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Arch Goins and family, from Graysville, Tennessee, c. 1920s
Goins family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee, c. 1920s
Regions with significant populations
United States (East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia,[1][2] and Kentucky[2])
Appalachian English
Protestant Christianity (Baptist; Pentecostal)[citation needed]

Melungeons (/məˈlʌnənz/ mə-LUN-jənz) (sometimes also spelled Malungeans, Melangeans, Melungeans, Melungins[3]) are a group of people from Appalachia who predominantly descend from northern or central Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans. Their ancestors were likely brought to Virginia as indentured servants in the mid-17th century.[1]

According to the 1890 Department of Interior Report of Indians Taxed and not Taxed within the "Tennessee" report, "The civilized (self supporting) Indians of Tennessee, counted in the general census numbered 146 (71 males and 75 females) and are distributed as follows: Hawkins county, 31; Monroe county, 12; Polk county, 10; other counties (8 or less in each), 93. The Melangeans or Melungeons in Hawkins County claim to be Cherokees of mixed blood (white, Indian, and negro), their blood being derived, as they assert, from English and Portuguese stock. They trace their descent from primarily to 2 Indians (Cherokees) known, one of them as Collins and the other as Gibson, who settled in the mountains of Tennessee where their descendants are now found about the time of the admission of the state into the union (1796). In the general census, these Melungeons were enumerated as of the races which they most resembled."[4]


The term Melungeon likely comes from the French word mélange ultimately derived from the Latin verb miscēre ("to mix, mingle, intermingle").[5][4][6] It was once a derogatory term, but is used by the Melungeon people today as a primary identifier. The Tennessee Encyclopedia states that in the 19th century, "the word 'Melungeon' appears to have been used as an offensive term for nonwhite and/or low socioeconomic class persons by outsiders."[6]

The term Melungeon was historically considered an insult, a label applied to Appalachians who were by appearance or reputation of mixed-race ancestry. Although initially pejorative in character,[7] this word has been reclaimed by members of the community.[8] The spelling of the term varied widely, as was common for words and names at the time.

Early uses

The earliest historical record of the term Melungeon dates to 1813. In the minutes of the Stoney Creek Baptist Church in Scott County, Virginia, a woman stated another parishioner made the accusation that "she harbored them Melungins."[6] The second oldest written use of the term was in 1840, when a Tennessee politician described "an impudent Melungeon" from what became Washington, D.C., as being "a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian."[6] In the 1890s, during the age of yellow journalism, the term "Melungeon" started to circulate and be reproduced in U.S. newspapers, when the journalist Will Allen Dromgoole wrote several articles on the Melungeons.[9]

In 1894, the US Department of the Interior, in its "Report of Indians Taxed and Not Taxed," under the section "Tennessee" noted: "In a number of states, small groups of people, preferring the freedom of the woods or the seashore to the confinement of labor in civilization, have become in some degree distinct from their neighbors, perpetrating their qualities and absorbing into their number those of like minded disposition, without preserving any clear racial lines. Such are the remnants called Indians in some states where pure-blooded Indian can hardly longer be found. In Tennessee there is such a group, popularly known as the Melungeans, in addition to those still known as Cherokees. The name seems to have been given to them by early French settlers, who recognized their mixed origin and applied to them the name of Malangeans or Malungeans, a corruption of the French word "melange" which means mixed. (See letter of Hamilton McMillan of North Carolina)"[5][4]


Porch of the restored Mahala Mullins Cabin, now located in Vardy, Blackwater Creek

In December 1943, Walter Ashby Plecker of Virginia sent county officials a letter warning against "colored" families trying to pass as "white" or "Indian" in violation of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He identified these as being "chiefly Tennessee Melungeons".[10] He directed the offices to reclassify members of certain families as black, causing the loss for numerous families of documentation in records that showed their continued self-identification as being of Native American descent on official forms.[10][11][12]

In the 20th century, during the Jim Crow era, some Melungeons attended boarding schools in Asheville, North Carolina, Warren Wilson College, and Dorland Institution which integrated earlier than other schools in the southern United States.[2]

