Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The Appalachian Region

The map of the Appalachian Region is contained in the following paper by Elizabeth Hirschmann and Don Panther-Yates. Later in the paper, some other pictures are mentioned but they did not transmit with the paper.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part I

The following paper is posted here in seven sections plus two sections of bibliography  due to its length. This is a very interesting paper with some very interesting theories which I believe add greatly to our understanding of just who our Melungeon families were, where they came from and why it is that they hid who they were. 



Melungeon Ethnogenesis


Reconstructing Identity across the Color Line



Elizabeth C. Hirschman

Professor II of Marketing

School of Business

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, N.J.  08903



Donald Panther-Yates

DNA Consulting

1274 de Calle Commercio

Santa Fe, N.M. 87508





            The Melungeons, a person-of-color ethnic group dwelling in southern Appalachia, have recently discovered their multi-racial, non-Christian ancestry.  We describe the process of ethnogenesis via consumption undertaken by Melungeons to connect their identities to this new-found ancestry.  We also examine the social evolution of the Melungeon ethnic label to become a valued personal possession and the public identification of certain physical features as markers of Melungeon ethnicity.  It is argued that ethnicity may be usefully problematized to support novel forms of inquiry into self-identity on racial, genetic and physiological levels.

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part II




            The Melungeons are a people-of-color ethnic group dwelling in the south-central Appalachian Mountains (Ball 1992; Bible 1975; Burnett 1889; Kennedy 1994/7).  Their heaviest concentration lies in the rural, mountainous intersection of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia [see map, Exhibit One].  Other Melungeon communities are found in southern Ohio (the Mt. Carmel Indians), central Tennessee near Chattanooga (Graysville Melungeons), and Sand Mountain, Alabama (Gilbert 1947, Kessler and Ball 2001; Nassau 1994). Estimates of the size of the Melungeon population range from 50,000 to 250,000+ (Beale 1957; Cavender 1981; DeMarce 1992; Elliott 1997; Werner 1973).

            The importance of the Melungeons to consumer behavior theory, and also to the anthropological, sociological, and historical literatures, is their origin as a people and ‘re-discovery’ both by themselves and by social scientists in the 1970’s, 1980’s and especially 1990’s.  Melungeon origins were shrouded in mystery due to several factors: (1) the absence of accurate historical records regarding their ancestry, culture and date(s) of arrival in the Appalachians,  (2) debate both within and outside the group over ‘who’ or ‘what’ is a Melungeon, and (3) purposeful misrepresentation of the group’s ancestry by various political stakeholders.   

Social Science Research          

Anthropological research on Melungeons (Burnett 1889, Pollitzer and Brown 1969, Pollitzer 1972) at first suggested, and then subsequently rejected (Guthrie 1990), a tri-racial origin (Black, White, Indian) for the group.  Cast culturally as a haphazard mixture of renegade Indians, escaped African slaves and outlaw whites early on, the Melungeons came to view themselves – and be viewed by others – as ethnic discards, pariahs and racial outcasts (DeMarce 1992, 1993, 1996; Kessler and Ball 2001).

            However, more recent (Ball 1992, Bible 1975) and current (Kennedy 1994/97) research on the Melungeons suggests a much more succinct set of origins for the group; one that is rooted in socio-cultural factors, rather than the racial categories so often called upon to frame ethnic relations in the Southeastern U.S.  At present, biogenetic, historical, genealogical and anthropological evidence appear to converge on the notion that the Melungeons originated with Spanish and Portuguese colonists and soldiers who arrived in the mid-1500’s (possibly as early as De Soto’s expeditions in 1540) and intermarried with Southeastern American Indian communities such as the Saponi, Powhatan, Cheraw, Choctaw, Yuchi, Cherokee, Pamunkey, Mataponi, and Catawba (Elliott 1997; Everett 1999; Feest 1989; Goins 2000; Merrell 1989; Mira 2001; Mira 1998; Rountree 1990; Wilson 2001; Wilson 1992; Wood and Shields 2000).

            In the latest studies, (Hirschman 2003, Kennedy 1997, Yates 2003), researchers have argued that these early Iberian colonists are more accurately to be regarded as Sephardic Jews and Muslim Moors who had superficially converted to Christianity in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition and then made their way to the New World as colonists (and away from possible religious persecution in Europe).  This line of reasoning proposes that once on North American shores in what were to become South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, it would have been prudent for these colonists to desert their Spanish settlements (where the Inquisition’s tribunals soon followed) and make their way inland to the mountains.  The presence of Sephardic surnames among the Melungeons such as Chavis, Driggers (Rodrigues), Perry (Perrira), Rivas/Reeves, Lopes, and Steel (Castille) lends support to this argument.  Once in the mountains, these Spanish colonists would have intermarried with the resident Indian population, forming a bi-cultural/bi-racial community.

            After these initial Jewish-Muslim-Native American communities were formed, it is proposed, additional settlers of Sephardic and Moorish descent, coming from way stations in Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and England, supplemented the population, shifting its ethnic composition further toward Mediterranean, Semitic and North African ancestry (Hirschman 2005).  Surnames in the latter waves included, for example, Blackamoor, Allee, Cassel, Israel, Jacobs, Isbell, Hart, Hartsock (Hertzog), Mayo, Caro, Ferris, Talliaferro, Silber, Abrahams, Rasnick, Hassan, Remy, Cowan, and Isaacs; while Melungeon given names included, for instance, Allaphar, Adoniram, Mecca, Mahala, Talitha, Omar, Dionysus, Mosco, Juanita, Pharabba, Palestine, Esther, Sabra, Nimrod, Cyrus, Rico, Alonzo, Orra and Dovie (Hirschman 2005).

            Popular and scientific interest in the Melungeons was revived in 1994 with the publication of Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People by N. Brent Kennedy, a Melungeon born in Wise, Virginia.  After recovering from a near fatal attack of Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF), a genetically-linked illness unique to Mediterranean and Semitic peoples, Kennedy began investigating his own ancestry in order to discover how “a Scotch-Irish white boy could get a Mediterranean-Jewish-Arab disease”[i] – especially one requiring the presence of a recessive gene in both paternal and maternal ancestry.  Kennedy’s decidedly “non-white boy” appearance (see for an assortment of Melungeon photographs), as well as those of his parents, cousins and several neighbors dwelling in western Virginia’s Wise, Lee, and Scott counties, together with his discovery of falsified family records claiming “white” ancestry, led him to speculate that he was, in fact, of Melungeon descent.

            Kennedy had grown up in Appalachia and beenearly introduced to the term Melungeon; it referred to a mysterious, almost mythical, group of people who dwelled in the nearby mountains in remote settlements.  They were usually described as dark skinned, dark-haired and European-featured, occasionally with dark blue eyes (Ball 1992; Bible 1975).  According to local folklore, they were the descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors or Roanoke Island colonists[ii] who had intermarried with Indians and lived apart from white people.  In some accounts they were described as peaceful and shy; while others described them as violent and criminal (Ball 1976).  Kennedy recalled actually seeing some ‘real’ (i.e., publicly labeled) Melungeons as a child near his home in southwestern Virginia (Kennedy 1997).

            Unexpectedly, Kennedy’s book sold in the tens of thousands of copies.  In it, he had included a list of Appalachian surnames whose genealogies indicated Melungeon ancestry.  He also included photographs of several Melungeons from the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s who had lived in eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia, as well as Virginia.  He proposed that there were ancestral and cultural linkages between the Appalachian Melungeons and the North Carolina Lumbee Indians, the Pamunkey, Catawba, Powhatan and Eastern Band Cherokee Indian nations and Mestizo groups such as the Red Bones, Brass Ankles, Turks, and Cajuns of the coastal southeastern U.S. (Kennedy 1997). 

Within a four to five year period, many persons in Appalachia who had “gone to bed white, woke up to find themselves brown[iii]”.  And what was (possibly) more troubling – having gone to bed Christian, they awoke to find themselves having potentially Jewish and/or Muslim ancestry (Hirschman 2003).  The seemingly quaint practices of their grandparents – for instance, naming children Mecca, Omar, Menorah and Alzina, discarding eggs with blood spots, avoiding pork, and thoroughly washing and salting all other meats took on an ominous new meaning.


Inquiries into ethnicity have a lengthy history in consumer research.  Beginning with early attempts to describe racially-defined market segments (Bauer and Cunningham 1970), investigations became increasingly sophisticated, addressing issues such as consumer acculturation (Penalosa 1989, 1994), and post-assimilationist strategies (Askegaard, Arnould and Kjeldgaard 2005).  Ethnic identities enmeshed within this research tradition have included African-American (Oswald 1999), Hispanics (Deshpande, Hoyer and Donthu 1986), Indo-Pakistanis (Mehta and Belk 1991) and Inuit (Askegaard et al 2005). 

