Virginia Easley DeMarce
Branch of Acknowledgment and Research
Bureau of Indian Affairs
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
What is a social isolate?
The great majority of individuals in the United States who carry a mixed European, African, and Native American genealogical heritage are not members of social isolate groups. The majority of them identify with some other component of the wider society--most commonly white, sometimes Black, and sometimes Native American. As such persons trace their family history, they may find that some, though probably not all, of their ancestors were at some time part of a tri-racial isolate settlement. Therefore, the genealogical study of such groups is of interest to a wide segment of the modern American population.
The most basic and useful definition of mixed-race social isolates for the purposes of academic study was compiled in 1950 by a professional geographer. Edward T. Price wrote:
(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 that accorded whites, Indians, or negroes in the area in such away 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 1950, 5).
Price's emphasis on the existence of a group is fundamental to studying the genealogy of social isolate groups as groups. In spite of the ongoing myth that one drop of African ancestry classified an individual or family as Black, the historical fact is that this principal 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. While the prevalence of legal and social discrimination should not be underestimated, neither should it be overestimated. In many communities, whites were reluctant to apply law codes which had been passed to control slaves and emancipated slaves to those mixed-race families that had been free since early colonial times. Often, if one mixed-race family moved into a county or comparable jurisdiction, it was simply assimilated by the local majority population, leaving scarcely a ripple in the historical record. In order for a social isolate to develop, there had to be a large enough group to permit enough endogamous marriages to sustain a distinct population. For a general discussion of the complexities, see the well-known article by Gary B. Mills and the recent more general survey by Gary B. Nash.
What are the basic sources of information on social isolates?
Writing about social isolates has falls primarily into the categories of fact, folklore, fantasy, and even modern fiction. It is not always easy to distinguish these categories of writing. Spurred on by the wishful thinking of authors, fiction, fantasy, and folklore have masqueraded as fact with some frequency. Outright fiction is probably the least common: it can be very interesting in its own right. However, at least in the case of Appalachian writer Sharyn McCrumb's Elizabeth MacPherson mystery novel, the "common sense" historical explanation which the author adopted has no discernable basis in the genealogical documentation of the families who are known to have lived in social isolate settlements in the tri-state region of southwestern Virginia, northwestern North Carolina, and northeastern Tennessee.
Fantasy. John Sevier's letter mentioning a tribe of "white Indians" which supposedly lived in eastern Tennessee in the late 18th century has provided the root of many of the more improbable speculations on the origins of the isolate settlements. One of the most widespread resulting fantasies has been the attempt to link these settlements with early Portuguese explorations of the North American continent. The improbability of such connections is made clear by Charles M. Hudson's recent impartial survey of these explorations. Turkish origins are equally improbable.
Fact. The actual, factual, history of social isolate settlements is going to be written by genealogists and family historians: document by individual document, fact by painstaking fact. The function and duty of the historian and the genealogist is to demystify and to demythologize.
I want to particularly cite one family genealogist who, by painstaking local research, has traced the written usage of the word "Melungeon" at a date much earlier than it had been located by professional historians and anthropologists, who had made do with a recollection, written in the 1880's, that the word had been used in the late 1840's: Jack Harold Goins of Rogersville, Tennessee, located a written use of the word on September 26, 1813. Jack descends from Zephaniah Goins. Knowing that his ancestors were Primitive Baptists, Jack Goins searched first the minutes of the Blackwater Primitive Baptist Church, where Zephaniah and Elizabeth (Thompson) Goins were members. These led him to the minutes of the Stoney Creek Primitive Baptist Church at Ft. Blackmore, Washington County, Virginia (about eight miles southwest of present-day Dungannon, Virginia, in Scott County), just across the state line from Tennessee.
By carefully tracing a specific family along a specific migration route, this author has made a major contribution not only to family genealogy, but to historical and anthropological research. More research of equally high quality needs to be undertaken. When we know the origins of each individual Melungeon family, we will know the origins of the Melungeons. When we know the origins of each family in other social isolates, we will begin to understand their genesis and development.
Please do not request any further research from the author. Dr. DeMarce does NOT undertake research commissions.
Dr. DeMarce is now engaged in writing popular fiction books.