Researchers discuss origins of Melungeon heritage at annual event

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States, Videos, Virginia on 2014-07-14 05:41Z by Steven

Researchers discuss origins of Melungeon heritage at annual event (News 5)
Brisol, Virginia

Olivia Caridi

BIG STONE GAP, Va. – Wayne Winkler discovered he was a Melungeon at 12 years old. His grandmother is a Melungeon. His father is, too.

“I had never heard the word, so I asked my relatives what a Melungeon is. I asked what it was, and I’ve spent all this time since then trying to answer the question,” Winkler says.

For Winkler and others of mixed-ethnic groups, attending the 18th annual Melungeon Union on Saturday was a way to get some answers.

Melungeon’s were first documented in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee in the 19th century. “They are basically a mixed-ethnic group of a combination of Native American, European American and African American,” Winkler says.

Researchers have attempted to document the meaning of Melungeon identity for years. Lisa Alther, an author, wrote books exploring the history. “I always heard growing up that we were Anglo-Saxon and Celtic here in the mountains, so the most fascinating thing for me is realizing that we are here in the mountains really a melting pot of the entire world,” Alther says…

Read the article and watch the video here.

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16th Union Report

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2012-07-27 15:02Z by Steven

16th Union Report

Melungeon Heritage Association: One People, All Colors
16th Union at the Southwest Virginia Historical Museum State Park

K. Paul Johnson

Every Melungeon Union combines an extended family reunion with a scholarly conference featuring authors and researchers sharing the latest perspectives on our heritage.  All presenters come at their own expense, as volunteers receiving no compensation or travel costs, as do MHA members who organize and direct the conference.  We travel considerable distances to attend this annual event, to learn and celebrate this heritage we share and treasure…

…My presentation on links between Pell Mellers and Melungeons began with family stories, examined genealogical evidence, and concluded with a description of DNA testing and its mixed results in answering historical questions about my own mixed ancestry. This was intended as a preview of the keynote address, since my genealogical quest centered on the same county in North Carolina, Bertie, about which Dr. Smallwood had written a book in 2002 and which continues to be a research focus for him.

Phyllis Starnes spoke informally about the promises and pitfalls of genetic testing for genealogical research, helping us through the labyrinth of Y-DNA, mitochondrial, and autosomal studies of Melungeons. We owe Phyllis thanks for generating more questions in the q&a than the rest of us combined, and for answering them deftly and capably.

Arwin D. Smallwood, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Colonial American History at the University of Memphis, was the keynote speaker at 13th Union in 2009, and has been a presenter in every subsequent Union, returning this year at 16th to give a keynote address that featured new dimensions of the research he has been pursuing for several years on the Tuscarora tribe’s diaspora from his native Bertie County. This year Dr. Smallwood included a detailed accounting of Virginia’s legal oppression of people of color, a tightening noose of restrictions throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. This becomes a factor in the migration of African-European mixed families southward into North Carolina and westward into mountainous regions of Virginia, away from the plantations and slavery and into frontier communities where they interblended with Indians who had likewise been displaced. MHA is indebted to Dr. Smallwood for his ongoing work which tends to incorporate the traditionally-accepted triracial explanation of Melungeon origins with the more exotic possibilities of Mediterranean ancestry suggested by folklore. He was extensively interviewed by a local newspaper reporter so we look forward to seeing the coverage…

…Wayne [Winkler] followed up on the DNA issue by explaining that the negative spin of the recent AP story and especially the headlines were not intended by the report authors. Yet the headlines were undeniably negative—in that our Native American and Mediterranean ancestry were allegedly disproven and relegated to the status of racist mythology—more than positive about what was proven. After all, the study authors selected “a multi-ethnic population” as a subtitle, and not “mulatto wannabe Indians” which nonetheless has been the stereotypical insult applied to Melungeons in the wake of the AP story. Conferees were left feeling that the air had been cleared of some misunderstandings and hard feelings. What the study does prove beyond dispute is the subsaharan African Y DNA lineage of many families of the Newman’s Ridge Melungeon community. But by its very nature, such a study cannot disprove the triracial status of Melungeons in general—which has been unanimously attested by generations of social scientists as well as testimony of Melungeons themselves. Mediterranean ancestry was repeatedly claimed by 19th century Melungeons in addition to Native American, English, and African ancestry, and not as a cover story to deny the triracial foundations of their communities. In his closing remarks, Wayne stated clearly that nothing in any DNA evidence conflicts with the triracial-and-beyond understanding of Melungeons presented in Dr. Smallwood’s keynote address the night before…

Read the entire report here.

