Black without being Black, so reviving the old word makes perfect sense to me.  If Louisiana Cajuns and Alabama Creoles want to use Mêtis, with their French background, that is fine with me.  But with Melungeons having mostly British origin names and speaking English for so long now, I think Mestee is the word of choice.

The Original Melungeon Home Area

As Donald Ball explained so well at the Melungeon Third Union in Wise, Virginia, and as set forth in his and Kessler’s book and paper (the paper is on-line at the Melungeon Heritage Association website), the beginning of the formation of the Melungeon people was the aggregation of various people, mostly already of mixed ancestry, in a no-man’s area along the frontier between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia.  This no-man’s land was created by over-lapping royal grants to the two colonies.  The area where they gathered is now the counties of Henry and Patrick in Virginia and Rockingham, Stokes and Surry in North Carolina.  They have been know locally as the Goinstown Indians after the community in the northwest corner of Rockingham county.  The old Goins school there was the center of this community, it is still standing, but deserted and in need of repair.  Pretty much all the Melungeons of northeastern Tennessee (Hancock county, etc.), western Virginia and eastern Kentucky descend at least in part from Melungeons who moved from this Melungeon homeland.  They have contributed some to all the groups called Melungeon except the Florida Melungeons, as can be seen in the frequency of the name Goins.  Dr G. C. Waldrep III has done a lot of research on this original Melungeon community and the migrations from it into Hancock and Hawkins counties, TN, and Scott and Wise counties, VA.

From Alan Ross' mirror site, http://www.rossmusic.net/what_is_a_melungeon.htm

Mike Nassau is a retired librarian who lives in Legazpi City, Albay Province, Bicol Region, Philippines by way of Gainesville, FL. He is married to Emma Espartinez Suruiz and lives with her and their three children, Jefferson, Jereco and Julie May. Ethnically, he is Melungeon. He authored a collection of class notes for an anthropology class on Melungeons and other old mixed race groups of eastern United States, titled "Melungeons and Other Mestee Groups" in 1994. He claims this work is very dated, much of it he no longer believes to be true, but it does have an extensive annotated bibliography.In addition, it contains a lot of Nassau’s wry wit which he says “some enjoy and by which some are deeply offended.” The collection has been posted on-line by the Multiracial Activist. The link is below. 


 The current crisis in the Melungeon community over the question 
of a special connection between Melungeons and Turks needs to 
be clarified.  It is now known that Drake did not abandon any Turks 
in Virginia.  Of course, a few Turks who came to America other ways 
might have made their way into the very mixed ancestry of the 
Melungeons, but certainly not as much as several other Mediteranean
ethnicities.  Not a significant amount, not a basis for any special 
identification or relationship.  The claim that Melungeons are 
Turkish-Americans is ludicrous.  To assert that Melungeons support
the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide is not only false and 
dishonest, it is very insulting.      Mike Nassau, March 12, 2008 

For more information on Melungeons, please click the links below.


Mike Nassau mikemelungeon@yahoo.com 
Salinas, CA.  February 8, 2008