The Indian Ancestry of the Melungeons
A Summary of the Lecture Delivered Before the
Melungeon Heritage Association 2000 – 2006 Regarding the
Indian Ancestry of the East Tennessee Melungeons
James H. Nickens
Virginia Indian Historical Society
Melungeon Heritage Association
Mid-Atlantic Native American Researchers
June 8-10, 2006
My first encounter with the Melungeons was through a daily newspaper. The reference was to a mysterious people living in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, a historic people of unknown origin. Until then I had never heard the word Melungeon. A trip to the Bull Run Library in Manassas, Virginia produced a copy of a book about Melungeons written by Brent Kennedy. To my astonishment I found the name Niccans (Nickens) listed by Kennedy as a Tennessee Melungeon surname.
In late October of that same year I received a call originating from the Meherrin Tribal Pow Wow in Winton, North Carolina. Rose Powhatan, a cousin from the Pamunkey Tribe of my Gr Gr Grandfather, had met a dancer there who was a Tennessee Indian Commissioner by the name of James Nickens. Rose was certain that James and I were related, and stated that “from the looks of you two, you have got to be cousins”.
That night I received a call from James, better known as Eddie, and the Tennessee connection was made. Later conversation with Eddie’s father, Thomas Nickens, revealed that his ancestors were of the Meherrin Tribe, who in Tennessee had called themselves “Portagee” since the time that Indian removal was threatened in the 1830’s. At that time, an ugly but popular component of American thought was that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
Thomas gave me the address of a Florida cousin, Dr. Carolyn Nickens , an anthropologist by training. In a letter of December 29, 1999, Dr. Nickens related an incident which had taken place about 15 years earlier, when she accompanied a Collins descendant to Sneedville, Tennessee on a heritage quest. There they met “a very old man whose name was Bill Grohse”. To Carolyn’s surprise, Grohse stated “You do know that Nickens is a Melungeon name.”
Until that time, The Virginia Indian Historical Society had devoted its efforts to the genealogical tracking of a close kinship group from the Jamestown era Rappahannock Indian Nation to the old Cuttatawomen Indian Town, and thence to the Meherrin, Chowanoke, and Nansemond Tribes, with earlier links to the Lower Cherokee and the Shawnee of Winchester, and later links to the Catawba, Pamunkey, Tuscarora, and the supposedly “extinct” Nanzatico and Chiskiack people. With the letter from Carolyn Nickens, our attentions took a sharp turn to the west into the great state of Tennessee, home of the Melungeons.
Tennessee was a lay-over point in the migration of coastal Indian people to the western Indian Nations. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, migrants from east of the Appalachian Mountains pushed westward into contested Indian Lands. The new United States Government erected The Territory of the United States Southwest of the Ohio River. Revolutionary war veterans were encouraged to settle these territorial lands. Much of this territory today lies in the state of Tennessee.
Among the pioneers were specific Indian descendants of specific colonial era tribes of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Many were patriots in the American Revolutionary cause. Others had good reason to see the colonials as their true enemy, and supported the King by default. It is no accident that the names Bass, Collins, Gibson, Hart, Minor, Riddle, and Sizemore are prominent among the Tories, Loyalist, and North Carolina Regulators.
These citizen Indian migrants came in kinship groups, acquired land, established farms, and raised families. One such group settled a remote area in the mountains of East Tennessee. These were reputed to have been “the friendly Indians who came with the whites as they moved west”, and who had helped to build Fort Blackmore.
Over time these settlers were joined by and intermarried with other migrants from the east. The citizens of this distinctive community came to be recognizable by their relatively darker skin tone and unexplained exotic physical features. Local whites noted the unique nature of this community and gave a name to the swarthy mountain people – Melungeons .
