SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2012
DNA study sheds light on an Appalachian genealogy mystery.
Fear of racism in early 1800s may have shaped Melungeon identity
by Travis Loller
Nashville — For years, varied , and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. There was speculation that they were descended from Portuguese explorers or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.
A DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy found the truth to be somewhat less exotic. Genetic evidence shows that people historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.
That report, published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn't sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.
"There were a whole lot of people upset by this study," lead researcher Roberta Estes said. "They just knew they were Portuguese — or Native American."
In the early 1800s, and possibly before, the term Melungeon (pronounced meh-LUN-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.
In recent decades, interest in the origin of the Melungeons has risen with advances in DNA research and the advent of Internet resources that allow individuals to trace their ancestry without digging through dusty archives.
G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the United States, said the study is further evidence that race-mixing has along history in the United States.
"All of us are multiracial," said Daniel, who did not take part in the the Melungeon study. "It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history:"
Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines might have sprung from the unions of black and white in-dentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery.
They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could intermarry only with one another, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee.
Claims of Portuguese ancestry were probably a ruse they used to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study's authors.
The study quotes from an 1874 court case in Tennessee in which a Melungeon woman's inheritance was challenged. If Martha Simmerman had been found to have African blood, she would have lost the inheritance. Her attorney, Lewis Shepherd, argued successfully that the family was descended from ancient Phoenicians who migrated to Portugal and then to North America.
Writing about his argument in a memoir published years later, Shepherd stated, "Our Southern high-bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood,but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc."
In a lawsuit in 1855, Jacob Perkins, who was described as "an East Tennessean of a Melungeon family," sued a man who had accused him of having "negro blood."
'Liable to be whipped'
In a note to his attorney, Perkins told why he thought the accusation was damaging. Writing before the Civil War and emancipation, Perkins remarked on the racial discrimination of the age: "1st the words imply that we are liable to be indicted = liable to be whipped = liable to be fined."
Later generations came to believe some of the tales their ancestors wove out of necessity.
Jack Coins, who has researched Melungeon history for about 40 /ears and was the driving force aehind the DNA study, said his distant relatives were listed as Portuguese on an 1880 Census. He was taken aback when he had his DNA sited. Genetic material from hide his mouth was sent to a labortory for identification. "It surprised me so much when one came up African that I had it done again," he said. "I had to have
a second opinion. But it came back the same way. I had three done. They were all the same."
For the larger DNA study, Coins and his fellow researchers — who are genealogists but not academics — had to define who was a Melun-geon.
In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities from New York to Louisiana.
Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina, the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas; and South Carolina, the Red-bones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others.
In Louisiana, which somewhat resembled a Latin American nation with its racial mixing, there were Creoles of the Cane River region and the Redbones of western Louisiana, among others.
The latest DNA study limited participants to people whose families were called Melungeon in records of the 1800s and early 1900s in and around Tennessee's Hawkins and Hancock counties, on the Virginia border about 200 miles northeast of Nashville.
The study does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage, but none were detected among the 69 male lines and eight female lines that were tested. Also, the study did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred, for instance with Native Americans.
Coins estimates that several thousand descendants of the historical Melungeons must be alive, but the study examined only unbroken male and female lines.
The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown, but there is no doubt that it was considered a slur by white residents of Appalachia who suspected the families of being mixed race.
"It's sometimes embarrassing to see the lengths your ancestors went to hide their African heritage, but look at the consequences" said Wayne Winkler, past president of the Melungeon Heritage Association.
The DNA study is continuing as researchers locate additional Melungeon descendants.
AP writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this report from New Orleans.