The present study differs from these predecessors in several theoretically substantive ways.  First, we explore the interaction of race and religion upon consumption as it is manifested within the Melungeon community.  While prior studies have delved into race as a socio-political category (e.g., Oswald 1999) and religion as a cultural shaper of consumption values (Hirschman 1981), to our knowledge these two forces have not been examined conjunctively within consumer research.

Second, the Melungeons spring from a bi-racial and/or tri-racial background; depending upon specific ancestral lineages, individual Melungeons maypossess African, European, Middle Eastern and Native American heritage.  As more American consumers become aware of their own multi-racial origins, the experiences of the Melungeons may serve as salient guides for anticipating changes in consumption in response to new racial knowledge.

Third, because the geographic locale of the Melungeons is both known and circumscribed, their community can be historically situated for purposes of diachronic analysis.  Kennedy (1997), for example, discusses the social evolution of his family from their early status as Free Persons of Color (FPC), during which time they were denied voting rights, to their falsified presentation of themselves as “white” persons of “Scots-Irish descent” – a transformation which also saw their surname altered from Canaday/Khanada to Kennedy.

To weave together these diverse aspects of our analysis, we use a theoretical stance that seems ideally suited to the Melungeons – ethnogenesis.  Hill (1996, p.1) describes ethnogenesis as “the historical emergence of a people who define themselves in relation to a socio-cultural…heritage” and further notes that “ethnogenesis can also serve as an analytical tool for developing critical historical approaches to culture as an ongoing process of conflict and struggle over a people’s existence…within…a general history of domination.”  Most commonly, the term ethnogenesis and its evolving theoretical framework have been used to ground research on the responses of indigenous and African-originating persons to the European colonization of the New World (see e.g. Hill 1996; Jones 2002).  Since the Melungeon people are situated within exactly this historical and cultural nexus, the framework is highly appropriate for them.

The term ethnogenesis was coined by William Sturtevant (1971) in a pathbreaking essay on the socio-cultural evolution of the Creek Indian tribe, originally dwelling in the southeastern United States, into the Seminole Confederation situated in Florida.  As Albers (1996) observes, Sturtevant’s analysis was the first to examine “broad transformational processes in ethnic group identification,…the long-term movements by which the ethnic identities of human communities get changed…(p.40)”.

Within our work, the present-day Melungeon community of Appalachia is described as a particular form of ethnogenetic phenomenon, one that represents “the rapid formation of an entirely new society and culture when individuals of diverse backgrounds are suddenly thrown together by fate and forced to create societies afresh…Such societies have been characterized by anthropologists as neoteric or cenogenic…for they embody unique and unprecedented biological and cultural blends…Many of these new societies owe their existence to the major upheavals and displacements of persons associated with European conquest and expansion during the last five centuries (p. 117).”  We will argue that the Melungeon community was originally formed during the 1500’s from just such social and political forces, and that it is now experiencing a re-discovery and re-birth through a second set of social forces – the post-modern desire for ethnic “rootedness” and the advent of genetic testing.

Primary focus is placed upon learning how Melungeons construct their self and ethnic identities through consumption practice.  As Stojanowski (2005, p. 417) observes, “the study of ethnicity, identity and ethnogenesis is one potentially unifying agenda for a holistic anthropology.”   We concur with this view and believe that analogously, an examination of ethnicity, identity, and ethnogenesis may serve as a unifying perspective for consumer behavior theory.

[i]  Personal communication, October 2000

[ii] The Roanoke Island Colony was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587.  By 1591, the hundred or so colonists had mysteriously disappeared (see Miller 2000)

[iii] Public comment by attendee at Melungeon Second Union, Wise, Virginia, 2001.

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part III

p. 11


The purposes of the present inquiry are threefold: first, we examine within an ethnogenic framework how persons of Melungeon ancestry are reconstructing their ethnic identity through purposeful changes in consumer behavior. We explore, for example, how food-ways, medical practices, and musical styles have been used to redefine these individuals’ sense of self and community, resulting in an emergent culture of consumption. This purposeful reconstruction of self through consumer behavior involves prospecting consumables not sampled previously in order to see if they are a comfortable fit for one’s new ethnic identity, and also retrospecting one’s traditional consumer preferences in an effort to discern novel ethnic meanings.

Second, our inquiry explores the social and personal struggles within the Melungeon community over the past five years resulting from access to newly available DNA data, genealogical records, and historical writings. This knowledge is being used to construct ethnic boundaries regarding who and what is a Melungeon. In short, modern Melungeon ethnogenesis is still very much in a fluid and volatile state. Of central interest in this regard is the social evolution of the ethnic label "Melungeon" from a derogatory racial term to one of sought-after status – from denigrating epithet to desirable personal possession. We explore the notion that certain, ‘exotic’ ethnic ancestries are emerging in multicultural postmodernism as important, valued symbols of personal uniqueness and can be core components of self identity (e.g., Bleakley 1997; Daniel 1992; Morello 2000). Newly desirable ethnic labels, such as Melungeon, often inspire contentious struggles over self and group definition precisely because they are now seen as valued symbolic possessions.

Third, the idea of ethnicity as a possession is carried more deeply into a consideration of personal physical traits becoming publicly recognized markers of ethnic membership. Because Melungeons have specific physical characteristics which set them apart from other ethnic communities, persons of Melungeon descent who possess more of these physical markers are deemed more ethnically genuine than descendants having fewer or none of these distinctive characteristics. We develop a discussion of the ethnicized body as an heirloom possession and specific physical markers as valued attributes (Curasi, Price and Arnould 2004).


We two authors are of Melungeon descent, something we became aware of around five years ago. Prior to that, we had identified ourselves ethnically as a WASP and an American Indian, respectively. Since learning of this ancestry, we have attended six Melungeon Gatherings during the summers of 2000 – 2005 both as observers and participants. These gatherings were instituted in 1998 in Wise, Virginia by Brent Kennedy and the Melungeon Heritage Association, and have been held subsequently in Kingsport, Tennessee (2), Sneedville, Tennessee, Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Frankfort, Kentucky, all locales of substantial Melungeon populations.

Additionally, extensive personal correspondence via e-mail, telephone, face-to-face conversations, and written mail/fax has been carried on between the two authors and several key members of the Melungeon community, including Brent Kennedy, Wayne Winkler, Jack Goins, Curtis Christie, Nancy Sparks Morrison, and Helen Campbell. These persons are cousins of ours and of each other, the Melungeon community being highly in-bred owing both to choice and geographic isolation. In constructing the present interpretation, we combined insights gained from direct discussions with the informants named above, Melungeon e-bulletin board postings, Melungeon Gathering presentations by diverse speakers and extensive readings in Appalachian regional history.


Patricia Albers in a 1996 paper, "Changing Patterns of Ethnicity in the Northeastern Plains, 1780-1870" does a compelling job describing the "transformations in ethnic identities based on cooperation and fusion" (p. 91) that took place among three Plains Indian tribes, the Ansinihoen, Cree and Ojibwa, who later merged with French, English and Indigenous metis groups. She develops a theoretical continuum of multi-ethnic fusion. In her view, "one end of the continuum is represented by polyethnic alliance formation in which different ethnic groups share territory, engage in joint military action, and collaborate in a variety of ceremonial and subsistence activities (p. 93)". She positions what she terms the emergent ethnic community at the other end of this continuum and states that here "the process of ethnogenesis has reached completion…Groups that were once distinct are now joined…In the process they not only form a political entity that is separate from their parent populations, but…an ethnic identification that is distinctive as well,…an identity that emphasizes unity and solidarity over any differences in their ethnic pasts (p. 93)."

An additional pattern Albers (1996, p. 93-94) describes residing toward the middle of the continuum is the hybridized group coalition: "here intermarriage and co-residency become so pervasive and widespread that local settlements with dual ethnic origins begin to constitute a socio-political body…apart from those of either parent bloc…At this point, ethnogenesis is not yet completed, because the hybrid populations still retain [an] umbilical connection to either or both parent blocs (p. 94)."

In our view, the originally-formed Melungeon community (1540 – 1890) constituted an emergent ethnic community; one which combined aspects of Sephardic Jewish, Muslim Moorish and Indigenous culture (see Hirschman 2005). Nearby hybridized communities tended to be dominated by Indigenous culture which Albers (1996) terms an ethnic bloc confederation. Included among these communities would be the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Pamunkey and Powhatan nations post-1650 (Kennedy 1997; Yates 2003). The Lumbee nation of North Carolina would likely constitute, as with the Melungeons, an emergent ethnic community (see Blu 1980).

