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Who were the Melungeons?

Researchers have long struggled with the question of who were the Melungeons and where did they come from? In simple terms, the Melungeons were a group of dark-skinned people with European features found living in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia by explorers as early as the mid-1600's. These people were farmers living in cabins and speaking broken english. They were clearly not Native Americans nor black or white. They practiced Christian religion and when asked who they were they replied that they were 'Portyghee.' No one has proven where the term Melungeon originated, however, it was long speculated to be of French origin meaning melange or mixture. Recent linguistic experts have shown that phrases with similar pronounciation to Melungeon (me-lun-juhn) existed in old Turkish/Arabic meaning cursed soul or one whose luck has run out.

Over the years this mysterious group of people was pushed further west and higher up in the mountains as Scotch, Irish, English, and other settlers moved into the areas where the Melungeons had been living for years. During the struggle for land, the white settlers declared that the Melungeons were "Free Person of Color" or "mulatto." In many cases, this legal designation stripped the Melungeons of many of their rights including the right to vote, to send their children to school, and to defend themselves in a court of law. This led to the new settlers taking the land of the Melungeons. The loss of political rights and land caused many Melungeons to start over in new areas where no one knew them as Melungeons and they could "pass" for white and enjoy legal rights and education for their children. These families denied that they were Melungeons and told people they were "Black Dutch, Black Irish, Black Italian, etc." or Native American, usually Cherokee, to account for their darker coloring or refused to talk about their ancestors at all. As generations passed, people accepted the stories that grandparents handed down about who their ancestors were and the term Melungeon came to be applied mainly to isolated groups in Hancock Co., TN, and Wise, Lee, and Dickenson Co., VA.

It was here that researchers found them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and began speculating anew on their origins. The most popular traditional theories on the origins of the Melungeons were:

Current popular theory suggests that the Melungeons were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese settlers who abandoned the Spanish settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina during the late 16th century. These settlers eventually mingled with several Native American tribes including Powhatans, Pamunkeys, Creeks, Catawbas, Yuchis, and Cherokees. They may have also mingled with the survivors of several hundred Moorish and Turkish galley slaves and Portuguese and Spanish prisoners left on Roanoke Island (in modern North Carolina) by Sir Francis Drake in 1586.

The final chapter on the Melungeons has not yet been written and the theories have not been proven so we invite you to join us in the search for our ancestors and the origins of the Melungeons.

The following message boards have been set up for Melungeon researchers:

Melungeon GenForum

This page was last updated on: Monday, 31-May-2004 09:03:38 MDT

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