Thomas Collins, Lost Melungeon Roots

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2021-09-01 00:44Z by Steven

Thomas Collins, Lost Melungeon Roots

Alicia M. Prater, Ph.D.

The Goins’, a Melungeon family in Graysville, Tennessee, in the 1920s. Source

Thomas Collins was born about 1785, presumably in Ashe, North Carolina. He was a Melungeon and noted as “Free Colored Person” (FCP) on the 1820 and 1830 U.S. censuses. Thomas married Nancy Williams, who was also denoted as a FCP, around 1800. They moved with their grown children to Perry Co., Kentucky, from Ashe, North Carolina, about 1835. Thomas was then denoted as “Free White Person” on the 1840 census, and the family has been White ever since.

Melungeons: The “free colored people” of Appalachia

The word “Melungeon” started as a racial slur but came to denote the insular communities of darker skinned Baptists, Portuguese, African, Native American, and possibly Romani or Jewish settlers in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina before the Revolutionary War. Today, it is considered to refer to a tri-racial isolate from the Southeastern United States

Read the entire article here.

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Beyond the Sunset: The Melungeon Outdoor Drama, 1969-1976

Posted in Anthropology, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2020-01-12 02:01Z by Steven

Beyond the Sunset: The Melungeon Outdoor Drama, 1969-1976

Mercer University Press
420 pages
6 x 1 x 8.8 inches
Paperback ISBN: 9780881467185

Wayne Winkler, Director WETS-FM
East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee

In 1969, Hancock County, Tennessee was the eighth poorest county in the United States. Isolated by rugged mountains and far from population centers or major highways, the county had few natural resources, couldn’t attract industry, and had lost half its population in just a few decades. Hoping to develop a tourist industry, county leaders decided to stage an outdoor drama about the Melungeons, a mysterious, racially-mixed people that had attracted newspaper and magazine writers to Hancock County for more than a century. To stage the drama, the organizers had to overcome long-standing local prejudice against the dark-skinned Melungeons, the reluctance of the Melungeons to call attention to themselves, the physical isolation of the county, and their own lack of experience in any aspect of this project. In Beyond the Sunset, Wayne Winkler uses contemporary press reports, long-forgotten documents, and interviews with participants to chronicle the struggles of an impoverished rural Appalachian county to maintain its viability in the modern world–and the unexpected consequences of that effort. For those interested in Appalachian history in general and in Melungeon heritage specifically, this is a book that is an essential addition to your reading list.

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Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia

Posted in Anthropology, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2020-01-10 01:26Z by Steven

Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia

Mercer University Press
314 pages
6 x 1 x 8.8 inches
Paperback ISBN: 9780865548695

Wayne Winkler, Director WETS-FM
East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee

Walking toward the Sunset is a historical examination of the Melungeons, a mixed-race group predominantly in southern Appalachia. Author Wayne Winkler reviews theories about the Melungeons, compares the Melungeons with other mixed-race groups, and incorporates the latest scientific research to present a comprehensive portrait. In his telling portrait, Winkler examines the history of the Melungeons and the ongoing controversy surrounding their mysterious origins. Employing historical records, news reports over almost two centuries, and personal interviews, Winkler tells the fascinating story of a people who did not fit the rigid racial categories of American society. Along the way, Winkler recounts the legal and social restrictions suffered by Melungeons and other mixed-race groups, particularly Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and he reviews the negative effects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century magazine and journal articles on these reclusive people. Walking toward the Sunset documents the changes in public and private attitudes toward the Melungeons, the current debates over “Melungeon” identity, and the recent genetic studies that have attempted to shed light on the subject. But most importantly, Winkler relates the lives of families who were outsiders in their own communities, who were shunned and shamed, but who created a better life for their children, descendants who are now reclaiming the heritage that was hidden from them for generations.

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The mystery of the Melungeons

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States, Virginia on 2016-08-25 01:17Z by Steven

The mystery of the Melungeons

The Economist


The story of an Appalachian people offers a timely parable of the nuanced history of race in America

HEAD into Sneedville from the Clinch River, turn left at the courthouse and crawl up Newman’s Ridge. Do not be distracted by the driveways meandering into the woods, the views across the Appalachians or the shadows of the birds of prey; heed the warnings locals may have issued about the steepness and the switchbacks. If the pass seems challenging, consider how inaccessible it must have been in the moonshining days before motor cars.

Halfway down, as Snake Hollow appears on your left, you reach a narrow gorge, between the ridge and Powell Mountain and hard on Tennessee’s north-eastern border. In parts sheer and wooded, it opens into an unexpected valley, where secluded pastures and fields of wild flowers hug Blackwater Creek—in which the water is not black but clear, running, like the valley, down into Virginia. This is the ancestral home of an obscure American people, the Melungeons. Some lived over the state line on Stone Mountain, in other craggy parts of western Virginia and North Carolina and in eastern Kentucky. But the ridge and this valley were their heartland.