Supporting this classification is the fact that among the Melungeon communities in Appalachia there were shared conventions of worship (Old Primitive Baptist), funerary procedures, foodways (e.g., ‘tomato’ and ‘chocolate’ gravy) and child-rearing patterns that set them apart from both white and indigenous settlements in the area (Bible 1975; Ball 1969; Kennedy 1997).

As will be discussed below, this original community was largely destroyed during the late 1800’s to early 1900’s as a result of racist activities which occurred at the local, state and federal levels. The present Melungeon community, in our view, is in the early stages of ethnogenesis – it is attempting to learn what it means to be a Melungeon. As we shall show, learning to consume like a Melungeon is a key ingredient in the ethnogenic process.

Early in the Melungeon Movement (1995-2000) efforts were made to extend consumption boundaries to the products and practices of those groups from which particular Melungeons believed themselves to be descended (Adams 2000, Wilson 2001, and see also Kennedy 1997). This frequently meantidentifying specific foodstuffs, musical styles, herbal remedies and so forth to sample and "see if it feels right", as one put it. As Melungeon ethnogenesis evolved from 2000 to the present, attention increasingly has turned to melding these newly-adopted ethnic folkways with the traditions of southern Appalachian regional culture with which most Melungeons grew up. At present, several Melungeons seem to have arrived at a comfortable homeostasis, balancing their former consumption patterns with newly acquired tastes and behaviors. We term this prospecting, because it suggests a purposeful searching to consume in ways viewed as appropriate to one’s new ethnic identity. Prospecting consumer behaviors may be directed toward any area of consumption, but most commonly seem to occur with regard to foodstuffs. Metaphorically we interpret this as a way of imbibing/sampling one’s new self; while metaphysically it implies re-constructing oneself from the inside out.

Occasionally, pre-existing Appalachian practices have been imbued with new meanings, as they become recognized as links to a previously invisible Melungeon ancestral past. We term this process retrospecting, as it involves the re-interpretation by group members of objects, practices, and behaviors they already engage in as being previously ‘hidden’ or ‘unseen’ markers of their new ethnic status. For example, the recollection that one’s grandparents strictly avoided pork had not been previously recognized as indicating Jewish or Muslim ethnicity.

Herbal Remedies

In several instances herbal remedies present in Appalachian culture for many generations have been retraced to Melungeon and American Indian roots. Because both of these ancestries were deemed a negative status within the southeastern U.S. until recently, the use of herbal medicines prior to Melungeon ethnogenesis usually was not attributed to one’s own ancestors, but rather said to be the province of a specific ‘herb doctor’ or ‘herb healer’ unrelated to oneself. Postings from the Melungeons @ Topic-A community bulletin board describe some of these remedies which now are publicly being claimed as part of the poster’s Melungeon ancestral history:

My great aunt got so aggravated when we couldn’t get her any more Swamp Root and Black Root. My father-in-law used slippery elm, yellow root, burdock root, calmus, and others. Catnip tea has a calming effect on the stomach…You can tie a piece of potato on a wart for a day or two and it will go away…, or [you can] go to one of our people here in the hills and they will rub it and it will go away. My wife can attest to that from experience. My wife’s elderly cousin once kissed our newborn infant, so that she would not have thrush mouth. (3/16/2003MTA)

My dad is into all the herbs…and like pressure points in your body…He does make lots of field trips to the foothills to collect specimens and take photos,…like wild tobacco and Indian herbs. He is a colorful little Melungeon…. Also to clear up seed warts,…he can make them come out and die…I had a large one on my foot… and he got rid of it right away… (3/16/2003 MTA)

I know grandpa grew herbs and used a cut stick just a little longer than my son was to cure him of asthma, and it worked…He could dowse for water, but his brother, Richmond Brewer, could not only dowse for it, but tell you how deep to dig. And of course, we had our ‘dreams’ and ‘feelings’ that came true. I still have them. It was never called magic in our family, but a gift from God to be used for good. If you used it for evil, it was dangerous. Grandma could take a needle, put it on a string, and it would go in a circle if you were having a girl and back and forth if you were having a boy…She was always right. Didn’t have ultra-sound back then, but didn’t need it. (1/28/2004) MTA

I know for a fact my kin kept some parts of [dangerous] animals they had [killed] up on their properties as charms of some kind, maybe to keep future animals at bay… I know my Dad’s Aunt Ella told me herself about a mountain lion that someone had killed and nailed a paw to the shed … (1/28/2004) MTA

My father taught me some about Cherokee medicine that he knew. We’d spend time looking for herbs in the woods together. Some of the herbal stuff he taught me has been tremendously useful in my life, and he taught me some of the Native spirituality he learned growing up…My friends when I was young were weirded out by some of the foods we ate, like pokeweed Jellico, roasted cat tails (young cattail plants can be cooked like corn on the cob, the roots can be made into a starchy flour), and venison jerky...My father was a Spencer who lived in North Carolina around the Grassy Creek area…He had ruddy skin, black hair and ice blue eyes…Had very Indian-looking features." (4/27/3003 MTA)

The attribution in the quote directly above to "Cherokee medicine" is what Albers (1996) would term an ‘umbilical link’ to one of the Melungeons’ founding ethnicities. Historically, several Southeastern indigenous communities fed into the Melungeon population from the 1500’s onward (Yates 2003). These became amalgamated after 1640 when susceptibility to European diseases caused a demographic collapse among Native populations across the Eastern seaboard (Stojanowski 2005). The Cherokees, a native nation already in place prior to the arrival of European colonists, intermarried with Europeans from the outset. This early pattern of hybridization likely saved both the Cherokee culture and population, as illnesses such as smallpox, typhus and measles decimated less mixed indigenous peoples (Albers 1996, Hill 1996; Sattler 1996; Stojanowski 2005; Yates 2003).

Because the Cherokee, by default, became the dominant indigenous nation in the area inhabited by Melungeons, those Melungeons who believe they have Native ancestors often label them as "Cherokee". In actuality, by the 1700’s the Cherokee were a collection of several surviving Native peoples; likely their folkways and genetics reflected a diversity gained from both Indigenous and European inputs. Thus, when current Melungeons hark back to Cherokee consumption practices, they are making attributions to an already ethnically mixed society.

However, it is important to understand the repatriation of Melungeons with their indigenous medicinal heritage as an act of complex and multi-layered meanings. On one level it represents a willingness to publicly avow animistic, non-scientific cultural practices. Most Melungeon medical traditions are based on Nature-grounded spirituality and what would be regarded by many American consumers as archaic superstition. The current willingness to not only publicly announce these practices, but to attest to their efficacy speaks to a new-found confidence in the wisdom of one’s forebears. On a different level, it gives voice to an anger and resentment toward the larger culture outside Appalachia, whose dominance and repressive ways led to ethnic abandonment or concealment over the past two to three generations. On yet an additional level, the reclamation of such practices signifies a bond across all those indigenous peoples made to feel less worthy, less desirable and less ‘evolved’ than the colonializing populations who engulfed them (Bell 2005; Haley and Wilcoxon 2005).

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part IV


Cooking & Foodways

            Several Melungeons have now discovered that they have Sephardic Jewish and Moorish Muslim ancestry, as well as American Indian.  There have been discussions on e-boards and at Melungeon gatherings of how Appalachian food ways may relate to Judaic kashrut and Islamic halal practices.  One tradition frequently described is the draining of blood from chickens during the slaughtering process[viii].  The posting below was titled “Doesn’t everybody hang their chickens on the clothes line?”

