Sunday, July 17, 2005

How do I define Melungeon? Part I

Guest Editorial

How do I define Melungeon?
By Brent Kennedy

B.Kennedy A number of folks have suggested that I write a statement expressing some of my thoughts on a few issues of current interest. Given some of the misinformation floating around recently, I'm delighted to do so. In a variety of formats I've answered each of these questions before. I do realize, however, that as time goes by new readers haven't seen those earlier statements and so I'm happy to give them another shot.

1. How do I define Melungeon?

2. Are there Melungeon Diseases?

3. What will the DNA Study Show?

4. Are there "Melungeon" Anthropological Traits?

5. What is the Melungeon Movement?

1. How do I define "Melungeon?"

The Melungeons were a mixed population from day one and no one knows with full certainty who they are and from whence they came. Genealogical records can certainly give us a great deal of information and DNA research can amplify our knowledge in conjunction with the written record. But there are no clear and concise answers and there may never be. However, we can be relatively certain that at least some of them -- but not necessarily all of them -- carried northern European, Native American, Mediterranean (Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, etc.), African, and Asian heritage. Some of this heritage may have come via so-called "English" settlers who were really Europe's unwanted human cargo. Both England and Spain were ridding themselves of criminals, the poor, and the "ethnically undesirable." America was a convenient and useful dumping ground. And Native Americans clearly accepted them into their tribes and provided the kinship links that held all these groups together. I know of no Melungeon or Melungeon-related group that doesn't claim the common thread of Native American heritage. But what's important here is not an ethnic/racial definition of a "Melungeon" per se (which is impossible since I consider the term a "cultural" identification), but instead a statement as to which of today's regional population(s) that I consider "Melungeon." The tragedy in all the bickering is that there's really no need for such contentiousness. I personally have no problem -- and have written and said so in the past -- with the following nomenclature (or something kin to it):

(1) Historical (or "Original") Melungeons -- those documented as "Melungeons" by the pre-1900s written record. Certainly some of the Blackwater/Vardy/Newman's Ridge group would fall into this category, as would, in my opinion, the Lee, Scott, Dickenson and Wise County Melungeons (also known as Ramps), some of whom originated from Hancock County. From my standpoint, it matters not one iota if I am called a Melungeon, or a Ramp, or simply mixed race. But these two populations I consider "Historical," with the Vardy/Newman's Ridge folks possessing the best documented, specific "paper trail" as "Historical Melungeons."

(2) Decendants and Relatives of Historical Melungeons -- those who are descended from, or documentably related to, the Blackwater/Vardy/Newman's Ridge group and/or the southwest Virginia group, wherever they may have migrated. This would be akin to the "Cherokees" of western North Carolina who were still "Cherokees" after their trek to Oklahoma. These folks, then, are "Melungeon Descendants."

(3) Melungeon-Related -- those populations scattered around the southeast (as far south as Graysville, Tennessee and north into Indiana and Ohio) which likely share the same general genetics, at least some family lines, and have cultural overlap. Melungeon-related folks are not, however, "Melungeon" in the strictest traditional sense. Time and distance have separated them. As an example, Cherokees and Powhatans are both Native American and likely share ancestral overlap. But Cherokees do not consider themselves Powhatans and vice versa. There are now cultural differences between thetwo tribes. These broader populations, then, could be considered "Melungeon-Related," our version, perhaps, of the general "Native American" category.

(4) Finally, Mestee groups which are also mixed race and share many of the same historical and cultural experiences, but are not necessarily Melungeon or Melungeon related. These populations may be found anywhere in the United States and even abroad. Each group tends to have its own history and culture, though there is a growing sentiment to bring these various groups together for social and cultural reasons.

I'm not suggesting the above nomenclature is the only way to go, but it works for me. Others have an absolute right to their own positions and definitions.

Finally, the term "Melungeon" was used broadly by academicians long before I came along. If there is a problem with broader application, that argument needs to be taken directly to the earlier scholars who termed so many populations "Melungeon" or "Melungeon-related." Folks like Beale, Price, Gilbert and others had a reason for this: migration patterns, surnames, and oral traditions led them to conclude -- correctly in my opinion -- that these populations were somehow related. The publications of the 1950s and 1960s would be a good place to start for those who are unaware that these kinships were proposed -- and accepted -- by academia a half-century ago. Furthermore, to those who claim that only a handful of families in Hancock County, Tennessee were ever referred to as Melungeons, I can tell you that thousands of people in Wise and Dickenson Counties, Virginia would disagree. Long before I was born, the so-called "Ramps" of Stone Mountain and Coeburn Mountain were also referred to as "Melungeons," probably a term that followed their ancestors there from earlier stopovers in Hancock County, Tennessee. I personally knew of our County's Melungeons as a child, long before I knew of those wonderful folk in Hancock County. This is not to say that our locals were correct in their nomenclature, but instead only to say that the term was in use, correctly or incorrectly, pre-Brent Kennedy.

