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Melungeons | Who Are They?

  • Written by | 13 Comments13 Comments Comments
    Last Updated: August 4th, 2008

    Melungeon Famly from Tennessee,  from Wikipedia

    If you’re not familiar with the term Melungeon, then you’re not unlike many others, even some genealogists aren’t aware of the term and haven’t a clue what it means, or who it applies to.
    However if your family comes from the Cumberland Gap area, or Cumberland Plateau, and called Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, or West Virginia their home, and you’ve been actively involved in researching them, chances are you’ve come across the term several times.

    In fact, this may be the only way that you will find a connection to your family, by digging through this rediscovered race of people. The Melungeons are, according to some historians, a group of people who came from the Mediterranean and settled in Appalachia probably earlier than the mid 1500’s. You can find reference to this in the book, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People; N. Brent Kennedy,1997.

    Dr Kennedy states that the Melungeons were most likely migratory people who intermarried with the Powhatans, Pamunkeys, Creeks, Catawbas, Yuchis, and Cherokees and formed a group of people that others have termed a “new race”.

    Dr Kennedy does not however believe that they are a race of people, but rather a group who are qualified by certain characteristics. The people who were termed Melungeons, were found or perhaps “discovered” om the mountain areas of Appalachia by English explorations and were listed and described as being a people who were quite dark or olive skinned but bore very perfect features of the Europeans. This description comes from Louise Davis, “The Mystery of the Melungeons.” Nashville Tennessean, 22 September, 1963.

    Found to be living in mining communities in the Allegheny mountains they were believed to be Indian perhaps, or another race all together, but were never considered to be black, or even a partly black in their heritage other than by some who sought to deny them the right to vote and to own land.

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    The people who were termed Melungeons, were found or perhaps “discovered” in the mountain areas of Appalachia by English explorations and were listed and described as being a people who were quite dark or olive skinned but bore very perfect features of the Europeans. It was the late 1600’s when an Englishman, James Needham, and a servant of his entered the Tennessee Valley with about 8 indian scouts and helpers and found the group, which Needham later described as being “hairy people, who have a bell that they ring both morning and night and at that time, a great many of them come together and talk in a language that is not English, and which none of the Indians of the area knew.

    They wore long beards, and lived in log cabins that bore unique arched windows. They spoke some broken English and told the men that they were “Portyghee” which he termed to mean Portuguese. Their claim was that a group of Portuguese had been shipwrecked near the Atlantic coast and they have been abandoned. In his papers as well as many others, these people were of olive complexion, with European features but that they were varied in hair and eyes, with some of them being deep brown eyes, while others bore a striking blue eyes or even green eyes, as well as red hair.

    They were at one point considered to have been part of what was once called the Lost Colony which was near Jamestown prior to 1610, but in fact no one knows for certain where exactly these people may have come from.

    DNA research is answering some of the curiosity about them in recent years. It looks as though they were and are a combination of Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Berber, Arab and even some Moor blood. Although Dr Kennedy states that this is by and large theory at the present time, he also feels that most of it will be proven correct in the very near future.

    He (Dr Kennedy) has a great interest in the group known as Melungeons because of an illness that he himself had, erythema nodosum sarcoidosis. He began to research his own illness and found that it was a disease that was largely middle Eastern or Mediterranean in nature, though it can take place in Irish and Germanic peoples, and that it was common also in the Portuguese. Hearing the he would have to wait to see whether or not it was fatal, he began to trace his family, wondering how he, a man born and raised in the Southern United States could have a disorder that was Mediterranean in nature.

    In the process of his studies of his disease and his family tree, he rediscovered some roots that had lain covered for a very long time, those of Melungeon ancestry.

    Today the study of who and what the Melungeons actually are is a pervading mystery that may soon be answered. Whether, as they believe they are descendants of a lost group of explorers left behind by ships, descended from a lost colony or whatever they may be, the questions that many people have about their brown skin and blue eyes may shortly be answered by the use of some new DNA technologies and techniques.

    Do you have Native American ancestry? DNA may give you the answer.

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  1. #1
    dorothea sue mike
    November 3rd, 2008 at 1:32 am

    I have just started my research for my family history . Any help will be appricated.. I think I will start interviewing what family I can find. I no my mother Martha lousie Simpson(mike) and dad Elmer carney Mike started out at Longansport, West Virginia late 1930’s or early 1940’s. there is 9 children. Mother was born in Jollytown,Pa. I am going to WV to visit one of my dad’s sisters. So if anyone reads this and can help . I would welcome all the help I can get.