            I think this is pretty universal [among Melungeons].  It’s the most effective way to drain meat.  My dad raised hens down over the river bank for their eggs...When a hen stopped laying, she went in the pot and daddy would kill her out in the back yard.  First, he ‘wrung’ her neck to kill her quickly, and then he hung her by her feet on the clothesline.  He pulled the hen’s head back and with a very sharp knife, he cut her head off…By hanging the hen, the meat is not bruised, it is cleaner, and all the blood was spilt from the chicken’s body.  This part may be a Jewish custom by the way…The hen was removed from the line and dipped in boiling water, [so] her feathers were easily plucked…Then the hen was dipped in boiling water again and held over an open flame to remove any pinfeathers.              I know that Grandma Mary…would soak chicken in saltwater to “purify” it before frying: I do this still…Grandma Mary was a faith healer and “fasted” on occasion…I remember my mom checking out the matzoh in the grocery store when I was a kid and telling me about fasting. (1/17/2004 MTA)


Others recalled special rituals used to purify cooking utensils:


            …all pans were washed in boiling water before the first use, as well as any dishes and all cast iron pans/skillets [which] were coated with oil and then put in the oven for several hours to ‘cure’. (September 28, 2002 MTA)


            Yes, that is a Jewish koshering ritual.  All dishes, pots, pans, flatware, etc. must be rinsed, dipped or boiled in boiling water before the first use. (September 29, 2002 MTA)


            My grandmother always kept a large kettle of boiling water when we washed dishes… and then she rinsed them with more boiling water from the kettle.  This wasn’t just for new pots first use, but everyday dishwashing.  We also never ate an egg with a speck of blood.  We did eat pork though.  We swept to the center of the room, but that seemed to make sense; no one gave me a reason, and I didn’t question it…(September 29, 2002 MTA)


            Another custom from my dad’s family was that when it was a woman’s time of the month, she shouldn’t cook – that the food wouldn’t taste right. (September 29, 2002 MTA)


            I do recall that although [my mother] would occasionally cook and serve pork, she believed it wasn’t very healthy…, and she would overcook the dickens out of it.  Possibly this leeriness of pork could be tied to our pretty certain Sephardic Jewish heritage farther back…  (October 16, 2002 MTA)


            I’ve been waiting for one of y’all to mention hummus.  It’s my favorite…My daughter loves Mediterranean food.  She is pretty good at cooking it, and I always have it when I go to her house.  By the way, people who meet her often think she is Jewish or Arabic.  She does look like it, and so much like my mother’s family from Floyd County, Kentucky.  Almost black hair, olive skin, and brown eyes with green highlights.  She never sunburns, and I don’t either!  (July 10, 2003 MTA)


            Sephardic and Muslim ties were also prospectively explored via recipes linked to specific holidays, which some Melungeons are now beginning to celebrate.  For example, one Melungeon website presented a lengthy set of recipes appropriate for Purim, along with a discussion of the history of Sephardim in Persia, Morocco, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries  (MTA, February 12, 2003).  As with the allusions to Cherokee practices discussed earlier, these would represent what Albers (1996) terms the ‘umbilical’ connection to founding ethnicities.  Undoubtedly, as awareness of Melungeonness grows, many other such pieces of non-European, non-Christian early Americana will come to light.

Brenda, a Melungeon from Kentucky, posted the following message (MTA, Oct. 2005)

I have a Jewish surname (maiden), and my mother’s family were of Sephardic descent also.  Even though most of them had become conversos, my ggrandfather, Jacob Adkins, never set foot in a Christian church.  When I was 12 years old my maternal grandmother gave me a Star of David for my birthday, so she knew something… In recent years, as we have ‘come out of the closet’, headstones have been replaced in our family cemetery with the Star of David on them.


An Alabama Melungeon, Linda, responded to this message with the one below:


Brenda, I have a similar story.  My ggrandmother had a pair of silver candlesticks that she said had been in the family as long as she could remember and her mother called them Shabbot (sic) candles.  She used them at the evening meal and lit them.  I guess the Hebrew words were long since forgotten as there was no ceremony to go with the lighting of the candles.  My gmother sent my mother to a Southern Baptist church.  There was a great deal of prejudice against the Jews in the South.

[i] Public comment by attendee at Melungeon Second Union, Wise, Virginia, 2001.

[ii] Among these are: dark skin, dark hair, polydactillism, mandibular and palatal tori, Sinodonty, an Anatolian cranial ridge/bump, and genetic diseases such as FMF, Bechets syndrome, Sarcoidosis and Thalassemia.

[iii] The term ‘in-bred’, though generally considered derogatory, is used as a self-descriptor among persons of Melungeon descent.  As an epithet for endogamous marital patterns, it is also genealogically and genetically accurate for the Melungeon community.  In keeping with the present pulse of Melungeon ethnogenesis, it is considered desirable to have as many overlapping ancestral lines as possible—an odd twist on the widespread concern for “blood purity” found in the Americas since the earliest days of Spanish colonization (Haley and Wilcoxon 2005).

[iv] These are available at and

[v] Speakers have included archaeologists, epidemiologists, genealogists, biogeneticists, historians, novelists, sociologists, American Indian tribal leaders and a Turkish diplomat.

[vi] Indeed, they were negatively sanctioned and could result in loss of land and voting rights, as well as reduced educational and economic opportunity (Blau 1980; Dane and Greissman 1972; Forbes 1988; Gilbert 1947; Hardin 2000; Henige 1998; Price 1950; Werner 1973; Williamson 1980).

[vii] For example, the “Sizemore Tribe” which claims to be Cherokee, displays paternal genetic haplotypes which are both Native and European in origin (Yates 2003).

[viii] Remarkably, Melungeons seem to have also attempted to ‘kosher’ or ‘halal’ slaughtered hogs, by first draining all blood from the carcass, then soaking it in water and finally rubbing it with salt.  Because feral and domestic hogs were a primary protein source in pre-colonial and colonial times, they were often incorporated into the diets of even crypto-Jewish and crypto-Muslim settlers.

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part V

It is difficult to communicate the enormous ‘leap of faith’ which statements such as those quoted above about Islamic and Judaic practices represent within the Melungeon population. To provide some perspective, consider that the Appalachian town in which one of the authors was raised had only two (known) Jewish families; the nearest synagogue was approximately 90 miles away in Knoxville, TN. There were but a handful of Catholic families and the children of these attended a small parochial school. The rest of the population was solidly Protestant, and among these, even Episcopalians were considered ‘unusual’.

Religion carried racial overtones, as well. The three Jewish students in the author’s high school were not welcomed to date non-Jewish students and had to travel as far as Charleston, S.C. to acquire girlfriends/boyfriends during high school and college. Their ethnicity rendered them not-quite-white and they were placed in the same ‘off-limits’ social category as two other Semitic students at the high school – two girls whose grandparents had come from Syria and Lebanon, respectively, and who were Christian, not Muslim (see Haley and Wilcoxon 2005 for a compelling discussion of recent racial exclusivity in California).

This social ‘fencing off’ occurred despite the fact that several other students of (at the time unknown/unrecognized) Melungeon descent had virtually the same physical features as these ‘known’ Semites. The comment above by one Melungeon that her daughter "looks" Jewish or Arabic is quite accurate. Many Melungeons have a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance, yet their physical features remained invisible as markers of these ethnicities within the surrounding Appalachian population which deemed itself, and them, to be ‘white’ (see Bell 2005 for a discussion of how ‘whiteness’ was established as a racial, elite category in Colonial America).

To be willing to now step forward and acknowledge Jewish and Muslim ancestry and, to imbibe foods recognized as Jewish – or Muslim -- is not only to be willing to overturn generations of Christian church affiliation, but also to invite potential racial and ethnic hostility. Kennedy, for example, has announced having both Jewish and Muslim ancestry and has received death threats as a result.

Musical Traditions

Melungeons also have attempted to retrospectively trace the traditional Appalachian musical forms they grew up with to their newly discovered ethnic antecedents. The quote below concerns the dulcimer, an instrument indigenous to Appalachia.

I have a hammer dulcimer at home…I fell in love with the hammer dulcimer a few years back, thanks to the late Rich Mullins. I have heard the hammer dulcimer used in some of the newer TV commercials. My husband Dan tells me the hammer dulcimer is also a Jewish instrument, and around our house a lot of Jewish and Klezmer music is [now] being played – quite a change from being raised up in a country/bluegrass/folk music background. (August 4, 2004 MTA)

Another Melungeon list contributor posted an announcement she came across regarding Sephardic Jews, their diaspora from Spain, and their musical heritage:

In 1492 the Jews left Spain, which they called Sepharad, at the demand of the Inquisitors. They scattered worldwide, taking their culture with them. More than five centuries later their descendants still carry that heritage in ritual, prayer, story, and song…One member of the group The Sons of Sepharad….is none other than Chicago’s Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi...He is joined by an award-winning Sephardic guitarist, Morocco’s Gerard Edery…Edery also lends the group his own ensemble’s percussionist…Rex Benincasa. On tenor is a fellow Moroccan, cantor and oudist Aaron Bensoussan...Consuelo Luz’ voice is smoky and sultry, closer to Sade, Anita Baker…or her fellow Cuban, Celia Cruz. Luz was born in Chile where she was raised Catholic, only to discover and embrace her Jewish heritage later in life. (April 17, 2003, MTA)

Other Melungeons, who additionally have Roma/Gypsy heritage, claim to discern retrospective ethnic connections to traditional Appalachian musical forms, as well:

Musically speaking certainly there is a connection of the people of Roma and the stylings of the mountain music which evolved into bluegrass music. If you go to my ethnomusical site and click on the link for a sample of a Turkish man playing a Roma song, you can hear something very familiar. (May 9, 2003 MTA)

Perhaps as profound as discerning Roma, Sephardic or other ethnic traditions in Appalachian music, is the growing realization within the community that many of the earliest and most influential country music performers were actually Melungeon – a case in point being the Carter family of southwestern Virginia.

