Since the late 1700s observers have pondered the who, what, why, and where of the people in Tennessee they called Melungeons. In earlier American eras that focused on racial pedigrees, any group that did not fit into easy identification as white, African, or American Indian was often called mulatto, mestizo, or mustee, depending on the perceived racial mix. These words, as does the French-derived “melungeon,” share their root in the Latin verb miscere, “to mix.” The theories on the origins of the families termed Melungeon have changed through the years. As one scholar has noted, the history of the Melungeons may ultimately be the individual histories of many families, rather than of one people.
The most well-known location for Melungeons in the state is in the Clinch River area of Hancock and Hawkins Counties. Other groups of people called Melungeon can be found in the Graysville area of Rhea and Hamilton Counties and in Davidson and Wilson Counties in Tennessee, as well as in the states of Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. One estimate is that approximately forty nonwhite/nonblack communities similar to the Hancock County Melungeons live in the South.
From the earliest days of the exploration and settlement of the southeastern United States, tales abounded about exotic civilizations lost in the wilderness. Hernando de Soto explored the area looking for cities filled with gold and pearls. Others believed they would find a lost tribe of Israel, remnants of a Welsh Prince’s empire, races of pygmies and giants, and tribes of “White Indians.” The imaginations of many of the first settlers of Tennessee were filled with such legends, including Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier, and first historian, John Haywood.
At the same time, the rich mingling of English, French, Spanish, and other European colonists, free and enslaved Africans, and native Indian tribes on the Atlantic seaboard resulted in new Americans who were of mixed ethnicity and race. The distinctive appearances of such persons gave rise to descriptive names such as mulatto or Melungeon, and mixed race communities were sometimes associated with the legends of “mysterious” peoples. One group of these families arose before 1780 in the piedmont of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. Their movement into the Hancock-Hawkins County area of Tennessee about 1790-1810 can be traced through genealogical and public records, including land grants for service in the Revolutionary War.
The earliest documented use of the term “Melungeon” found to date is in the Stoney Creek Baptist Church (Scott County, Virginia) minutes for September 26, 1813. At a church service, Sister Susanna Kitchen complained against another church member “for saying she harbored them Melungins.” The term was derogatory, used by an outsider for those in the community she disapproved. The term appears again in October 1840 in the Jonesborough (Tennessee) Whig, where “an impudent Melungeon” from the nation’s capital, then called Washington City, was identified as “a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian.” Through the nineteenth century, the word “Melungeon” appears to have been used as an offensive term for nonwhite and/or low socioeconomic class persons by outsiders. The people called Melungeons on the whole denied the existence of such a group and when pressed on their racial lineage would claim Indian ancestry. Documentation on the use of the word within the group reveals that even those likely to be classified as Melungeons themselves used the word as an insult.
In the 1890s a new interest in exotic origins for the Melungeons arose along with the popularity in magazines and fiction of colorful stories of the mountain people of the Appalachians. Nashville writer Will Allen Dromgoole wrote many short stories and novels on Tennessee characters, and her articles in The Arena in 1891 are credited by most historians for popularizing the “mystery” of the Melungeons. By her account, the Melungeons arose from African, white, Indian, and Portuguese ancestry, with an emphasis on the latter two. (In the post-Civil War period, some persons of color commonly claimed Portuguese blood, associated with dark skin, as they sought to escape oppression as African Americans.) Similar works of fiction and human-interest stories recounted romantic origins for Melungeons well into the 1900s.
Some authors attempted to factually trace the origins of the Melungeons in the late 1800s. Dr. Swan Burnett wrote recollections of stories he had heard about them for the American Anthropologist in 1889, and although he saw a mixture of white, Indian, and black in the group, he noted that they resented the name Melungeon and called themselves Portuguese. Dromgoole included some family history in her articles and postulated the same mix as Burnett, adding a Portuguese progenitor named Denhan. In 1894 the U.S. Department of the Interior, in its Report of Indians Taxed and Not Taxed, noted that the Melungeons in Hawkins County “claim to be Cherokee of mixed blood.” Folklorists and novelists would continue to explore the possible origins of this mix for the next century.
An especially important scholarly work emerged in 1950 in the form of cultural geographer Edward Price’s dissertation on “Mixed-Blood Populations of the Eastern United States as to Origins, Localizations, and Persistence.” Thoroughly analyzing census and other archival records, Price determined that the Melungeons had descended from free persons of color who moved into Hancock County in the late 1700s and early 1800s from the Virginia-North Carolina piedmont. Children of European and free black unions had intermarried with persons of Native American descent. These conclusions have been largely upheld in subsequent scholarly and genealogical studies.
