It’s February and I've been thinking about Melungeons a lot lately. If you don’t know much about Melungeons, you are not alone. If you live in East Tennessee, I am fairly confident that you actually know a Melungeon or two. Do you work with a Collins? Live next to a Cox, Freeman, Mullins or a Campbell? I’m sure you've got an acquaintance or two named Goins.
No one is really sure where the name Melungeon originated. Some scholars think the term originated from the French melange meaning 'mixture/mixing', while some think it came from the Turkish words melun and can, translated as 'damned soul'.
According to legend, the Melungeons settled in the East Tennessee area before 'white' settlers arrived. The 'white' settlers imagined that they were going to a brave new territory, ripe for the picking and completely uninhabited as long as you didn’t consider those pesky natives. What they discovered was a group of dark skinned people claiming to be Portuguese had already settled in the fertile bottom land.
The 'white' settlers looked at the dark skin and the rich farmland and quickly made a decision. This group of people would be labeled as 'free persons of color' and therefore could not own land. They could not sue a 'white' man in a court of law and they could not marry a ‘white’ person. Problem solved.
The Melungeons moved farther and farther back into the hills and kept to themselves. They learned to deny their heritage and hide their ancestry. Soon, they became a thing of legend. They were the 'boogeyman' in a tale to scare your children into behaving.
The true origin of the Melungeons is still in question, but theories abound. They have been thought to be the lost tribe of Isreal, the missing settlers of Jamestown and the spawn of the devil. DNA analysis now shows that many Melungeons are of Moorish/Berber descent.
The classical image a Melungeon is someone with dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes. People used to think that all Melungeons had six fingers on one hand, and while the trait is slightly higher in that population, it certainly isn’t true of everyone.
Could you be a Melungeon? You'd be in good company. Scholars think that President Lincoln and even Elvis Presely may have had Melungeon ancestry.
Check out the Melungeon Heritage Society’s webpage for more information. http://melungeon.ning.com/ Even better, if you get a chance, stop in for stop in for the Sixteenth Union: A Melungeon Gathering, June 28-30, 2012,"Home to the Hills" Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State park, Big Stone Gap.
So, start rooting around in your family tree and remember that there is a whole world of mystery right here in our backyard!