Friday, July 15, 2005

A NOTE ON THE MELUNGEONS * By Swan M. Burnett, M. D., Washington October 1889

A NOTE ON THE MELUNGEONS * By Swan M. Burnett, M. D., Washington October 1889 <<Legends of the Melungeons I first heard at my father's knee as a child in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee...* Read before the Society at its regular meeting, February 5, 1889.>>

An interesting note on Swan Burnett is that he was the husband of the children's writer Frances Hodgson Burnett who later divorced him. See:

Swan Burnett's work is not easily found today and mentions of him on the internet are largely associatied with the Melungeons and/or his suggestion that the Melungeons might be Gypsy.

Charles James McDonald Furman (1863-1904), mentions Burnett in his papers. I can find nothing else in Furman except this mention of Burnett's name and I would be interested in any connections that might be found. See:

Furman himself was interested in blacks, Indians and the Redbones of South Carolina among other interests.

From the Gowen Electronic Newletter

I find the following paragraph: <<The first known reference to the French word melange was mentioned by Dr. Swan Burnett. He read his, "Notes On The Melungeons," before theSociety of American Anthropologists, Feb. 5, 1889, and published in, Oct.1889, Vol. 11, pp 347-349, "American Anthropologist Magazine." Burnett grew up hearing about the Hawkins (later Hancock) Co., Tennessee, Melungeons. He became a medical doctor with a side interest in anthropology. "He was assisted in this limited study by Dr. J. M. Pierce of Hawkins Co.,Tennessee and Dr. Gurley of the Smithsonian Institute. These doctor's observations were the first scientific notes I know of to be penned by any professionals.>> Burnett was indeed a doctor, but not of anthropology. Did he speak French? Who was Dr. Pierce and what position did Gurley hold with the Smithsonian? Why were their names not on this peice?

The GOWEN site follows with this statement: <<Some of Burnett's speculations, and factual statements, would be taken somewhat out of context by some later scholars to gradually become accepted 'fact.' >> I have to AGREE. We are seeing this even today.

The Gowen Newsletter noted above also states that James Mooney was the next scholar to write about the Melungeons andothers. It says:<<James Mooney's entry in the Smithsonian's Hand Book describes the Melungeons under the Negro and Indian title,( page 52 Vol II)."Melungeons of Hancock Co, Tennessee, formerly of North Carolina are said to be "a mixture of white, Indian and Negro." His noted source "AmAnthrop," p 347, 1889, is from Burnett's Notes. Mooney adds, "The Redbones of South Carolina and Croatans of North Carolina seem to be the same mixture." Under the Croatan Indian title, p 365, Vol I, of The Handbook, Mooney's entry suggests, "the Croatan, Redbones, Delaware Moors, Melungeons are of similar origin." And, says, "the name Melungeon is (probably from melange-mixed) or Portuguese." This is also taken from Burnett's Notes. >> So we can see here a building of Melungeon 'facts' based upon questionable data that became 'facts' over a period of time. Does anyone know what Burnett's source for the possibility of 'melange' was? Was he himself fluent in French? Did he have any expertise in linguistics? This Gowen newsletter is fantastic and should be read in its entirety.

Brent noted in a previous post about Swan Burnette's Melungeon writings in the Anthropologist that: <<BK: To begin, Burnett above clearly and honestly says that he has few notes and he is hopeful that some one with better opportunity may be induced to pursue the matter further. It seems a major leap from this statement to the position of authority that sometimes has been claimed for Burnett.>> Again, I have to agree with Brent's statement as well. Starting with the sentence I copied above including 'LEGENDS,' Burnett's work is a review or memoir perhaps, which is interesting, gives a few insights, but is not a totally reliable source as most memoirs are not. There are specific statements, a little data that can be corroborated, but his article cannot be said to be authoritative by any means.

I have found some notes, an on-line review, of Burnette's article. I do NOT know who these people are nor when the review was written. Does anyone? This first peice was sent by reviewer: JENNIFER GROVES University of Alberta (Heather Young Leslie) to The American Anthropologist's Journal, and is found at:

JG says:

<<This article is a brief discussion of Burnett's initial and later views of the Portuguese, based on his childhood recollections, and then brief  'fieldwork' among Portuguese in America as well as a visit to Portugal. His intention was to pique interest in the Portuguese as worthy of ethnographic research. Burnett noted a mystery as to Portuguese origins, and refers to an earlier name used for them, 'Melungeon' (from the French, melangee or mixed). He also discussed issues such as social and economic positions within the Portuguese community. In America he notes, the Portuguese did not hold a very high social or economic position, but he did not provide any intricate details on how these people functioned in their everyday lives. How their lives compares to life in Portugal is also unclear. Burnett did not actually conduct real fieldwork. Burnett presents his information in a highly personal narrative format. While the author's work was structured differently from most papers in The American Anthropologist, he did provide a unique look into the lives of a people who intrigued him. >>

I am intrigued by Groves remark "Burnett did not actually conduct real fieldwork." I think this is likely very telling of what the Anthropological community thinks of this work. I would love to find more data on this area.

Another writer, Mark C. House University of Florida (Dr. John Moore) on the same site has this to say about the Burnett peice. His post is more scathing:

<<This is a short memo on the observations and initial ideas about the Melungeons. The author begins by recalling stories from his youth about a mysterious race of people identified as the Melungeons. Then he meanders through several different thoughts on the origin of these people. Throughout his writing Burnett makes references to the idea that these people were either a separate race from the whites, blacks, or natives or that they were a mixture of these three ethnic groups. The particular people being described in his essay reside in East Tennessee and supposedly emigrated from North Carolina more than 80 years before Burnett's essay was written. Burnett notes that there is evidence that these people might be of Portuguese decent. The evidence he cites for this includes the fact that the Melungeons refer to themselves as Portuguese and a few physical characteristics that Burnett considers important.

There is also a theory that they might begypsies or may have originally been from either of these groups but have intermarried since their arrival in the Americas. The most fantastic of the theories under his consideration is that these people may be descendents of Sir Walter Raleigh's lost colony. Unfortunately this article is more of a call for information on the subject than a real argument for the origins of a set of people. The evidence that is presented is shaky at best as indicated by Burnett's reference to the flatness of their feet, the waviness found in their hair and the height of their cheekbones. However, this paper may be useful for the insight it gives into the mind of the nineteenth century amateur anthropologist, which Boaz thankfully expunged from serious academic consideration.>>

I find this part of the review interesting "The evidence that is presented is shaky at best.." and the expunging part of the final statement. This piece by Burnett does not merrit SERIOUS ACADEMIC consideration at least by House and according to House, Dr. Boaz, who conducted field research on the The Snanaimuq, a coastal British Columbia tribe in the winter of 1886-87 as well as other research and who is quoted frequently in this journal, expunged this type of amateur anthropology from the journal.

I find both of these interviews interesting in light of the discussion of the reliability of the Burnett peice. If anyone has further information on this I would enjoy reading it.

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