The story of the Melungeons is at once a footnote to the history of race in America and a timely parable of it. They bear witness to the horrors and legacy of segregation, but also to the overlooked complexity of the early colonial era. They suggest a once-and-future alternative to the country’s brutally rigid model of race relations, one that, for all the improvements, persists in the often siloed lives of black and white Americans today. Half-real and half-mythical, for generations the Melungeons were avatars for their neighbours’ neuroses; latterly they have morphed into receptacles for their ideals, becoming, in effect, ambassadors for integration where once they were targets of prejudice…

The two big questions about them encapsulate their ambiguous status—on the boundaries of races and territories, and between suffering and hope, imagination and fact. Where did the Melungeons come from? And do they still exist?…

Read the entire article here.

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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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Written records agree with Melungeon DNA results

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2013-11-04 04:57Z by Steven

Written records agree with Melungeon DNA results

Jack Goins’ Melungeon and Appalachian Research
October 2013

William E. Cole
University of Tennessee

Joe Stevenson Looney
University of Tennessee

Written records agree with Core Melungeon DNA Results. The Core Melungeon DNA Project was formed with Family Tree DNA on July 25, 2005. The goal of the project was to determine the origin of the Melungeons and to find matches in the data base. Our project results were submitted to a peer review board and published April 24, 2012 in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy and published by Associated Press reporter Travis Loller in May 2012, the results of the first generation are offspring of Sub-Saharan African men and white women of Northern and central European origin.

The majority of the male core groups were haplogroup E1b1a Sub-Saharan African and the maternal mtDNA group was European. The first mixed generation was the children from Sub-Saharan African men and white women of Northern and central European origin, the exact date of this mixing is unknown. Some from this first mixed generation eventually intermarried with white settlers in colonial Virginia and took their names. Part of this tri-racial clan may have remained in Colonial Virginia and others migrated to North Carolina who would eventually become known as Melungeons (Calloway Collins told Will Allen Dromgoole the Collins and Gibsons, had stolen those names from white settlers in Virginia where they were living as Indians, before migrating to North Carolina”). Calloway Collins was a great grandson of Benjamin whose origin was African and we also know all Africans took English surnames, even the ones who became slaves…

Read the entire article here.

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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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An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2010-11-29 03:03Z by Steven

An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States

American Anthropologist
Volume 74, Issue 3 (June 1972)
pages 704–710
DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.3.02a00340

Calvin L. Beale
Economic Research Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture

The subject of the paper is population groups of real or alleged tri-racial origin—Indian, White, and Negro. There is a review of the emergence of such groups in American history, their conflicts with public authorities, and their recognition by researchers. The past importance of separate schools as a boundary maintenance mechanism is discussed, with emphasis on the declining persistence of such schools today. The role of the church as the typical remaining group institution is noted. Mention is made of the decreasing proportion of endogamous marriages in recent times. The essentially rural nature of these racial isolates is pointed out, and the general societal trend of rural depopulation is stated to be affecting their size and continued existence. A suggested list of research needs is offered.

In About 1890, a young Tennessee woman asked a state legislator, “Please tell me what is a Malungeon?” “A Malungeon” said he, “isn’t a nigger, and he isn’t an Indian, and he isn’t a White man. God only knows what he is. I should call him a Democrat, only he always votes the Republican ticket” (Drumgoole 1891:473).

The young woman, Will Allen Drumgoole, soon sought out the Melungeons in remote Hancock County and lived with them for awhile to determine for herself what they were. Afterward, in the space of a ten page article, she described them as “shiftless,” “idle,” “illiterate,” “thieving,” “defiant,” “distillers of brandy,” “lawless,” “close,” “rogues,” “suspicious,” “inhospitable,” “untruthful,” “cowardly,” “sneaky,” “exceedingly immoral,” and “unforgiving.” She also spoke of their “cupidity and cruelty,” and ended her work by concluding, “The most than can be said of one of them is, ‘He is a Malungeon,’ a synonym for all that is doubtful and mysterious-and unclean” (Drumgoole 1891:479). Miss Drumgoole was essentially a sympathetic observer.

The existence of mixed racial populations that constitute a distinctive segment of society is not unique to the United States needless to say. But this nation must rank near the top in the number of such communities and in their general public obscurity. I refer in particular to groups of real or alleged White-Indian-Negro mixtures (such as the Melungeons) who are not tribally affiliated or traceable with historical continuity to a particular tribe. It is also logical to include a few groups of White-Negro origin that lack the Indian component. The South in particular is rich in such population strains, with all states except Arkansas and Oklahoma having such groups at present or within the twentieth century. (And I would not be surprised to be contradicted on my exception of those two states.)…

Read the entire article here.

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The Melungeon Identity Movement and the Construction of Appalachian Whiteness

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2010-10-10 22:31Z by Steven

The Melungeon Identity Movement and the Construction of Appalachian Whiteness

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
Volume 11, Issue 1 (June 2001)
pages 131-146
DOI: 10.1525/jlin.2001.11.1.131

Anita Puckett, Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

How this binary system is discursively constituted depends upon the ways in which elements of a repertoire interconnect to distribute or consolidate power and privilege across discursive contexts. Circulation of the revitalized lexeme Melungeon as a valued “object” within Appalachian discourse reveals linguistic processes by which white racial privilege is constructed and expanded, mixed-race classification excluded, and nonwhite disenfranchisement reproduced.

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