The ethnic identity and origins of the Melungeon people have perplexed investigators of every stripe for more than a century. Imaginative theories have suggested Phoenician, Carthaginian, Portuguese, Turkish, and early Welsh origins. Others believed the Melungeons were a lost tribe of Israel or survivors of the Roanoke Colony. Speculation grew that Melungeons were descended from Spanish explorers, shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, or Turkish Pirates. Court cases established Melungeon as a distinct yet problematic racial identity - that of a relatively dark mountain people formerly classified as Free People of Color but later reclassified as white. Melungeons thus became the stuff of legend.
The earliest responsible first hand accounts are consistent in identifying the Melungeon patriarchs as the Indians Vardeman Collins and Sheppard Gibson. Among later migrants were descendants of “Gowin the Indian“ of York County, Virginia. Many and varied physical descriptions have been recorded of the Melungeons. Among those recorded descriptions are “Indian “, “not as dark as the Indian “, and “a race of light skinned Indians”. Note was later made of a dark skinned exotic strain with straight black hair, further adding to the Melungeon mystery. This strain has proven to be of particular interest, opening a new chapter of Melungeon Lore.
Nevertheless, the recurrent theme in Melungeon lore has been that of Indian ancestry. It is this aspect of the Melungeons which commands the attention of the Virginia Indian Historical society. Cherokee ancestry has generally presumed by the Melungeon people, and may indeed be true even if undocumented. Various investigators have stated that the Melungeons of east Tennessee were Saponi Indians, or were descendants of Powhatan tribes. It is, however, the Tuscarora and Catawba who supply recorded links to the east Tennessee Melungeon population. It is here that genealogy provides answers that have eluded historians.
The systematic investigation of the Melungeons began by lumping the Melungeons with a variety of so-called mystery people, populations which fell outside of the white-black-mulatto racial construct. The term Tri-Racial Isolates was adopted in reference to these aloof rogue elements of American society. The uninformed assumption was made that these populations were some ill defined mixture of the perceived races, presumably Indian, white and Negro.
The conclusions of the Tri-Racial Isolate theorists are marred in four critical areas:
1. Lack of sufficient knowledge of Indian history
2. Lack of familiarity with Indian genealogy
4. Failure to identify Indian people outside of a historical tribal context
3. A race driven paradigm which ignores ethnicity
In short – Insufficient Research.
Minimal genealogical effort and research into Indian history would have clearly identified the so-called Lassiter Tribe as Chowanoke Indians. These same Chowanokes, who settled among the Alabama Choctaw in Mobile and Washington Counties, Alabama were called Cajans by tri- racial isolate proponents. They are still there among the Choctaw. Meherrin, Nottoway, and Tuscarora migrants were called Redbones in Louisiana.
In fairness to Tri-racial isolate theorist, it should be noted that the research upon which their theories were based occurred in a timeframe which predated the information age. The information disseminating power of the internet is not to be understated.
Genealogical examination of colonial records has demonstrated that not one single group in the south, formerly termed a Tri-racial Isolate group, is composed of only Indian, white, and Negro components. Most, if not all, have been shown to include the descendants of seventeenth century East Indian and Gypsy ( Rom ) Virginians. These are not new findings discovered in some obscure archaic source. This information has been available to the Virginia public for more than two hundred years, ignored by scholars who apparently preferred an American history composed only of white, slave, and free “African American“ components. Such a “preferred history” ignores the diverse ethnic fabric of colonial America, and disposes of Indian people in favor of a simple race-driven black-white social construct.
Given that those populations previously referred to as Tri-racial Isolates have been proven to be neither tri-racial nor isolated, it is the considered opinion of this investigator that Complex Ethnic Populations be coined as the more accurate and appropriate descriptor. It should be noted that each Complex Ethnic Population has an ancestry and history unique to that group.
The Melungeon Genesis lecture series is presented as an historical road map to the origins of the Melungeon people of East Tennessee. The genealogical focus is placed upon the Collins, Gibson, Gibson, and Goins families. Several aspects of American ethno history have been chosen for presentation in this series. These topics have been selected because of their historical importance bearing on the evolution of the Melungeon people. The narrow focus of this series is directed upon that Melungeon population in the environs of Newman’s Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Melungeon Genesis is an evolving and ongoing effort.