Friday, August 4, 2017

Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?

Dennis Wolfe, a Cherokee indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, 1980.

Photo courtesy Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

The history of a myth 

“I cannot say when I first heard of my Indian blood, but as a boy I heard it spoken of in a general way,” Charles Phelps, a resident of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, told a federal census taker near the beginning of the 20th century. Like many Americans at the time, Phelps had a vague understanding of his Native American ancestry. On one point, however, his memory seemed curiously specific: His Indian identity was a product of his “Cherokee blood.”
The tradition of claiming a Cherokee ancestor continues into the present. Today, more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Across the United States, Americans tell and retell stories of long-lost Cherokee ancestors. These tales of family genealogies become murkier with each passing generation, but like Phelps, contemporary Americans profess their belief despite not being able to point directly to a Cherokee in their family tree.
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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Melungeon was one of the 24 Clans studied by Edward T. Price in 1950-53.

By Jack Goins

Melungeon was one of the Clans studied by Edward T. Price in 1950-53. Geographic Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in Eastern United States.

 Edward T. Price, Los Angles State College

 1-The Melungeons -Centering in Hancock County, TN, reached Newman Ridge and Blackwater Valley in then Hawkins County, now Hancock County in the 1790’s 2-Redbones- Louisiana 3-Cajans-Alabama, Mississippi 4-Cereoles- Mississippi 5-Dominickers-Georgia 6-Brass Ankles- South Carolina 7- Croatans-North Carolina and South Carolina 8- Cubans -North Carolina 9-Browns Branch, Kentucky 10-Cubans, 11- Magoffin - Kentucky 12-Issues, Amherst County, Virginia 13- Irish Creek -Virginia 14- Carmel Indians-Ohio 15-Wesorts, Maryland 16-Darke Country, West Virginia 17-Guineas-West Virginia 18- Nanticokes, Maryland 19-Moors and Nanticokes, Maryland 20- Keating Mountain-Pennsylvania, 21-Pools, Pennsylvania 22- Jackson Whites, New York and New Jersey 23- Bushwhackers-New York 24-Slaughters- New York.

Dr Virginia DeMarce in her review wrote "Melungeons thus becomes a catchall description for dark skinned individuals” The manner in which individuals are deduced to be Melungeon is troubling. By surmising a connection when it cannot be shown." and then she went on to write in the review that this belief is contrary to the historical facts: "Tennessee Melungeons And Related Groups”- Dr. Virginia Easley DeMarce Historian Branch of Acknowledgement and Research, Burea Of Indian Affairs Washington DC.

" What is a social isolate? She writes; "The great majority of people in the United States who carry a mixed European, African and Native American genealogical heritage are not members of social Isolate groups." Continuing: DeMarce then uses professional geographer Edward T. Price description of a Social Isolate, ( survey complied in 1950.) (1)"The people must be racial mixtures of white and non-white groups, Indian and /or negro peoples presumably providing the latter blood in the absence of evidence to the contrary.(2) they must have a social status differing from the whites, Indians or Negroes in the area in such a way as to throw them generally together in their more personal social relationships;(3) they must exist in such numbers and concentration as to be recognized in their locality as such a group and usually to be identified by a distinguishing group name. "

 "Price emphasis on the existence of a group is fundamental to studying the genealogy of social isolate groups, as groups. In spite of the on going myth that one drop of African ancestry classified an individual or family as black, the historical fact is that this principle was nowhere a matter of law in the United States prior to the early 20th century, whereas in most jurisdictions prior to the Civil War, free persons with less than 1/8 or 1/16 African Ancestry were, for legal purposes, classified as white."

" Fact. The actual, factual history of social isolate settlements are going to be written by genealogist and family historians: document by individual document, fact by painstaking fact. The function and duty of the individual historian and the genealogist is to demystify and to demythologize." "When we know the origins of each individual Melungeon family, we will know the origins of the Melungeons. When we know the orgins of each family in 'other' social isolates, we will begin to understand their genesis and development." (End Dr Virginia DeMarce)

The oldest written record of this term is recorded in the Stony Creek Church Minutes Sept 26, 1813 Church Sat in love, Brother Kilgore Moderator.Then came forward Sister Kitchen and complained to the church against Susanna Stallard for saying she harbored them Melungins. Sister Sook said she was hurt with her for believing her child and not believing her, and she want talk to her to get satisfaction, and both is “pigedish”, one against the other. Sister Sook lays it down and the church forgives her. Then came forward Cox and relates to the church, that he went to the association and took the letter and they received the letter in fellowship. Dismissed. (This is recorded 26 September 1813, minutes of Stony Creek Church. Also note the previous and preceding minutes to Sept 1813 all exist in full, which is June, July, August October, November and December. )

 These Stony Creek minutes suggest by 1813 the Blackwater group was called Melungeon, but in 1804 they may not have been known as Melungeons.

