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 find them through a connection to a group of people called Melungeons.
The Melungeons are a people of apparent Mediterranean descent, typically dark complexioned, who may have settled in the Appalachian wilderness as early or possibly earlier than 1567.
Dr. N. Brent Kennedy, author of, ‘The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People,’ started the recent research into this group of people. His book is a must read for anyone who is connected to this group.
Dr. Kennedy documents his own Melungeon family tree in the book and gives some startling theories which are being confirmed by current researchers.
He mentions the need to hide the family connection to the Melungeon community as the main reason our Melungeon ancestors are so hard to find.
Dr. Kennedy believes the Melungeons were a people who almost certainly intermarried with Powhatans, Pamunkeys, Creeks, Catawbas, Yuchis, and Cherokees.
Melungeons appear to have been located in the southern Appalachias with mining as a common occupation before the English settlers explored the area.
One theory is Melungeons are descended from people of mixed ancestry in Spanish settlements in the South East who kept moving into the interior to avoid English colonists. This is supported by genetic evidence.
Genetic diseases appear in Melungeon populations which only seem to appear elsewhere in populations from the Iberian peninsula and north Africa.
The Melungeons were ‘discovered’ in the Appalachian Mountains in 1654 by English explorers and were described as being ‘dark-skinned with fine European features, (meaning they were not black) and as being a hairy people, who lived in log cabins with peculiar arched windows, (meaning they were not Indians).
These Melungeon people practiced the Christian religion, and told the explorers in broken Elizabethan English, that they were ‘Portyghee,’ but were described as being ‘not white,’ that is, not of Northern European stock, even though some of them had red hair and others had VERY striking blue or blue/green eyes.
Where did these people come from? Recent research is answering that question. It appears that Melungeons may be a combination of Turks, Spaniards, Portugese, Moor, Berber, Jew and Arab.
Some cultural traits of Melungeons include the practice of putting tiny houses over graves, putting a pattern of nails over doors for good luck or protection, and working with metals, gems, or mining.
Melungeon descendants may have some rather unique physiological characteristics. There is a bump on the back of the head of some Melungeon descendants, that is located at mid-line, just above the juncture with the neck. It is about the size of half a golf ball or smaller.
If you cannot find the bump, check to see if you, like some Melungeon descendants, have a ridge, located at the base of the head where it joins the neck, rather than the Anatolian bump.
To find a ridge, place your hand at the base of your neck where it joins your shoulders, and on the center line of your spine. Run your fingers straight up your neck toward your head. If you have a ridge, it will stop your fingers from going on up and across your head.
There is also a ridge on the back of the first four teeth (upper and lower) of some Melungeon descendants. If you place your fingernail at the gum line and gently draw (up or down) you can feel it and it makes a slight clicking sound.
The back of the teeth also curve outward rather than straight as the descendants of anglo-saxon parentage do. Teeth like these are called Asian Shovel Teeth or just Shovel Teeth which are typical of Native Americans.
Some Melungeon descendants have what is called an Asian eye fold. This is rather difficult to describe. At the inner corner of the eye, the upper lid attaches slightly lower than the lower lid. In other words, it overlaps the bottom lid.
If you place your finger just under the inner corner of the eye and gently pull down, a wrinkle will form which makes the fold more visible. Some people call these eyes, “sleepy eyes, dreamy eyes, or bedroom eyes.
Some other Melungeon characteristics are extremely high arches, an extra bone in the foot, the foot may be wider than normal, and double-jointedness is common.
There is also a kind of squat that some Melungeon descendants seem to be able to do which may be connected to being double jointed.
Squat down with your feet and knees TOGETHER, keeping your feet flat on the floor, and your buttocks almost touching the ground. You may put your arms around your legs, but do not lean back on your hands. If you can do this without falling over backwards, you have performed the squat!
Some Melungeon families may have members with fairly dark skin who suffer with vitiligo, a loss of pigmentation, leaving the skin blotched with white patches.
Some Melungeon descendants have had six fingers or toes. There is a family of people in Turkey whose surname translated into English is Six Fingered Ones.
There are some Mediterranean diseases which show up in some of the descendants of the Melungeons. Some of these diseases can be quite severe, even life threatening, and if you or a family member have suffered from a mysterious illness, these should be considered.
There is ongoing research into some areas that are less severe, but which pose problems for some Melungeon descendants who seem to suffer with them.
Sleep problems, including periodic limb movement, shaky (restless/active) leg syndrome, and sleep apnea are one such area. Allergies, including lactose intolerance, are another.
Certain surnames are associated with this unusual and highly interesting group of people. Check them out here.
If your family has an Indian Grandmother/father myth which you have been unable to prove, and they have been hard to trace and they lived in NC, TN, KY, VA, WV areas in the early migration years or if they seem to have moved back and forth in these areas and if they share any of the certain surnames and characteristics, you may find a connection here.
But some Melungeon descendants do not show the physical characteristics and of course, there are many people with the surnames who are not connected to this group.
Melungeon people were discriminated against by their Scots-Irish and English neighbors as they moved into the areas where the Melungeons lived.
The newcomers wanted the rich valley lands occupied by the Melungeons they found residing there. They discriminated against the Melungeons because they were darker skinned than their own anglo-saxon ancestors and because this helped them obtain the lands they coveted.
This discrimination carried into the 1940’s-50’s and perhaps even longer because of the work of a man called Plecker who was the state of Virginia’s Director of Vital Statistics and an avowed racist.
He labeled the Melungeons, calling them mongrels and other worse terms - some were labeled FPC - Free Person of Color in Virginia. This in turn led to their children being labeled as Mulatto (M) and both of those terms came to mean BLACK.
BUT, if you find such a term for any of your ancestors, it does not necessarily mean that they actually WERE black. Some Melungeon families married white, some black, some Indian, some a combination.
For all of them, the terms led to rulings in which they couldn’t own property, they couldn’t vote, and they couldn’t school their children. As a result, they hid their backgrounds with the Indian myth, with the orphan myth (my family are all dead), and the adopted myth, and they changed either the spelling of their surnames or they picked an entirely new name, moving many times, anything to distance themselves from their Melungeon heritage.
They sometimes became "Black Dutch" or "Black Irish", or some other combination.
Mr. Arlee Gowen wrote an article entitled The Mysterious Melungeons which appeared in the September 1992 issue of Stripes, the Texas State Genealogical Society Quarterly. The following is an excerpt from that article:
"A Dutch revolt against the Spanish monarch began (in)1555 and continued to its successful conclusion in 1609.
The nation could not field enough soldiers to defend the empire, and as a consequence, Spain subjected neighboring Portugal and impressed Portuguese men into Spanish regiments throughout the empire. [Some regiments were in Tennessee on a Spanish expedition which explored eastern Tennessee in 1567].
It is more than credible that Portuguese soldiers would desert or defect in Tennessee if the opportunity presented itself. As a sidelight, a genealogical anomaly resulted from this war.
A new race was created in the southern part of Holland during the six decades that Spanish and Portuguese soldiers were stationed there. Their fraternization with the Dutch girls produced dark-skinned children which were the beginning of the Black Dutch."
Mr. Gowen notes that these Melungeons were a dark skinned people who wore beards and had straight black hair. Many had dark blue eyes. They were found by John Seiver when his expedition crossed the Appalachians in 1774.