The Melungeons: Who Are They?

The Melungeons:
Who Are They?

Nancy Sparks Morrison

by Nancy Sparks Morrison
April/May 2001

The opinions in this article are strictly my own, but have been based upon my reading and research of various materials noted herein. You may SHARE my work with anyone, but it is not to be sold or used for profit in any way, without my permission. I would be glad to have your site on my links page. Please e-mail me.

BACKGROUND

If you ask, ” Who are the 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 group of people who are only now being researched with unbiased eyes. 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) The Mediterrean includes areas of North Africa, southern Europe and Central Asia.

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.’  Dr. Kennedy does not believe that the Melungeons can be called a `race of people.’  No dictionary definition of race fits with what we know of the Melungeons and recently, the American Anthropological Association, declared that `race,’ was an inaccurate, artificial way of defining a people and was no longer of any value.
Certain surnames are associated with the Melungeons. I will provide a list of those names. later on. Be aware, however, that many people bearing these surnames, even if  they come from the Appalachian area, are NOT connected to the Melungeons.  The surnames are to be used as an INDICATOR of POSSIBLE Melungeon ancestry. Also, note that many Melungeon women `out-married,’ carrying the heritage with them, but not the names. Not having one of these names DOES NOT mean that the family was not of Melungeon descent.

Finding out about the Melungeons and my possible connection to them is the MOST fascinating thing I have EVER run into in my 20 years of genealogical research. The `so-called,’ Melungeons were `discovered’ in the Appalachian Mountains in 1654 by English explorers and were described as being `dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people supposed to be of Moorish descent, who were neither Indian nor Negro, but had fine European features, and claimed to be Portuguese.” (Louise Davis, “The Mystery of the Melungeons.” Nashville Tennessean, 22 September, 1963, 16.)

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. And yet these people seemingly looked European. Needham  described them as “hairy, white people which have long beards and whiskers and weares clothing.”  This bell seems to me to speak of a Latin influence among these people. Other, later explorers, found people who lived in log cabins with peculiar arched windows.  Dr. Kennedy says that by the late 1700’s  they were practicing  the Christian religion.

These people claimed that they were descended from a group of Portugese who had been shipwrecked or abandoned on the Atlantic coast. (Byron Stinson, “The Melungeons,” American History Illustrated, November, 1973:41) The term they used was `Portyghee.’ In 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 Native American 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? First of all, as the mixed-ancestry descendents of native Americans as well as other ethnic identities, many Melungeons will find this question to be offensive– many of their true ancestors were ALREADY here, prior to contact with European and African in-migrants, the Official Voice of the Second Union Planning Committee says.  But recent research is giving an interesting answer to  that question. And from the research I am led to believe that they  are a sizable mixed-ethnic population spread throughout the southeastern United States  and into southern Ohio and Indiana. While the term applied to those group members living in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southern West Virginia, related mixed-ancestry populations also include 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.

There is also new evidence or rather old evidences re-examined without prejudice, show a significant Spanish and Portuguese presence in sixteenth-century America, including the large South Carolina coastal colony of Santa Elena, as well as five outlying forts in what is now present day South Carolina, North Carolina, north Georgia, and east Tennessee. Additionally many of the Spanish and Portuguese newcomers were so-called `Conversos,’ – that is, ethnic Jewish and Moorish people who had converted to Catholicism prior to or during the Spanish Inquisition. Evidence is also strong (see the work of English historian David Beers Quinn) that in 1586 Sir Francis Drake deposited several hundred Turkish and Moorish sailors, liberated from the Spanish, in present-day Central America, on the coast of North Carolina at Roanoke Island. No trace was found of these people when later English vessels dropped anchor for re-supplying.

By the time that the first U.S. census was conducted, there had been 200 years of admixture and cultural fusing. This ensured that the story would remain hidden and buried, and that no amount of the census research could ever tell the story accurately. Traditional genealogy can not be used to find these people. There are are no written records, no censuses, no marriage or death notices.

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, of Appalachian roots, 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.’   His book, mentioned earlier, is not about historical research, but his family’s genealogy and theoretical problem.

MELUNGEON PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

There are some physiological characteristics which are called ethnic markers, that seem to be passed on through the lines of some Melungeon descendants. There is a bump on the back of the HEAD of SOME descendants, that is located at mid-line, just ABOVE the juncture with the neck.  It is about the size and shape of half a golf ball or smaller. This is called an ANATOLIAN BUMP, and indicates ancestry from the Anatolian region of Turkey. If you cannot find the bump, check to see if you, like some descendants, including myself, have a ridge, located at the base of the head where it joins the neck, rather than the Anatolian bump.

This ridge is an enlargement of the base of the skull, which is called a Central Asian Cranial Ridge. My ridge is quite noticeable. It is larger than anyone else’s that I have felt, except my father’s.  I can lay one finger under it and the ridge is as deep as my finger is thick.  Other ridges are smaller.  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. ONLY people who live/d in the Anatolian region of Turkey or Central Asia also have this “bump/ridge.”

See the following diagram for the site of both the ridge and bump.

            Back of Head
         \lllllllllllllllllllllllll/

     ears ( ___x___ ) ears      x marks the bump’s location
               \valley /                the ridge is the line __ shown
                 \      /  neck
                 /      \__shoulders

There is also a ridge on the back of the first four teeth – two front teeth and the ones on either side (upper and lower) of some 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.

Many Indian descendants also have this type of teeth.  The back of the first four teeth of Northern European descendants are straight and flat.

An example of northern European teeth would be similar to this diagram:  \l

Shovel teeth look like this diagram. Back of teeth )/ front of teeth, straight.

SOME Melungeon descendants have what is called an Asian eyefold. This is rather difficult to describe.  At the inner corner of the eye, the upper lid attaches slightly lower than the lower lid. That is to say that, 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, bedroom eyes.” Many Indian descendants also have these kinds of eyes.

    nose <    0    >
            ^  place your finger here and draw down gently

Some families may have members with fairly dark skin who suffer with vitiligo, a loss of pigmentation, leaving the skin blotched with white patches.  Some descendants have had six fingers or toes.  There is a family of people in Turkey whose surname translated into English is “Six Fingered Ones.” The term for that in Turkiq is “AltI parmak.”  (pronounced “altah-par-mock) “AltI” ends with the undotted Turkish “i” which is pronounced as “uh.”

There is a region near Efes (Ephesus) called “AltI Parmak” – many of the people there have historically had six fingers.  Some families have even taken the last name of “AltIparmak.”

If your family has an Indian Grandmother(father) `myth’ which you have been unable to prove, an adoption story that is unprovable, or an orphan myth, 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 mentioned surnames and characteristics, you MAY find a connection here. Some descendants do not show the physical characteristics and of course, there are many people with the surnames who are not connected to this group.


Copyright © 2001 Nancy Sparks Morrison. All rights reserved.

One comment

  1. My name is Jeff Lawson my grandmother was a Williams they came from Tennessee and moved into Dent County Missouri. I have the knot on the back of my school as well as the dark deep blue eyes as is common with almost every Lawson in my family. My father said and our families the mood from the Smoky Mountains into the Mountains of the Ozarks. You did a DNA test through ancestry and they said we were of Samoan descent.

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