How was Mother Maebelle and A. P. Carter related?…My Mom saved a 1971 TV Guide story about them…The story says that "although Johnny Cash may be a star, Mother Maybelle is a whole chapter in the history of American music. Maybelle Addington Carter is the Queen Mother of country music. Members of the Carter Family singers were the single most influential force in American Country music from 1927 to World War II. Alvin Pleasant Carter (A. P.) was born in 1891 in Poor Valley [Va.]...One day in 1915 A. P. crossed Clinch Mountain and brought home a bride, Sarah Dougherty; then in 1926, A. P.’s brother brought home Sarah’s 17-year-old first cousin, Maybelle Addington. Maybelle brought as part of her trousseau a guitar." Sarah and Maebelle were first cousins…if I’ve got it right, Sarah married a Carter and Maebelle married a Carter. (September 6, 2003 MTA)

The retrospective discovery that the origins of Country music lie in a person-of-color subculture, especially one having Indigenous, Jewish and Muslim origins, may potentially lead to a re-framing of American culture, as

this musical form is perhaps the one considered to be most authentically ‘white’ and ‘American’.


In this section we explore Melungeon ethnicity as a social label that has been transformed over the past decade from a stigmatic identity, one that was hidden, denied and (if possible) discarded, to a prized personal possession, one that is displayed publicly with pride. We believe the lessons learned from the Melungeon experience are ones that are transferable to other multi-ethnic and multicultural ethnogenesis contexts and which expand the theoretical comprehension of consumers’ possessions to include one’s physical embodiment and social persona (Daniel 1992; Hall 1992; Thompson and Hirschman 1995).

From Mystery to Pariah

As with many examples of ethnogenesis, Melungeons entered the historical record as a people whose origins were uncertain: in an early magazine article (Arena, March 1891: 470-479) Drumgoole states:

When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks, who called themselves Malungeons, and claimed to be of Portuguese descent.

By the first national census in 1790, several of these Melungeons were being classified as Free Persons of Color (FPC) or Mulatto -- racial classifications that were to have severe political and economic consequences for them. Why? Because together with authorizing the first national census, Congress in 1790 also passed America’s first naturalization law– limiting U.S. citizenship to "free white persons" (Lombardo,, 2004; see also Bell 2005). Americans with visible African, Asian, Indian or other ‘non-white’ features were effectively disenfranchised.

In 1838 all persons in the southeastern U.S. having recognizable American Indian features or ancestry (including hundreds of Melungeons) were forcibly "rounded-up" and "removed" a distance of 500 miles to Oklahoma by the Federal Government (Sattler 2005; Wilson 1992).

The Trail of Tears commenced with Melungeons on both sides of the barricades, as indicated by the presence of Melungeon surnames recorded afterwards in both the eastern and western bands of the Cherokee, and letters from Cherokees to Melungeon researchers. One of these researchers makes a case that Sequoyah, founder of the Cherokee written language, was a Melungeon caught up in this ethnic cleansing. Some [Melungeons] were forced to march at gunpoint alongside their Cherokee brethren, while others who were able to pass as "Portuguese" were allowed to stay behind (Adams 2001, p. 5).

With the conclusion of the Civil War, the dark-complexioned Melungeon families were viewed with suspicion by those outside Appalachia as possibly being ‘tainted’ by black African ancestry (Beale 1957, 1972; Berry 1972; Dane and Greissman 1972). Further, the influx of non-English speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe (e.g., Poland, Russia) and the Mediterranean (Italians, Greeks) during the 1880-1910 period stimulated a white Protestant Nativist movement across the United States (Hardin 2000, Lombardo 2004).

Beginning around 1910, many prominent social scientists, including several anthropologists, sociologists, biologists and physicians, became enamored with the notion of eugenics—a philosophy advocating the encouragement of breedingdesirable human qualities, while actively discouraging the promulgation of undesirable traits (Berson and Cruz 2001; Dolan DNA Learning Center; Dwyer 2003; Tyner 1999). Among the traits deemed undesirable were any physical features linking one to African, American Indian or Asian ancestry, those races being classified as less intelligent, less evolved and less desirable than white Europeans (see e.g., Grant, 1916, The Passing of the Great Race; Ernest Cox, 1918, White America).

…Across the U.S., over 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized, including 8,300 within the state of Virginia in the first half of the 1900’s. This shocking period of America’s history began in 1907 with a mixed-ancestry group based in central Indiana, the Tribe of Ishmael…a mixed-ethnic Muslim tribe originating from Shawnee Indians, Celtic "Tinkers" and West African Fulanis… (Adams, 2001, p. 7)

In Virginia, the eugenics movement was used to disenfranchise the Melungeon population through the Racial Integrity Act. Those persons whose ancestors had been listed as FPC or Mulatto were deemed racially unfit and prohibited from voting, testifying in court, owning land, holding public office, attending whites-only public schools, or marrying "white" persons (Mangum 1940; Reuter 1918; Wilson 2001; Williamson 1980). Few Melungeons were willing to openly challenge this legislation; however,

…one brave Melungeon man from Coeburn Mountain, VA resisted. Blocked by an unrelenting line of white townspeople as he attempted to vote, an equally unrelenting Floyd Nash pulled out a pistol, shot at their feet and walked through the scattering, terrified crowd into the polls. (Kennedy, 1997, p. 44)

The legacy of the eugenics paradigm extended so long in fact that [Virginia] state anti-miscegenation [i.e., race mixing] laws were not officially declared illegal until the landmark Supreme Court decision in the mid-1960’s, Loving vs. Virginia. Even as recently as 1960, Melungeon Heritage Association President Connie Clark’s family was still hiding from census takers. (Adams 2001, p.7)

Concurrently, the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Sweetwater, Tennessee in 1868, gained political and social power and by the late 1910’s and early 1920’s was holding massive rallies in Washington, D.C.. As a result of these overwhelming repressive forces, virtually all Melungeon families ceased to tell their children their actual ethnic ancestry and instead manufactured fictitious genealogies – and often counterfeited birth certificates -- connecting themselves to British, German and French Protestant antecedents (Kennedy 1997; Wilson 2001). The Melungeon label was disavowed; one’s dark, Mediterranean and Indigenous features, always apparent when looking in the mirror, were denied; one’s ancestors were buried in deceit as "Christians"; one’s true self rendered invisible. As one Melungeon recently put it: "I feel like my whole background has been a lie." (MTA, September 29, 2002)

The Resurrection and Reconstruction of Melungeon Ethnicity:

The Process of Ethnogenesis

A journalist (Morello 2000) recently remarked, "There probably wouldn’t be a Melungeon Movement, if Kennedy hadn’t gotten sick in 1988". She is very likely correct. Kennedy’s near fatal attack of Familial Mediterranean Fever/Sarcoidosis, its initial misdiagnosis, and his later discovery that he was suffering from a genetically inherited disease linked to persons of Mediterranean descent, served as the impetus for his investigation of his family’s fictitious "Scotch-Irish" ancestry. Because Kennedy’s conjectures resonated with earlier Appalachian attempts to revive Melungeon history (Kingsport Times 1972; Nordheimer 1971; Yarbrough 1968, 1973), with the availability of personal DNA testing services, and with increasing societal acceptance and, upon occasion, celebration of multicultural/multiracial ancestry, the Melungeon Movement has flourished during the past decade.

Indeed, Melungeon ethnicity has become a prized asset to such an extent that there are now social, political and personal conflicts within the community over who has the right to claim this ethnic label. The core of the conflict lies in the geographic areas and ancestral lineages deemed to constitute "true", "pure" or "authentic" Melungeon-ness.

Because several early magazine and newspaper articles (e.g., Drumgoole 1890 a, b, 1891 a, b)) specified the Newman’s Ridge/Vardy area of Hancock County, Tennessee as a geographic area in which Melungeons lived, some of the present day residents in this area began claiming that only they are genuine Melungeons. As will be illustrated in texts below, these advocates viewed Melungeon ethnicity as restricted to only three or four ancestral lines and additionally proposed that one must live on Newman’s Ridge currently to be considered a Melungeon – this became labeled the "Ridge-only" criterion (Elder 2000). Not having ancestry from one of the proposed founding lines or having ancestors who had migrated away from the Newman’s Ridge/Vardy community rendered one non-Melungeon. Sociologically, this was a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, transformation of a stigmatized ethnic status from a liability to an asset, with exclusionary boundaries being established in less than a five-year period.

