I remember the first time I heard the word, Melungeon. I was visiting my great-grandmother, along with my mother and grandmother. We were all sitting on the front porch and one of my mother’s cousins asked us if we had heard of Melungeons. I said, “Melungeons? What and who are Melungeons?” And my mother’s cousin replied back, “I think we are Melungeons.” Thus began my research and interest into the Melungeon people.
Fast forward a few years, and I, along with several family members, began taking DNA tests. As expected, besides the obvious European ancestry, we also had African, Native American, Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Southeast Asian. We always knew there was more to our ancestry, but it had been kept a secret. The only thing we were ever told was that we had Cherokee ancestry. I remember sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table and her telling me that she was told we had Cherokee ancestry and that’s why she had light brown skin. Well, with the DNA discovery, we realized there was so much more to our ancestral story, so I began my research into the Melungeon people, the same way most people do, by unearthing mixed ancestry within my family’s genealogy. I wanted to know more about who the Melungeon people were, and how was my family connected to the them?
Let’s start off with a very brief history about the Melungeon people. The Melungeon people were described by scholars as being tri-racial isolates. They were of European, African, and Indigenous ancestry who settled in isolated places such as the Appalachian Mountains. Their beginnings have many different theories. To name a few they are associated with: the Lost Colony of Roanoke, early Spanish expeditions of the 1500s, shipwrecked Portuguese/Middle Eastern sailors, enslaved Africans brought into Jamestown beginning in 1619, and a Lost Tribe of Israel. The truth of their beginnings is probably a little bit of all of these theories. It’s quite clear the Melungeon story begins with the intersections between Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous people in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s, but we have as yet to pinpoint a definitive beginning.
Here, and top, are historical photos of Melungeons.
The term Melungeon, has its roots in the French term, “mélange,” which simply means mixed. There are also several different possible roots for the term Melungeon, but the French term, “mélange” is the most likely root of the word. Although the term began as an obvious observation of describing a people who were of mixed ancestry, it eventually became a term that was used as a derogatory term and racial slur used against people of mixed ancestry. The first time the term Melungeon appeared in print was in the meeting minutes of the Stony Creek Baptist church in 1813. The Stony Creek Baptist church was located in what is now Scott County, Virginia, and was a well-known location that had a Melungeon settlement. A congressional member of the church had remarked about another member housing a “Melungin.”
Even though this is the first instance of the term being written down, it’s quite clear that the term had been used verbally for some time.
In the 1990s a book by Brent Kennedy, “The Melungeons: A Resurrection of a Proud People” was published. It shined a light on the Melungeon people, a people of mixed ancestry, that had all but been hidden from not only American history, but the very people with this ancestry. Brent Kennedy along with several others in 1997 got together and had the first Melungeon Union, and in 1998, the Melungeon Heritage Association was formed.
The Melungeon Heritage Association is a non-profit organization documenting and preserving the history of mixed ancestry peoples in the southern and eastern United States. Although our main focus is on the Melungeon people of Appalachia, we firmly believe in the dignity of all mixed ancestry groups, and commit to preserving this heritage of ethnic harmony, inclusivity, and diversity.
Since 1997, the Melungeon Heritage Association has had a yearly Union or conference to bring together people who have Melungeon ancestry, mixed ancestry, or just want to learn more about our organization. This 2023 conference will be in Berea, Kentucky on June 23 and 24 . Our conferences shine a light on Melungeon heritage and mixed heritage that created this country. We have always been a multicultural and multiethnic nation, and we just want to get the truth out there.
Who knows, you might be a Melungeon descendant too.
Heather Andolina is President of the Melungeon Heritage Association
Photos from last year’s MHA Union/conference in Martinsville, Va.: