DNA Study Seeks Origin of Appalachia’s Melungeons

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.



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  • Church_of_Jed

    “Remembering always, my son, that there is nothing in the oaths of Christ’s brotherhood that should make a Southern patriot agree to let his nation sink into mongrelization.”

    -Thomas Dixon, The Flaming Sword, 1939

    • Sheila Dinehart

      I am pretty sure he was referring to yankee carpetbaggers, yankee industrialist robber barons, mixing it up with the most hated of all…the southern scalawag…ha 

      • Church_of_Jed

        He was referring to making mud out of diamonds.

        • Sheila Dinehart

          isn’t that what i said

          • Whirlwinder

            Great sense of humor, Sheila

  • Detroit_WASP

    My family came through that area from Virginia.  They were literally the first white people to carve out an existence there.  Everyone there knew Melungeons were mixed with black folks.  This is not news to me.  My male DNA goes back to England so I know I am the real deal (WASP).  But who knows, a male ancestor may have taken a Melungeon bride.  I am dark for a “white man” after all.

    Having been through the DNA search myself I find it interesting that they determined the Y male chromosome was southern Africa.   Maybe these women that mated with the black males were some of Kim Kardashian ancestors?  More likely the white women were raped and rather than killing the child, they gave it to slaves to raise.  

    My last name matches my DNA, however a few men who took the same test as I were very close matches and did NOT have the same last name as I…. meaning they were not who the thought they were.  I was lucky, I am who I thought I was.  In any case, this subject is very interesting.

  • Sincerely Concerned

    My family is from western North Carolina and we always knew, like Detroit Wasp, the origins of those people, too.  I’ve not been tested but I am interested in doing so, since the ancestry dates back to the mid-1600s.  I’ll never forget seeing them myself in 1989 when I was visiting the old NC homestead for a funeral.  Another funeral was occurring before my great-grandmother’s and I was struck by the sight of dark-skinned, blue-eyed families pouring out of the door, who appeared to me as being of African descent.  I was right after all.

    • Sheila Dinehart

      now your entire life politics and philosphy will alter…mine might.

  • America First

    Sort of coincidental how the name is similar to “melanzane,” which is Italian for eggplant, a reference I heard to name blacks when I was younger.  (In Sicilian dialect, it would have been pronounced “moolenjon.”)

    • dukem1

      Eggplants….Dennis Hopper…”True Romance.”

    • The__Bobster

      NYC Italians just call them “Moolies”.

  • Modern America lacks effective slurs – like good old fashioned “melungeon”

    I gather, these mels qualify FOR FULL African-Action SCHOLARSHIPS to U-VA

  • Robert11110

    I grew up around that area and I’ve never heard of such people.  I am curious about something.  These people thought they were Portuguese, Roma or Turks.  None of these groups look like mulattos and every mixed race white/black person I’ve ever known or heard about was obviously black in appearance. 

    • When the black ancestry is under 1/8, most individuals will not display highly-pronounced African traits… though they generally will still look somewhat non-White. 

  • Spartan24708

    If you google the term “Melungeon” and filter for images you will people who look mixed black, white and native American- some with more or one race than the others. Even the Wikipedia article states that these people are a “triracial mixture of black white and native American”.

  •  The Melungeons are embarrassed to find out that they are descended from black man-White woman miscegenation? I don’t blame them.

    By the way, the writer failed to mention one of the groups that I believe belong in this group: The Jackson Whites of the Ramopo Mountains in New Jersey. I remember their being featured in one of the dog-centered novels of Albert Peyson Terhune that I read as a child.

    • The Ramapo  Mountain People, in most photos I have seen, of very obviously mulatto origin. I have yet to meet one (despite having lived around there most of my life) and think their numbers are either minute or that they simply identify as Black.

      • The__Bobster

        I used to work in Mahwah, N J. and the Jackson White legend was very popular there. I don’t know of anyone who actually met one.

    • blackreality

      They should be embarrassed for being broke and living in the redneck,crystal meth infested  Appalachian Mountains area

      • sbuffalonative

        And yet they stay.

        Why is it that black people love to live with redneck, crystal meth users instead of other blacks?

    • Spartan24708

      There was also another group in the part of louisiana bordering Texas where I grew up. They were called Redbones which was also considered an insult and were mixed black, white and Native American.

      • How are “Redbones” different from Creoles?