Melungeon families

Definitions of who is Melungeon differ. Historians and genealogists have tried to identify surnames of different Melungeon families.[10][13] In 1943, Virginia State Registrar of Vital Statistics, Walter Ashby Plecker identified surnames by county: "Lee, Smyth and Wise: Collins, Gibson, (Gipson), Moore, Goins, Ramsey, Delph, Bunch, Freeman, Mise, Barlow, Bolden (Bolin), Mullins, Hawkins (chiefly Tennessee Melungeons)".[10]

In 1992, Virginia DeMarce explored and reported the Goins genealogy as a Melungeon surname.[14] Beginning in the early 19th century, or possibly before, the term Melungeon was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border, but it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.[1] Through time the term has changed meanings but often referred to any mixed-race person and, at different times, has referred to 200 different communities across the Eastern United States.[1] These have included Van Guilders and Clappers of New York and Lumbees in North Carolina to Creoles in Louisiana.[1]


Anthropologist E. Raymond Evans wrote in 1979 regarding Melungeons: "In Graysville, the Melungeons strongly deny their Black heritage and explain their genetic differences by claiming to have had Cherokee grandmothers. Many of the local whites also claim Cherokee ancestry and appear to accept the Melungeon claim. ..."[15]

In 1999, historian C. S. Everett hypothesized that John Collins (recorded as a Sapony Indian who was expelled from Orange County, Virginia about January 1743), might be the same man as the Melungeon ancestor John Collins, who was classified as a "mulatto" in 1755 North Carolina records.[16] However, Everett revised that theory after he discovered evidence that these were two different men named John Collins. Only descendants of the latter man, who was identified as mulatto in the 1755 record in North Carolina, have any proven connection to the Melungeon families of eastern Tennessee.[17][promotional source?]

Jack D. Forbes speculated that the Melungeons may have been Saponi/Powhatan descendants, although he acknowledges an account from circa 1890 described them as being "free colored" and mulatto people.[18] On May 25, 2012, The Associated Press wrote in an article titled "DNA Study Seeks Origins of Melungeons" to promote Estes et al.'s 2011 paper titled "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population" and explains that: "For years, varied and wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps Turkish slaves or Gypsies.[1]

On June 24, 2015, the USA Today published an article by Dale Neal titled "Melungeons Explore Mysterious Mixed Race Origins", reports: "Melungeons, the mysterious dark-skinned mountaineers of eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia and into Kentucky, have sparked myths and theories over the past century. They were whispered to be descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, or gypsies now known as Roma. Some have speculated on connections with the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County or the Lost Colonists of the Outer Banks."[2]

Genetic testing

From 2005 to 2011, researchers Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janet Lewis Crain began the Melungeon Core Y-DNA Group online. They interpreted these results in their (2011) paper titled "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population",[13] which shows that ancestry of the sample is primarily European and African, with one person having a Native American paternal haplotype.

Estes, Goins, Ferguson, and Crain wrote in their 2011 summary "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population" that the Riddle family is the only Melungeon participant with historical records identifying them as having Native American origins, but their DNA is European. Among the participants, only the Sizemore family is documented as having Native American DNA.[13] "Estes and her fellow researchers "theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery. They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee."[1][13]

Racial laws and court cases

Melungeon ancestors were considered by appearance to be mixed race. During the 18th and the early 19th centuries, census enumerators classified them as "mulatto," "other free," or as "free persons of color." Sometimes they were listed as "white" or sometimes as "black" or "negro," but almost never as "Indian".[citation needed] One family described as "Indian" was the Ridley (Riddle) family, as was noted on a 1767 Pittsylvania County, Virginia, tax list.[citation needed]

Ariela Gross referenced the 1846 State v. Solomon, Ezekial, Levi, Andrew, Wiatt, Vardy Collins, Zachariah, Lewis Minor, Hawkins County Circuit Court Minute Book, 1842–1848, Hawkins County Circuit Court, Hawkins County Courthouse box 31, 32 and the Jacob F. Perkins vs. John R. White, Carter County, July 1855 Abstract of depositions to support her conclusions made about identity and citizenship in 19th-century United States.[19]

