Much of my interest in the hidden multi-ethnic past of America stems from a strange discovery made many years ago.
While doing research on my first “official” genealogy, I began to notice an unfamiliar word being applied to ancestors on both sides of my family tree.
This came as a major surprise. While I was certain that our family was not wholly European – based mainly upon the very dark complexion of my maternal grandfather – we had always been told that his appearance was due to his Cherokee ancestry.
A great deal of my earliest genealogical investigations were centered on a fruitless search for these Cherokee ancestors.
So when numerous online sources used the word “Melungeon” to describe some of my dark-hued family, I was all ears.
By the early to mid 1800s, the word Melungeon was already being used in parts of southern Appalachia as a socio-racial slur aimed at non-enslaved mountain people who were “not quite white”, “not quite black”, and lived somewhat on the periphery of “respectable society”.
These people called Melungeons tended to be found in the more remote “hills and hollers” of Virginia, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and East Tennessee.
By the late 1800s, these people were considered enough of an ethnic curiosity that outsiders began to speculate on their origins, even conducting informal field visits and penning pseudo-anthropological articles purporting to explain Melungeon history.
There is always a dollar to be had where there is a “mystery”, and a veritable industry grew from people’s efforts to supply the final word on the question “who are the Melungeons?”.
For the past 150 years, these mountain people have been variously described as Portuguese, Black Dutch, Blackfeet Indians, Gypsies, Turks, free African-Americans, and even Phoenicians.
During the latter half of the 20th century, anthropologists tended to congregate around the view that Melungeons must be “tri-racial isolates”, meaning that they are supposed to be the descendants of an early intermingling of African-Americans, indigenous Americans, and “white” Europeans.
Highly-selective DNA projects were commissioned (by genetic genealogists, NOT scientists or trained historians), and these “studies” received national and international attention as they announced their claimed “proof” of Melungeon origins.
But the anthropologists and genetic genealogists alike have been hobbled by what I call “The American Problem”. That problem is a fundamental belief in “race”.
Trying to solve the “mystery of the Melungeons” in terms of America’s mostly binary race system is like describing Tex-Mex cuisine or country-western music as “bi-racial” or “tri-racial”.
Is “Mexican rice” a combination of only Spanish European, indigenous Mexican, and African cooking traditions? The answer is “sort of”, but only if we ignore that the Spanish borrowed many of their cooking traditions from Moorish Spain, and the Moors themselves had learned rice cultivation and cookery from other Africans – and from the Arabs who had brought it from Persia to North Africa. Oh. And let’s not forget the even earlier introduction of rice to America by the Portuguese, who had learned how to cultivate and cook it from both Africans and people from their trading colonies on the Bay of Bengal (modern Bangladesh).
Country-western music is commonly seen as an African and European musical intermingling. And once more, this is only partly true. Country-western music would seem unthinkable today without the sound of steel and western guitar. Yet steel guitar is a recent import from the Hawaiian Islands. Western guitar borrows heavily from Spanish guitar, which in turn finds its traditions in the Gypsy, Jewish, and Moorish communities of Spain.
These analogies are imperfect, but they serve to illustrate that matters of ethnicity are fluid and complex. Just as food and music are never just “black” or “white” traditions, people themselves are never just “black” or “white”, and complex ethnic communities are never simply “bi-racial” or “tri-racial isolates”.
It is said that the first known use of the term “Melungeon” was in 1813. The word “Melungins” is claimed to have appeared in the minutes of a Primitive Baptist church then located in Scott County, Virginia. Two female church members were in apparent dispute, with one accusing the other of “harboring them Melungins“.
Because the original pages of these church minutes are missing, and we are forced to rely on a series of transcriptions, this earliest “record” is contested by some.
What is beyond dispute is that the term Melungeon began to be used openly in print between the 1840s and 1880s – almost always to disparagingly refer to mostly impoverished rural dwellers of mixed ethnicity from Virginia and Tennessee who had had the audacity to become involved in local and state politics. This period also coincided with new voter suppression legislation being directed at poor “whites” and free people of color.
For reasons too numerous to outline here, this writer is inclined to accept the record transcribed from the Stoney Creek Baptist Church minutes.
1813 is “modern” in terms of English. “Harboring” meant pretty much exactly what it means today – to offer a place of protection or shelter. There are other meanings, but the context of “harboring Melungeons” is pretty self-evident.
A woman is accused of giving shelter/protection to a group of people presumably considered persona non grata among a church congregation and community.
Who needs harboring, normally? Runaway slaves and indentured servants, criminals, or deserters from war.
We can probably eliminate the first category (runaway slaves), because we know what people called runaway slaves.
We can also discount the second possibility, because there is no reason to call thieves, rustlers, or murderers “Melungeons”, unless of course they were a very specific kind of thief, rustler, or murderer. There is in fact a Romani word for wine-seller which sounds similar to “Melungeon”, but this seems a stretch to this writer.
Which brings us to number three – deserters from war. In 1813, the young USA was once more embroiled in war with the UK, only 30 years after the end of the American Revolution.
