Melungeon Roots


    Historians lied about the first settlers who arrived on the shores of the New World.  They would have us believe they were EnglishmenHistorical records document a different story.  If a researcherís family roots even come close to the Cumberland Plateau of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, he or she needs to know about the MelungeonsTheir fascinating and sad story has been left out of American history books, but their genes may affect their descendantsí health.  At the end of this article is a list of surnames identified as having Melungeon roots, among them Coleman\(The surnames are only an indicator of possible Melungeon ancestry).  Many Melungeon women "out-married", carrying the heritage with them and adding unknown names to the mix.  If an ancestor appears to have disappeared from existing records, and a researcher feels as though he or she has hit a brick wall, the answers may lie within the Melungeon history.

    When N034993">Dr.  N. Brent Kennedy, who earned his doctorate in mass communications research, became ill with an unbearable agony in his bones, lungs that gasped for air and legs that swelled grotesquely, he was diagnosed with an odd malady common among people of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern areas.  This made no sense to DrKennedy who believed his ancestry was rooted in Scotland and IrelandAfter months of treatment, during which he thought he might die, DrKennedyís health began to improve.  Curiosity turned into an obsession to find the truth about his ancestry.  And thatís when he first heard the word "Melungeon", a name seeped in mystery and tragedy.

    Spanish-Portuguese Berbers of the Muslim faith called themselves MelungeonsTwo Turkish words provide insight into the origin of this word.  "Melun" means cursed or damned, and "can" means "life" or "soul".  Used together, and pronounced "Melungeon" (rhymes with dungeon), the word translates into "one whose life or soul has been cursed".  For the Melungeon people, the meaning was prophetic.

    From 1492 through the early 1600ís, a half million Muslims and Jews were exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, a religious witch-hunt aimed at Muslims.  A majority of those exiles escaped to their ancestral homelands of Morocco, Algeria, Libya and TunisiaSome of them became known as the Barbary Coast Pirates.  Ironically, they were often recaptured by Spanish and Portuguese sailors and forced to become galley slaves in ships crossing the AtlanticThose Muslim captives were eventually used as slave labor on sugar plantations in Cuba and in mining operations in Brazil.

    Despite what our history books claim, Jamestown, Virginia was not the first European settlement in the New World.  Spaniards established the Santa Elena colony in 1566 on the coast of South Carolina.  For more than twenty years, the colony thrived until it was overrun by the EnglishEthnically, many of the Santa Elena colonists were Berber Muslims and Sephardim JewsThey had been recruited by Portuguese Captain Joao Pardo from the heavily Berber Galician Mountains of northern Portugal.  When Santa Elena fell, its inhabitants, including its converted-to-Catholicism Jews and Muslims, escaped into the mountains of North Carolina. 

    In 1586, Sir Francis Drake commanded thirty English ships and made a daring raid off the coast of Brazil against his Spanish and Portuguese enemies.  During this raid, Drake liberated about 400 Portuguese and Spanish prisoners, including an estimated 300 Moorish and Turkish Muslim galley slaves.  Among the freed prisoners were several dozen South American Indians, a smaller number of West African Muslims, and a few Portuguese soldiers.  Drake planned to arm and release the Turks and Africans on the island of Cuba to serve as a stronghold against Spanish invasion, but heavy storms forced him to continue up the coast along Americaís eastern shoreline.

    On Roanoke Island, Drake was besieged by stranded English settlers pleading to be taken home.  To make room for them in his already crowded ships, Drake was forced to leave behind some of the freed prisoners.  Evidence in English records indicates that among those left behind were 200 Moors, Turks, West Africans, Portuguese soldiers and South American Indians.  Undoubtedly, Drake promised that he or someone else would return for them.  But records reveal that two weeks later, when Sir Walter Raleigh arrived at Roanoke Island, there was no trace of the people Drake left behind.

    At risk of being recaptured by the Spanish and Portuguese, the new arrivals wasted no time in making their way the short distance to the mainland, probably utilizing small boats or canoes left behind by the EnglishAfter reaching the mainland, they continued a steady trek inland.  Eventually, they encountered the remnants of the Santa Elena colony, many of who shared their Muslim heritage.  Thousands of miles away from their homelands, the two groups became one.

