TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES

Melungeons-America’s greatest cultural mystery


They are considered one of world’s greatest anthropological mysteries – a tribe of "natives" twice discovered in the Appalachian mountains prior to early settlement of the region , but, other than their Mediterranean skin tones, bore strikingly European features and conducted themselves in a fashion considered strange to the American Indian tribes which surrounded them. As far as anyone knew, there had never been any conflict between this group of people and the sometimes territorial tribes.
They were a hard-working industrious people who had seemingly carved homes and villages out of the wilderness and established themselves as traders and miners.
Who they were and where they came from would become a question that is still asked today. They suffered many indignities through the years because of their ways and physical appearances, but their resolve as a people kept them alive and affluent for numerous generations. Their descendents still remain in the most isolated regions of Southern Appalachia and Tennessee, but that is changing as they are finally stepping forward to aid in the quest to discover who they truly are.



In 1690, French traders carving through the underbrush of Southern Appalachia came across a village they said had to be seen to be believed. It was a town of log cabins grouped together with a population of people described as "possessing European beards, hair color, eyes and spoke a broken form of Elizabethan English." Their olive complexion and past experience with Mediterranean traders led the seasoned French explorers to conclude they had found a colony of "Moors" in the New World of North America. Because the geography of their find was unclear, the stories were dismissed by scholars and the reports discounted as unbelievable.
Indian guides leading expeditions into the North American interior often told explorers about the "strange village of hairy people who, three times a day, would kneel with their faces eastward and pray at the ringing of a bell," but the stories were continuously dismissed by Europeans as superstitious legends.
Ninety-five years later, however, another Frenchman named John Xavier, AKA John Sevier, stumbled upon a similar settlement of the people around the Newman’s Ridge region in upper East Tennessee. After entering their village, Xavier discovered they also spoke a broken form of English and possessed "European features." Unlike the Native Americans, the Melungeons identified themselves with Anglo surnames like Goins, Mullins, and Collins.
On both recorded occasions, the tribe described themselves as either "Porty-ghee" or Melungeons. Their ancestry was a subject the tribe never discussed or couldn’t relate to the explorers. They possessed no written record and passed their history down by traditional means of story-telling.
Their existence among the sometimes hostile Native American tribes in the region was another surprise for European settlers. The Melungeons traded among the various tribes without conflict and were primarily considered a curiosity by the Natives.
As immigrants began their settlement of Southern Appalachia, the Melungeons became a source of mystery to all who would encounter them. Some people suggested they could be descendants from the Lost Colony of Roanoke, one of the lost tribes of Israel, or descended from one of the various legendary shipwrecked crews that reportedly traveled through the Southern Appalachian region.
The mystery of who they were, however, became more of a curse than a blessing. When regional curiosity began to wane, the Melungeons found themselves the object of racism and hatred. Early census takers listed them as "free persons of color" and, by the 19th century, this was legal reason for the Melungeons to be barred from owning land, voting, and access to public education. Many of them protested, claiming they were Europeans and, in one particular episode, retrieved their right to vote at the point of a gun.
The harassment, however, was too much to bear for most of them and pushed the Melungeons to safer quarters in the remote regions of upper East Tennessee and the Virginia border country.
Like most mountain people, they were self-sufficient and possessed remarkable skills. They were expert miners and gifted silversmiths. Because of their race classification, gainful employment was rare and they often had to stay alive by moonshining and other various "underground activities."
The "War Between the States" created even more animosity between them and settlers in Southern Appalachia. "Melungeon marauders" were often recorded as raiding villages and troops for food and supplies. After the fall of East Tennessee to the Union, however, a Melungeon named Harrison Collins was enlisted in Rogersville to fight for the Northern forces. During the battle for West Tennessee, the Sneedville native fought valiantly and helped lead an attack against the Army of Tennessee capturing the flag of Confederate General James Chalmers. His ferocity and skill in battle earned the respect of the Union officers commanding him and, for his actions under fire, Harrison Collins became the only Melungeon to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
By the 20th Century, only a handful of Melungeons remained in East Tennessee and western Virginia. Their identity as a people all, but forgotten and listed among scholars as one of "America’s greatest anthropological mysteries."
