Life in Possum Holler

Saline County, Arkansas, United States
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10 January 2005

Review Essay: Melungeons

Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia. By Wayne Winkler. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2004. Pp.xx, 314. Illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, index. $34.00.)

Edited version published The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 102, No. 2 (Spring 2004): 207-223.

Review Essay
By Carolyn Earle Billingsley

In the fall of 1869, a wagon train formed in Pickens County, South Carolina. The large group, connected by kinship, community, and church membership, were heading for Saline County, Arkansas, to make a fresh start. Many of their young men had lost their lives in the war and there were few opportunities or available arable land in their mountainous homeland on the North Carolina border. One of the women in this migrating group was my great-great-grandmother Terrissa (Gantt) Chappell Jeans. Her husband had been killed in the Civil war, leaving her a widow with three children, and she had just remarried to a man named William Jeans[1]. Soon afterwards, Terrissa gave birth to their daughter, Lucinda Jeans. But during the trip to Arkansas, according to family stories, Mr. Jeans was verbally and physically abusive to Terrissa and her family ran him off. They never saw him again.

Family lore also states that Terrissa’s daughter, my great-grandmother Lucinda, who grew up in Saline County, Arkansas, was a pretty little girl with dark eyes and hair; Even her complexion was noticeably dark—sometimes described as “olive” by those who knew her. She and her family had an explanation for her darkness: her father, they said, was Spanish. On various census records through the years, Lucinda reported her father’s place of birth as Mexico or Spain and his native language as Spanish.[2]

Spanish? From the hills of Pickens County, South Carolina, in the 1860s? With a name like William Jeans? Not likely.

Another explanation from the family was that the Gantts, Lucinda’s maternal ancestors, were “Black Dutch”. Today nobody knows what that term meant (or means) to the many families who claim this heritage. Some theories: they were German people who were dark instead of blond; they were Germans from the Black Forest region; or “Sephardic Jews who married Dutch protestants to escape the Inquisition.”[3]

Explanations citing Spanish or Black Dutch ancestry for this family are especially suspect when one considers that Gantt/Jeans descendants have a significant percentage of Native American ancestry. This fact, however, was not revealed until recently, when extensive DNA testing shed light on this portion of my lineage.[4]

In talking to older and now-deceased family members, I long ago discovered that, previous to the last few decades, the “white” population of the dominant southern culture considered being Indian pert nigh the same as being “black” (although this opinion usually was not rendered in language now considered politically correct by any means), and therefore, it was something to be concealed rather than celebrated. In addition to being the wrong color, Native Americans were frequently subject to hostility because of the ongoing warfare between whites and Indians on the frontier, and because many tribes freely intermarried with blacks. Therefore, Native Americans or those with partial Native American ancestry “passed” for white when they could and purposely obscured their Indian ancestry.[5]

Of course, in the minds of most people, “passing” involves African-Americans. For example, ex-slave Wallace Turnage kept a journal of his life, which was for years kept among his daughter’s possessions. When the daughter, Lydia Turnage Connolly, died, a neighbor ended up with the handwritten account and only then did the neighbor discover Connolly’s African-American ancestry: “Mrs. Connolly often described herself as ‘Portugee’ to explain her dark complexion.”[6]

In his book Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920, Willard B. Gatewood relates similar stories of the deliberate obfuscation of origins. When Dr. J. Frank McKinley married Maud Cuney in 1898, he was adamant that they pass as Spanish-Americans and claimed that heritage for their daughter on her birth certificate, although they were both of mixed black and white ancestry, with no Spanish antecedents. And when Fannie Barrier Williams, who was also of African-American ancestry, was questioned about her ethnicity by the conductor of the whites-only railroad car in which she rode, she replied, “Je suis Français,” later explaining that “the ‘barbarous laws’ of the South ‘did not allow a lady to be both comfortable and honest’.”[7]

Although most such stories about Spanish or Portuguese (or even French) family origins are told by individuals or nuclear families, there is a particular group that asserts these types of origins for their entire people: they are called Melungeons and their ethnic and racial background is a matter of fierce debate. In her book The Melungeons [Notes on the Origin of a Race], Bonnie Ball describes them thusly:

Two generations ago, people traveling through certain ranges of the Cumberlands
might meet or overtake a group of mountaineers trudging along single-file,
making their way to homes concealed in remote hollows and glens. They were
mountaineers, but there was a difference between them and their white neighbors.
They little resembled the Anglo-Saxons, the Scotch-Irish, the Germans, or even
the so-called “black Dutch” . . . . They were dark-skinned, but little about
them resembled Italians or Mexicans. . . .
. . . In some ways they
reminded people of certain Indian tribes, yet they had other characteristics
that suggested a mixture of many races. For example, some of them had the dark
skin and curly hair typical of blacks, but even so seldom possessed black facial
features. . . .
. . . Their skin was dark and oily, showing more of a
coppery color than of, say, Ethiopians or darker members of the white race.
Their hair was often coarse and black, and in some families extremely kinked.
Others were little different from their white neighbors. . . .[8]

Explanations for their ancestral or ethnic origins are almost as numerous as the articles and books discussing them, but, as a rule, the people themselves claimed to be of "Portyghee" (Portuguese) ancestry, descended from shipwrecked sailors, and from the Cherokee or other Native American groups.

Despite the controversies, there are many points of agreement among those who have studied the Melungeon folk. They are centered in the Newman’s Ridge area of Hancock County, Tennessee, where they settled in the 1790s, apparently migrating from areas around Ashe County, North Carolina. Nobody knows the source of the name Melungeon; speculation is that it derives from the French mélange (mixed), the Greek melan (black or dark), the old English word malengin (mischievous intent), or even the Afro-Portuguese melungo (shipmate), but other name theories are bandied about. Within the Melungeon community, there are several common surnames, such as Collins, Gibson or Gipson, Mullins and Goins, which have persisted throughout known Melungeon history. They kept to themselves for the most part, intermarrying and living in marginal areas in neighborhoods that were not significantly integrated into the wider communities of their residential areas. Many stories indicate that white southerners considered them to be non-white and, accordingly, they were stigmatized. Moreover they have been consistently stereotyped as lazy, immoral, illiterate, thievish, superstitious, clannish half-breeds.[9]

But beyond these basic facts, any discussion of Melungeons is highly polarized: the main bone of contention is their racial or ethnic identity, predicated on their ancestral origin. Anthropologists refer to them as a tri-racial isolate group, meaning that they are considered to be a mixture of three races—white, black, and Native American (or, as a resident of Hancock County once put it, “a mix of ‘white trash, renegade Indians, and runaway slaves”[10]), and that they tend to cluster together and keep to themselves. Another technical term is for such a group is “racial island”. Many researchers from within the Melungeon community posit descent from Portuguese sailors marooned in North American or even Moors, Turks, or some type of Mediterranean people, mixed with Indian ancestry.

The Melungeons are only one of the tri-racial groups found mainly in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard. Although the other major racial islands are often lumped together with the Melungeons, distinct groups include the Brass Ankles (South Carolina), Cajans and Creoles (Alabama and Mississippi), Croatans (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia), Guineas (West Virginia and Maryland), Issues (Virginia), Jackson Whites (New Jersey and New York), Red Bones (Louisiana), Moors and Nanticokes (Delaware and New Jersey), and the Wesorts (Southern Maryland). The origins of all these groups and others like them are obscured but they are believed by scholars to be, like the Melungeons, a mixture of white, black, and Native American, and many of their members, like the Melungeons, claim Portuguese, Moorish, and/or Indian ancestry.[11]

A great deal of information about the Melungeons and other tri-racial isolate groups can be found in academic journals over the last century, read for the most part by scholars and thus outside of mainstream American consciousness. In 1972, Calvin L. Beale wrote that “Interest in the racial isolates by anthropologists began in the late nineteenth century, stimulated . . . by the emergence of the Robeson County, North Carolina, people as Croatan Indians and the suggestion of their descent from the Lost Colony.”[12] Public interest, from outside of the scholarly community, has been increasing in the last few decades, for the most part due to interest from genealogists who want to know more about their family background. Additionally, throughout the history of these people, magazine and newspaper articles have periodically stirred up interest in them. For the most part, the authors of these articles portrayed Melungeons in a very uncomplimentary light and virtually always brought up the issue of African-American ancestry. Considering the times in which these articles appeared, the latter issue was extraordinarily harmful to anyone deemed Melungeon.