In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that codified hypodescent or the "one-drop rule, suggesting that anyone with any trace of African ancestry was legally Black and would fall under Jim Crow laws designed to limit the freedoms and rights of Black people.[20] Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States were not declared unconstitutional until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.[21]

Modern identity

By the mid-to-late 19th century, the term Melungeon appeared to have been used most frequently to refer to the biracial families of Hancock County and neighboring areas.[citation needed] Several other uses of the term in the print media, from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, have been collected by the Melungeon Heritage Association.[2]

Since the mid-1990s, popular interest in the Melungeons has grown tremendously, although many descendants have left the region of historical concentration. The writer Bill Bryson devoted the better part of a chapter to them in his The Lost Continent (1989). People are increasingly self-identifying as having Melungeon ancestry.[22][page needed][better source needed] Internet sites promote the anecdotal claim that Melungeons are more prone to certain diseases, such as sarcoidosis or familial Mediterranean fever. Academic medical centers have noted that neither of those diseases is confined to a single population.[23]


A Melungeon character is the titular protagonist and narrator of Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead, which was a co-recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel takes place primarily in Lee County, Virginia and environs.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g >"DNA study seeks origin of Melungeons". Tampa Bay Times. AP. May 25, 2012. Retrieved 30 August 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d e Neal (June 24, 2015). "Melungeons explore mysterious mixed-race origins". USA Today. Retrieved 7 July 2023.
  3. ^ "1894 Report of the U.S. Department of the Interior, in its Report of Indians Taxed and Not Taxed" (PDF). Department of the Interior. Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  4. ^ a b c "1894 Report of the U.S. Department of the Interior, in its Report of Indians Taxed and Not Taxed" (PDF). Department of the Interior. Retrieved 4 Sep 2023.
  5. ^ a b "1894 Report of the U.S. Department of the Interior, in its Report of Indians Taxed and Not Taxed" (PDF). Department of the Interior. Retrieved 4 Sep 2023.
  6. ^ a b c d Toplovich, Ann. "Melungeons". Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society. Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  7. ^ Sovine, Melanie L. "The Mysterious Melungeons: a Critique of the Mythical Image." University of Kentucky Ph.D. dissertation, 1982
  8. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions." Melungeon Heritage Association. Retrieved December 2023
  9. ^ Pezzullo, Joanne (10 August 2017). "Calloway Collins". The Historical Melungeons. Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  10. ^ a b c d Plecker, Walter A. "Surnames, by Counties and Cities, of Mixed Negroid Virginia Families Striving to Pass as "Indian" or White". Encyclopedia Virginia: Virginia Humanities. Library of Virginia. Retrieved 12 June 2023.
  11. ^ Schrift, Melissa (2013). "Introduction". Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-7154-8.
  12. ^ "The Racial Integrity Act, 1924: An Attack on Indigenous Identity". National Park Service. June 21, 2023. Retrieved 25 August 2023.
  13. ^ a b c d Estes, Roberta A.; Goins, Jack H.; Ferguson, Penny; Crain, Janet Lewis (Fall 2011). "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population" (PDF). Journal of Genetic Genealogy. 7 (1). Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  14. ^ DeMarce, Virginia Easley. “‘Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South–A Genealogical Study.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 80.1 (March 1992): [5]-35.aZ
  15. ^ Evans, E. Raymond (1979). "The Graysville Melungeons: A Tri-racial People in Lower East Tennessee", Tennessee Anthropologist IV(1): 1–31.
  16. ^ C. S. Everett, "Melungeon History and Myth," Appalachian Journal (1999)
  17. ^ "Free African Americans, op.cit., Church and Cotanch Families". Retrieved August 21, 2013.
  18. ^ Forbes, Jack D. (1993). Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252051005.
  19. ^ Gross, Ariela (2007). ""Of Portuguese Origin": Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the "Little Races" in Nineteenth-Century America". Law and History Review. 25 (3): 467–512. doi:10.1017/S0738248000004259. ISSN 0738-2480. JSTOR 27641498. S2CID 144084310.
  20. ^ Smith, J. Douglas. “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: ‘Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro.’” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 68, no. 1, 2002, pp. 65–106. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Sept. 2023.
  21. ^ "Loving v. Virginia". History Channel. 14 December 2022. Retrieved 4 July 2023.
  22. ^ Kennedy, N. Brent; Kennedy, Robyn Vaughan (1997). The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America (2nd ed.). Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. ISBN 0-86554-516-2 – via Google Books.
  23. ^ ""Learning About Familial Mediterranean Fever", National Human Genome Research Institute". November 17, 2011. Retrieved August 21, 2013.