Because Melungeon ethnicity was now valuable, those persons who viewed themselves as Melungeons, but did not meet the "Ridge-only" geographic/ancestral criteria, responded with counter arguments supporting their claims to the ethnic label. For example, Curtis Christie, a Melungeon not from Newman’s Ridge, wrote to the Melungeon-List at Rootsweb:

(March 27, 2004) No one person: not a Ridge-only and not the [list] moderator should be allowed to (1) [let] the M-List to be used as someone’s - or some clique’s - little hobby horse with which to trample on the rights of others, or (2) to allow some philosophy to use it as a kind of power base from which to attempt a hostile takeover of Melungeon-ness, or (3) to unsub people as a way of proving who’s in charge…

Rick Stewart, a Melungeon and Cherokee descendant living in West Virginia, and also not from Newman’s Ridge, responded to this posting by stating:

Curtis, this was a very interesting post...Of the leaders in this Melungeon research, I trust only Nancy [Sparks Morrison], you, and Brent [Kennedy] and y’all’s opinions. From what I recall of the last definition, West Virginia and most of VA and NC were excluded from the term Melungeon… I have a fair amount of ancestry from Scott Co., VA, but have no desire to connect with the "Ridgers". [My ancestors] cleared out of Scott Co. for WVA and KY anyway with their dark complexions in the early 1800’s…" (Rick Stewart Mel-L List March 27, 2004)

Tim Hashaw, an African American and Melungeon descendant now living in Texas, voiced a similar response:

Curtis, we have lost numerous West Virginians, Virginians, eastern Kentuckians and others from Melungeon research [due] to the vagueness of the term Melungeon and the downright dismissal of our being Melungeons by the Ridge Onlys and others. These people could have contributed much to this research and are now gone due to bigotry ... (Mel-L, 2003)

The Melungeon-List exchange below between Brent Kennedy – ironically viewed by some Newman’s Ridge Melungeons as a ‘wannabe’ since he was born ‘over the line’ in Virginia, not 30 miles east on Newman’s Ridge in Tennessee -- and Jack Goins, a Newman’s Ridge ‘born and bred’ Melungeon, illustrates well the internecine bickering over the now-prized possession of Melungeoness.


Brent Kennedy to Jack Goins (Mel-L, 2003): Jack, you seem here, as opposed to your book (Goins 2003), to be defining the Melungeons as a very few families from which only you and a few others are descended. This is extraordinarily restrictive and, in my strong opinion, extraordinarily incorrect (and, again, in direct conflict with what you have written in your book). And, importantly, quite a few historians would vehemently disagree with this rather limited approach.

JG: I believe everyone should have the right to self-identification, but what comes with this right is the obligation to show proof of that identification, this is where family history and genealogy can be used to locate your possible Melungeon ancestors.

BK: I agree to some degree, but you can’t selectively toss out evidence that runs counter to your agenda. The URL links above provide a wealth of documentation, pre-Brent Kennedy, to confirm this point…

JG: … I have forefathers who are named by historians, one by Walter Plecker in 1924, as Melungeons. They suffered the discrimination that came with this label, so I have an obligation and the determination to seek the truth…

BK: Walter Plecker was not a historian. He was a racist [Virginia] state registrar intent on driving all people of color out of the accepted social structure. The fact that you call this man a "historian" is troubling. Regarding family involvement, I also have an emotional stake here. My Mullinses, among others, are documented Virginia Melungeons with East Tennessee roots. My Bollings came from Hancock County and helped start the Melungeons on High Knob/Stone Mountain. A lot of my family are also on Plecker’s lists... But, most importantly, I have no problem in remembering and honoring all my ancestors, regardless of where they migrated and settled. Newman’s Ridge, or High Knob, or Stone Mountain, or Coeburn Mountain are all wonderful places, but pride in family shouldn’t begin and end on these mountaintops.

At this point the Melungeon-List moderator, Dennis Maggard, stepped in to comment:

One can always define the word Melungeon to mean only the residents of one particular ridge – thisis a common propaganda technique known as "victory by definition" – but in so doing you have defined Melungeons to be a very small and relatively uninteresting group, except to itself and its family historians... It is the larger, broader group from which the residents of this one ridge sprang and to which they are related which is of real interest and of real significance in the history of colonial Virginia…and southern Appalachia. In my opinion this broader group has just as much claim to the name Melungeon as the residents of one ridge who just happened to be the first Melungeons identified as such to the outside world. It’s not about living on one ridge or another; it’s about a group of interrelated families sharing a common socio-economic status and common hardships, because of their common mixed race ancestry. (Mel-L 2003)

A second exchange between a "Ridge-only" descendant, Joanne Pezzullo and Virginia Melungeon Nancy Sparks Morrison, is given below:

JP: [The Melungeons] are but a few surnames: Gibson, Collins, Nichols, Bunch, Goodman, Williams and a few others. The Gibsons and Collins were the "head and the source" of the Melungeons. Not the bloated list floating around the internet.

NM: [Melungeons are] a kinship group, and that’s what’s important, not what they were called in any one place and time. We can call the group anything we want. It’s the kinship group that is important, not what it is called, though Melungeon certainly seems as good a name as any.

JP: Yes, you can call yourself anything you want.

NM: My real message is that it’s not the name that matters, it’s the people that matter…I think…that Melungeon refers to a mixed-race people living in the southern Appalachian mountains. This area may include WV, VA, MD, KY, TN, NC, SC, and AL. They are related in many ways to other mixed race groups such as the Lumbees, Brass Ankles, Redbones, Jackson Whites, and Wesorts…A very small group of people have tried to take over the Melungeons as their exclusive property, while the rest of us are put into the ‘wannabe’ category. I don’t ‘wannabe’ anything, I am!!

This exchange resulted in postings from other members pleading for community cohesion:

I am totally ashamed of all this bickering about who is who. We are us. Now let’s get back to tracking down those ancestors, throw in a few recipes, some of the ways of our people, and relax… Remember united we stand, divided we fall…(August 25, 2002 Mel-L) Brenda

Melungeons are Melungeons because [they have] a shared history...All should be welcome and no one should be run off as several have in recent days...I can tellyou that in the early days of this list, that sense of community was felt here …But we are driving away folks from our shared community, just when we have really found that community. Will you join me in trying to make this a better one? (2002 Mel-L) Nancy [Sparks Morrison]


Despite these conflicts, in the past few years substantial progress has been made toward re-building community solidarity among Melungeons. Among the most powerful vehicles for this have been the annual summer "gatherings" sponsored by the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA), at which persons from several Melungeon communities, as well as Melungeon-related American Indian tribes (e.g., Cherokee, Lumbee) are invited to participate and invited scholars (e.g., Paul Lombardo, Calvin Beale) discuss social and medical issues relevant to the Melungeon people.

Because few present day Melungeons experience racial or ethnic discrimination and are not generally classified as minority group members qualified for special consideration under Federal and State affirmative action policies, the struggle over the label Melungeon represents one’s right to claim this title as a personal possession, in and of itself. This position stands in contrast to the internecine struggles within American Indian communities, where being designated Cherokee or Lumbee or Lakota does imply access to valuable economic resources. Further, because even "Ridge-only" Melungeons are rarely able to assert their Melungeon ethnicity in everyday life by displaying, say, their genealogies or other social "proofs" of their ethnic status, other physically visible personal markers have come into play as evidence of Melungeon identity. These are discussed in the next section.

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part VI

p. 33


Perhaps one of the most theoretically intriguing aspects of Melungeon ethnogenesis is that the majority of present day group members have "passed" for "white" over the course of their lives. It is only during the past decade that most have discovered that they are carrying Iberian, Semitic, American Indian, Roma, and sub-Saharan African ancestry and had grandparents, great grandparents or more distant ancestors who were publicly viewed as non-white and classified as Free Persons of Color (FPC) or Mulatto.

While some contemporary Melungeons are quite light complexioned, even having blonde or red hair and fair skin, the majority are darker, with what is commonly described as ‘olive’ or ‘copper’ toned skin, brunette or black hair, and dark brown eyes. Ironically, despite having Mediterranean or Middle Eastern physiognomies, many Melungeons grew up entirely confident of their ostensibly Northern or Western European ancestry. This self-deception often originated with parents or grandparents who told the individual that s/he was Scotch-Irish, English, French and/or German. If challenged by the skeptical child that s/he seemed to be darker than most Scottish or French persons, the parent/grandparent might reply that this was due to some Black Dutch or Black Irish ancestry.