 July 28, 1804 Church meeting held at Stony Creek, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be administered at our meeting to be held in September and every three months from the time to come. Bro. Charles Gibson is restored to his seat. Br. James Kitchens and Br. John Richmond appointed to cite Br. Thomas Alley to appear before this church next meeting . Ruben Gibson laid under censure till next meeting and that his mother cite him to appear. Thomas Gibson restored by a recantation.
Dismissed in order.

 “Sept 25, 1804 Ruben Gibson excluded from membership of this church, he lives down at Blackwater, and has our letter of (dismission) and keeps it, and has joined another church”

 There is a tradition that John Sevier encountered the Melungeons, some thought this happened when he was trying to establish the state of Franklin, but they were not in this area at this time. The date of this encounter was in 1802 when Sevier surveyed land boundaries for Hawkins County, Tennessee. 138 Excerpts from John Sevier’s diary suggest he may have later in life, made this reference after meeting these dark skin people and spending the night with one of them on the following 1802 survey.. Looney’s Gap was the main road from Rogersville, Tennessee, across Clinch Mountain and on to the Grainger County Line which was probably the route Sevier took to cross Newman Ridge and Powell Mountain to Mulberry Creek, which would be on the east side of Sneedville and west end of Vardy. The location of the old road from Sneedville to Blackwater Creek was a gap in the ridge and this gap can be seen today, at the foothill of said gap was Vardy Springs. Vardy Collins boarding house would eventually be located near the spring. They stayed near this location at the home of a man named Gibson and then went across Powell Mountain to Mulberry Gap, probably near the location of the present road. Then notice the route taken on Sat. 27, 1802. Daniel Flanery was the owner of the area marked on today’s map as Flannery’s Ford on the Powell River. This area in Mulberry Gap, extending to and including land on the North side of Powell River, land was in Hawkins and adjoining Grainger County, Tennessee. Flannery’s Ford on Powell River can be located today on a map. It’s north of Mulberry Creek on the Powell River and west of Jonesville in Lee County, Virginia. Additions and corrections are in parenthesis by this author.

“Mon. Nov. 1802 Mr. Fish went on to Hawkins C. H. Self and Genl. Rutledge crossed Clinch Mountain at Looneys Gap traveled down lower creek to Abs. Loone ys (* Absolem Looney) came up with the surveyors at Daws (*Doswell) Rogers plantation. The line crossing at Waddels ford on Clinch River near mouth of Shelby’’s Creek one mile above - lay there all night. Mr. Fish retd. brought with him $50 Recd from Nelson sheriff of Hawkins out of which I received 18 dollars. Wed. 24 lay here this day & night Genl. Martin & Majr. Taylor arrived. Thursday 25 Rained Lay at Roberts Fry. 26 Clear day. We all sit out from Robert's crossed Newman Ridge & lodged all night on black water creek at Gibsons .Mssrs? Fish and Taylor left us. Sat. 27 We stayed Crossed Powell mountain and lodged at Sanders mill 7 miles...Left the surveyors coming on from Blackwater. On our route today passed Daniel Flanarys on No.(North) side of Mulbery Gap. Mulberry Creek flows into Powel River between Powell Mountain and Waldens Ridge. Sun. 28 We measured the Cross line and found our course on quarter too far to the South- Lodged at same place.” 139 (MELUNGEONS- Footprints From The Past. Pages 69-70.)

 An unknown journalist in Little Living age came to this same area on Blackwater in the 1840’s and forever sealed the existence of this Melungeon clan, including their mixture and firm location. “You must know that within ten miles of this owl's nest, there is a watering-place, and Mineral Springs in Vardy, Hancock County, Tennessee known hereabouts as 'black-water springs.' It is situated in a narrow gorge, scarcely half a mile wide, between Powell's Mountain and the Copper Ridge, and is, as you may suppose, almost inaccessible. Now this gorge and the tops and sides of the adjoining mountains are inhabited by a singular species of the human animal called MELUNGENS. We stopped at 'Old Vardy's, the hostelries of the vicinage. Old Vardy is the 'chief cook and bottle-washer' of the Melungens, and is really a very clever fellow: but his hotel savors strongly of that peculiar perfume that one may find in the sleeping-rooms of our Negro servants, especially on a close, warm, summer evening. We arrived at Vardy's in time for supper, and thus despatched, we went to the spring, where were assembled several rude log huts, and a small sprinkling of 'the natives, together with a fiddle and other preparations for a dance. The dance was engaged in with right hearty good will.The legend of their history, which they carefully preserve, is this. A great many years ago, these mountains were settled by a society of Portuguese Adventurers, men and women--who came from the long-shore parts of Virginia, that they might be freed from the restraints and drawbacks imposed on them by any form of government. These intermixed with the Indians, and subsequently their descendants after the advances of the whites into this part of the state with the negros and the whites, thus forming the present race of Melungens.”

178 “There seems to be no reason for this writer to have invented this detail, “The Melungeons carefully preserved the “Legend of their history.” This “Legend” according to the writer, included an original descent from Portuguese adventures and later intermarriages with Indians, Negroes, and whites.”

179 The visit to Vardy Valley in 1848 was revisited about 50 years later on Friday July 2, 1897. C.H. Humble returned to the same place as the writer in Littell’s Living age. This visit may have been to a mission house, because a New Presbyterian Church was completed in 1899.

 “On Friday forenoon, July 2, (1897) the writer and Rev. Joseph Hamilton, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, started in a hack from Cumberland Gap, Tennessee for Beatty Collins, chief of the Melungeons, in Blackwater.” (MELUNGEONS Footprints From the Past pages 83-84)

 211-Littell's Living Age, March, 1849 The Melungens, This was reprinted from the Knoxville Register September 6, 1848, quoting from the Louisville Examiner. This issue of the Knoxville Register has not been located. 212- Saundra Keyes Ivey comments on the correspondent in Littell’s Living Age, Dissertation, Indiana University. )

This derogatory term was not spread to other localities by migration because the Melungeons did migrate to western Tn.,Ky. Indiana and other places but those descendants were never told about this clan name. It was spread by politicians and Journalist such as in Littell’s Living Age article which was printed in most major newspapers during the mid 1800’s, so many dark skin people where given this name, or some other clan name by their white neighbors.

Ramps- Was a large group Price did not include in his study, this group was a community primarily located between Fort Blackmore and Dungannon Virginia called Ramp Town and some of the dark complected people in some communities in Wise County, Virginia. The above clan names and settlements were known to the local people who lived in those areas. Lets go back to the 1950s those of us who lived in various communities around towns in this time frame remembers names of communities that are slowing being lost to history. Around Rogersville, Tennessee within a 10 mile radius as the crow flies we had Petersburg, Cave Ridge, Pinhook, Guntown, Ebbing Flowing Springs, McKinney, Gravel Town, Cuba, Straw, Persia, Rock Hill, Goulds Hill, Tarpine, Polecat, Kepler, Burem. Most of these communities had schools and churches. Driving across Clinch Mountain on Hwy 70 where I was born, at the foot of the mountain is War Creek. Then Edison, Pumpkin Valley, Copper Ridge. Crossing Clinch River was Kyles Ford, Flower Gap, Fishers Valley, Walnut Grove and Big Ridge. Coming back west is Indian Ridge, Blackwater, Panther Creek, Newman Ridge, Vardy, Snake Hollow, Mulberry Gap, which included the eastern section of what is Claiborne County today. People researching Melungeon history make a huge mistake if they accept some authors statements that Newman Ridge Blackwater Melungeon settlement was a small group, if you check them out, they have never researched this area which is the only recognized Melungeon community that can be sustained by history, people were later called Melungeon in other areas but this is where this clan name began.

 Although Lewis Jarvis referred to the Melungeon as the friendly Indians, he also stated they were not a tribe of Indians. “They have been derisively dubbed with the name Melungeons by the local white people who have lived here with them, its not a traditional name, or tribe of Indians” (Attorney Lewis Jarvis letter in 1903 Sneedville Times. And published in the 1994 book, Hancock County and It’s People.)


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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Family Tree DNA myOrigins Ethnicity Update – No April Foolin’

Family Tree DNA myOrigins Ethnicity Update – No April Foolin’

By now you have probably heard about the new ethnicity percentages that Family Tree DNA just released. It is probably a good thing they did not release them on April 1st!! Some people are pleased, some are upset and most are just confused. 