Further reading

  • Ball, Bonnie (1992). The Melungeons: Notes on the Origin of a Race' '. Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press.
  • Berry, Brewton (1963). Almost White: A Study of Certain Racial Hybrids in the Eastern United States. New York: Macmillan Press.
  • Bible, Jean Patterson (1975). Melungeons Yesterday and Today. Signal Mountain, Tennessee: Mountain Press.
  • Brake, Katherine Vande. How They Shine: How They Shine: Melungeon Characters in Fiction of Appalachia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Brake, Katherine Vande. Through the Back Door: Melungeon Literacies and Twenty-First Century Technologies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Cavender, Anthony P. "The Melungeons of Upper East Tennessee: Persisting Social Identity," Tennessee Anthropologist 6 (1981): 27–36
  • Goins, Jack H. (2000). Melungeons: And Other Pioneer Families, Blountville, Tennessee: Continuity Press.
  • Dromgoole, William "Will" Allen (1891). The Malungeon Tree and Its Four Branches, Melungeon Heritage Association.
  • Hashaw, Tim. Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Heinegg, Paul (2005). FREE AFRICAN AMERICANS OF VIRGINIA, NORTH CAROLINA, SOUTH CAROLINA, MARYLAND AND DELAWARE Including the family histories of more than 80% of those counted as "all other free persons" in the 1790 and 1800 census, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1999–2005. Available in its entirety online.
  • Hirschman, Elizabeth. Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Johnson, Mattie Ruth (1997). My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge. Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press.
  • Kennedy, N. Brent (1997) The Melungeons: the resurrection of a proud people. Mercer University Press.
  • Kessler, John S. and Donald Ball. North From the Mountains: A Folk History of the Carmel Melungeon Settlement, Highland County, Ohio. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Langdon, Barbara Tracy (1998). The Melungeons: An Annotated Bibliography: References in both Fiction and Nonfiction, Hemphill, Texas: Dogwood Press.
  • Lister, Richard (July 3, 2009). "Lost people of Appalachia". BBC News Online.
  • McGowan, Kathleen (2003). "Where do we really come from?", DISCOVER 24 (5, May 2003)
  • Offutt, Chris. (1999) "Melungeons", in Out of the Woods, Simon & Schuster.
  • Overbay, DruAnna Williams. Windows on the Past: The Cultural Heritage of Vardy, Hancock County, Tennessee. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Podber, Jacob. The Electronic Front Porch: An Oral History of the Arrival of Modern Media in Rural Appalachia and the Melungeon Community. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Price, Henry R. (1966). "Melungeons: The Vanishing Colony of Newman's Ridge." Conference paper. American Studies Association of Kentucky and Tennessee. March 25–26, 1966.
  • Reed, John Shelton (1997). "Mixing in the Mountains", Southern Cultures 3 (Winter 1997): 25–36.(subscription required)
  • Scolnick, Joseph M Jr. and N. Brent Kennedy. (2004). From Anatolia to Appalachia: A Turkish American Dialogue. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Vande Brake, Katherine (2001). How They Shine: Melungeon Characters in the Fiction of Appalachia, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.
  • Williamson, Joel (1980). New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States, New York: Free Press.
  • Winkler, Wayne. 2019. Beyond the sunset: The Melungeon drama, 1969-1976. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
  • Winkler, Wayne (2004). "Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia", Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.
  • Winkler, Wayne and Estes, Roberta (7/11/2012). "For Some People of Appalachia complicated roots", Tell Me More. National Public Radio. accessed 12 June 2023