    In DrKennedyís book The Melungeons: A Resurrection Of A Proud People, he concluded that the Melungeons were descended from the people Drake left behind.  After they fled the coastal areas of the New World, they eventually intermarried with Powhatans, Pamunkeys, Creeks, Catawbas, Yuchis and Cherokee Indians.  After slaves were brought to America, black-African ancestry became a part of the Melungeon ethnicity.

    English explorers in 1654 described the people they discovered in the Appalachian Mountains as being "dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned" with fine European features.  In April 1673, Englishmen James Needham and Gabrial Arthur, along with eight Native Americans, began exploring what later became the Tennessee Valley.  Needham described the people they found there as hairy white people with long beards and whiskers, and "weares" European type clothing.  He wrote of a bell, which was over six feet tall.  Each morning and evening, a ringing of the bell summoned people of the community together.  Needham said they spoke in a language "not English" nor any dialect the accompanying Indians had ever heard.  The Melungeons claimed they were descended from a group of "Portyghee" who had been shipwrecked and abandoned on the Atlantic coast.  Some of them had red hair, and some had distinctive blue or blue/green eyes.  Other, later explorers, found the Melungeons living in log cabins with "peculiar" arched windows.

The Melungeons, having evolved into European, Native American and African ancestry, settled in isolated mountain communities, among them Newmanís Ridge in Hancock Co. TN and Stone and Coeburn mountains in VA.  In the 1690ís, French explorers reported finding "Christianized Moors" in the Carolina mountains.  By the mid-1700ís, Englishmen found large colonies of Melungeons well established in the mountains of Tennessee and CarolinaSpeaking broken, Elizabethan English, they called themselves "Portyghee" or the more mysterious term "Melungeon".   In the late 1700ís, an Englishman named Jonathan Swift married a Melungeon woman in east TennesseeSwift utilized Melungeon men in his silver mining business, referring to them as "Mecca Indians".

    Through the years, growing numbers of white settlers coveted the rich valley lands occupied by the darker-skinned Melungeons.  As the original settlers were pushed higher and higher into remote mountain areas, their claims of Portuguese and Melungeon heritage increasingly became the object of derision.  Discrimination against the Melungeons occurred in a society where slavery was an accepted aberration, and where genocide against Native Americans was government policy.  Although generations of intermarriage with whites diluted Melungeon genes, blatant discrimination against them continued into the 1950ís and perhaps even longer. 

    The Melungeons were pushed off their lands, often murdered, always mistreated, not allowed to own property or vote, and their children could not be schooled with white children.  Labeled "free persons of color", Melungeons were considered Ďblackí for legal purposes.  Through the decades, Melungeons vainly tried to mesh with their Anglo neighbors.  In the process, they lost their heritage, their culture, their original religion and names, but not their genetic structure.

    In 1990, DrJames Guthrie performed a reanalysis of 177 Melungeon blood samples taken in 1969 in east Tennessee and southwest VirginiaDrGuthrie compared the frequency of certain genes within the Melungeon samples to the known genetic make-up of nearly 200 world population groups.  His findings indicated no significant differences between the Melungeon people of east Tennessee and southwest Virginia, and the people of Mediterranean and Middle European descent who were abandoned at Roanoke Island in 1586.

    A DNA study undertaken by Brigham Young University may offer clues to prove, among others, Melungeon roots.  Planning to collect 100,000 blood samples from various parts of the United States, the BYU scientists hope to use DNA analysis to compare with blood samples taken from people in a variety of countries around the world.  The purpose of this DNA project is to link present-day people with their ancestral homeland roots.  The scientists believe DNA results will even allow them to pinpoint remote villages in other parts of the world for purposes of ancestral matching.  Before long, genealogy research will be moving onto a higher-tech level previously unimagined.

    Forget the days spent in dusty archives and musty rooms or searching through hundreds of microfilm rolls.  Within a decade, home DNA kits will be commonly used to help researchers track their ancestors across the oceans, into palaces and huts, mountains and flatlands, and every imaginable lifestyle, nationality or color.  The end result? We are just one big family.

