Travis Loller, Yahoo! News, May 24, 2012
For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.
Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.
And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.
“There were a whole lot of people upset by this study,” lead researcher Roberta Estes said. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”
Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon (meh-LUN’-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.
G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who’s spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn’t part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn’t a new phenomenon.
“All of us are multiracial,” he said. “It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history.”
Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery.
They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee.
Claims of Portuguese ancestry likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study’s authors.
The study does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage, but none were detected among the 69 male lines and 8 female lines that were tested. Also, the study did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred, for instance with Native Americans.
Goins estimates there must be several thousand descendants of the historical Melungeons alive today, but the study only examined unbroken male and female lines.
The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown, but there is no doubt it was considered a slur by white residents in Appalachia who suspected the families of being mixed race.