Friday, July 15, 2005

The Melungeons - Tar Heel History

This is no longer to be found on the internet so I am archiving it here:

From The State
June 1994, No. Carolina
By Billy Arthur

The Melungeons

Could it be that these dark-skinned, black-haired immigrants
of Portuguese and Spanish descent were
North Carolina's first settlers?

It's conceivable that someday scholars may possibly re-examine judiciously, if not rewrite, the history of North Carolina and the Southeast, because it now appears possible that a mixed ethnic group of Berbers, Basques and Jews- not the English- were our first permanent settlers.

Arriving about 20 years before the Roanoke Island colonists and about 40 before Jamestown was founded, these mobile people were called Melungeons.

Melungeons? You never heard of them? No wonder. They are not mentioned in any North Carolina history books, though they are listed in genealogical encyclopedias as "tri-raci al isolates" and do turn up in oral myths and legends. The word Melungeon stems from the French "melange" meaning "mixed" and the Portuguese "melungo" meaning "shipmate."

They were sent to the New World in the mid-1500s as official Spanish and Portuguese settlers, much as the English later used the Scotch and Irish. They had dark skin, black hair, thin lips, high cheekbones and narrow fine sculptured faces. They spoke broken Elizabethan English, picked up in European commerce.

Yet, as did other ethnic groups, they had "no body of literature of their own, no native historian to record their activities, no native music, art or dancing." So Jean Patterson Bible wrote in 1975 in Melungeons, Yesterday and Today.

And their oral history, until more recently, was kept secretive within families, because gradually and generally Melungeons became a bad word. Because of ridicule, they just didn't talk about their political and social status and how it came about. They were more concerned with subsisting. Therefore, they became a mysterious people.

Now, within the past decade, more than ever before they have been greatly researched and written about. Even a documentary film is in the works. Such probing challenges old theories that they were remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the Lost Colony, Hernando DeSoto's and Juan Pardo's expeditions, and survivors of the ancient ship Atlantis that wrecked off the North Carolina coast.

Largely set in this state, this fascinating update to an old story actually began when N. Brent Kennedy, now a prominent Atlanta executive who grew up in southwest Virginia, started wondering why his black hair, blue eyes and deep reddish-brown complexion was unlike other Scots-lrish people around him. He had been told that he, too, was Scots-lrish. Then, in 1987 he was stricken with an autoimmune disease called sarcoidosis, 80 percent of whose victims are of Arabic or African descent. So, without scholarly help and with his own financing, he set out to trace his lineage.

Today it extends backward in time to 710 A.D. when Moroccan Muslims invaded parts of Spain and Portugal and ruled them until the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century. Then, Arabic converts were permitted to leave to colonize the New World.

One cargo of these settlers, Kennedy has learned, was ''undoubtedly'' put ashore at what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1566. More recent research shows that Sir Francis Drake, after sacking St. Augustine in 1586, left some captive Portuguese, Arabs and Moors on Roanoke Island to make room for 108 men of Ralph Lane's colony to return to England, because their supply ships had not arrived. These could have later linked tip with the South Carolina group, who had been into the interior.

In their movements they passed through what now are Columbus, Bladen, Scotland, Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, Person, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry, Wilkes, Watauga, McDowell, Ashe and Yancey counties. Along the way they made contact with the Lumbee and other Indian tribes, built three forts (one near Marion) and coexisted on Cherokee lands for some 200 years. Intermarriages took place, as indicated today by some Lumbees having Melungeon names. These migrants were first found by French explorers in 1690 in the Western North Carolina mountains. Though they identified themselves as "Portyghee," the French called them Moors.

It was when the English later met up with them that their troubles began. Because the English were uncertain of their ancestry, the Melungeons were reviled, bullied and even classified in the early censuses as "free persons of color or "mulattoes." As such, they were required to pay taxes but denied rights of voting, attending school and even owning the property they were and had been occupying. This prevailed well into the 19th century.

And though they fought the British in the Revolutionary War, veterans with land grants awarded for war service contended that persons of mixed color were excluded and forced them off their lands and farther back into the Appalachian/Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Tennessee, northwest North Carolina, southwest Virginia and southeast Kentucky. This area eventually became their last place of survival.

The stigmatized and retreating Melungeons, hating the name, stopped and formed colonies or clusters of a few families "apart from the crowd" and sought to avoid censuses. Some of the fairer-skinned did, however, successfully pass for English, which Kennedy believes caused the number of Melungeons at the time to be drastically underestimated. He calculates there were more than 2,000 of them in North Carolina in the mid-1700s and as many in adjoining states.

"As a consequence," he says, "it led to the total dismissal by future scholars of an entire ethnic group and its rich history." Many historians have premised, and still do, that only the English, slaves and Indians were present here in the 18th century, Kennedy suggests. In that, they "ignore" when the Melungeons arrived on the continent and how they survived.