Roberta Estes of writes:

The long-anticipated myOrigins update at Family Tree DNA has happened today. Not only are the ethnicity percentages updated, sometimes significantly, but so are the clusters and the user interface.
Furthermore, because of the new clusters and reference populations, the entire data base has been rerun. In essence, this isn’t just an update, but an entirely new version of myOrigins.
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Monday, April 3, 2017

Lies and More Lies

Think your DNA results are the final word on whether you have Native American heritage? It's not necessarily true. 
Very important article on Roberta Estes' blog. She writes:
"Jessica Biel’s episode aired on Who Do You Think You Are on Sunday, April 2nd. I wanted to write a follow-up article since I couldn’t reveal Jessica’s Native results before the show aired.
The first family story about Jessica’s Biel line being German proved to be erroneous. In total, Jessica had three family stories she wanted to follow, so the second family legend Jessica set out to research was her Native American heritage.
I was very pleased to see a DNA test involved, but I was dismayed that the impression was left with the viewing audience that the ethnicity results disproved Jessica’s Native heritage. They didn’t."
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Remembering Joseph Medicine Crow, the Last Crow War Chief

Joseph Medicine Crow, the last war chief of Montana’s Crow tribe, died last year at the age of 102. A noted Native American historian, Medicine Crow was an indelible source of education and a heroic figure of the American west. Herman Viola, the curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, once said “When you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you’re shaking hands with the 19th century.”

Medicine Crow was the last surviving person to hear a first person account of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. His grandmother’s brother, White Man Runs Him, was a scout for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

White, Black, a Murky Distinction Grows Murkier

The largest genetic study of people yet based on 160,000 persons.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

America's First Immigrants?

Recent scientific findings date their arrival earlier than ever thought, sparking hot debate among archaeologists

Smithsonian Magazine
For much of its length, the slow-moving Aucilla River in northern Florida flows underground, tunneling through bedrock limestone. But here and there it surfaces, and preserved in those inky ponds lie secrets of the first Americans.
For years adventurous divers had hunted fossils and artifacts in the sinkholes of the Aucilla about an hour east of Tallahassee. They found stone arrowheads and the bones of extinct mammals such as mammoth, mastodon and the American ice age horse.
Then, in the 1980s, archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History opened a formal excavation in one particular sink. Below a layer of undisturbed sediment they found nine stone flakes that a person must have chipped from a larger stone, most likely to make tools and projectile points. They also found a mastodon tusk, scarred by circular cut marks from a knife. The tusk was 14,500 years old.
The age was surprising, even shocking, for it suddenly made the Aucilla sinkhole one of the earliest places in the Americas to betray the presence of human beings. Curiously, though, scholars largely ignored the discoveries of the Aucilla River Prehistory Project, instead clinging to the conviction that America’s earliest settlers arrived more recently, some 13,500 years ago. But now the sinkhole is getting a fresh look, along with several other provocative archaeological sites that show evidence of an earlier human presence in the Americas, perhaps much earlier.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Secrets of a Multicultural Cuban Cemetery

"Moll - A Map of the West-Indies". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Secrets of a Multicultural Cuban Cemetery 

Such methods also will help illuminate how and where Native Americans were enslaved in the early centuries of Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the New World.  
In an early 16th-century cemetery in southeastern Cuba called El Chorro de Maita, archaeologists found 133 people in 108 burials. This is the only cemetery in Cuba known to include native Taino people, according to Roberto Valcarcel Rojas at the Netherlands’ University of Leiden, who has studied the remains and artifacts. 
Isotope analysis suggests that individuals came from West Africa and Mesoamerica, as well as from Cuba. The Mesoamericans may be from Mayan populations on the Yucatan peninsula, and their presence in Cuba points to a European-run slave trade that included today’s Mexico as well as Africa. 

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Could Someone be Looking for You to Give You a Free DNA Test?

Go here to learn how this works:

Then go here to see if your surname is listed:

Free DNA tests

From ISOGG Wiki

Free DNA tests are sometimes available to encourage participation in surname projects. Offers are usually restricted to Y-DNA tests with sponsorship being provided by the relevant surname project. Some projects will underwrite the entire cost of a DNA test. Other projects will contribute towards the cost of a test or pay for tests for a limited number of markers. In order to qualify for the offer it is usually necessary to supply a list of your paternal line ancestors for at least three or more generations. A list of currently available sponsorship offers from ISOGG project administrators is given below.
Note that for tests ordered through Family Tree DNA when a third party pays for a test, the person testing first has to agree to the initial test and then to any upgrades to the test. The person who paid also has rights to the results, just not to the DNA. If the tester doesn't want the person or group to have access to the results any more, then that person has to reimburse the entire cost of the test and any upgrades before the person or group is denied access.

