Racial Realities, American Indians and Melungeons

Racial Realities, American Indians and Melungeons

Karlton Douglas

by Karlton Douglas
April/May 2002

I don’t think it is easy for us to grasp the realities that many of our ancestors were faced with.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be a person of color in say, 1820, or 1920?

During early periods of outright racism they were dealing with racial laws and prejudice on an unbelievable scale. People of Color were forced to go “underground”. By 1920 there were five million people in the KKK. That is about equal to half the present population of OHIO!

You have a period where the offspring of mixed Indians dared not admit to being Native American—for fear of being removed to the west—so they may have claimed to be free blacks. Later after the Indians were removed they would have found it safer to claim to be Indian than black because of racial prejudice against blacks. I can easily picture a white man, or woman, claiming their dark mate’s ancestry was Indian, or African, depending on the racial climate, to avoid persecution for their mixed children. In one or two generations no one would know the difference, and would accept what the ancestors claimed, or were labeled as. I give one note of caution here. Though my focus has been on American Indians and the mixing of the various ethnic groups, I do not consider to be prejudiced those individuals who reject one ethnic group or another as being part of their own particular Melungeon line. Not if it is because their own family-line has shown through genealogical research and family traditions to be either Indian, or African, or Mediterranean, and is basically one of those, exclusive of the others. Their research may point to one, or the other of those sources of origin. I do however take issue with those people who insist that because their ethnic ancestry is either one particular ancestry, or another—all other Melungeons must be of that ethnic ancestry as well, and they would exclude the other ethnic groups from the mix. I do not wish to imply in any of the writing that I have done about Melungeons that a person is prejudiced because they really believe their Melungeon ancestor was of this, or that ethnic group. Just don’t try to tell me a person was not a Melungeon because they had an ethnic group involved in their heritage that someone does not approve of.

I paint with the broadest possible brush, but I acknowledge that every individual Melungeon family is different.

Knowing human nature and the facts we have—racial mixing has always occurred. It was probably amazing to see how fast racial prejudice could melt when a white man or woman fell head-over-heels for an attractive person of color. Now some people of color were Indian, but likely others were not. When you consider the sheer numbers of Mulattos, Africans—slave and free—compared to the number of Native Americans in the east, and southeast, you have to conclude that a good sized portion of those early people of color were of African Ancestry, or at least part African Ancestry.

I do believe there is a unique blend in Melungeon. The term Tri-Racial applies in some instances, but I believe the core of the groups’ ethnic stock was more involved than that. We should probably also include small Native American tribes now considered “extinct” that were mixed with Mediterranean people. This Native American-Mediterranean group later on would likely welcome into their communities those who would also find themselves set apart outside of it. Like poor whites, freed slaves, and other Indians trying to avoid persecutions—such as members of the Five Civilized Tribes. Thus some of them at least became in part Tri-Racial (White, Black, Indian). This isn’t to create some great mysterious people; problem is that there has been a great mystery about Melungeons from an early stage in our country’s history. It is quite likely that some Mediterranean people were in the core group, whether that group was Portuguese, Arab Moor, Sephardic Jew, Spanish, Turkish, is anyone’s guess. Genetic evidence will not let us rule out a Mediterranean blend, and it had to be early on, and isolated to the point of keeping that blend, or we would have had better historic evidence of who Melungeons are. What we have is hints at shipwrecked sailors, abandoned peoples, the name “Portugee” it is all mysterious but not very satisfying.

The Melungeon mix is not an exact proportion. White is evident in many, but some appear to be mostly Indian, or black, or have a dark European look. Again, there is no exact mixture, to say Melungeon is to say—mixed!

Here is the great fun—or aggravation of it all—many of these people have flown the coop, so to speak. They have scattered as Appalachia has opened up to the rest of the world, and Melungeon descendants have left Appalachia to find better jobs, and less prejudice by hiding their past. Many look “white”, so they had no trouble hiding their past. No one can blame Melungeons for wanting to avoid having their children suffer persecution. But now that some of those fires of racial hatred have died down, the grandchildren and great grandchildren want to know where their ethnic ancestry came from—even if it includes African and American Indian, maybe even especially if it does.

I think it will be interesting to see if an exact definition of Melungeon can ever be concluded. But the answer can not be one of exclusion—or we become the very thing our ancestors dreaded.


There are three ethnic groups that I don’t question whether or not they are part of the “Melungeon Mix”, considering that they are mixed in different amounts, and all three may not be involved in every family:

White Northern European, Black African, Red American Indian. For me the only question is if, and when Mediterraneans came into the mix. I believe they are, and in 3 different waves, I will call it: The Three-Wave-Theory.

FIRST: Through the well known historical fact that Spanish soldiers and Missionaries were in the American Southeast. And as someone pointed out—they didn’t have women with them. Also Forts in the southeast were abandoned and we still don’t know what happened to the Spanish group of people who manned them. I think it likely that these Spaniards mixed with the surrounding Indian tribes.