        The Louisiana Creoles I’ve met weren’t ashamed in the least to be creole. They seem much like the “Cape Coloreds” in that respect. So I’m interested to hear how and why “Redbones” are different.

  • All of us are NOT multi-racial. That’s another piece of liberal, “we’re all alike under the skin” nonsense.

    • blackreality

       Well whites are albinoid versions of blacks.So that does make us different

      • Fredrik_H

        No, albinism is a completely different matter. Negro albinos still look negroid.

        • blackreality

          Europe was first inhabited by black Africans called the Grimaldi . They got caught in the Wurm Iceage and some of the albinos mutated and adapted to the Ice in order to survive. The nose grew narrower to take in less cold air. Hair grew all over the body for warmth, the male genital got smaller and closer to the body for warmth and to prevent frostbite. And the pineal gland calcified stopping the production of melanin and limiting a sense of spirituality. So the albino mutation we know as the European did loose it’s africoid features

        • Carney3

          Right – as I think Jared Taylor has said, if Whoopi Goldberg were an albina and Gwyneth Paltrow used blackface neither would be taken for the other race.  Race is more than skin color, it is bone deep and beyond.

  • Take a look at the “Jackson Whites” of New Jersey, too. They are not only mongrels: they are tightly inbred mongrels that produce lots of albinos, piebalds and retards. Some of them look a lot like Al Sharpton.

    • cenzu

      This is like a red neck racist site or something. i’m a ramapo indian (jackson white is a racist epithet. And i would crush you in any category (except sports)

  •  “All of us are multiracial,”

    This liberal wienie can speak for himself. I can trace nearly my whole ancestry back to around the middle of the 1800s (and my grandmother has further research beyond that), and all of it to 1900 and all back to the countries of Northern Europe (there was a flaky Swedish woman in my mother’s line of which we know little besides her tattoos and cigar-chomping). By that point it is barely relevant, because few farmers in Ireland and Old Saxony would have ever even seen a non-European unless they spent time in an imperial military, with the possible exception of the Gypsies.

    • blackreality

       Thats not true.Ireland was inhabited by Black people at one point.

      • Detroit_WASP

        If you are talking about the “black Irish”….I thought they were Spanish sailors who were ship-wrecked in Ireland.   How would Africans get to Ireland?

        • blackreality

          there is a book written in the 1800’s by David McRichie (a white guy) called Ancient and Modern Britons that goes into detail about the Black people of Ireland and Scotland.

          • robinbishop34

            Did someone get an A in Boasian Anthropology…lol?

        • loyalwhitebriton

          Hi Detroit Wasp. I notice that “Black Reality” has removed his comment, which is a pity because I had just finished typing a strong refutation of the point he was making when his comment disappeared.
          Anyway, the main point of my reply to “black Reality” was to emphasise the fact that just about all historians consider MacRitchie to be an eccentric quack and fantasist.

        • The story told in Ireland is that when the Spanish Armada of 1588 was sunk by the British ships, a number of Spanish sailors managed to make it ashore in southern Ireland, and that they wound up marrying Irish women, resulting in a strain of Irish Celts who tend to have black hair and blue eyes.

  • Sorry_for_my_english

    It’s strange because in french we say ” mélangeons ” for ” we mix ” or ” let’s mix ” ( vb mélanger ) . It seems it was some french word with bad pronounciation .

    • Patrick_A_NonnyMouse

      Or, maybe the word is melange (“mixture”) with a diminutive suffix (like “chaton” is “little cat” ie kitten); so maybe melangeon indicates “little mixed one”.  Doesn’t necessarily mean small in physical stature, could be “less important” or “less worthy” due to being half-breed?

      • Let’s compare the French mélange explanation with the Sicilian eggplant explanation given above. True, there were Italians amongst the earliest fleets; but first these were northern Italians (from Genoa especially) and second it was the *French* who really went deep into the North American hinterland. So, mélange makes more sense. To me anyway.

        • Sorry_for_my_english

          I don’t want to play the ” Captain Vocabulary”  but , Patrick , yes , this could be an explanation , though it definitely seems more like some english dude  listened the  word and mispelled it or transformed it .

           It was old french , we don’t speak at all like that now . ( I don’t understand what cajuns and even some french canadians say for exemple ) .
          It was melangeon or melangun, or melangin and english people having issue with nasalizations : ” melUNgEON is defintely french word pronounced by english people .