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  2. #2
    November 5th, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    I think its awesome that you started looking Dorothea. Any way we can help you, we’d be glad to.
    My own family came from West Virginia and emmigrated to Pennsylvania, so we’ve got some things in common.

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  3. #3
    November 12th, 2009 at 3:22 am

    If someone has an ancestor from Lee County, Virginia from around the early to mid 1800’s is there a high probability that they are part Melungeon? I have all of the Melungeon features but no surname connection to the Melungeons yet!!!

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  4. #4
    Crystal Hill
    January 14th, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    My grandmother is from Rhoda, VA (the family pronounces it Rhodie). She is(was) a natural red head with freckles. She would not burn but can turn very dark skinned. People would doubt her hair color. Her brothers all varied in looks, from very dark to light, but they had the same father & same mother.
    The “Mediterranean” trait skipped my mother and her brothers. I have very dark eyes & hair, slight olive complexion, and “exotic” eyes. My older son has the same look. Until my uncle looked into it we just thought we had Indian in us.
    I would like to have a DNA test to compare this if anyone knows of a test. I’m sure most of my family would be willing to participate.

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  5. #5
    January 18th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    does this really work?! and do you have to pay for it?!

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  6. #6
    May 13th, 2011 at 3:27 am

    I was born and raised in east Tennessee, my fathers family is from an area called Lone Mountain in Tazwell TN. My father has six sisters and one brother, all of which have a very uncommon look about them. My father stands about six foot two with dark olive skin, jet black hair, deep brown eyes that are very almond shaped. Growing up people in the town they grew up in made fun of them, calling them gypsies and other much more negative racial terms. I myself have a daily question I hear everyday!! Without fail at some point in conversation I get asked ” what are you”? Through our studies we are pretty sure that we are of Melungion descent but don’t know for sure. My father and some of his sisters have a bone mass on the back of their skulls near the nape of their necks. Has anyone ever heard of this having a connection to the Melungion people?

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  7. #7
    October 20th, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Jordan, yes the bone mass at the nape of the neck is indeed indicative of melungeons, as are shovel teeth and Aisian eye folds.

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  8. #8
    October 20th, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Asian not Aisain, sorry.

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  9. #9
    James miller
    November 29th, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    My father George Miller and his brother Lee Miller was borned in Lone Mtn. There mothers name was Florence Hurst,She had been dead all of my life , Here sister Ollie was very dark skin . I found out this year His grand mother was China Hurst , and his Great Grandmother was Rhoda Herrell Hurst. Dad never did talk of his family , so any help would be good.,,Later he lived in Snake Holler . We burried him in Jackson Cemertery in Lone Mountain Next to his mother,,,

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  10. #10
    April 5th, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Many people from many areas of the world have many features of other nationalities. Why? Because of the mixture of many people. It is difficult to say one is ….. nationality or one is this…. nationality. Because of the many nationalities that have mixed nationalities for many years. First I feel be Proud of yourself and your family and friends. Next do your searching for your family and a DNA test can help. Best of luck with your search.

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  11. #11
    Edith Dean Smith
    August 12th, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    I too have the knot at the base of my head. I am fair blue eyes and have freckles but my dad had dark hair, eyes and skin. He was born and raised in WVa.My grandmother was Cherokee and have the dark features. Her mom was named Alice Jones Hart, if anyone has any information on that name please let me know. Looking at pictures I see Melungeon features in some of my dad’s sisters.I am interested in all information I can get. My dad traveled alot and I always laughed and said there has to be gypsy blood in my family some where. Im proud of my family and want to find out all I can.

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  12. #12
    June 15th, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    I married a man who’s mother is Melungeon. Her family grew up in the foothills of Tenn. and have books written about them. I am a descendant of Pocahontas although mostly Dutch. We had 2 boys, one with the dark features and dark olive skin as does his father. I would like to find out how much Indian my children have running in their blood. Would a DNA test show how much Indian ancestry they have from both sides of our family?

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  13. #13
    Jennifer Taylor
    June 21st, 2016 at 11:51 am

    I became aware of melungeons when I was researching erythema nodosum. I have had it twice and both times it really through the doctor’s for a loop. As I was looking online, I discovered this people group called melungeons. Imagine my surprise when I realized that this group has roots in Eastern Tn (Grainger and Hawkins Counties)-which is exactly where my family is from. I asked my mom about it and she had never heard of it but also did some research. She also asked my grandmother about it who absolutely refused to answer any questions about it so I am thinking that somewhere down the line, this people group is part of my family. How can I find out for sure if there is a family connection?

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