SECOND: Through Tidewater and Coastal Indian tribes that were pushed back into Appalachian areas by the advance of whites, such as the Powhatan Indians of Virginia, Tuscarora Indians of North Carolina, the Coosa Indians of South Carolina. There are reports of shipwrecks, and stranded sailors on the Carolina coast, I think if these men survived they did so by joining nearby Indian tribes.

THIRD: Through facts that are now coming to light of Armenians, and possibly Turkish slaves who were brought to America in the 17th century. I think it likely that these people would have moved back into the frontier area much like the FPC (Free People of Color) did, and mixed with the forming groups of Melungeons.

Some specific information:

In checking on which Indian tribe it would have been that mixed with the Spanish who were driven from Santa Elena, South Carolina, and went to the area of Asheville, North Carolina. My best deduction based on John Swanton’s book: Indians of the Southeastern United States, is the Cheraw tribe whose home was in the area of Asheville, North Carolina. These Indians are specifically mentioned as having contact with these Spaniards. This tribe became the Saura/Sara Indians. De Soto had visited them early on, and Spanish captain Juan Pardo visited them in 1566 and built a fort there named Fort San Juan in which he left his lieutenant Boyano with some soldiers. Later Boyano took part of his force to Chiaha on the Tennessee River. When Pardo reached the Cheraw town in 1567 the Indians had it besieged, but the Indians submitted on Pardo’s arrival. When Pardo returned to Santa Elena this garrison and three others were destroyed by the Natives. And there is no record of what became of the Spanish here, except that they appear to have settled east of Asheville, North Carolina which brings us back around to the Cheraw/Sara Indians again. Later the Cheraw/Sara did join the Keyauwee, we actually never hear much about the Keyauwee until around 1700 which makes them suspect as they are the bunch singled out by the surveyor John Lawson as being the strange mustached and bearded Indians. Maurice Mathews of South Carolina listed tribes he was familiar with in the Carolinas in 1670. He had visited them in the late 17th century. Among others he names the Keyawah (Keyauwee), and he says of these tribes of Carolina, that the Indians were generally “Poore and Spanish.”

The Keyauwee traveled north to Virginia and disappear from the records after 1761—which makes them an excellent suspect Indian tribe for Mediterranean input in Melungeon lines. My belief that the Keyauwee were mixed with Spaniards seems very likely.

A few more things are worth mentioning regarding Spanish-Indian mixing. Lawson says of the Catawba “King”, that he kept on hand several prostitutes for service to Europeans who passed by.

In the book: The Juan Pardo Expeditions, by Charles Hudson, he mentions that one of Pardo’s men, Juan Martin married an Indian woman named Teresa. He likely married her in the backcountry when he was posted there under Boyano during Pardo’s first expedition. Boyano also brought eight women slaves out of the interior, they were set free in the year 1567. The Pardo expeditions were during the years 1566-1568 and covered the areas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and East Tennessee. The forts setup by Pardo were later destroyed by Indians, a few soldiers escaped, some may have been taken prisoner, while others were killed by the Indians.

The Juan Pardo documents clearly show how dependent the Spaniards were upon the Indians for food, and that the survival of these Spaniards was clearly dependent upon the goodwill of the Indians. Pardo was in contact with the Creek-Muskogean, Iroquioan, Catawba-Siouan, and likely Yuchean tribes. It cannot be emphasized enough that the Spanish explorers had a good deal of contact with the Creek tribes, but it is worth noting that the Cherokee were also visited by Pardo at a village called Tocae, near present Asheville, North Carolina.

On the ethnic mixing issue you should know that Pardo specifically warned his commander at Fort Santiago not to let the soldiers bring women in at night. Do you think that may have been a problem? Consider the account of Teresa Martin, the wife of Juan Martin, given in the year 1600 that when Pardo did not return at an appointed time the soldiers abused the native women, bringing the wrath of the Indian men against the Spaniards.

I will offer one last thing for your consideration. Though I cannot accurately estimate the possible number of Indian-Spanish mixed offspring. I think common sense will allow me to speculate that whatever the number was, those mixed offspring would very likely have been better able to withstand the European diseases and germs brought among the Native Americans by the Spanish. And more likely to be among those remnants Indians of the southeast who later would mix with other ethnic groups in the area of Appalachia and beyond.



Rootstock: Native Americans, Spanish Portuguese-Moors, Angolan and other Africans.


Addition: White Northern Europeans, Free Black-Africans, and additional Native Americans. (Melungeons still consider themselves Indian & Portuguese at this time.)


An Amalgamation: All of the above races and groups: though White Northern European is becoming dominant as can be seen by use of White Surnames. Racist pressures begin to move Melungeons away from their original Culture and Heritage.