But whatever you call these people, the important story here is the untold diversity of our early settlers -- far beyond just a few families that may have settled here or there. This truth -- not the name -- is what is important here. Bottom line: I have no problem in classifying the Hancock County folk as the "Historical Melungeons." But I do have a problem in denying their kinship to other human beings and in denying the nomenclature to anyone not residing on a particular mountaintop. Intended or not, this relegates these marvelous people to a sub-human class or, in the words of an early reporter lacking a broader view of humanity, a "singular species." I like to think we've come further than that in the last one hundred years.

2. Are there Melungeon diseases?

No. Let me say that again: No. First, "Melungeon" is a term whose origin is still debatable. No one knows with certainty where and how the term arose, and perhaps we never will. "Melungeon" is a culture and cultures do not have diseases -- people do. However, certain diseases and conditions do seem more common than the norm among Melungeon, or self-defined Melungeon, populations. If studies underway prove that these diseases are equally common among all Appalachians, then the story is even bigger than we thought: that being, that the Appalachian people themselves are possibly far more ethnically diverse than historians have heretofore believed. I expect this latter scenario to be the case, frankly, for I do not accept all historical and genealogical records at face value. A such, I see the Melungeons of Hancock County (and other mountain locales) as merely the more identifiable tip of a much bigger story. I have always believed -- and always will unless someone can convince me otherwise -- that we truly are looking at a re-writing of the ethnic history of our nation. That, contrary to what we were taught in school, we have been multi-cultural and ethnically diverse from day one. "Documentation" is absolutely essential but documentation alone cannot tell the whole story. The written documents are only as accurate -- and honest -- as the people writing them. W. A Plecker proved that even in this century documents can be politically -- and legally -- created to say or "prove" anything. But this does not mean that we ignore the records and toss them out. On the contrary, the written record is one of the most vital pieces of the story. My concern has never been with the genealogical records, but instead our blind acceptance of them as indisputable proof of ethnicity. Settlers from England and Scotland were not always English and Scottish. Settlers from Spain and Portugal and France and Germany did always represent the ethnic make-up of their "homelands" either. I can take you into southwest Virginia cemeteries where my documented "German" ancestors (and, yes, they DID come from Germany) preserved their heritage via Stars of David carved into their nineteenth-century tombstones. This has been my continuing contention, though my critics have tried to show how I obviously "overlooked" the records in my own family research. I did NOT overlook the records and I do NOT question well researched, documented genealogical records. But I do sometimes question the accuracy of what those records say, especially in a colonial, racist society in which "people of color" or of the "wrong" religious bent were doing all they could to be "English" or "Scots-Irish." I'm sorry if my questioning of the written word gives some folks heartburn, but that's just the way it is.

Virginia DeMarce and Pat Elder have contributed much to our genealogical understanding of the early Melungeons. Where I disagree with them -- and continue to strongly disagree -- is with their blind acceptance of racial and ethnic classifications based purely on the written word. According to Virginia DeMarce, the Melungeon claim to have Portuguese heritage was fiction, simply an effort to hide African blood. While I am proud of the African blood that I am convinced I have, I disagreed early on with this contention. I believe the old folks were telling the truth, at least to the best of their knowledge. That there was, however it may have occurred, at least some "Portuguese" ancestry in their background, whatever the race or ethnicity of those Portuguese. I still unwaveringly believe this. Virginia DeMarce likewise proclaimed that, based on genealogical records, my Mother and every line of her family were "white." Virginia DeMarce never met my late Mother or, as far as I know, set foot on Coeburn Mountain. My Mother's face -- and her and her family's on-the ground, life experiences -- said something very, very different. And so did their genes (for those unfamiliar with my family, below is a link to a photo of my Mother).