In 1988, amid the uproar over Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Southern Appalachian native Dr. N. Brent Kennedy checked himself into an Atlanta hospital to undergo tests fearing he had contracted the disease. Instead, the doctors diagnosed Kennedy with having erythema nodosum sarcoidosis, a disease that is common only to Mediterranean cultures. Kennedy learned he was descended from Melungeons, but, like many of his lineage, had never been taught about his ancestry. The medical diagnosis proved to be one of the keys to unlocking the mystery of the Melungeons’ origins.
Dr. Kennedy began a crusade to find out about his ancestry. He tore into diaries, pictures, and records from both America and Europe. In his research and, with the help of other Melungeon descendants, Kennedy was also able to establish a possible evidentiary record pointing to a theory that was a long-held belief among many Melungeons in Southern Appalachia.
In the 12th Century, the reconquest of Spain by warrior kings and men like El Cid ended Moorish occupation and reestablished new Christian states in Spain and Portugal. By the 15th and 16th Centuries, the Inquisitions began to purge Moors from the two nations. In 400 years of rule, many Moors had intermarried with the Europeans and taken European surnames. Although Moorish occupation had allowed freedom of religion among the Christians and the Jews, no such tolerance was given back to the Islamic Moors.
Following the reconquest, most faded into the background of the nations where they settled and never disclosed their ancestry. The Inquisitions, however, grew unchecked against the Moors. The national cannibalism of ethnic cleansing led many kings to look for other ways to handle the duties of both church and nation.
By the 16th Century , King Phillip II of Spain began sending thousands of Moors into exile rather than executing them, with two conditions: For diplomatic reasons, they would not be resettled in Europe and they could not return home to Northern Africa where latent hostilities might be reignited against the Spanish.
The Moors were loaded onto ships and sent on their way to other lands. Two such ships recorded reaching ports in China and India, but were refused entry fearing they were escaped slaves. Most of the ships were never heard from again.
In 1567, a Spanish ship under the command of Captain Juan Pardo, an officer of Portuguese origin, and approximately 250 Moorish soldier/settlers landed near Beaufort, SC, traveled inland to the Georgia interior, and began building forts and settlements in the region to prepare for an "eventual road" that would cross the territory. The crew brought along a chemist familiar with smelting precious ores and the party also mined the North Georgia region for gold and silver. At each fort, Pardo left a sizeable number of soldiers to watch over Spanish interests in the area. Captain Pardo returned to the coast and never again traveled inland to the forts he established.
The ensuing battles between the Spanish, French, and English over claims on the New World left the villages destroyed or occupied and the soldier/settlers listed as dead or missing. Many of Pardo’s men are thought to have taken brides from the Catawba and Creek tribes. In fact, Spain always had historically close diplomatic ties with the Red Stick Creeks and used it to wage war against the British. Kennedy and other scholars think the "cousin relationship" could also explain how the Melungeons were able to live and trade among the tribes without interference.
While the great Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755 destroyed virtually all of Portugal’s shipping manifests and records, many ships’ logs have surfaced over the years and are being studied by researchers investigating the Moorish connection. The oppression of the Melungeons by European settlers which pushed them into isolation among the Southern Appalachians may have actually helped preserved many clues about their origins.
The mountains and ridges of Hancock County remain as isolated today as they did when the Melungeons were first discovered. It is still among one of the most impoverished regions in Tennessee and Southern Appalachia. Dr. Paul Reed runs the Hancock County Medical Clinic in Sneedville. He says the new medical facts answer a lot of questions doctors in the region have asked for years.
"Sarcoidosis is a disease that has traditionally affected people of Melungeon ancestry," said Reed," but, in many cases, has probably been misdiagnosed and people hurt because of it. While there is no cure for it, there are treatments that can really help ease their suffering."
Reed is also excited about the new interest in Melungeon ancestry and says the new focus is a reflection of changing times.
"When isolation was no longer a wise policy, Melungeons started moving back into mainstream society, have gone to college, and now have the tools to try and find out who we are," Reed said. "We can now hopefully salvage what we can of our heritage and preserve it."
In addition to Kennedy’s research, further DNA testing was done recently and concluded that a definite link exists between the Southern Appalachian Melungeons and Mediterranean cultures.