As Melungeon ethnogenesis progressed, more distinctive physical markers than dark coloring were sought to determine if one had Melungeon ancestry. For example, Hispanics and bi-racial persons (mulattos) were already ‘known’ entities. How could Melungeons be differentiated from other dark colored persons? Were there physical characteristics other than coloring which set them apart?

The answer was "yes". Beginning in 1994 with the first edition of Kennedy’s book, a set of physical characteristics began to be circulated both within and outside the Melungeon community which was deemed indicative of Melungeon ancestry. These included (1) a cranial ridge or protuberance at the rear of the skull attributed to Anatolian and/or American Indian ancestry, (2) sinodonty ("shovel teeth"), a non-European tooth form found in East Asians, Inuit, and American Indians, (3) polydactilism (most commonly in the form of six digits on hands and/or feet), (4) Thallasemia, a genetically transmitted anemic condition most common in persons of Mediterranean, African and East Asian descent, (5) Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF), a genetically-restricted disease found among North African Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Turks and Arabs, and (6) palatal and mandibular mouth tori; these are bony growths in the roof of the mouth found among the Inuit, American Indians and East Asians (palatal) and along the lower jaw among sub-Saharan Africans (mandibular), (see Melungeon Health Education and Support Network,

Because these features came to be identified as Melungeon ethnic signifiers, they soon acquired the status of sought after personal attributes. Possessing at least one or more, and preferably all, of these physical markers served to signal one’s authenticity as a Melungeon. Absence of the markers on one’s physical being cast doubt on one’s Melungeon ethnicity. These features expanded into a wider set as additional markers were reported and linked to the specific ethnicities which fed into the Melungeon community. A September 26, 2002 post to MTA states,

I am a great believer in the efficacy of accepted anthropological traits. I have the mandibular tori of African-Americans. I have a textbook-perfect set of shovel teeth, proven to be connected to Native American ancestry. And although the following traits are more suggestive than "provable", I have olive skin, high cheekbones, crooked fingers…The Indian and Black came from somewhere! Just haven’t found where…


And possible physiological links to Ottoman-era Turks were also described:

We believe he had Melungeon ancestry also – you could look at him and tell it. He had an exotic nose that would have been at home on a Turkish seaman. There were others, particularly in his mother’s family, who looked the part. (September 28, 2002 MTA)

But most common were claims of American Indian ancestry:

I have the teeth, the mandibular tori-bilateral, the Asian cranial bump, and I understand my (maternal) mtDNA will come back as Haplotype U...It was supposed to be NA (Native American)…Well, I guess not, even though [my grandmother] sure looked it and it was stated in her family papers. I have her portrait: 4 feet tall, black hair, black eyes, olive complexion, no lips, round face, "hook" nose, Asian eyes. I look forward to a detailed explanation of the U haplotype. (September 30, 2002 MTA)

The reference to DNA haplotypes in the above posting leads us to a second significant – and very recent – set of Melungeon markers. In 1998, the first public commercial DNA testing service was launched (, and was shortly followed by several others. These services offered consumers – for the first time in history – the opportunity to privately order DNA testing of bodily tissues in order to link oneself to specific geographic areas and ethnic groups. For Melungeons, this seemed like a god-send: finally, a scientific method to prove one’s Melungeon ethnicity.

Earlier DNA studies using medical blood samples collected from 177 Appalachian Melungeons found that their closest matches to present world populations were in Libya, the Canary Islands, Malta, Veneto and Trentino (Italy), Cyprus, and Galicia (Spain) (Guthrie 1990). These findings tended to support the oral history of some Melungeons as being primarily "Portuguese", and are also consistent with current claims of descent from Sephardic Jews, Muslim Moors, Roma/Gypsies, Turks and other Mediterranean peoples.

Yet specific Melungeons still did not know who, exactly, their ancestors were among these several possibilities. The availability of inexpensive ($99 y-chromosome, $149 mtDNA; $175 autosomal) personalized DNA tests permitted individual Melungeons to send in samples and find out "who am I" genetically. Persons receiving back results that were consistent with Iberian, Semitic, Turkish, American Indian, and so forth, ancestry now had tangible evidence that they "were" Melungeon. Kennedy, the early Melungeon researcher, was one of the first to send in his DNA sample and receive his genetic vindication.

My mitochondrial DNA, which I inherited from my mother, matches the Siddis of India. The dark-skinned Siddis likely originated from what today is Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia – sub-Saharan, east Africa. They were transported to India in a variety of ways, most not so pleasant, and formed a major component of what became known as the Untouchable Caste. Their lives – and the life of my ancestral Mother – must have been horribly difficult. But she survived long enough to have at least one daughter and that daughter did likewise. And generation after generation this original…girl’s DNA was passed along until, in 1950, it came to me… (September 2002 MTA)

He then tied this finding back to the medical markers already recognized within the Melungeon population:

From a health standpoint alone we need to know who we are. Within the documented Melungeon population we have hundreds of confirmed cases of thallasemia (both alpha and beta, a clear Mediterranean connection), as well as Behcet’s Disease, Machado-Joseph Disease, sarcoidosis, and Familial Mediterranean Fever…FMF is considered by the medical establishment as an ethnically restricted disease, believed to have first mutated several thousand years ago in what today is Israel/Palestine, and is found among North African Jews, Turks, Armenians, and Arabs (particularly the Arab Druze). I have cousins on both sides who have been diagnosed with FMF as well…

As a result of the proper diagnosis, I was… placed on a single tablet of colchicine-- a wonder drug for FMF. I can now walk without a cane and my fever bouts are virtually gone. It is important to know who we are… (September 2002 MTA)

Analogously, Nancy Sparks Morrison, administrator of one of the Melungeon web lists, posts:

I have Familial Mediterranean Fever…My own mtDNA shows both Syrian and Turkiq input. My father’s mtDNA shows the possibility of Sephardic Jewish input, and one of his connecting lines has proven Sephardic markers. (Mel-L, 2002)

And another Melungeon list administrator exulted:

Given the scientific validity of the DNA study,…its results are not a matter of opinion but of fact. That is the beauty of science. And one of the beauties of DNA analysis is that it can shed the light of scientific fact on questions long fraught with opinions and conjectures. Dennis Maggard (Mel-L, 2002)

The Melungeon experience opens a potentially very significant new avenue for the study of ethnogenesis. By problematizing both body features and genetic endowments, it brings to the foreground aspects of ethnicity that previously had been backgrounded in recent anthropology and consumer research. With some notable exceptions (e.g., Stojanowski 2005), the physical features of an ethnic group have not been attended to in either literature. Often it is simply ‘taken for granted’ that group membership is readily apparent through visible, but unspoken, cues. By delineating a community-circulated set of physical traits, the Melungeons have de-naturalized their own bodies and identified specific ‘pieces’ as having ethnic meaning. Because these ethnic features are passed forward to future generations through genetic-linkage, they can be viewed as a type of bequest or heirloom (Curasi, Price and Arnould 2004). Notably, Melungeons now report inspecting infants and children for these physical features, andexpress satisfaction if they have been "carried forward".

Dennis Maggard’s statements above regarding DNA testing and the validity of science in determining ethnicity also points to another novel aspect of Melungeon ethnogenesis. Very probably, the Melungeons are the first ethnic group to avail themselves of commercial DNA testing to determine community origins and, ultimately, individual membership. The community’s hybrid racial ancestry and purposely obfuscated genealogical records made the acquisition of personal ethnic knowledge difficult, if not impossible, using traditional genealogical and census techniques (Haley and Wilcoxon 2005). DNA testing has helped many answer the "who am I?" question, at least in a partial sense. DNA results have also been used to respond to critics (Elder 1999, De Marce 1992, 1993) who had rejected Melungeons’ claims to Middle Eastern, Roma, Turkiq and Indigenous ancestry. We believe that the Melungeon experience is likely to be a forerunner to the widespread use of DNA testing to establish ethnic membership.


Let us now develop in more exacting detail the three strands of theory to which our study has contributed. First we will consider what the process of learning to consume like a Melungeon might teach us about the role of consumption in constructing ethnic identity.

Second, we suggest that the journey of Melungeon ethnicity from racial epithet to hidden identity to valued personal possession should stimulate a reconsideration of the ontological, social and personal nature of ethnicity in consumer research. Analogously, the Melungeons’ evolving mixture of "black", "brown" and "red" racial categories from "colored" to "white", and now returning to "colored", should motivate the reconceptualization of race as a social and cultural ascription used to theorize about consumer behavior. Finally the Melungeon experience suggests additionally that we should not just problematize the physical characteristics of the human body (e.g., Thompson and Hirschman 1995), but rather re-cast them as personal possessions capable of signaling ethnic status and community membership (Harris 1993).

