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Who or What are Melungeons?

Are you familiar with the term Melungeon? If you answer, “Who or what are Melungeons,” you are like most people. 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 to find them through a connection to this newly re-discovered group of people. The Melungeons are a people of apparent Mediterranean descent who may have settled in the Appalachian wilderness as early or possibly earlier than 1567. (The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; N. Brent Kennedy, Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, USA, 1997; introduction, p. xiii)

According to Dr. Kennedy, the Melungeons were “a people who almost certainly intermarried with Powhatans, Pamunkeys, Creeks, Catawbas, Yuchis, and Cherokees to form what some have called, perhaps a bit FANCIFULLY, ‘a new race’.” However, Dr. Kennedy does not believe that the Melungeons are a race. They certainly do not fit the dictionary definition of race according to any dictionary that I have seen. I, too, do not believe that the Melungeons can be identified as ‘a race.’

The 'so-called,' Melungeons were 'discovered' in the Appalachian Mountains in 1654 by English explorers and were described as being 'dark-skinned with fine European features," (Louise Davis, "The Mystery of the Melungeons." Nashville Tennessean, 22 September, 1963, 16) They were found to be living in a mining community in the southern Allegheny Mountains. In my opinion, this description shows that those who originally saw this group, did not believe them to be black.

In April of 1673, James Needham, an Englishman and Gabriel Arthur, possibly an indentured servant came with approximately eight Indians, as explorers to the Tennessee Valley. There, Needham described finding "hairy people .... (who) have a bell which is six foot over which they ring morning and evening and at that time a great number of people congregrate togather and talkes" in a language not English nor any Indian dialect that the accompanying Indians knew. Needham also described these people as "hairy, white people which have long beards and whiskers and weares clothing...." who lived in log cabins with peculiar arched windows. They practiced the Christian religion, and told the explorers in broken Elizabethan English, that they were 'Portyghee,'

They claimed that they were descended from a group of Portugese who had been shipwrecked or abandoned on the Atlantic coast. In these and other documents, some of these peoples were also described as having red hair and others with VERY distinctive blue or blue/green eyes. This description leads me to believe that these people were not Indians. Altogether they must have been a striking looking people.

Most Americans have been taught in school about the Lost Colony and Jamestown in 1607, Plymouth in 1620, with a few Spaniards and a smattering of Viking thrown in for good measure. Where did these people come from ? Recent research is answering that question. And it appears that they may be a combination of Turks, Spaniards, Portugese, Moor, Berber, Jew and Arab. Dr. Kennedy in a recent speech in Roanoke, Virginia stressed that at present this information is largely theoretical, but he also believes that within the next 5 years, most, if not all of it will be proven correct.

Dr. Kennedy's interest in the Melungeons began with an illness that took him to the emergency room in Atlanta, Georgia where he was diagnosed with erythema nodosum sarcoidosis. In researching his own illness, Dr. Kennedy found that it is a disease of primarily Middle Eastern and Mediterrean peoples, although it is not unknown among the Irish and Scandanavians. He later discovered it was equally common among the Portuguese immigrants of New England, and both southeastern Blacks and Caucasians of seemingly unrelated backgrounds. He was told that he would just have to wait to see if he lived or died. How could a southerner, born and bred, have a Mediterrean disease? It was this question that Dr. Kennedy set out to answer, by tracing his family background, and in the process he 'rediscovered his heritage.'

This page was submitted by Nancy Sparks Morrison and the opinions in this page are strictly the author's, based upon her reading and research of various materials noted herein.

Nancy Sparks Morrison
Genealogist
Roanoke, Virginia 24015
USA
Email:
nmorri3924@aol.com

Nancy Sparks Morrison, 1998, 1999.


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