White Wash: Heavy admixture of Whites. With some Freed Slaves, African Americans, American Indians, and groups of Melungeons continuing to mix over the generations. Though many Melungeons are showing up as White on the Census’ and many are trying to hide their ancestry because of persecution. Others are leaving traditional Melungeon areas for better opportunities, with the exception of a few who remained in Melungeon areas, and were proud of their heritage in spite of harassment and prejudice, and who clearly stood out as being of a different ethnic background. The rest are just now, or recently discovering this part of their heritage as info has become available in books, old records coming to light, and through the Internet.


Back when I first joined the Melungeon e-mail list at Rootsweb I asked the following question to decide if the list was right for me: “Does this group accept that Blacks are part of the Melungeons?”

I received a number of responses, many were good, but some off-list responses had an underlying anger and resentment that I would even suggest such a thing. I stayed because of the good responses.

Racism is alive and well, sad to say. I have seen it from close, and distant relatives, in news reports, and very sadly, even among a few Melungeon descendants. My focus has been on American Indian elements among Melungeons, because that is where I am most knowledgeable—though far from an expert—and because I am reasonably sure of my American Indian Ancestry. Even though I have not located an African American Ancestor yet, that does not mean there is not one on my family tree. Indeed, the thing that got me interested in the Melungeon subject was a statement I heard from my grandmother when I was only a teenager. She said her mother told her that in the Branham line there was a, “N” in the woodpile.

That statement has stuck in my mind, and keeps me looking, “in the woodpile”. It motivated my search into genealogy, trying to discover my own ethnic past. I believe that he, or she (the African/s) are hiding, not willingly, but because they had to due to the racism around them. Maybe they even took refuge among my Native American ancestors long ago, those who didn’t know racism against blacks until whites taught it to them, even then Native Americans never became as expert at it as some whites. I would be surprised to find out that there was not African heritage in my family lines somewhere.

Melungeon descendants must be willing to embrace the totality of our ethnic past: White Northern European, African, American Indian, and Mediterranean. And never should one ethnic group be uplifted at the expense of another. Even though every family is different—some may be mostly White, or Indian, or African, or Mediterranean…that makes them not one iota better or worse than any of the other ethnic groups involved in other Melungeon families.

I have seen positive change among Melungeons. A move toward becoming more accepting of the African element as part of the Melungeon ethnic past, of accepting all the various ethnic elements that make up who Melungeons were, and are today. Exclusion should have no place here, we should never be, of the “Indian”, “African”, or “Mediterranean” camp, never holding one group up as greater in importance than another. The lesson of Native Americans is clear for anyone with eyes to see—Divide and Conquer. That is the history of Native Americans, one group of Europeans pitting them against another, against themselves, and even against Blacks when the Europeans wanted to secure control over them. When Native Americans joined together they were a force to be reckoned with. Consider the powerful Six Nations Iroquois before they divided during the Revolution. Pontiac and his alliance of Indians, (he was killed by an Indian by the way). Also remember Tecumseh the great leader whose oratorical skills for uniting the tribes terrified the whites. Consider Custer’s fall at the hands of a united Indian front. We should all learn from these historical lessons that Melungeons must stand together, differences must take a back seat to the common good. I have a vision of what could be, that keeps getting tarnished by dark clouds of division, by things that really don’t matter in the final analysis.

I have outlined a number of possible and likely tribes that are involved in Melungeon lines. To me it is not as important that we know the specific tribe as it is that we acknowledge the fact of American Indian involvement in Melungeon heritage. Tecumseh preached that Indians should unite, and simply be known as Indians rather than of this, or that tribe. We should also, as Melungeons with Indian heritage be proud to say we are American Indian, regardless of any particular tribe.

American Indian Remnants are among Melungeons. We should search out, and seek to discover, and recover that important part of our ethnic past. Though we have never lived on a Reservation, or struggled and suffered the way our brothers and sisters in the west have, we still should lay hold of that great part of our heritage, embracing this wonderful piece of our ancestry.

Again, my plea is for us to embrace every part of who we are, to avoid division, and be proud of the fact that we are a mixed-— new hybrid people in the New World.

Karlton Douglas lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter. He spent his summers growing up at his grandmother’s home in Appalachia. Moderates the Melungeon Christians e-mail list. Is the author of two books: Chronic Illness: Living With a Thorn and the fictional story: Griffin Island. He has had articles published in the Appalachian Quarterly magazine, and contributes articles to Angel Wings Magazine. He is proud of his mixed ethnic hybrid status.

by Karlton Douglas

  • The Multiracial Activist – Remnant Indians of the Southeast
  • The Multiracial Activist – Racial Realities, American Indians, and Melungeons

    Copyright © 2001 Karlton Douglas. All rights reserved.

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