Recent archaeological excavations in Hancock County and other settlements have also netted artifacts that lend credibility to the possibility of Moorish origins. Kennedy’s research and the Melungeon Research Committee he helped to found are still studying the theories and looking at new evidence as it becomes available.
Hancock County official Scott Collins sits on the research committee and says more information is gathered every day that could explain who the Melungeons are.
"Many people of our ancestry don’t know who they are and we’re working to not only answer the question, but to preserve what we find," said Collins. "A lot of proud traditions still exist in some families that don’t in others and this could be a vital key to unlocking the truth. It may take years before we know the answers."
No one can argue that the Melungeons of East Tennessee and Southern Appalachia were a remarkable and tragic people. The legends told about them apparently bore some truth in their stories. If the evidence continues to support the theory and their traditional beliefs, the long-awaited answer to "America’s greatest anthropological mystery" could finally be known.
In short, it can be gathered from Kennedy’ research that the Melungeons are the descendants of the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, they were part of the Arab nation that conquered Spain and Portugal, built Casablanca, Marrakech, and Tangier, and, in the midst of their worst tragedy, sailed to America and traveled 300 miles inland to establish a free colony in the new world, forty years before the British established the colony we would come to know as Jamestown.



Dr. N Brent Kennedy, Ph.D., published a book on his research into his Southern Appalachian ancestry.
"The Melungeons:The Resurrection of a Proud People" details the history, myths, and legends of the people believed to be East Tennessee’s first colonists. It is also an invaluable genealogical guide to Southern Appalachian natives.
The book is available at local bookstores or through the East Tennessee Historical Society.
The book’s research and analysis of the Melungeon people proved to be a launching pad that has ignited interest across America from Melungeon descendents.For the last four years,"homecomings" have been held at various locations in East Tennessee and Southern Appalchia where descendants bring scrabooks, look at old family photographs and participate in workshops on genealogy to try and reconstruct a history and heritage that they were taught from birth in many cases to conceal and never discuss with outsiders.
At the fourth Homecoming, which wrapped up recently in Kingsport, TN, the results of a new D.N.A.test aimed at trying to answer the age old question of where the Melungeons originated was said to have accomplished little.
In recent years, the Melungeons have been identified by anthropologists as "tri-racial isolates" – an amalgam of European, African, and Native American ancestry.
The event was called "Fourth Union: A Melungeon Gathering," where those of Melungeon ancestry gathered to share old family photos and hear a variety of speakers, including Vardy Collins of Sneedville and Dr. N. Brent Kennedy.
Kennedy’s publication and his ensuing research helped form the Melungeon Heritage Association, which encourages Melungeons, who often remained silent about their history, to come forward and try to help preserve the culture. Since their founding, the organization has held numerous genealogy workshops, chat sessions with featured Melungeon scholars and have even helped continue to fuel interest in archaeological excavations around known Melungeon homes and settlements.
Wayne Winkler, who now serves as President of the Melungeon Heritage Association, says he the mystery remains and probably won’t be completely solved for many years.
"The D.N.A. study announced was the highlight of the Fourth Union and a milestone in Melungeon research," said Winkler, " but does not solve the mystery entirely. While it tells us a lot more than we know at present, there are variables that modern technology has not learned how to explain with D.N.A. and intermarriage since the Melungeons were first discovered with Native Americans and other Europeans have to factor into the results of those who were tested."
Other present at the Fourth Union say they are skeptical of the results because of succeeding intermarriages with the families and the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that exists showing that they could have very well been the first successful colonists to make it in North America.
"Because oral history among the families was often not shared with succeeding generations, a lot has been lost that could have helped answer many questions," said Terry Goins. "As to African DNA, that is easily explained if we are of Moorish or Portuguese descent. I think Dr. N. Brent Kennedy’s personal work on the subject is more believable to me and the fact that many suffered from the same disease he did and it went undiagnosed until he was able to identify it. As to intermarriage with Indians, that stands to reason since the first Melungeon colonists had to survive and options were limited in those days."
In 1998, the Melungeons of Tennessee stormed out of a meeting of the then-operating Tennessee Indian Commission when they found themselves labeled as Native Americans – stating that those who had tried to put that label on them had no knowledge of the Melungeon peoples and, if they did, would know that they were not Native Americans.