Projects offering a free DNA test:

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

White, Black: A Murky Distinction Grows Murkier

The largest genetic study of people yet based on 160,000 persons.

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The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States

The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States

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Thumbnail image of Figure 1. Opens large image

Figure 1

The Distribution of Ancestry of Self-Reported African Americans across the US
(A) Differences in levels of African ancestry in African Americans (blue).
(B) Differences in levels of Native American ancestry in African Americans (orange).
(C) Differences in levels of European ancestry of African Americans (red), from each state. States with fewer than ten individuals are excluded in gray.
(D) The geographic distribution of self-reported African Americans with Native American ancestry. The proportion of African Americans in each state who have 2% or more Native American ancestry is shown by shade of green. States with fewer than 20 individuals are excluded in gray.

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Monday, January 25, 2016


Note: Please bear in mind this paper was written well before the autosomal DNA tests had any practical purpose in genealogy or population studies. Dr. Brodwin's remarks concern only Y chromosome and mtDNA.

by Dr. Paul Brodwin

The conflict between the agendas of scientific genetics and popular movements for recognition and sovereignty does not always implicate chiefly differences in power.
Geneticists, of course, do not always end up as the enemies of people providing DNA. In the case described below, members of a small, once-isolated group requested DNA analysis to validate their claims of collective ancestry.
They were happy to find a geneticist willing to take on their project, but he eventually had serious misgivings about the entire enterprise.
People asked him to provide evidence about cultural identity and descent, but he knows his science is irrelevant to their most pressing questions.

The rest of this article examines the use of DNA evidence to assert identity claims among the Melungeons, a multiracial group from southern Appalachia.

Their demand for and reception of genetic studies have generated several conflicts, but not along the familiar fault-lines. This case featured few political disagreements about whether research should proceed.
Obtaining cheek swabs and hair roots, extracting the DNA, and growing cell lines did not provoke a popular outcry about imperialism or formal ethical self-scrutiny. Melungeons’’ demand for collective recognition proved incommensurable not with the politics of genetic research, but instead with the limits that researchers themselves place on,

160 P. BRODWIN interpretation of their findings. This case turned on the conceptual vulnerability of human population genetics: the mismatch between scientific and popular views about the ability of genetics evidence to establish collective origins and identity.

A formal protocol such as the MEP, meant to adjudicate between acceptable and unacceptable research practices, cannot particularly help geneticists who face a conflict not with potential DNA donors, but instead with their own
professional and intellectual commitments.
The geneticist who worked with the Melungeons was thus pushed into an even murkier ethical terrain than the HGDP
defenders. He found it impossible to resolve the relevant conflicts without abandoning his fundamental dedication to his scientific craft.

For over 100 years, journalists, social scientists, and folklorists have written about the Melungeons of northeastern Tennessee and neighboring regions of Virginia and Kentucky. In a journalistic idiom, the Melungeons are a "lost tribe," Virginia’s mystery race," an "almost exinct," or "dwindling hill clan," to cite titles of popular magazine articles over the years.
However, attempts at a more accurate description quickly get caught up in the same identity politics that divide the group itself and that drive its current interest in genetic research. Until recently, most academic accounts classified Melungeons as an enclaved community of mixed black, white, and American Indian ancestry, one of several such groups living in the eastern and southern United States.

The anthropologist Gilbert (1946) included Melungeons in his detailed list of "mixed-blood racial islands"——groups that are considered racially distinct by their white, black, and Native American neighbors——along with the Brass Ankles and Croatans of the Carolinas, the Red Bones of Louisiana, the Guineas of West Virginia and Maryland, and the Jackson Whites of New Jersey.6 Gilbert characterized all these groups as backward minorities, suffering from illiteracy and poverty, difficult to classify racially, and needing assimilation to improve their condition.