  • This guy in the photo doesn’t look Black. He looks….old, very old.

    • IstvanIN

      That is what I thought, an old man, perhaps a farmer, who spent mots of his life out in the sun.

      These Melungeons could pass for white: http://melungeon.ning.com/photo

      • These people look white- at least to me. Btw- what are the numbers ? Also for these Jacksons in NJ ?

    • cenzu

      ramapo indians range from looking white blonde blue eyed, to black. many of the black ones have blue or green or just light eyes, are light skin, but with black features, and some look like puerto ricans, and some very indian looking. They are mixed with different groups. Mullatos that moved up from the hackensack valley into the ramapo mountains. there, already of mixed people of Indian, escaped slaves, british female, and German Male ancestry. During the Industrial revolution, they concentrated in three parts of the ramapo mountains, ringwood, mahwah, both in nj, and Hilburn, ny. The british females were female sex slaves kept at the river (where. holland tunnel is now) and were freed by hesstian soldiers that were tired of being frontline soldiers for the british. They left and took the girls with them. …. The tuscarora indians were coming from the south to join the fifth confederation of Iriquois nation. Fleeing the whites down south. They mainly went up through Pennsylvania, but some came through NJ and settled with the Hakensakee indians, of the Algonquin Nation in the Ramapo Mountains. Freed and escaped slaves also went to the ramapo mountains. due to the formation of the mountains, It was an easy place to escape to. they mixed with the Indians. Years Earlier in Manhattan, many descendents of Dutch soldiers and government men and black mistresses were born. These Mullatos were treated better than blacks, were not as priveledged as whites. Many of these mullato families bought land in a combined deal from the state of nj, but there children weren’t allowed to buy more land, so the farms were broken up among children. In just a few generations, they started moving up from the hackensack valley up into ramapo mountains, where there was already now forming a mixed people, and they mixed in with them.

  • Spartan24708

    I have read other articles about Melungeons that found that many had traits associated with Native Americans such as shovel incisors and a couple more that I don’t remember.

  • ageofknowledge

    They seem like a pretty good lot of people from what I’ve read. They work, are socialized, patriotic, family-oriented, etc…  It seems to me that those of you who are racists would have bigger fish to fry elsewhere. 

  • Sheila Dinehart

    Cool…informative…why does old Abe Lincoln come into my mind about now…what irony, so that is why he said blacks and whites could never live together as a nation as equals, that the white was superior and yet…when he was assinated (a yankee conspiracy at root) all the True Southerners lamented…*Lincoln is dead! What will happen to South now!* 

  •  As I recall, President Warren Harding liked to hint that he was part black as well. I don’t know if he was telling the truth, or if he was just using that line to impress the ladies.

    • I have heard the opposite, that it was a rumor spread by opponents. 

  •  I don’t think they knew about melanin in the 1700s. They knew Greek melas (black) but even there, I don’t see how it becomes “melungeon”.

  • Sheila Dinehart

    noooo black nationalists/radicals/supremacists do not see the white and black as brothers on any level…they decided that was foolish a long long time ago…*why seek a burning house for shelter* the white race is a burning house to them…near smoldering embers by now…and yet, what if the house only appears to be burning down…surprise! 

  • ageofknowledge
  • baseball players who appeared similar to the subjects of this article were routinely nicknamed “nig” … until the real thing came along in 1946.  For the most extreme example see these pictures of Don Gutteridge (especially the 1963 Chicago White Sox coaches card):


    Don Gutteridge was born in Kansas.  Go figure!

  • the Spanish Armada thing is a myth.  As far as I can tell.  But also I would be highly doubtful if any theory involving the Basque region, because you do not get a more mysterious people than the Basque.  Very little is certain about them.

    The remains of Lindow Man were examined in the last half-century and showed a dark haired, dark eyed white man.  these are the Celts, pure and simple.  The blonde-haired or redhaired Irish must come from intermarriage with the Danes and other Scandinavians ( Vikings).

  • mikes2653

    Re: “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 famiies of being mixed race.”

    The word is pretty obviously derived from the French “mélange,” i.e., mixture.

  • Carney3

    The one drop rule is fine and all, helping discourage miscegenation and preventing Brazilization, but if you look white enough to pass (with perhaps some suspicion of Mediterranean origin or the like), you’re white enough for me.