In recent years, the most popular book about Melungeons, and the one that brought the topic into more widespread awareness, is N. Brent Kennedy’s The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People—An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America.[13] Kennedy is the most public face of the Melungeon community today. Mercer University Press, his publisher, has undertaken a whole series of works on Melungeons with Kennedy as the series editor, and, on their website, refers to Kennedy as “the foremost writer and lecturer on the Melungeons.”[14] Although The Melungeons is considered to be the main reference for this group of people and despite the fact it was widely and positively reviewed, its polemical nature and unsubstantiated claims should give the serious researcher pause. The use of the loaded term “ethnic cleansing” in the title is a clue to the over-wrought viewpoint presented in Kennedy’s text. Often discriminated against, marginalized, disdained and despised—yes; the victims of ethnic cleansing—no.[15]

Kennedy’s main claim for the Melungeons is that their ancestry is Mediterranean, e.g., Turkish, Moorish, Iberian, Berber, and “at least partial Jewish origins,” mixed with Native American.[16] Whereas some other groups designated tri-racial isolates “increasingly considered themselves more Indian than European,” Kennedy says, “ . . . the ‘Melungeons’ of Tennessee and Virginia clung more tightly to their Mediterranean roots.”[17] But Kennedy apparently has nothing but scorn for those who would stigmatize Melungeons by affixing the tri-racial isolate label to them. “To shove all multiethnic people into this generic pigeonhole and assign to them a racial label in which they have no input—which is that the tri-racial isolate theory inadvertently did—is an incredibly hostile action,” which Kennedy also deems “patroniz[ing].”[18] Much more could be written about the faults of this work if Virginia Easley DeMarce had not already quite capably eviscerated Kennedy’s book in her review essay in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.[19]
DeMarce, formerly a history professor, is another prominent researcher of Melungeons. Her works on this mysterious group include two extremely well researched and articulated articles in the NGSQ. In the first, “’Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South—A Genealogical Study,” she delves into a variety of tri-racial groups, including their origins and racial compositions. In her follow-up article, “Looking at Legends—Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-racial Isolate Settlements,” DeMarce concentrates on the specific groups of Melungeons and Lumbees. In both articles, DeMarce starts with a base of historical, anthropological, and sociological knowledge and theory, and then cements it all together using genealogical research to trace specific families and their origins, debunking some aspects of scholarship, while proving others to be more consistent with historical fact. For those interested in Melungeons and other tri-racial isolate groups, Demarce’s work stands as one of the most comprehensive, well-researched and -reasoned sources.[20]

Another source for information about Melungeon is Bonnie Ball’s very readable book, The Melungeons. Ball was an elementary school teacher whose interest in Melungeons derived from her personal knowledge of them, both from her childhood and from her classroom. Although she did not write in a scholarly fashion, i.e., there are no footnotes, her recapitulation of the scholarship on Melungeons references her sources within the narrative. She also included a helpful list of suggested reading and was obviously knowledgeable about her topic. Ball’s book is most valuable for the sense of the Melungeon people as she knew them; in other words, she does not malign them and she brings them alive for her reader—more alive than the countless scholarly works portray them.

In 2004, Mercer University Press published a new book in its ongoing series on Melungeon culture, edited by Brent Kennedy. Wayne Winkler’s Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia promises to be the best of the series for its straight-forward, comprehensive, objective, and non-polemical review of the stories of, and theories about, Melungeons and their origins. In Kennedy’s foreword, he writes that “Winkler’s book presents a fair and balanced account of what we know, and do not know, of these fascinating people and his own insights flesh out in a logical manner what much of the extant evidence tells us,” despite the fact that he and Winkler “disagree on a number of topics.”[21]