In 1969 cultural anthropologists William S. Pollitzer and W. H. Brown published their study comparing the physical characteristics and gene frequencies in six blood group systems of 177 Melungeons in Tennessee and Virginia to various worldwide populations. Their conclusion was that the Melungeons most likely derived from a predominately English background with some African American and/or Cherokee roots, with a possible Portuguese component. The authors also concluded that the admixture from marriages with whites in recent generations was ending the ethnic distinctiveness of Melungeons. In 1990 an article by chemist James Guthrie revisited the Pollitzer-Brown study, looking at the gene frequencies in five blood groups. Guthrie argued that the Melungeons in the sample were a Caucasoid population from the Mediterranean, with some African ancestry, though it is impossible to ascertain whether this admixture dates from the Old World or has occurred since the group’s arrival in America.
In a 1951 article Edward Price observed that no group called themselves Melungeons or recognized themselves as Melungeons. Indeed, the name Melungeon had until that time been used primarily by outsiders as a way to identify, and to belittle, a group within their community that appeared to be different. This changed by the 1960s, as many of the residents in the Melungeon section of Hancock County gained better education through settlement schools and entered the middle and upper classes of the county, and as media interest in the “mystery of the Melungeons” created an opportunity for tourism development in Hancock County.
The outdoor drama “Walk Towards the Sunset,” produced outside Sneedville from 1969 to 1975, created an especially sympathetic view of Melungeons, while the Hancock County sheriff and deputies sported shoulder patches stating “Home of the Melungeons” and local restaurants sold “Melungeon cheeseburgers.” In 2001 the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce Web site invited tourists to visit–“Hancock County, Tennessee, home of the mysterious Melungeons, offers numerous mountain byways and scenic panoramas”–and the Old County Jail was in the process of being restored as a Melungeon history museum. The Hancock County Historical and Genealogical Society estimated in 2001 that about 500 Melungeon descendants still lived in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
In 1981 anthropologist Anthony Cavender published a study based on extensive interviews and observation in the region on the persisting social identity of the Hancock County Melungeons. His conclusion was that although the identity of the Melungeons as a distinctive mixed-race group had virtually disappeared, the term Melungeon still served a major function in two seemingly opposite ways. On the one hand, the word was still used as a pejorative for shiftless persons of low socioeconomic standing, while on the other hand many members of the local elite class identified themselves as Melungeons because of its exotic and romantic associations, encouraged in part by tourism promotion.
A major phenomenon in the Melungeon lore of the 1990s and early 2000s was a revival of interest in the possible Portuguese lineage of the group, spurred in large part by college administrator Brent Kennedy’s 1994 book The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People. In this work, Kennedy gleans from his own family’s history a theory that the Melungeons originated as Islamic Moors from Iberia, Turkey, and North Africa, refugees from Spanish and English activities on the Atlantic coast in the 1500s. Masking themselves as Christian Portuguese to avoid possible ethnic cleansing, he asserts, the men made their way inland, intermarried to a limited degree with Native Americans, and created the people called Melungeons. Research into this theory is centered at the University of Virginia branch campus at Wise, and the Muslim-Portuguese account can be found at several Web sites devoted to Melungeons.
Today a large number of persons have begun to search for their Melungeon roots, embracing an identity that most of their ancestors denied. For some, the Kennedy theory of Moorish ethnicity is accepted, while others adhere to the evidence of a mixture of white, black, and Native American family lines. One group of Melungeon descendants is actively seeking recognition as an Indian tribe from the State of Tennessee, continuing the claims of Cherokee and other Indian heritage that people called Melungeon have avowed since the early 1800s.
Genealogists and geneticists may ultimately find the answer regarding the factual origins of the Melungeons; most likely, they will discover different ethnic and racial identities for each of the so-called Melungeon families. In the meantime, researcher Mike Nassau has concluded there is no racial or anthropological definition of Melungeon today, but rather that some people identify themselves as Melungeons, or they live in a former Melungeon community, or they are identified as Melungeon because they look Melungeon and come from an area of Melungeon settlement.
Anthony P. Cavender, “The Melungeons of Upper East Tennessee: Persisting Social Identity,” Tennessee Anthropologist 6 (1981): 27-36; C. S. Everett, “Melungeon History and Myth,” Appalachian Journal (1999): 358-409; N. Brent Kennedy and Robyn Vaughan Kennedy, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People (1994)