Can Consumption Create Ethnicity?

One of the primary arguments advanced in the present study is that individuals and groups can use their behavior as consumers to construct an ethnic identity. This proposition reverses the causality usually observed and assumed between ethnicity and consumption; i.e., that a person’s ethnicity will direct his/her consumption preferences, practices and behaviors. In virtually all consumer research on ethnicity, as well as the sociological and anthropological literatures, ethnicity is seen as preceding consumption. Even in studies of national culture and subcultures, the pre-existence of one’s membership is taken as the starting point for inquiry, with the attitudes and behaviors observed then being attributed to one’s cultural membership.

Conversely, the Melungeon experience is more akin to the process of assimilation experienced by persons coming to a new country. Like recent immigrants, they have arrived in a novel land and must choose how to make sense of it. Sampling the food, the music and observing the folkways are among the most common means of ‘opting in’ to a new culture (e.g., Penalosa 1994).

The Melungeon experience, however, is not fully consistent with an assimilationist model. Rather than being strangers in a strange land who must choose either to cluster together into a community and retain (and perhaps even celebrate) their strangeness, the Melungeons are strangers in their own land. They have been given sudden knowledge that estranges them from their own identity. Recall the statements made by some of our informants: "I feel like my whole background has been a lie", "I went to bed white and woke up brown". These reflect the suddenness with which many in

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part VII


the community have been forced to deal with an existential crisis that is confronted by few other consumers.

One of the central ways in which these people chose to be re-born as Melungeons was through consumption. Recipes and herbal remedies are shared at the annual gatherings and over the internet, providing a material basis for community. Photograph albums, candlesticks, pieces of apparel and stories are brought to meetings and displayed, helping to create a collection of ethnic icons.

A second theoretical contribution from these diverse, and occasionally painful, aspects of Melungeon re-birth is that ethnogenesis is shown to be both a forward and backward looking process, assisted in both directions by consumption choices. New Melungeons trace their ethnic ancestry through retrospective examination of personal history which now is recast as a series of Kiplingesque "just so" stories: so that is why Grandma always washed and salted meat before cooking; so that is why my parents and uncles and aunts were all married at home and not in a church; so that is why ggggmother Rasnick had those silver candlesticks with eight branches; so that is why Dad’s ggguncle was named Omar; so that is why the women were always seated separate from and behind the men in church. Old knowledges are retold in new stories; a different sense of the past—and of self—is born.

This process of ethnic rebirth also looks forward. It is directed strongly and purposefully toward grasping what is now felt as missing: "I will show my children all these things, so they will know where they came from and who they are". This is ethnic identity re-construction through consumption, and it is both powerful and dynamic. Continuing to monitor Melungeonethnogenesis over the next decade will likely lead to additional insights regarding how consumption can contribute not only to ethnic self identity creation, but also to the ways in which this identity is maintained and enhanced.

Color, Race, Religion, Genes and All That.

The process of Melungeon ethnogenesis also has much to teach about color, race, religion and genes as social devices. The persons composing the Melungeon community are by and large regular people, i.e., folks. Most are high school or college-educated and have always lived within the Appalachian region. Their understandings of race, religion and genetics are, therefore, probably similar to those shared by most Americans. In this view, notions such as race (e.g., black, white, Indian, Asian) and religion (e.g., Christian (Protestant), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) are conceived as fundamental qualities that are a permanent feature of the individual, in much the same way that one’s hair, fingerprints or voice are. This way of framing race and religion is of course, at strong odds with the way in which many (likely most) social scientists conceive these same entities.

The sense that emerges from Melungeon discussions of race is that it is not an optional feature; rather race is a key, fundamental aspect of one’s identity and existence. Further, their multi-racial ancestry means to them that they belong to each of the races that has contributed to their existence. For example, a Melungeon may learn that s/he has, say, African, Siddi, Roma, Indigenous and Semitic ancestors. The probable belief of this individual will then be that he or she belongs to these peoples and that these peoples belong to him or her. They share an ancestral affinity; they are kin.

This is one of the reasons why it was (and is) so important to many Melungoens to "have their DNA tested" to see who they are related to; to learn what they are "made up of". This is essentialism at its most basic, grounded level. But what must be recognized is that it is for these people a genuine, profound expression of self.

Akin to this is the view of religion as expressed by Melungeons at their gatherings and in the website postings we have quoted. Religion within the Melungeon ethnogenesis experience often is something that is deemed to be hereditable from ancestors; it is "in the blood", at least in an emotional sense. The reasoning goes like this: "my ancestors were, say, Jews/Muslims; they only pretended to be Christians because they were forced to do so; I am free to choose what I want to be, and I choose to be a Jew/Muslim, because that is what I was supposed to be; that is what I would have been, if my grandparents hadn’t been forced to hide it from me".

In this way of reasoning, the religious trajectory of the family is seen as interrupted by a violent historical event (e.g., the Inquisition, the Ku Klux Klan); the children were diverted into another religion; but now the truth has been learned and it is felt appropriate to correct this error. The person chooses to return to the religion s/he "should" have had.

My Body /My Self

Although other consumer research inquiries have addressed the problematization of the body’s physical features (e.g., Richins 1991; Thompson and Hirschman 1995; Schouten 1991), these were situated within the context of comparing the body to a cultural or gender-based normative standard. By way of contrast, Melungeon ethnogenesis has witnessed a dual interrogation of the body within an ethnicized context.

First, contemporary Melungeons have echoed ethnic movements such as the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s (Tucker 1994), by embracing person-of-color status and rejecting pressures to mimic "whiteness", both physically and culturally. In the Melungeon case this is perhaps even more marked a phenomenon because, unlike most Americans of African descent, most Melungeons had been ‘passing’ (unknowingly) as white for the past two generations. Because their grandparents’ efforts at erasing their public coloredness had been largely successful, most of this and the earlier generation grew up as ‘white’ people – only later learning that they were Iberian, African, Semitic, Roma, and Native.

Their transition to being colored, however, has doubtless been substantially eased by the contemporaneous embracing of multiculturalism (Root 1994, 1996). Having mixed and/or dark ancestry is no longer as stigmatized as it was, say thirty years ago, although in the Southeastern region of the U.S. it is fair to say it is still not widely acknowledged or celebrated. If the Melungeon embracing of coloredness is generalizable to other people-of-color groups, then we may witness a movement away from white cultural standards of appearance in apparel, hair style, facial features (e.g., reduced cosmetic procedures or plastic surgeries to lighten skin, widen eyes, alter noses), food preferences, and the like, among adult Americans, as opposed to the mimicry of cultures-of-color by American white youth as a form of resistance and rebellion. Ultimately, ‘whiteness’ may become viewed simply as European ethnicity, rather than as a standard to be emulated.

Melungeon ethnogenesis has also directed our attention to the ways – and depths – to which the body may become a contested site of ethnic identity. On the body’s surface, this group has problematized features such as eyelid shape (positively valuing epicanthic folds), tooth form (positively valuing Sinodonty), cranial shape (positively valuing lower cranial ridges), polydactillism, and mouth structures (positively valuing mandibular and palatal tori). All these traits are deemed desirable, because they serve as ascriptive linkages to umbilical antecedents (Albers 1996).

However, perhaps more theoretically profound than these surface markers are Melungeons’ recent efforts at delving into their genetic structures in the hopes of identifying – at the molecular level—definitive proof of personal identity. What they find is what many of them consider the ultimate clue to identity – a set of genetic, markers that ties them to the Siddi girl, the Syrian man, the Ottoman Turk or Indigenous woman that lurks in the past’s darkness waiting to be discovered. The notion that consumer identity may arise, in some cases, from physical sources within the individual, as much as from material entities external to the self presents a fundamental challenge to consumer research.


The Melungeons are a small, geographically constrained ethnic group dwelling in an overlooked region of the United States. Yet their birth, death and re-emergence as a people is a pattern of ethnogenesis that will likely be repeated with increasing frequency over the next few decades. There are many other such populations and subcultures whose origins had been mislaid – or purposely obscured – for periods ranging from a few generations to centuries. As they now are being rediscovered both by themselves and by outside observers, the search for their true origins will commence and doubtless lead to many of the same issues, problems and responses witnessed among the Melungeons. Similarly, persons who are aware they possess mixed ancestry may feel a stronger pull to explore all of their legacies, now that our culture is more accepting of multi-source origins.