No amount of "documentation" can change this reality. Contrary to the "records" my Mother does not look northern European. Nor did she grow up feeling a part of that heritage. Native Americans were legally "documented" out of their lands, their heritage, their culture, and nearly out of existence in the Commonwealth of Virginia and elsewhere. Melungeons and their kin suffered a similar fate and we're deluding ourselves to think otherwise. As sociologists have shown, "documentary genocide," the legal, paper driven effort to destroy an ethnic culture and erase all vestiges of its existence, did indeed occur in our colonial period. More recently, it has occurred in places like Nazi Germany and Bosnia and only our victories there forced the truth to be revealed. Genealogists who will not recognize this fact are doing a great disservice to themselves and to their clients. They are potentially impacting, in a negative fashion, not only the knowledge of our full human diversity, but the very real benefits that this knowledge can bring to healthcare and related areas.

Given the likely mix of heritages that are to be found among the Melungeons and Melungeon-related people, certain diseases of a non-northern European origin could -- and likely do -- exist. To say that because we "haven't found them" that they're not there, is to miss a critical point: that being, that we're not likely to find them if we've never looked for them. As a healthcare administrator I can attest -- sadly -- to the fact that our communities in the more remote mountain regions have not historically been the recipients of quality medical sleuthing, to say nothing of quality medical care. A lot of illness and suffering have gone undetected for decades. I was diagnosed with "arthritis" and Irritable Bowel Syndrome before my FMF was found. I was the first case of sarcoidosis diagnosed in Wise, Virginia, but now there are more than forty documented cases of which I'm aware (a staggering number for a town of less than 3500 people). Educating our medical community is important and that cannot occur when our agenda is to selfishly bury or dismiss any information that might run counter to our own personal agendas. How in good conscience anyone can do this is beyond me, but it's being done.

There's a great deal of misinformation floating around out there -- from all sides and points of view. No side is totally blameless in this. The bottom line is that these studies are on-going with NO CONCLUSIONS YET REACHED. As an FYI, Dr. Chris Morris has identified more than 30 cases of what appear to be FMF among people identifying as "Melungeons" and showing traditional Melungeon ancestries from east Tennessee and southwest Virginia (i.e., possessing the traditional Melungeon surnames and self-identifying as such). One of the key diagnoses of FMF (and what distinguishes it from the much rarer familial Hibernian fever) is a positive clinical response to colchicine. This is what's happening, as it happened with me. But remember, even if we find FMF (or a mutated version) among Melungeon descendants this does NOT make it a "Melungeon" disease. FMF is most commonly found among Armenians, Turks, the Arab Druze, and non-Ashkenazi Jews (particularly Sephardim of North Africa, Spain and Portugal). Also, it is entirely possibly that I -- and others -- may have inherited the genes for this disease from non-Melungeon ancestors who simply married into Melungeon lines. So we need to wait until the studies are completed before drawing any conclusions or blindly and unfairly criticizing those doctors or patients involved. And incidentally, there ARE Vardy/Newman's Ridge/Hancock County residents involved in Dr. Morris's study, so statements to the contrary are false and irresponsible. Once the study is completed they may or may not decide to go public, but that will be their decision. But either way, these studies are important for improved healthcare in our region and I support them 100%.

Part II is cont'd below:


eltwentyfouro said...

That being said and thusly read...I suppose now moreso than previously I can define my ancestors as "Melungeon-Related" in addition to the sub catagorical "Carmel Indian" population that migrated from KY to Highland Co, OH.  A very well-written and "reader-friendly" exerp/explanation...hats off to Mr. Kennedy for enlightening the masses in his own perfunctory fashion!  I found it particulatly interesting when he mentioned the various geno and pheno-typing possibilities that are now available and hopefully others (myself included) will follow suite and examine their own genetic origins via DNA testing.  Despite finding no direct lineage to those mentioned in his book:  The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People....I DID glean insight into the ethnic possibilities in all of us.  If openmindedness is an affront to educating...then so be it!  It does my heart good to know that others with like mind-sets have the propensity and drive and inner moxy and wit to tackle such a geneological challenge.  I completely concur with the premise that factual, documented, historical data is not the ONLY way to reach a familial conclusion whereas ancestry is concerned.  My Great Great Grandfather (William Nichols) upon execution stated that he was of Irish and Indian descent...despite being called by the press and public officials: mulatto,half-breed and negroe...and 100 years later myself and my family are now certain that he was if nothing else...truthful.  If indeed the oft quoted: "The truth will set you free" stands as such then perhaps in the interest of self-preservation and harmony...we ALL should not turn a blind-eye to ancestral tales and lore and embrace the ethnic diversity that we undoubtedly come from.  Blessings to all; geneological love to many~~~~Laurie

nmorri3924 said...

Thank you Laurie! Excellent comments!!