Winkler, like so many who write on this subject, is himself of Melungeon descent. He works as the director of a public radio station, wrote and produced “an award-winning radio documentary of the Melungeons, and is president of the Melungeon Heritage Association.” Winkler’s goal for his book is to even-handedly gather together and present the theories and research on his people, from which he draws reasonable conclusions whenever it is possible to do so. As he states, he “do[es] not have a theory of origin . . . to promote.” And this is what makes Walking Toward the Sunset a thoroughly satisfying treatise on Melungeons—in a field overwhelmed with strident points of view and far-fetched theories, Winkler’s book is a breath of fresh air. Although Melungeon heritage was at one time “shameful, something to be hidden,” Winkler thoughtfully debunks the “notion of ‘race’” and joyfully embraces his “‘mysterious’ background.” “America has had an unhealthy obsession with race and the notion of ‘purity’,” he asserts, but “[t]he Melungeon story is a celebration of the diversity of America.”[22]

Winkler titles his first chapter “A Raceless People” and explores the question of race as it pertains to Melungeons, telling the story of the inability of society to fit them into a particular racial category. But American society, and southern society in particular, had no trouble deciding that, whatever the Melungeons were, they were not “white”, which resulted in challenges for them in voting, in education, in marriage, in military service, and in all the ways non-whites were disadvantaged by the dominant white culture. For this very reason, it made sense for Melungeons to assert their Portuguese or even Indian ancestry and to reject the idea of African-American ancestry, while also refusing to apply the epithet “Melungeon” to their own people. As Winkler states: “The history of nearly all tri-racial groups has been marked by their efforts to overcome their inferior social status.”[23]

Winkler also points out that it did not and does not really matter if Melungeons or other tri-racial groups actually had African-American blood, whether the proverbial one drop or more; the pertinent and overarching fact is that their neighbors believed that they did and thus treated them accordingly. Melungeons assertions of Portuguese ancestry and descent from sailors shipwrecked on American shores was an understandable coping mechanism, and perhaps even true, but it fell on deaf ears.[24]

In his second chapter, “Race and Conquest on the Eastern Seaboard,” Winkler reviews early contact between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans, and the settlement of the eastern seaboard, particularly relating to the varied theories of Melungeon origin. He retells the story of Raleigh’s Lost Colony in some detail, along with the importation of Armenian and Turkish workers to Virginia in the seventeenth century, the presence of the Romany people (Gypsies), the intermarriage of Native Americans and free blacks, and the presence of Spanish and Portuguese sailors. Winkler concludes:

As the English consolidated their hold on North America, the contributions of
these individuals and families of non-English origin were often overlooked or
forgotten. The racial attitudes of the dominant English society forced many of
these swarthy or mixed-race people to keep a low profile, band together in
extended family groups, and often to migrate to more sparsely-populated areas
where racially-restrictive laws had not yet been enacted.[25]

The narrative continues as Winkler examines the historic references to the Melungeons and to people who might have been the original Melungeons, up to and including their settlement on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee. At that time, he writes, “they considered themselves white people with Indian ancestry,” although “[t]hat opinion was not universally shared by their white neighbors, and their legal status would be questioned repeatedly.” During the nineteenth-century, Melungeons came under increasing scrutiny: more disparaging stories about them were published; their right to vote was challenged; court cases were fought to determine their status—and they were forced to negotiate their racial identity. In the precedent-setting “Celebrated Melungeon Case” of 1872, Melungeons were found to be Carthaginian with no African-American blood. [26]

Winkler devotes his third chapter to Will Allen Dromgoole, a woman writer who was responsible in large part for forming the general public’s opinion of Melungeons through a series of articles she wrote in the 1890s. Writing her popular stories about these strange people in a time when “America was obsessed with race,” Dromgoole portrayed them so negatively and in such a racist light, that “[t]o this day, many Hancock Countians resent the articles” she wrote.[27]

In “Scientific Racism,” Winkler’s fourth chapter, he moves the story into the early twentieth century, cogently detailing the effects of eugenics and the progressive movement on the Melungeon people. From Darwin, to Galton, to Kellogg, and even Hitler, Winkler describes the rise of eugenics, which “provided a pseudo-scientific rationale for the ethnic hostility that was gaining momentum in the United States.” Virginia’s Racial Integrity Law of 1924 and publication of books like Mongrel Virginians added to the frenzy over racial classification and had a deleterious impact on the status of Melungeons.[28]

