greatest cultural mystery
They are considered one of worlds 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
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 Newmans 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,
On both recorded occasions, the tribe described themselves as
either "Porty-ghee" or Melungeons. Their ancestry
was a subject the tribe never discussed or couldnt 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 "Americas
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
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
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
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 Pardos 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
While the great Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755 destroyed
virtually all of Portugals 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
"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 Kennedys research, further DNA testing
was done recently and concluded that a definite link exists
between the Southern Appalachian Melungeons and Mediterranean
Recent archaeological excavations in Hancock County and other
settlements have also netted artifacts that lend credibility
to the possibility of Moorish origins. Kennedys research
and the Melungeon Research Committee he helped to found are
still studying the theories and looking at new evidence as it
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 dont know who they are
and were 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 dont
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 "Americas 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 Tennessees 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 books 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.
Kennedys 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
wont 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 Kennedys
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.