Other social scientists forgo the paternalism, but offer similar accounts of Melungeon origins. Price (1951) traces the Melungeons to a fluid mixed-race society living in the 18th century in Virgina and the Carolinas. For Beale (1957),

they are a "tri-racial isolate," one of 27 such groups found throughout
the South. Such groups contain "intermingled Indian, white, and Negro ancestry," and
they persist as singular, bounded communities because of their geographical
isolation and the legal or customary restrictions on marriage with both whites and
blacks (see also Berry 1963). Most recently, DeMarce (1992, 1993)——a professional

historian and genealogist——has documented Indian––white, black––white, and
black––Indian amalgamations among the historic source populations of Melungeons.
She also traces the likely migration of major Melungeon families from west central Virginia into the core area of northeast Tennessee where most people who now call themselves Melungeon trace their lineage.

BIOETHICS IN ACTION 161 Until the early 1990s, these scholarly representations remained unchallenged by Melungeons themselves, simply because few people actually admitted to being one. Berry’’s informants told him only that he would find Melungeons
"across the creek" or "in the next hollow" (Berry 1963: 17). Price learned how to
identify typical Melungeon surnames and physical traits from individuals who specifically disclaimed the identity. Beale noted that in the 1950 Tennessee census,
individuals locally known as Melungeon were most often marked by census workers as
white, less often as Negro, and occasionally as Indian. He emphasizes that the designation
of tri-racial comes from the outside investigator, not the groups themselves. In fact,

"the mixed-blood individual will usually insist——with vehemence, if
necessary——that there is no Negro ancestry in his family . . . but that he is partly

(Beale 1957: 188). Cavender (1981) found the same situation during fieldwork
in Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1979 and 1980. People identified by others
as Melungeon usually denied the very existence of the group. Most whites,
moreover, used the term simply as an epithet for anyone who was poor or had a
suspected black ancestor. People interviewed by the above researchers presumably did
not self-identify as Melungeon for several reasons: to escape the term’’s lower
class connotations (shiftless, backwards, thieving); to avoid the danger to one’’s
rights and status from acknowledging black ancestry (seeDeMarce 1992: 6––7); or
simply because the term no longer existed as a meaningful ethnic marker.

"Melungeon" during this period was an exonym, a term that outsiders used
to identify the group, but that no one used to label themselves (see Puckett,
2001). The word reinforced the class hierarchy and racial boundaries of southern

However, the meaning and uses of the term began to change in the 1960s. In
1966, two economists, professors from Jefferson City, Tennessee, conducted a
regional economic study of Hancock County, at that time among the ten poorest
counties in the nation. They recommended the development of tourism and, in
particular, suggested "a drama featuring the mystery of the Melungeon settlement in the
county . . . [t]he natural spin-off from the drama would be an outlet for handicraft
items" as well as food and lodging services for tourists (quoted in Ivey 1977:

102). The play Walk Towards the Sunset: The Melungeon Story——a sentimental
narrative about two centuries of anti-Melungeon prejudice——opened in 1969 in
the Hancock County town of Sneedville (Beale 1990).

The play produced a short-lived tourism boom, but it also inaugurated a
deeper change in the value and significance of Melungeon identity. In 1973,
Sneedville residents began for the first time to identify themselves as Melungeon or to 

acknowledge Melungeon ancestry (Ivey 1977). Only a few years later, a self-labeled
insider to the group complained to Cavender that some of the people "coming out
of the closet" as Melungeons were actually imposters (Cavender 1981: 32).
The next phase in this process of ethnic reinvention began two decades later
with the publication of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People (Kennedy

162 P. BRODWIN 1997, first edition published in 1994). In his book, N. Brent Kennedy, PhD, the vice-chancellor of development at Clinch Valley College, Virginia, describes
how his struggle with Sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory disease, led him to
reconstruct his family genealogy, embrace his Melungeon heritage, and explore the
origin and racial makeup of the group. Now in its second edition, the book serves
as the first contact for many people entering Melungeon circles. Kennedy
also enlisted academic support to find the Melungeon Research Committee (now the
Melungeon Heritage Association [MHA]), and he organized the growing interest
in Melungeon identity into a series of yearly meetings. The "First Union,"
held in 1997 at ClinchValley College with over 500 attendees, featured talks on
genealogy and grantsmanship, along with Appalachian music and storytelling.
7 Subsequent meetings have been held yearly in Kentucky and Tennessee. People who
consider themselves Melungeon regularly attend these meetings, and they also
participate in a vast web presence of family associations and competing home pages that
assert different origin theories or explore connections with African-American and
Native American groups.