In his chapter titled “A Time of Transition,” Winkler examines the situation of the Melungeons and other tri-racial groups from the 1930s through the 1970s. At the beginning of this period, more articles appeared, retelling the unflattering old tales of the mysterious Melungeons. Of special note is “Sons of the Legend,” which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947. Not only did W. L. Worden’s piece portray the Melungeons as moon-shining, non-Caucasian, child-bride marrying misfits, it did so in a popular magazine with a nationwide readership—“[a]nd the people of Hancock County were not happy with what [Worden] had to say.”[29] From there, Winkler moves on to the rise of more scholarly research, the reclassification of many tri-racial isolate groups as Indian tribes, the Civil Rights movement, the outmigration of Melungeons from their traditional homelands, and their assimilation into broader American society. By the 1970s, though a combination of the Civil Rights movement, the appearance of a sympathetic portrayal in a popular book, and the debut of the outdoor drama Walk Toward the Sunset in Hancock County, those with Melungeon heritage began to complete the arc from shame to pride in their identity.

In his sixth chapter, Winkler brings the state of Melungeon research up to date. In many ways, “Into the Twenty-First Century” is the meat of the book. Winkler discusses the theoretical and rhetorical divide between Kennedy and his backers versus DeMarce, Henige, and others of like mind, discusses the role of the Internet in popularizing Melungeon research, then segues into the DNA evidence. Although the DNA findings move forward our knowledge about the Melungeon ancestry, they do not settle all aspects of the controversy. Winkler summarizes the results, which were based on a very small sample:

In short, the DNA study indicates today’s Melungeons are primarily of European
descent, with some Native American and African-American ancestry. Some
Melungeons have genetic sequences matching the Siddis of northern India, others
reflect a Turkish or Syrian ancestry. Some of those who consider themselves
“Melungeon” possess all of those “exotic” genes; others have some of them—and
others reflect only the “generic” European genes. The Melungeons are by no means
uniform in their genetic backgrounds; they are a mixed-ethnic population with
varying degrees of mixture within that population.[30]

In his concluding chapter, Winkler speculates on the many ways the data on Melungeons might be interpreted and attempts to define who is and who is not Melungeon. He opines that the recognition of the Melungeon’s varied ethic heritage and the history of discrimination against them “will probably lead to a fuller understanding of America’s tumultuous history of race relations and the absurdity of the concept of race in general.”[31]

So, how should we interpret the many obfuscations, legends, and family origin stories of the Melungeons and other tri-racial isolate groups—and, indeed, for the many individuals who claimed Spanish, Portuguese, and Moorish backgrounds? Were there really that many families of exotic ancestry in the South? If not, why would so many people claim such ancestry?

Occam's razor is a logical principle asserting that simpler models are more apt to be correct than complex ones. The simplest explanation for the complicated legends surrounding the Melungeons and other such groups is rooted in the South’s deterministic racial ideology. Unlike some others areas, such as South America, the Caribbean, and New Orleans, Louisiana, there were only two racial castes in most of the South: one was either white or one wasn’t. The penalties for those who were deemed not-white were severe; the benefits for those who were white were many-fold. But this two-race cosmology failed to account for the reality: a great many people are a varied ethnic mix. And a “common characteristic of tri-racials [and other individuals like my great-grandmother] . . . [is] a tendency to ascribe their origin to migrations in the distant past.” “Invariably the story is told—but rarely believed—that their distant ancestors reached these shores by some accident; and the monotonous theme of shipwrecked sailors recurs again and again.”[32]

In 1872, attorney Lewis Shepherd fought and won a case validating the marriage between a white man and a Melungeon woman by “proving” the Melungeons had no Negro blood whatsoever and were, in fact, “pure-blooded Carthagenians.” Of his assertions in this case, he wrote:

“[O]ur Southern high-bred people . . . will never tolerate on equal terms any
person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood, but they do not make the
same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the
Cubans, the Italians, etc.”[33]

Shepherd’s observation pretty nearly sums up the plight of the Melungeons, as well as other tri-racial groups, African-Americans, Native Americans, and my great-grandmother Lucinda. In short, if you were darker-skinned than “normal”, it behooved you to claim any other heritage—be it Portuguese, Carthagenian, or Spanish—so your neighbors would not classify you as non-white, i.e., “tainted” with the blood of African-Americans. As Winkler writes about attitudes in the early twentieth-century: “‘mostly white’ was not white enough; ‘mostly white’ or even ‘Indian’ meant ‘colored’ and were the equivalent of ‘black’.”[34] The Melungeons may well have been speaking the truth when they claimed Portuguese ancestry, but that claim was trumped by another small portion of their ethnicity and by the judgment of their neighbors.

In truth, many of the peoples of the South, and of America in general, were a mixed-up jambalaya of ethnicities, but in most cases like the Melungeons, the full story of their histories will probably remain largely a mystery for the immediate future. The best hope for enlightenment comes from genealogy—by painstakingly tracing Melungeon individuals and family groups back in time, as DeMarce recommends and demonstrates, a clearer picture of their origins will emerge—and through expanded and newer DNA testing technology. Until then, for any reader interested in tri-racial groups like the Melungeons, Wayne Winkler’s book is the best place to start examining the social, political, cultural, legal, economic, and genetic aspects of such a heritage.

Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Ph.D., is a graduate of Rice University. She is the author of Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier (2004); the Coordinator for Course 3 at Samford University’s Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research; and currently works as an independent historian in Saline County, Arkansas.
[1] Sometimes spelled Jaynes or Janes.
[2] Information on the Gantts (originally Gaunt) descendants is condensed from twenty-five years of family history research by the author, including interviews with descendants. In the 1880 census, Lucinda’s paternal birthplace was given as South Carolina; she was twelve years of age, living with her mother and sister in her uncle’s household. But in 1910 and 1920, she reported her father’s place of birth as Mexico, and in 1930, it was reported as Spain. See Saline County, Arkansas, 1880 Census (Benton, Ark.: Saline County History and Heritage Society, 1989), pp.. 70–71; 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Lonoke County, Arkansas, NARA T624_56, p. 118B; 1920 U.S. Federal Census, Pulaski County, Arkansas, NARA T625­_79, ED 147, p. 2B; and 1930 U.S. Federal Census, Pulaski County, Arkansas, NARA T626_90, ED 45, D. 292—the latter three sources accessed via’s online census image databases, 28 October 2004. Note that Lucinda’s family apparently was not enumerated on the 1900 census.
[3] Shirley Hornbeck, This and That: Genealogy Tips on Black Dutch and Black Irish, Melungeons, Moravians, Pennsylvania Dutch, seen at, 15 October 2004. A Google search for “Black Dutch” turned up over 4000 English-language sites.
[4] Autosomal DNA test for L. Jean Neal, mother of author, by Trace Genetics of Davis, California, 2004.
[5] This author recognizes the futility of using the terms “white” and “black” in any concrete way. Race has been proven to be a social construct; in the minds of the dominant culture of the seventeenth- through twentieth-century, you were either white by birth and by appearance, or you were considered black or Indian or some other non-white “race”. For the status of Native Americans, see Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, N. Brent Kennedy, Series Editor (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2004), p. 79.
[6] Randy Kennedy, “Journals of 2 Ex-Slaves Draw Vivid Portraits,” The New York Times, 14 June 2004, read online at New York Times,, accessed 21 June 2004
[7] Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), pp. 181–182 (quotation on p. 182).
[8] Bonnie Ball, The Melungeons [Notes on the Origin of a Race] (1969; rev. ed., Johnson City, Tenn.: Overmountain Press, 1992), p. v.
[9] See, for example: William Harlen Gilbert, Jr., “Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States,” Social Forces, Vol. 24, No. 4 (May, 1946), pp. 443–445; Edward T. Price, “A Geographic Analysis of White-Negro-Indian Racial Mixtures in Eastern United States,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 43, No. 2 (June, 1953), pp. 141, and 143; Calvin L. Beale, “An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 74, No. 3 (June 1972): 704–710; Swan M. Burnett, “A Note on the Melungeons,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 2, No. 4 (October 1889): 347–349; and Price, “The Melungeons: A Mixed-Blood Strain of the Southern Appalachians,” Geographical Review, Vol. 41, No. 2 (April, 1951): 256–271—all accessed online at JSTOR; Ball, The Melungeons; and Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, p. 2.
[10] Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, p. x.
[11] William Harlen Gilbert Jr.,”Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States,” Social Forces, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Mary 1946): 438–447. For the stories of other tri-racial groups, see Frank W. Porter, III, “Strategies for Survival: The Nanticoke Indians in a Hostile World,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Autumn 1979): 325–345; Thomas J. Harte, “Social Origins of the Brandywine Population,” Phylon, Vol.24, No. 4 (4th Qtr. 1963): 369–378; Harte. “Trends in Mate Selection in a Tri-Racial Isolate,” Social Forces, Vol. 37, No. 3 (March 1959: 215–221; Adolph L. Dial and David K. Eliades, The Only Land I Know: A History of the Lumbee Indians (1975; rpr. ed., Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1996); Lynwood Montell, “The Coe Ridge Colony: A Racial Island Disappears,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 74, No. 3 (June 1972): 710–719; Laura L. Lovett, “‘African and Cherokee by Choice’: Race and Resistance under Legalized Segregation,” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1/2 (Winter-Spring 1998): 203–229; S. D. Allen, “More on the Free Black Population of the Southern Appalachian Mountains: Speculations on the North African Connection,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6 (July 1995): 651–671; and Kenneth W. Porter, “Relations Between Negroes and Indians: Contacts as Allies,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (July 1932): 307–320. All the articles here can be read online at JSTOR.
[12] Calvin L. Beale, “An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 74, No. 3 (June 1972): 704–710 (quotation on p. 707). Available online at JSTOR. Note that most sources for Melungeon data make reference to Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” of over one hundred settlers, who arrived in Virginia in 1587, but had disappeared by the time ships returned three years later. Many theories speculate the missing settlers were taken in by local Indian tribes, eventually producing mixed offspring and an explanation of the obviously mixed-race people found later in the area.
[13] N. Brent Kennedy, with Robyn Vaughn Kennedy, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People—An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America (Second, revised, and corrected edition; Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997). A short biographical sketch of Kennedy is available online at The Melungeon Heritage web site,, accessed 26 November 2004: Brent Kennedy is President of the Wellmont Foundation in Kingsport, Tennessee . . . . A native of Wise, Virginia, Kennedy is a graduate of Clinch Valley College (now UVA-Wise). He holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Mass Communications Research from the University of Tennessee, where he was a Bickel Fellow, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Melungeon Heritage Association
[14] Mercer University Press: How They Shine: Melungeon Characters in the Fiction of Appalachia, found online at, accessed 26 November 2004. The series is called Melungeons: History and Culture Series.
[15] See, for example: Frederic W. Gleach’s review in Ethnohistory, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Autumn, 1998): 804–806); and William L. Anderson’s review in the Journal of Southern History, Vol .62, No. 1 (February 1996): 111–112.
[16] Kennedy, The Melungeons, pp. 164–168 (quotation on p. 166).
[17] Ibid., p. 165.
[18] Ibid., pp. 99–100 (quotations).
[19] Virginia Easley DeMarce, National Genealogical Society Quarterly [hereinafter NGSQ], Vol. 84, No. 2 (June 1996):134–149. The essay can also be found online at the web site of “The Historical Melungeons and Their Kinfolks,” A biographical snippet accompanying DeMarce’s review essay states that she “is a historian in the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and past president of the National Genealogical Society”; quotation on p. 134. According to Winkler in Walking Toward the Sunset, David Henige’s review of Kennedy’s book [“The Melungeons Become a Race,” Appalachian Journal, Vol. 25.3 (Spring 1998): 270–271)] is “even more scathing that [sic, than] DeMarce’s.”
[20] DeMarce, “’Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South—A Genealogical Study,” NGSQ, Vol. 80, No. 1 (March 1992): 5–35; and DeMarce, “Looking at Legends—Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-racial Isolate Settlements,” NGSQ, Vol. 81, No. 1 (March 1993): 24–45.
[21] Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, pp. viii (first quotation), and vii (second quotation).
[22] Ibid., Information and first quotation from the back flap of the book jacket, pp. xi (second, third, and fifth quotations); and xii (fourth, sixth, and seventh quotation).
[23] Ibid.,, p. 11 (quotation).
[24] Ibid., p. 26.
[25] Ibid., p. 50.
[26] Ibid., pp. 59 (first quotation), and 75–79 for the “Celebrated Melungeon Case”. In her article, “‘African and Cherokee by Choice’,” Laura L. Lovett uses the phrase “negotiation of their racial identity,” which I have paraphrased here.
[27] Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, pp. 100 (first quotation), and 101 (second quotation).
[28] Ibid., p. 107 (quotation). For a discussion of Arthur H. Estabrook and Ivan E. McDougal, Mongrel Virginians (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1926), “a study of the Monacan community of Amherst County, Virginia,” Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, pp. 124–130.
[29] Ibid., pp. 148–155 (quotation on p. 151). Worden’s article appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, 18 October 1847.
[30] Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, p. 240
[31] Ibid., p. 255.
[32] Ibid., p. 27 (both quotations). The source of the second quotation is cited as Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: McMillan, 1963), pp. 35–36.
[33] Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset, p. 79.
[34] Ibid., p. 119.