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Novel focuses on region’s multi-ethnic heritage

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2012-07-26 00:37Z by Steven

Novel focuses on region’s multi-ethnic heritage

The Coalfield Progress Post
Norton, Virginia

Katie Dunn, Staff Reporter

BIG STONE GAP — America is often described as a melting pot, a nation where different ethnicities and cultures have assimilated into a cohesive union.

In her recently published novel, Washed in the Blood, author Lisa Alther, a Kingsport, Tenn. native, focuses on this notion by exploring the early history of the southern Appalachians and chronicling the story of several generations of a multi-ethnic family who lived in the region.

The book begins with the arrival of Diego Martin, a hog drover who came to the region with a Spanish exploring party in the 16th century. Martin is abandoned by the expedition’s leader in the wilderness, but is rescued by “friendly natives.” Alther’s book chronicles Martin’s descendants through the early 20th century as they struggle to survive and gain acceptance in a racially charged era.

Alther discussed this and another of her recently published books during the Melungeon Heritage Association’s gathering last weekend.

She told those gathered that she had researched the novel for 10 years, beginning in 1996; the book was published last fall.

The novel focuses on the racial mixing that occurred in the region, though Alther said she abstained from using the term “Melungeon,” noting that through her research she has concluded that there is no such thing as the “Melungeon Story.” Each family whose ancestors made their way inland from the coast to the mountains has stories of the different ethnicities that were absorbed along the way, she said.

Read the entire article here.

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So the earliest years of our country, the population was quite mixed. I mean the whole melting pot idea didn’t come in with the nineteenth century; it was here all along.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2012-04-09 03:43Z by Steven

One thing that I learned while doing all my research was that there was a lot that I hadn’t learned in school.  For instance, I learned the Southeast was just a empty wilderness when the settlers arrived at Jamestown. But in my research I discovered that it was crawling with people. Hundreds of thousands of natives. If you look at the maps of their villages they’re all over the place. There were also a lot of European and Africans who were there for various reasons and they were mostly young men, so they were mixing and melding with the native women. So the earliest years of our country, the population was quite mixed. I mean the whole melting pot idea didn’t come in with the nineteenth century; it was here all along. So, these earliest people, as Britain won out over Spain and Portugal, everyone wanted to be English, so everybody denied the rest of their heritage.

Lisa Alther, “Author Explores Racial Mixing In New Historical Novel,” VPR News, Vermont Public Radio, (March, 14, 2012): 00:01:45-00:02:45.

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Author Explores Racial Mixing In New Historical Novel

Posted in Audio, History, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2012-04-08 22:53Z by Steven

Author Explores Racial Mixing In New Historical Novel

VPR News
Vermont Public Radio

Neal Charnoff, Reporter; Local Host
All Things Considered

We last heard from writer Lisa Alther in 2007, when she spoke with VPR’s Neal Charnoff about her memoir, Kinfolks.

Alther has returned to fiction in a big way with her epic historical novel, Washed In The Blood.

The book is a three-part multi-generational novel that combines romance with a study of Appalachian culture and racial mixing in the south.

Lisa Alther, who shares time between Vermont and her native Tennessee has written seven books.

Listen to the interview (00:07:33) here or download it here.

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Washed in the Blood

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, Novels, United States on 2011-12-07 22:00Z by Steven

Washed in the Blood

Mercer University Press
October 2011
420 pages
Hardback ISBN: 9780881462579

Lisa Alther

This unique three-part novel assumes that, regardless of what Americans learn in school, the Southeast was not a barren wilderness when the English arrived at Jamestown. It was full of Native Americans, other Europeans, and Africans who were there for various reasons. Based on extensive research into the racial mixing that occurred in the early years of southeastern settlement, this provocative multi-generational story shows that these people did not simply vanish, but that many were absorbed into the new communities that gradually formed throughout the southeast, becoming “white” whenever their complexions allowed. The inability to accept their true heritages illustrates the high price many of these people paid for their way of life. Diego Martin arrives in 1567 in the American Southeast—the region the Spaniards call La Florida—as a hog drover with a Spanish exploring party. The leader of the expedition turns against him and abandons him to the wilderness, where friendly natives rescue him. Daniel Hunter, a Quaker from Philadelphia, sets up a school among these “disadvantaged” mountain people and falls in love with a Martin daughter. Later, Daniel’s descendants are living in the same town, though with little awareness of their ancestral past. The Martin family has split in two, the merchants in town denying any relationship to their racially mixed cousins on Mulatto Bald. A young woman from town, Galicia, falls in love with a young man from the bald, Will, not realizing that he is her cousin. They marry, have a daughter, and move to a new industrial center, becoming prominent citizens. When Will’s son from a teenage liaison appears at his door, he invites him in, unwittingly setting the stage for a forbidden love between his unacknowledged son and his cherished daughter, neither of whom realizes that they are half-siblings. This is a novel you will not be able to put down without wondering “Where will it take me next?”