In the 1990s, therefore, thousands of people began to claim Melungeon
identity or descent. The exonym became an autonym. Individuals who once shunned
the label (or did not even know it existed) now claim it publicly and use it
as an entr ´ee into new face-to-face as well as virtual communities. As with
many emerging identity movements, conflicts over authenticity and the prerogative
to define the group’’s essence and boundaries divide today’’s Melungeons.
8 First of all, people living in the Appalachians who have personally suffered from
the stigma of poverty and suspected black ancestry have different reasons to
proclaim themselves Melungeon than do those whose ancestors left the region three or
four generations ago and securely enjoy white status. Even locally, the
better-educated individuals who organize the yearly gatherings inadvertently separate
themselves from the poorer majority, who often cannot afford the registration fees and
the time off from work. In fact, the majority of people attending the Fourth
Union held in 2002 were retirees, often from out of state, with a sprinkling of
white-collar professionals. Finally, certain Melungeons privilege their Indian descent
and seek legal recognition as a tribe,
9 thereby alienating themselves from theMHA, which explicitly does not seek tribal status. The revitalization of Melungeon identity also participates in broader social
changes. According to Darlene Wilson, a historian and long-time MHA board
member, the Melungeon movement aims to reverse the economic and racial caste
system of the United States (Wilson 1998). She believes Melungeon ethnic activities hasten the long-term retreat of American racism, a viewpoint echoed on the MHAweb page:"

"We firmly believe in the dignity of all such mixed ancestry groups of southern Appalachia and commit to preserving their rich heritage of racial harmony and diversity."10 Kennedy’s book, a touchstone for many present-day

BIOETHICS IN ACTION 163 Melungeons, adopts the common formulae of late 20th century identity politics:

The restrictive choices of either quietly accepting our "stigma"[as
Melungeon] or sweeping it under the rug in the pitiful self-delusion of "being like everyone else"were unacceptable.

To me there seemed to be a third, admittedly blasphemous option: to embrace
our heritage——whatever it might be——and wear it like a banner . . . . My mother, at first uneasy over my decision to come out of theMelungeon closet, quickly came to understand. (Kennedy 1997:
7)Intentionally or not, Kennedy’’s self-description recalls the shame of trying to pass as white or to normalize a physical disability, as well as the ordeal of acknowledging one’’s homosexuality to family members. As the Melungeons’’most well-known spokesman, Kennedy demands recognition in terms similar to those employed by many other groups in the national political scene. His calls to overcome internalized stigma, to make authentic contact with oneself, and to honor group distinctiveness in the face of pressures to assimilate are all standard ingredients in contemporary politics of difference (Taylor 1992: 38 and passim).

For many Melungeons, the right to establish their own origin story is the
most public demand for recognition. Of all the speculations about origins that
circulated in popular accounts, the claim of Portuguese descent has the oldest
published history, dating to at least 1848.11 Academic and popular writers have
long reported that individuals classified as Melungeon (when that term was still
an exonym) would call themselves Portuguese, often pronounced

Kennedy (1997) supports the Portuguese theory and adds to it ancestry claims
about Turks and Moors who settled in the colonial southeastern United

His complicated account comes wrapped in a demand to respect his Melungeon
ancestors who, he says, were telling the truth when they described themselves as
Portuguese. The "tri-racial isolate" theory, he writes, traces white ancestry exclusively
to the British Isles. It is not only incorrect, it is also politically damaging, for it denies people "the God-given right to claim their national or specific ethnic heritages"

" (Kennedy 1997: 100). For Kennedy and his supporters,12 establishing an authoritative origin story is an a priori right of the Melungeon community. This collectivity, like all
others, deserves recognition in terms of its own choosing, even (or especially) in
the face of outsider experts. Many Melungeons fiercely support Kennedy’’s ideas about
Portuguese origins. They reject the standard scholarly opinion that the
group arose from an amalgam of northern Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans.

They claim that calling Melungeons a "tri-racial isolate" connotes
inbreeding, inferiority, and hence reproduces the elitist stereotype of Appalachian

Claims of Portuguese descent generate polemics for a second and even more
highly charged reason. Scholarly opinion holds that Melungeons (and other
mixed-race groups) historically called themselves Portuguese to deflect suspicion

164 P. BRODWIN of African ancestry. DeMarce (1993) and Henige (1998) both cite an 1872 Tennessee Supreme Court decision that classified a Melungeon woman as a descendant of ancient Carthagenians who long resided in Portugal, and hence not Negro.
The ruling legalized her marriage to a white man and enabled her child to
inherit the father’’s estate (DeMarce 1993: 33). In general, many people insecure about
their racial identity in the antebellum and Jim Crow South tried to pass as white
by claiming Portuguese or other southern European ancestry (Everett 1999: 370).

