Friday, July 31, 2009

"The Melungeons Are Gonna Get Ya!"

I’m always intrigued by legends. When I was a kid, I remember someone telling me briskly that if I didn’t behave, he’d send the Melungeons after me.

I quietly asked my brother what a Melungeon was and he told me a horror story of a strange race of people in Appalachia who grew to be giants and ate everything in sight. Other kids I asked told me they were half Indian/half white, half Portuguese/half white, half African/half white, half Turkish/half white and one kid even told me they were three different races. Either way, they didn’t sound that scary to me. After all, I knew a lot of kids who were half this/half that.

Of course, their social isolation in a small region of Appalachia made them seem rather mysterious, but if they were a mixed race of people hundreds of years ago, that might have been necessary. America was still in its infancy with regards to mixing races.

Being a skeptic about anything others said from an early age, I sought my own answers. Back in the early 70s, there weren’t a lot of answers, but with new DNA research and more knowledge about their kind, the Melungeons become more of an exotic breed of American than any terror that’ll make children behave.

From Wayne Winkler’s article
“A Brief Overview of the Melungeons,” The Melungeons are a group of mixed ethnic ancestry, found primarily in northeastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, southeastern Kentucky. Similar groups of “mysterious” people, or at least remnants of these groups, are found all along the Atlantic seaboard. While these other groups have no known connection to the Melungeons, they have suffered similar problems due to the difficulty of placing them within an established racial category. Anthropologists called them “racial islands” or “tri-racial isolates.” Several surnames are associated with the Melungeons, including Collins, Gibson, Goins, Mullins, Bowlin. Early accounts reflect the Melungeons’ self-description as “Indians.” Some Melungeons reportedly described themselves a “Portuguese,” or, as many pronounced it, “Portyghee.” Most of their white neighbors considered the Melungeons a mixture of black and Indian, or white, black, and Indian.

Some of the more popular legends about the origins of the Melungeons were that they were from the lost colonists of Roanoke Island, that they were the survivors of a shipwreck of slaves, runaway slaves, or from pirates of different nationalities. The majority of the Melungeons fought alongside their white friends for the North in the Civil War. After the war, the Melungeons were accused of bushwhacking and raiding white settlements, but these incidents likely exaggerated over the years. And hence the tales of Melungeons going after misbehaving children.

One of the really amazing things to me as an American is how much better our society gets the more it mixes, whether it’s whites living in black neighborhoods, blacks living in Asian neighborhoods, or Hispanics living in Greek neighborhoods. The more we intermarry and mix it up, it seems the more we get closer to a new advanced human being. Through interbreeding we receive double blessings with the characteristic strengths and talents of both races of our parentage. On top of that, we create a boundary-less attitude about skin color and ethnicity to the point that "what race are you?" is no longer even an accurate or relevent question.

I think of other countries where a person could say they were “Spanish” and mean that their family had intermated with only those born and raised in Spain for generations, and then I think of saying you’re an “American” and no one can tell you what you are.

I like to think the Melungeons are a microcosim of America. They should be extremely proud of their heritage and their strength, even back when mixing it up wasn’t part of society’s guidelines. They might have paved the way for us all. No need to look at someone and say “what are you?” They would say “I am Melungeon.” And we can say “I am American” and that should end the discussion.


  1. Yes, this one did make me smile. I have never heard of the Melungeons nor had an older sibling scaring me say they are going to get me, lol. I alway love hearing about different legends that I was not aware of and this one was interesting. As I do more digging into my family's history, I found out that my Dad's side has quite the mix of races. My Mother is full Italian with her parents coming here from Italy. She and her siblings were first generation American born. I did find some Greek in her background too. I totally agree with your last paragraph. People are people no matter what they look like on the outside.

  2. I remember as a kid, my dad came from Norway, mom was a Scottish Highlander. Well, nearly every holiday they would fight over how to celebrate it. Dad had final say that we had to have Norwegian Xmas (thankfully--I love it). But, I grew up with the two of them barking about vikings being better and mom barking that vikings were scavengers who ruined the UK. It was pretty funny, actually. But, I was always proud to get my intelligence and warmth from my Scandinavian family and my practical sense and hard work ethic from the Scots, so I think it worked out. I even wrote a children's book about "interspecies" animals at a school for animals and the half-breeds feeling inadequate until during a school competition they realize that by being half owl/half flamingo they are both smart and beautiful and suddenly all the purebreds want them to hang with them. It's a pretty cute manuscript, I just need to send it out. I think the message is universal. You're so lucky to have Italian/Greek in your heritage--those are two I'd love to have! I think Italian and Greek families are so loving and warm and connected. They kind of "get" life.

  3. very intereting, i had never heard of the Melungeons either. that's why i love reading your posts.
    i like to think that we are all of the human race of different etnicities.

  4. I am also so glad we dont live in a homogenous society!! how boring i would think! Haha-that is one thing we have in common Autumnforest-when I was in about grade 5 -I was spending the night at a friends house and his older brother -older by quite a bit-13? I think told us there were Melungeons in the basement and actually had us scared haha:) great article as always-and now I am going to look at Montauk-best to you!!

  5. See some of my MELUNGEON urls - data below:

    The Melungeon Health Education and Support Network:

    A Melungeon mailing list that is family friendly - to join, see:

    Reading the clues -
    Genealogy research helps unravel a mystery of Appalachian medicine:

    Melungeon Printed Resources:

    ONE HUNDRED and SIXTY-NINE Melungeon and associated websites:

    Melungeon Definition:
    Also includes several urls.

    Melungeon Information and Common Surname List:

    Diagrams of physical characteristics

    Fibromyalgia in YOUR family? Inherited? Maybe!!

    Sparks Genealogy:
    (Select: Index/Nancy's Corner/The Melungeon Connection)
    (Select: Index/The Melungeon Media Release)
    Nancy Sparks Morrison

  6. What a fascinating article! I never heard of them either, but I sure liked how you summed up how it's beneficial to mix races anyway. (Coming from someone who's a bit of a mutt herself!)