Table of Contents

  • Part I – The Swine King: A. D. 1567
    • 1-The San Jorge
    • 2 – Landfall
    • 3 – Santo Domingo
    • 4 – Santa Elena
    • 5 – Orista
    • 6 – Cofitachequi
    • 7 – Joara
    • 8 – Cauchi
    • 9 – Land of the Lost
    • 10 – The Cave
  • Part II – The Squabble State
    • 1 – The Five-Chicken Baby: 1818
    • 2 – Couchtown: August 1837
    • 3 – The Shenandoah: October 1837
    • 4 – Mulatto Bald: October 1837
    • 5 – Baptism by Fire: November 1837
    • 6 – The Frost Moon: December 1837
    • 7 – Seedbeds: April 1838
    • 8 – Soldiers’Joy: June 1838
    • 9 – The Wilderness Road: July 1838
    • 10 – Squatters: October 1838
  • Part III – Passing Fancy
    • 1 – The Ringer: August 1909
    • 2 – Leesville: October 1909
    • 3 – Palestine: February 1911
    • 4 – Hijacked Happiness: March 1911
    • 5 – Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: April 1911
    • 6 – Homecoming: December 1911
    • 7 – Mongrels: August 1913
    • 8 – A Roll of the Dice: November 1913
    • 9 – The Perils of Pauline: March 1914
    • 10 – Holston: May 1914
    • 11 – Half-Breeds: 1920
    • 12 – Home to Roost: 1927
    • 13 – Mountain Meadows: 1930
    • 14 – The Plantation Ball: 1930
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Fifteenth Union: A Melungeon Gathering

Posted in History, Law, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2011-07-09 03:15Z by Steven

Fifteenth Union: A Melungeon Gathering

Melungeon Heritage Association
Carolina Connections: Roots and Branches of Mixed Ancestry Communities
Warren Wilson College
Swannanoa, North Carolina
2011-07-14 through 2011-07-16

MHA is delighted to announce that this year our annual Union will be celebrated at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC, July 14-16, 2011. This will be our first Union in the Carolinas, states of primary significance to the history of mixed ancestry communities across America. Melungeon roots in the Carolinas have been prominent topics of discussion in past Unions, and MHA welcomes the opportunity to celebrate and study our heritage on this historic and beautiful campus. Warren Wilson College is located a few miles from Asheville in a scenic area near the highest mountains in the East. It has historic connections to the Melungeon community of Vardy, which the Union will celebrate.

We will have speakers on a wide variety of genealogical and historical topics. The program is still being developed, but two distinguished authors have agreed to discuss their new books at the Union. Each book breaks new ground in the literature of mixed ancestry in the United States.

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (Penguin, 2011) tells three stories that will be especially meaningful to MHA readers. Author Daniel J. Sharfstein is an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University. Within a month of publication, his new book was acclaimed in the New York Times as “astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture moving from slavery to segregation to civil rights.” This study of the Gibson, Spencer, and Wall families has the potential to change the national conversation about race, and MHA is honored by Mr. Sharfstein’s participation in 15th Union.

Lisa Alther is an acclaimed author of bestselling fiction whose most recent book was a nonfiction investigation of Melungeon ancestry entitled Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree. She returns to fiction with Washed in the Blood, forthcoming this fall from Mercer University Press. Alther’s new novel portrays the early history of the southern Appalachians. It tells the story of several generations of the Martin family, from the arrival of Diego Martin as a hog drover with a Spanish exploring party in the 16th century, describing his descendants’ struggles to survive and gain acceptance down through the early 20th century.  In this new novel, Alther connects Melungeon history to early settlement of the Southeastern US, and thus to the theme of 15th Union…

For more information, click here.

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Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors

Posted in Anthropology, Autobiography, Books, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2011-07-09 02:45Z by Steven

Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors

Arcade Publishing
April 2007
264 pages
Hardback ISBN-10: 1559708328; ISBN-13: 9781559708326
Paperback ISBN-10: 1-55970-876-X; ISBN-13: 978-1-55970-876-0

Lisa Alther

Best-selling author Lisa Alther chronicles her search for missing branches of her family tree in this dazzling, hilarious memoir.