Every war in history had its share of deserters, and with wars in colonial America being waged on the edge of a mountainous wilderness, desertion was especially common.
As regards the American Revolution in particular, most American schoolchildren are encouraged to imagine their “patriot” ancestors as militias comprised of “white” yeoman farmers. The truth, as always, is much more complicated.
Yeoman farmers were among the soldiers least likely to “stay the distance” over an eight year conflict – they had a lot to lose in leaving their farms and families unprotected and unprovided-for. So the Continental Army’s enlisted ranks were filled with immigrants “straight off the boat”, and with men and boys from the poor backcountry underclasses hoping for cash or land bounty rewards in exchange for their service. Many will be surprised to learn that these backcountry militias were often augmented by mercenaries and soldiers from other countries – especially France, without whom the Americans would have almost certainly lost their Revolutionary War.
So when we think about deserters from this particular conflict, we should bear all of the forgoing in mind…
Which brings us neatly to the hundreds of free Creole Haitians and others from Martinique and Guadaloupe who served at the Siege of Savannah – aka the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue.
After the Siege of Savannah, many of these Haitian free persons of color were brought north for the Siege of Charleston, where they fought in a brigade alongside militias raised from rural Virginia, and alongside Spanish soldiers.
The Americans of course lost the Siege of Charleston. Presumably the surviving Virginians who were not captured made their way home. History is almost silent on the fate of many of these Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, but we do know that the French elites pretty much reneged on the promises made to these men, with at least some shipped to Grenada after the fall of Charleston.
History is also largely silent on the fate of many “Black Loyalists”- escaped slaves who had gone over to the British side to fight, in hopes of gaining their freedom.
It is almost impossible to believe that, faced with military defeat and broken promises, that at least a good few of these men (most likely carrying arms) did not desert. It would have made sense for them to join, or at least follow, their fellow brigade members north to Virginia.
This is where it gets tricky. As the war began to swing in favor of the Americans, one cannot imagine a more difficult situation for all free people of color.
It seems doubtful that many “white” Americans would have been able or willing to discriminate between actual free African Americans, “Black Loyalists” on the run, and erstwhile Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue.
And even if the Chasseurs could have made clear that they had fought FOR the Americans, they would have still been seen – at least by some – as deserters.
In an odd twist to the plot, less than 10 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, a wealthy French mining magnate named Tubeuf arrived in the region around Scott County, Virginia, hoping to lay claim to thousands of acres of wilderness land already inhabited by multi-ethnic mountain people, a place where people were already handling snakes in their churches over 200 years ago.
If any Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue or their children were living along the Clinch River, we can imagine what they whispered to their neighbors regarding French elites.
While it is entirely plausible that Tubeuf himself coined the term “Melange” in reference to the “mixed” people inhabiting the mountains he was hoping to mine/exploit, it seems unlikely that local people who were at best suspicious, and probably outright hostile to his grand designs, would embrace his French language in the space of only a year or two.
Tubeuf would in fact be found murdered soon after…
So. We have a number of free people of color lying-low in the remote mountain regions of Virginia shortly after the American Revolution, and with the outbreak of the War of 1812, they are certainly a group of men likely in need of “harboring”.
It is clear that this argument relies on much speculation, even if the dates, locations, and events align perfectly.
But still. If the word “Melungeon” truly came into first use between say, 1780 and 1810, then it seems at least interesting that the Haitian Creole word for “mixed” is “Melanje”.
Of course, French proper also has the word “melange”, but the word for “mixed” when referring to people of mixed ethnicity is more usually “mixte” or “métis”.
None of the forgoing is intended to suggest that Melungeons are all descended from Haitian Revolutionary War soldiers. This is simply one origin theory for a term which over time came to be applied to “non-white-looking” mountain folks in general, just like the words “cracker” and “redneck” once referred to specific groups of people, before becoming more generalised terms.
Years of research following my first encounter with the word “Melungeon” has revealed an unimaginably rich ethnic tapestry in early American history, and many of the families once called “Melungeon” as a slur are far more than “tri-racial isolates”, and they are most certainly not a mysterious “lost tribe”. There is no “Melungeon Gene”, whatever the online snake oil DNA test salespeople might try to claim.
These southern Appalachians carry heritage from five continents, with ancestors from Minorca, India, Wales, Sephardic Jews, Finland, West Africa, England, the Azores, France, Madagascar, Romani Gypsies, Poland, Armenia, Ireland, Portugal, Indonesia, Germany, the Caribbean, Scotland, Brazil, and of course from many indigenous tribes such as the Shawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Nansemond, Lenape, Catawba, Tuscarora, Mi’kmaq, and others.
In other words, southern Appalachia and Melungeons represent the real face of early American history, before white supremacy forced multi-ethnicity into the shadowlands.
Just one more tantalizing point. The Virginian militiamen at Charleston were drawn largely from around Amelia County, just down the road from Louisa County – the origin of old historical Melungeons like “Spanish Peggy Gibson”.
What a delightful coincidence, as the Virginians and Haitians had fought alongside a regiment of Spaniards at the Siege of Charleston…
© Brian Halpin, June 2021
#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #melungeons #appalachia