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Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware
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07 January 2005

Spring Cleaning

She placed his inert body into the box. But he was an awfully tall man, probably wouldn’t fit even into a refrigerator box. OK, a packing crate. One of those old-fashioned ones you only see in the movies, with rough pine slats. Like you’d do up a treasured objet d’art that needed to be transported across the world to a museum. She put him in the crate and surrounded him with those ubiquitous packing peanuts. No, everything would shift too easily; how about encasing him in those molded Styrofoam forms, like they ship DVD players in? They would, of course, have to be specially made to fit his exact dimensions, but she elided over that part. She laid the packet of his love letters right on top in lieu of a rose or some other traditional embellishment.

All packed up. Then she discovered it was a kind of visceral pleasure to nail the crate shut. Yes, much better than enveloping a cardboard box with strapping tape. And, for good measure, she cinched up the box in those strips of some type of dark metal, to hold the whole thing securely. And, finally, she added a sturdy padlock to secure the cargo from accidental opening.

She paused a minute as she heard the whoosh of the door open and the tread of the nurse checking on her. She laid there as naturally as she could, giving the appearance of deep sleep. Which, in actuality would have been difficult to achieve with that light from the hallway penetrating into her room. But satisfied as to her health and safety, the man left and the darkness returned.

Now what? OK—a moving company with about six burly men to cart the whole thing out to their truck. Filling out the shipping forms to . . . where? Ottawa, Canada, sounded pretty good. No—there would probably be trouble trying to get the crate through some kind of customs check. In her research, she’d come across a place called Minnetonka Mills, Minnesota. She had no idea what it was like there, but it sounded far away and like a good place to store something long-term. She visualized herself filling out the paperwork to make it so.

She heard the rattle of the meal carts approaching. Soon someone would come in and force a beginning to her day with a breakfast tray and then meds. She’d have to hurry through the rest of the process.

With the shipping crate out the door and onto the truck, she pictured the end of its journey, stashed in a long-term storage unit up there in cold, cold Minnetonka Mills. She briefly held a mental image of huge snowdrifts piled against the storage unit’s door, making her crate cold, isolated, and secure in the murky depths of an anonymous unit in Minnetonka Mills. Somewhere it could be forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.

She held the padlock key in her hand. Standing on a bridge spanning the Mississippi River, she drew her arm back to toss the key into the roiling muddy waters. But at the last minute, she hesitated, and, trying not to think too much, she instead stuck it into the bottom of her jewelry box. You never know.

Copyright 2005 Carolyn Earle Billingsley