Most of us grow up knowing who we are and where we come from. Lisa Alther’s mother hailed from New York, her father from Virginia, and every day they reenacted the Civil War at home. Then a babysitter with bad teeth told Lisa about the Melungeons: six-fingered child-snatchers who hid in caves. Forgetting about these creepy kidnappers until she had a daughter of her own, Lisa learned they were actually an isolated group of dark-skinned people—often with extra thumbs—living in East Tennessee. But who were they? Descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, or of shipwrecked Portuguese or Turkish sailors? Or the children of frontiersman, African slaves, and Native Americans? Lisa set out to discover who these mysterious Melungeons really were—and why her grandmother wouldn’t let her visit their Virginia relatives.

Part sidesplitting travelogue, part how (and how not) to climb your family tree, Kinfolks shimmers with wicked humor, showing just how wacky and wonderful our human family really is.


Many People are born believing they know who they are. They’re Irish or Jewish or African-American or whatever. But some of us with culturally or ethnically mixed backgrounds don’t share that enviable luxury.

My mother was a New Yorker and my father a Virginian, and the Civil War was reenacted daily in our house and in my head. My Tennessee playmates used to insist that Yankees were rude, and my New York cousins insisted that southerners were stupid. I knew I was neither, but I had no idea what I might be instead. Hybrids have no communal templates to guide them in defining themselves.

In my life since, I’ve often lain awake at night trying to figure out how to fool the members of some clique into believing that I’m one of them. For a long time I lived with one foot in the PTA and the other in Provincetown. I also moved to several different cities, hoping to find a homeland. But each time I discovered that joining one group required denying my allegiances to other groups. In Boston, New York, and Vermont, I pretended not to hear the slurs against the South. And in London and Paris, I remained silent during anti-American rants.

But I have gradually become grateful for this chronic identity crisis because it has fostered my career. Everything I’ve ever written has been an attempt to work out who I am, not only culturally but also sexually, politically, and spiritually.

I rationalized my penchant for protective coloration by reviewing what I knew about my hapless ancestors, who were usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were Huguenots in France after Catholics declared open season on heretics; English in Ireland when the republicans began torching Anglo-Irish houses; Dutch in the Netherlands during the Spanish invasion; Scots in the Highlands during the Clearances; Native Americans in the path of Manifest Destiny; Union supporters in Confederate Virginia. I concluded that I’d inherited genes that condemned me to a lifetime of being a stranger in some very strange lands.

Then I met a cousin named Brent Kennedy, who maintained that some of our shared ancestors in the southern Appalachians were Melungeons. The earliest Melungeons were supposedly found living in what would become East Tennessee when the first European settlers arrived. They were olive-skinned and claimed to be Portuguese.

Conflicting origin stories for the Melungeons abound. They’re said to be descended from Indians who mated with early Spanish explorers, or from the survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, or from Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on the Carolina coast, or from African slaves who escaped into the mountains. Brent himself believed them to have Turkish ancestry. Before the Civil War, some were labeled “free people of color” and were prohibited from voting, attending white schools, marrying white people, or testifying against whites in court. After that war, some were subjected to Jim Crow laws. A friend who worked as a waitress told me she was ordered to wash down the booths with disinfectant after Melungeon customers departed. She also said that her mother warned her as a child never to look at Melungeons because they had the evil eye.

Growing up, I’d heard that Melungeons lived in caves and trees on cliffs outside our town and had six fingers on each hand. Brent’s showing me the scars from the removal of his extra thumbs launched me on a journey to discover who the historical Melungeons really were and whether my father’s family had, in fact, been closet Melungeons.

For nearly a decade I read history, visited sites, and interviewed people related to this quest. In school I’d learned that what is now the southeastern United States was an empty wilderness before the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. But my research taught me that it was instead filled with millions of Native Americans. It was also crawling with Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, Africans, Jews, Moors, Turks, Croatians, and British, among others—all roaming the Southeast for a variety of reasons.

In their wanderings these (mostly) men sired children with willing or unwilling Native Americans. Although an estimated 80 to 90 percent of Native Americans eventually succumbed to European diseases, some of their ethnically mixed children survived because of immunities inherited from their European and African fathers. They, in turn, had descendants, some of whom found ways to coexist with the encroaching European settlers.

I assembled plenty of clues about Melungeon origins, but DNA testing finally gave me some answers—and also explained why a sense of belonging has always eluded me. After a series of tests, I learned that I’d been walking around for six decades in a body constructed by DNA originating in Central Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. This in addition to the contributions from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Germany, and Native America, which I already knew about through conventional genealogical methods.

For weeks after receiving these results, I wandered around in a daze, humming “We Are the World.” A lifelong suspicion that I fit nowhere turned out not to be just idle paranoia. But once the reality of my panglobal identity sank in, I realized that I’d finally found my long-sought group. It consists of mongrels like myself who know that we belong nowhere—and everywhere. This book chronicles my six-decade evolution from bemused Appalachian misfit to equally bemused citizen of the world…

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