I stumbled upon the concept of Melungeons many years ago when I read Kentucky author Jesse Stuart’s renowned work Daughter of the Legend. In the book, the hero falls in love with a Melungeon heroine, and endures all the prejudice from former friends that comes with following his heart. Melungeons are/were a group of people who are now described as “tri-racial isolates”. They tended to marry only within other Melungeon families, because it was rumored that the reason some of their offspring had darker complexions than their neighbors was because they were partially Black in family origin. This was back in the days when the “one drop rule” could get you and your children sold at auction and make you neighbors spit on you, so this was not a small issue. In fact, as recently as 1995 Melungeons were described as “blue-eyed ni**ers”. Melungeons claimed (and I don’t blame them a bit, considering the circumstances) that their olive/brown skin tone was because they were Portuguese (also pronounced/spelled Portyghee) and/or had Native American ancestors. More recently the argument that they were the descendants of Native Native Americans and Arabian/Portuguese/Spanish have come into vogue. There are even some who insisted that they could be the heirs of a lost tribe of Israel, the “lost” colony of Roanoke, or Romany.
Genetic research, the only sure-fire way to know who “one’s people are”, shows that the majority of known Melungeon DNA samples contains mainly European heritage, as could be expected, but it also much more DNA from Southern Europe (Greek/Italian/Turkish) than commonly found in families whose kinfolk arrived in America a hundred years before the Revolutionary War, as well as large dollops of Native American, Sub-Saharan African, South Asian (Pakistani/India/Roma) and Siddi (the Siddi are Ethiopians brought as slaves to Northern India) genes. It may be that almost EVERYONE’S theories about the origin of Melungeons may be at least a little correct.
I was fascinated by Melungeon research the minute I found out about it, since my family were all from the counties listed as Melungeon territories. My direct ancestry included many common Melungeon surnames, including Bennett, Carr/Carrico, Moore, Osborne, Shepard, and Perkins. Outside of a handful of counties in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky these surnames carry no indication that the families were Melungeon in origin, but within certain geographical parameters it dramatically increases the odds that Grandma and/or Grandpa were (as is recorded) “Portuguese ni**ers”.
As it just so happens, my paternal Great-Grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Ball Cornelius, was almost certainly Melungeon. My maternal side may have Melungeons as well, but for now let’s talk about Sarah Cornelius. Her maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Mary King, and Mary was the daughter of Solomon King. Solomon King’s mother, Pernesia “Pernancy” King nee Richardson was a “Free Person of Color” who married a White man, William King, in North Carolina in 1822. This means that under the “one drop rule” I am totally disqualified for the KKK because I am Black. I find that to be awesome, considering how much I loathe racist hate groups like the KKK. As further evidence that Sarah Cornelius was most likely a Melungeon, her father was a descendant of both the Moore and Perkins families on his mother’s side, and during Sarah’s parent’s lifetimes Melungeons usually (but not always, obviously) married into other Melungeon families.
Melungeons are certainly not the only group with rogue Sub-Saharan DNA floating around in supposedly White ovaries/testes. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Vanderbilt (and thus Anderson Cooper), among other are the descendants of the van Salee family, who were designated “mulatto” in early historical records. Furthermore, Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, was born the illegitimate son of a “mixed blood” woman named Rachel Lavain on Nevis (an island in the Caribbean West Indies). His father was a younger son of a Scottish Duke. Alexander (with his light skin tone and predominately European features) migrated to the American Colonies and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s amazing what you can discover when you start digging, isn’t it?