According to Henige (1984), the label Portuguese is a contrived defense
mechanism that reinforces one’’s endangered white status. Henige (1998: 280) applied
this perspective to Kennedy’’s book, which he faults for its studied ambivalence
about acknowledging black ancestry. Henige’’s critique as well as the long history
of claims about Portuguese descent made by groups in the South raises the
stakes considerably.
For Brent Kennedy, proving the Portuguese origin story would not only vindicate the right of Melungeons to author their own history. It would also exonerate him and the Melungeons from charges of crypto-racism and of disguising the truth about group origins: serious matters in the current climate of identity politics.


To convince others to accept his theory of Melungeon origins, Kennedy turned
to population genetics:The call for DNA really came from outside the community, not within.
It really came from scholars who took offense at our writings, who criticized these
outlandish claims that differed from the standard tri-racial accounts. They said that these
claims cannot be substantiated, given the historical records that we have here in Virginia,
where we think the core Melungeon population originated. They said that the only way you can prove these theories of Mediterranean, Turkish, Portuguese, or Jewish origin, or the possible source for the illnesses that people have, is through DNA (Brent Kennedy).13

In the early 1990s, Kennedy had consulted several academic geneticists who
told him that a proper population study——with DNA samples from both
Melungeons and comparison populations in Portugal and Turkey——would cost over a
million dollars. In the following years, however, advances in mapping the
human genome brought the price down considerably. Thanks to PCR technology and
new databases of regionally and ethnically labeled DNA, geneticists can now
take DNA samples locally and make probabilistic statements about population
history without collecting new samples from distant parts of the world (see Bradman
and Thomas 1998, and for a popular account, Sykes 2001).

In 1998, Kennedy presented his ideas for genetics research to Kevin Jones——a
British molecular biologist and newly arrived assistant professor at the University

BIOETHICS IN ACTION 165 of Virginia College at Wise (the re-named ClinchValley College).Although he had never heard of the Melungeons, Jones took on the project because he was intrigued by the patterns of unusual diseases (e.g., thalassemia and Familial Mediterranean Fever) typically associated with southern European ancestry that also occur among white, presumably Scotch––Irish, Appalachians. Brent Kennedy, however, wanted the genetics research to authenticate certain ancestry claims, not to
reconstruct disease patterns, and he essentially steered the research in his direction. Kennedy oversaw the collection of DNA samples from descendants of the historic core
Melungeon population, and Jones genotyped the population (by calculating the
frequency of particular makers on the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the
non recombineng portion of the Y chromosome), and compared Melungeon frequencies
to those recorded for various world populations. (Jones has not yet published the Melungeon data, but he says his approach parallels the work by Weale et al. 2002
and Wilson et al. 2001.)

The cultural politics of self-ascribed Melungeons interacted with the
technical demands of population genetics to produce the "rough edges" of Jones’’s
research: the zones of conflict between professional and lay expectations (see Bosk

To begin with, this sort of research requires a clearly identified core
population for sampling. However, the inclusion criteria for this group are essentially

People who now call themselves Melungeon live both in southern Appalachia
and across the United States show a range of complexions and physical types, and
bear a number of surnames. Conversely, many people with the same residence,
appearance, and surnames do not identify as Melungeons. By necessity, Jones
relied entirely on Brent Kennedy to delineate the core Melungeon group.

I decided whom to sample. I think I know who are the original Melungeons,
those who lived between 1725 and 1790. I asked myself, can we locate the descendants of  those people?

Hence, we chose seven or eight people on the Virginia side and ten on the
Vardy, Tennessee, side.We began with these people who everyone agrees are the original
Melungeons. It was very easy to find their descendants. We all know who was related to whom; we just had to  find the right cousin (Brent Kennedy).
14 At this stage, Kevin Jones’’s role was to ensure that enough samples were
collected, that they came from independent lineages and that the descent was
traced exclusively through the female or male line, a requirement for
research with mtDNA and Y chromosome markers.

In contrast to the HGDP, the process of collecting Melungeon DNA did not
raise any questions about group sovereignty or informed consent. Kennedy presented
his plan for sampling to the Vardy Historical Society, a local community board of self-identified Melungeons. They immediately endorsed it, as did the people
approached in Virginia. In fact, Melungeons began to request DNA testing in
numbers that far exceeded the needs of research and the technical capacity in

(To be continued)

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