    Descendants of Melungeon people are everywhere throughout the United States.  Recent research indicates that people with Melungeon genes eventually migrated throughout the southeastern United States and parts westward.  Related mixed-ancestry populations included the Carmel Indians of southern Ohio, the Brown People of Kentucky, the Guineas of West Virginia, the We-Sorts of Maryland, the Nanticoke-Moors of Delaware, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

    Traditional genealogical research cannot be used to find Melungeon ancestors.  Their efforts to successfully hide their origins to avoid discrimination resulted in no written records, few censuses and no marriage, birth or death records.  DrKennedyís book, which can be ordered through most book stores, describes his personal search for his Melungeon roots and may be helpful to other researchers.  Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia printed The Melungeons: The Resurrection Of A Proud People in 1994.  The ISBN number is 0-86554-445-X.

    Nancy Sparks Morrison, a Melungeon descendant, maintains two websites containing a wealth of information regarding Melungeon history and related health problems.  Nancyís websites are:


    Diseases of Mediterranean origin that may affect Melungeon descendants include Bechetís Syndrome, Josephís Disease, Familial Mediterranean Fever, Sarcoidosis and ThallasemiaMore information about these diseases can be found on the above websites.

    Researchers with ancestral roots in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia may have Melungeon genes.  Some of the more common surnames, or variations thereof, having been identified so far as having Melungeon origins are:

    Adams, Adkins, Allen, Allmond, Ashworth

    Barker, Barnes, Bass, Beckler, Belcher, Bedgood, Bell, Bennett, Berry, Beverly, Biggs, Bolen, Bolling, Bolton, Boone, Bowlin, Bowling, Bowman, Bradby, Branham, Bravboy, Briger/Bridger, Brogan, Brooks, Brown, Bunch, Bullion, Burton, Butler, Butters, Buxton, Byrd

    Campbell, Carrico, Carter, Casteel, Caudill, Chapman, Chavis, Clark, Cloud, Coal/Cole\(s\), Coffey, Coleman, Colley, Collier, Collins, Collinsworth, Colyer, Cooper, Corman, Counts, Cox\(e\), Criel, Croston, Crow, Cumba, Cumbo, Cumbow, Curry, Custalow

    Dalton, Dare, Davis, Denham, Dennis, Dial, Dooley, Dorton, Doyle, Driggers, Dula, Dye, Dyess

    Ely, Epps, Evans

    Fields, Freeman, French

    Gallagher, Gann, Carland, Gibson, Gipson, Goins, Goings, Gorvens, Gowan, Gowen, Graham, Green, Gwinn

    Hall, Hammon\(d\), Harmon, Harris, Harvie, Harvey, Hawkes, Hendricks, Hendrix, Hill, Hillman, Hogge, Holmes, Hopkins, Howe, Hyatt

    Jackson, James, Johnson, Jones

    Keith\(e\), Kennedy, Kiser

    Langston, Lasie, Lawson, Locklear, Lopes, Lowry, Lucas

    Maddox, Maggard, Major, Male, Malone\(y\), Marsh, Martin, Mayle, Minard, Miner, Minor, Mizer, Moore, Morley, Mosely, Mozingo, Mullins

    Nash, Nelson, Newman, Niccans, Nichols, Noel, Norris

    Orr, Osborn\(e\), Oxendine

    Page, Paine, Patterson, Perkins, Perry, Phelps, Phipps, Prinder, Polly, Powell, Powers, Pritchard, Pruitt

    Ramey, Rasnick, Reaves, Reeves, Revels, Rice, Richardson, Riddle, Rivers, Roberson, Robertson, Robinson, Russell

    Sammons, Sampson, Sawyer, Scott, Sexton, Shavis, Shephard, Shepher d, Short\(t\), Sizemore, Smiling, Smith, Stallard, Stanley, Steel, Stevens, Stewart, Strother, Sweatt, Swett, Swift, Swindall

    Tally, Tackett, Taylor, Thompson, Tipton, Tolliver, Tuppance, Turner

    Vanover, Vicars, Viccars, Vickers

    Ware, Watts, Weaver, White, Whited, Wilkins, Williams, Williamson, Willis, Wilson, Wisby, Wise, Wood, Wright, Wyatt, Wynn


Additional sources for this article:

Mystery In The Mountains, Associated Press, Bradenton Herald, local section p. 10, June 7, 1998

Ancestry Research Runs In The Blood , Eric Alan Barton, Manatee Herald-Tribune, January 29, 2001