A Scientific Researcher's View
By James S. Elder
Recently we have seen an over-abundance of newspaper and magazine articles suggesting that Melungeons may have Turkish roots. Such articles are inevitably of the interview type in which the reporter doesn't actually do any research himself but instead lets subjects ramble on about their latest supposed discovery.
Journalists, with white space to fill, love every new conjecture. They neither know of the accuracy of these discoveries nor care if they are accurate. The comedian Carrot Top talking about physics would be as good as Einstein talking about physics for such "reporters". They are, after all, just reporting; and mindless babbling fills column space just as well as real research.
As far as I can determine, the Turkish Melungeon speculation seems to have started with Brent Kennedy and some apparently incorrect information. Kennedy is an entertaining man. I first heard him speak in Gate City, Virginia in October of 1995. According to his introduction at the talk, he holds a Ph. D. in Mass Communications from The University of Tennessee. He is certainly a good communicator. I still have an audiotape of that speech. He told the enthralled crowd about his brush with death from his Melungeon disease, let everyone hear the sound his Mediterranean teeth make when you pluck them with a fingernail, rubbed the bump on the back of his head, and spun a web of Turks stranded in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake at Roanoke Island who migrated to Hancock County and started the Melungeon race. It was an interesting, if not accurate, talk.
He says in the preface to his book that he is neither an historian nor an anthropologist. Nevertheless, he has managed to become a much-publicized name in Melungeon "research" over the past several years.. He certainly has charisma. Unfortunately, for his mass of partisans, his ideas don't appear to stand up to close, or even cursory, scientific examination.
Here's his basic story. According to his book, Kennedy became ill in 1988 with what eventually was diagnosed as erythema nodosum sarcoidosis. Kennedy and his wife went to the library and discovered sarcoidosis is "primarily of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean disease [sic], although it's not unknown among Irish and some Scandinavians as well…". Kennedy gets better, returns to his hometown in Virginia, talks to his family, and finds out his people were oppressed. He gets a research grant in 1995 from the Turkish government and goes to that country for a visit. He thinks that Turks and Melungeons look alike, eat alike, dance alike, dress alike, and have some similar sounding words. From all of this, he deduces that Melungeons are a mish-mash of people including Portuguese from Santa Elena, Dominicans, Jesuits, French Huguenots, Acadians, Drake's Turks and others who mysteriously decided to leave the Atlantic coast and go to the boonies, intermarry with Native Americans and become the Melungeons. He somehow divines "that the Turkish/Moorish element was at least in the beginning the predominant one…".
First of all, sarcoidosis is not predominantly a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean disease. Far from being "not unknown" among the Irish and Scandinavians, those populations, along with Germans and Puerto Ricans, have the highest incidence of the disease.
I examined information from a number of physicians who specialize in treating sarcoidosis as well as information found in standard medical literature. The literature and MDs' definitions and etiologies of sarcoidosis invariably followed that of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH says," Sarcoidosis was once considered a rare disease. We now know that it is a common chronic illness that appears all over the world… It occurs in all races and in both sexes. Nevertheless, the risk is greater if you are a young black adult, especially a black woman, or of Scandinavian, German, Irish, or Puerto Rican origin. No one knows why…No one knows what causes sarcoidosis… Sarcoidosis is currently thought to be associated with a abnormal immune response. Whether a foreign substance is the trigger is [sic] a chemical, drug, virus, or some other substance; how exactly the immune disturbance is caused are [sic] not known". The article these comments are taken from can be found at
Simply put, no one knows what causes sarcoidosis. Suggestions have included a virus, a fungus, a bacillus, and even pine pollen. A genetic connection has been suggested but has not been proven by scientific study. It is much more prevalent among the Irish than the peoples of the Middle East. In my view, if sarcoidosis has a genetic link, it certainly seems that someone named Kennedy would be more likely to trace the disease to the Irish than to the Turks.
Kennedy suggests that the similar sound of some Middle Eastern words compared to American words support his conjecture that Melungeons have a Turkish connection. Alabama for instance, according to Kennedy, sounds like "Allah Bamya" meaning God's graveyard in Turkish. The fact is, we don't know exactly where the word Alabama came from. It was the name of a southern Indian tribe who lived in what is now central Alabama. The term first appears in the accounts of the Hernando de Soto expedition of 1540. It was written Alibamo by Garcillasso de la Vega, Alibamu by the Knight of Elvas, and Limamu by Rodrigo Ranjel.
How this term could somehow come from the Turks is "jest-a-bit" fuzzy in my old brain. One writer (not Kennedy) suggested that Turks are somehow cousins of Native Americans through some mysterious Asian connection. I can only surmise that, according to this reasoning, the early Neo-Indians must have brought a bunch of meaningless (to them) Turkish terms with them when crossing the Bering Strait land bridge during the Ice Age and mysteriously applied the terms centuries later to themselves. Or maybe Turks somehow came to the Americas before 1540, headed for the backwoods, met a tribe of Indians and mentioned their term meaning "God's graveyard". The Indians didn't speak Turkish but must have thought Allah Bamya sounded neat and immediately changed the name of the tribe from whatever they had been calling themselves to "Alabama". Maybe not….