by Jack Goins
The purpose of this article is to reveal the factual history of the Melungeons using the same records early historians used to locate and Identify the Melungeons. These records establish the beginning of the only settlement of people who were known and called Melungeons 1800-1900. They were identified in court, newspapers and census records as free persons of color and it was common knowledge who some of them were and where they lived. The records included in this article are the only reason we are discussing Melungeons today, because if not for these records in Tennessee no one would have known the Melungeons ever existed. Military, land, tax and court records established the fact that the Melungeons came with and were part of the original pioneer settlers as they moved west. No records have been found calling them Melungeons in all the other places they lived prior to settling on Newman Ridge and Blackwater areas of East Tennessee and adjoining Lee County, Virginia. This gives credence to the old witnesses who said they were given this name by their white neighbors who lived here among them.
Hopefully all who are interested in the Melungeons will read this and begin their own research. Researching Melungeons from a historical and genealogical standpoint is identical to researching any other family. If you have a Melungeon ancestor, he or she will eventually show up. Also, you do not need to be a Melungeon descendant to research Melungeons. Some of the early authors of Melungeon books and magazines were non Melungeon descendants, such as William Warden, Henry Price, Bonnie Ball, and Jean Patterson Bible, just to name a few. Other researchers who are not Melungeon descendants believe they share Melungeon ethnicity and culture.
The Gowen Research Foundation formed the first organized Melungeon Research team in 1990, headed by Evelyn McKinley Orr. As a member of this team we examined old and new theories on the Melungeons. Ruth Johnson’s article in Vol 2, 1990 Gowen Newsletter “Proud to be a Melungeon” detailed where the historical Melungeons were located. Evelyn Orr’s Article July 1994 on her distant grandfather seemed to be the spark that ignited the Turkey theory “Was David Goings A Turkish Melungeon?” “Research Find Offers Portuguese Angolans as Melungeon link” was written by the editor Arlee Gowen in the Jan 1999. Almost all the old theories were examined and discussed by this research team. A valuable collection of family history and genealogy was gathered during this time, but no mystery concerning the Melungeons was solved. This little bit of history is to show the part this organization played in Melungeon research and reunions held by the Gowen foundation.
The Gowen Research Foundation Newsletter May 1997 in an article written by Dr. Charles K. Stallard, announced that Melungeon researchers convened to form the first family meeting, “but referred to as First Union. “ The event will be held in the heart of Melungeon country in the town of Wise, Virginia on July 25, 26 and 27” This was the beginning of the Melungeon Heritage Association at Wise.
Surfing the Internet for the last few months and visiting Melungeon web sites, Rootsweb message boards etc., and reading the various definitions on the Melungeons, I am convinced that the Melungeons historical identity has been distorted. Researchers who insist upon historical documentation to identify the Melungeons are accused of using propaganda to promote their definition of who the Melungeons were. I'm sure you have seen the following quote on various websites."
“One can always define the word Melungeon to mean only the residents of one particular ridge -- this is common propaganda technique known as "victory by definition"
Notice that the person and or persons who make these statements always use the word Melungeon. Where did they get this word? Was it not the same word originally given to those residents of that one particular ridge mentioned? This statement is pure propaganda used to support their version of who the Melungeons were. My challenge to such statements is to ask the proponents of this new Melungeon definition to present a written document that predates the old ones named in this study. Which begs this question, who was the old historians and authors who visited and wrote about these recently created “Melungeons”? Comparable documents to the ones I will use in this study should be presented, if they exist.