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You might not know the history of the Melungeons, but their strange, fascinating tale is well worth learning. Who were the Melungeons? These both dark and light-skinned people live throughout Appalachia, and in the past, their very presence confounded their narrow-minded white neighbors. In fact, the term “Melungeon” probably derives from “melange,” a bygone slur for multiracial people. Were they the descendants of sailors? Or were they perhaps Roma?
The truth was less romantic than those invented narratives: Melungeons were originally the descendants of early European and African settlers, likely with some Native American ties as well. But those Melungeon facts took decades to sort out, due in part to the isolation of the group. Like the Blue Fugates, they were shunned by the rest of society – though their separation was brought about by racism. For years, they lived in fear of harassment and even enslavement due to their mixed race heritage. The Melungeons often assimilated into whatever aspect of their heritage they most identified with.
Melungeon families still exist today, though they’re no longer considered outcasts. More and more, Melungeon people are connecting to their unique origins. Theirs is a story of individuals who survived, despite the fact that social, cultural, and legal cards were stacked against them.
They’re Found All Over The Mid-Atlantic.
The term “Melungeon” first appeared in print during the 19th century, and referred to a tri-racial group of people living in Appalachia. The word likely comes from the French “melange,” meaning mixed, a phrase often used as a racial slur. “Melungeon” was also sometimes used to refer to boogeymen; people recall being told, “Don’t go out in the woods at night, the Melungeons will get you,” as children.
Besides Appalachia, Melungeons are also found in pockets all over the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, as well as points in the Western United States. They represent a mix of European, African, and American Indian heritages, and resemble people of any number of races.
They Often Claimed Portuguese Ancestry To Remain Free.
For years, Melungeons were thought to be Portuguese – and that story was likely spread by many Melungeons themselves. If their heritage was questioned, the claim of Portuguese ancestry helped explain their ethnic looks, while at the same time establishing them as Europeans.
However, stories like these were also life-saving, particularly before the abolishment of slavery in the United States. By claiming European heritage, Melungeons could remain free and avoid the social and legal troubles associated with being non-white.
They Came About In Part Due To Indentured Servitude.
How did all these multiracial people spring up in the early United States, a country marked by racism and prejudice? The causes lie in indentured servitude. True, many multiracial people can trace their heritage back to the raping of black slaves by white masters. But historians theorize that most Melungeons are descended from free people of color. DNA has proven it.
American slavery did not truly develop in the American Chesapeake region until the late 17th century. Prior to that, almost every person who came to the area from other parts of the world arrived as indentured servants, who agreed to work for a specific amount of time before (hopefully) living out their lives in freedom.
These servants were housed together, worked side by side, and socialized together, regardless of race. Indentured servants were not permitted to marry; however, that did not stop romances between servants, or the birth of mixed race children resulting from these romances – though the women were often punished.
The Slave Codes Drove Them Into Isolation.
Scholars continue to debate when, how, and why the social construct of race took hold in the colonial Chesapeake. To understand the state of flux occurring socially and legally at that time, consider the story of the very first official slave in the region: an indentured servant from Africa whose master was his fellow countryman back in Angola. The indentured servant, John Casor, followed the custom when his indenture was done in 1655 and went to court to demand his freedom. His master, a wealthy free man of color named Antonio Johnson, insisted to the judge that Casor agreed to serve him for the rest of his life. The judge ruled in favor of the wealthier man.
Once a few early cases of indentured-turned-slaves were on the legal books, planters and farmers all over the colonies began to see an opportunity to further enrich their coffers at the expense of black and mixed race servants, as well as free people of color. And then, in 1705, the Virginia General Assembly enacted the Slave Codes, which stated:
“All servants imported and brought into the Country… who were not Christians in their native Country… shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion… shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master… correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction… the master shall be free of all punishment… as if such accident never happened.”
Mixed race people saw their property seized and began to receive threats. Seeing the writing on the wall, many of them fled, and the isolation began.
As the threat of enslavement loomed, multiracial people began heading west into the Blue Ridge Mountains. They settled in modern-day Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina, areas that were then largely wilderness.
The threat to their freedom eased somewhat, but the future Melungeons continued to isolate themselves from other communities. Some married into Native American families, and soon the Melungeons weren’t identifiable as one particular ethnicity. Their skin could range from dark brown to very fair, their eyes might be blue or brown, and their hair could be straight or curly. But still, they were always identified as “other.”
They Suffered Under Jim Crow
Many people have heard of the so-called “one-drop rule,” the notion that anyone with a trace of African blood must be considered black. The term came into use in the 19th century, and it heralded a new era of racist laws in the United States. Later, the Jim Crow Laws reinforced pervasive discrimination.
The national climate was not friendly towards multiracial people, and the Melungeons continued to isolate themselves. As soon as anyone discovered their heritage, the knowledge was revealed to the entire community, leaving Melungeon families vulnerable to abuse.
Their Heritage Was Often Lost.
During the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Melungeons typically merged with whatever major ethnic group they most identified with. In many cases, that meant identifying as white to avoid racial discrimination. As a result, many Melungeon people lost touch with their heritage; today, many individuals descended from Melungeons are likely unaware of that fact.
DNA Testing Continues To Reveal Melungeon Ties.
By the turn of the 21st century, some people with Melungeon ancestry decided to try using DNA to determine their true origins. The Core Melungeon DNA Project was created in 2005 as a collaboration with Family Tree DNA, and the results were revealed in 2012.
The long-standing stories about Portuguese or Roma descent were proven wrong. The DNA indicated that the first generations of Melungeons were the offspring of Sub-Saharan African men and Northern and Central European women. But there’s no one “Melungeon gene“; today, the term refers to people of many different backgrounds.