Officially, however, Melungeon names appear on the Orange County tax lists of 1755. According to Bible, they were corruptions of Portuguese surnames, including Colins, Collins, Colens, Colings and Bunch. The Wilkes County lists of 1782 have other names of Calloe, Bowling, Bowlin, Lucus and Goins.

From his search, Kennedy, who is half Melungeon, has found most of his English ancestors seemed to originate in North Carolina and he has traced his ancestry to 11 separate Melungeon families primarily in Ashe, Yancey, Surry and Alleghany counties and the Yadkin and Toe River areas. Their surnarnes were Mullins, Adkins, Osborne, Bowling, Gibson, Cox and Hall.

He also has two Lumbee ancestors named White and Bennett who moved into Ashe County. Two in Ashe were born in 1720. which was 30 years before the Scotch Irish hegan pouring in and forcing Melungeons from fertile lands back into the hills and valleys. His ancestors also possess some first names - Louisa, Lucinda, Helena, Lillian, Mahala, Eulaylia and Sylvester - which are traditional or variations of Spanish or Portuguese.

It was in those mountains and the State of Franklin, organized in 1784 and a part of North Carolina, that Franklin Governor John Sevier found "dark-skinned reddish brown complexioned people supposed to be of Moorish descent, who were neither Indian nor Negro but had fine European features and claimed to be Portuguese."

They were excellent herdsmen (an inherent trait from the Old World), drovers and woodsmen. They were adept at folk medicine and very religious, mostly Baptists and Pentecostal Holiness.

Bible found 20 years ago that some of the bitterness of humiliation remained among the older Melungeons, because of stories handed down by forebears, but they were no longer "ill-famed" because of "awareness and tolerance by an enlightened public." Over the years, she writes, intermarriage has resulted in near complete racial dissolution. Today they look about like anyone else you meet in the mall or church. "They'll be gone in a generation or two, except for an occasional dark complected child as a reminder of the past," Bible writes.

Who, then, is this man Kennedy who has now recruited a distinguished 28-member research team of medical historians, cultural anthropologists, archaeologists and others from 15 universities and foundations? Now in his mid-40s, Kennedy is senior managing partner of Jerold, Panas & Young Inc., one of the nation's largest consulting firms. [Editorial Note:This article appeared in June 1994; since then, Kennedy has returned "home" to southwest Virginia

Currently-- November 1996, he serves as Vice-Chancellor for Development and College Relations at Clinch Valley College, Wise, VA.]

He maintains his team "knows what they are doing in continuing research." It could prove his ancestors were the first and earliest settlers of the Carolinas and the Southeast. Basically, Kennedy's dream is "to unlock the past" and to fix beyond a reasonable doubt that the Melungeons "established a pemanent New World settlement- some 300 miles inland- at approximately the same time, and most likely 30 years before, the English accomplished the same feat at Jamestown."

Until recently most of the expense of the total study has been borne by Kennedy himself. However, of late, in addition to funds contributed by some committee members, grant money has been received from the Humanities Councils of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia. North Carolina is conspicuously missing from the list. Kennedy is "perplexed . . . given the importance of North Carolina to the story . . . and vice versa. Perhaps I have not pushed the right buttons. Instead I'm concentrating on the progress we have made."

Although four Tar Heels declined invitations to be on the research team, Dr. and Mrs. Michael Abram of Cherokee did accept. Dr. Abram intends to investigate whether the Cherokee Indians have by intermarriage contracted any diseases prevalent today among North African and Mediterranean peoples. He will also endeavor to connect some of the Indian culture to the Melungeons' past.

Dr. Abram, owner of the Cherokee Heritage Museum, the only one of its kind in the United States, points out that some Indians had Melungeon names, such as Goins. He also concludes that the Cherokees' oral history has references to the Spaniards; one of their dances is no doubt Portuguese; and where else but from the Melungeons could Chief Sequoyah have learned silversmithing?

As far as Kennedy knows, no one has done any archaeological studies of the fort sites around Marion or the upper French Broad River as have been done at Parris Island by Professor Chester DePratter of the University of South Carolina. "Hopefully, sometime, someone will," he says.

The big question now is whether to conduct an extremely costly, full-scale, updated DNA study. It could eliminate any suspicion that the evidence so far is circumstantial. To Kennedy "the most important aspect of this project lies in the discovery that we are all, regardless of skin color or texture of hair, members of the same human family. If any human being delves deeply enough into his or her background, he or she will eventually find ancestors of other races. If more people could come to understand that we are all part of a rich human mosaic, what a better world this would be. This simple concept - the kinship of people - has become the overriding theme of the Melungeon project."

Billy Arthur is a veteran writer for The State. In preparing this story, he is greatly indebted to Brent Kennedy's personal assistance and the Appalachian Collection at Appalachian State University in Boone.


lumenasan said...

this is a great idea, Nancy!  I'll be checking by often.
Sandra (rouxlette on the list)

glovierlitton said...