The history of the Melungeons is a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces missing ever to assemble a clear picture, but what does emerge is too fascinating to ignore. The Melungeons in America arrived before there was anyone to record their presence, and to this day, even they cannot be sure as to their history. Ethnologists have offered many conflicting theories, but until recently none of them fitted neatly with what little evidence is available.
The fact that the Melungeons are a distinct people might not even have been known today were it not for the physical traits that mark them apart from other ethnic groups in Appalachia. For the Melungeons, this phenotype has been the bane of their existence.
Many exhibit the typical features of Europeans, slim-faced, with lanky builds and often fair hair and blue eyes, but with dark, sometimes almost Negroid skin. Marriages outside of the Melungeon community have diluted these characteristics to an extent, but older photographs reveal some who can only be described as black-skinned white people.
The theories about the origins of the Melungeons are many and varied. Until recently, the most widely-accepted theory held them to be a "tri-racial isolate" of Black, White and Native stocks. Some of the wilder ones suggest that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel; descendants of the Welsh explorer Madoc, who visited the southern Appalachians in the 1100s according to Richard Hakluyt's Voyages (1582) or possibly the remnants of Sir Walter Raleigh's ill-fated Roanoke Colony of 1587.
Raleigh's Roanoke Colony is the terrestrial equivalent of the Mary Celeste. The first supply ship to arrive at the colony after two years discovered it to be deserted. There were no clues as to the fate of the settlers save the word 'Croatoan', the name of a nearby island, carved into a door-post. A visit to the island shed no light, the local natives unaware that they had moved on. But even if they had upped sticks and moved inland to the Appalachians, there is no accounting for the distinct racial features the Melungeons possess.
Melungeon is any member of a particular set of populations in the United States, concerning whom a rich variety of theories exist regarding their ethnic, linguistic, cultural and geographic connections.
The term Melungeon is often seen as a 'test' of the nature and notion of nationhood, as it encompasses so many of the aspects which characterise both distinctly non-national and national entities, in particular that of a diaspora without a unitary homeland.
The extent to which any of these aspects constitute a unique or specific 'race' or ethnicity is controversial, because members of this group are considered to be ethnically mixed rather than exhibiting characteristics which can be incontrovertibly classified as being of a single racial phenotype. The Melungeons currently inhabit the south-eastern United States as well as southern Ohio and Indiana. "Melungeon" is the term applied to those group members living in:
* eastern Kentucky
* south-western Virginia
* eastern Tennessee
* southern West Virginia
Potentially related populations also include:
* Carmel Indians of southern Ohio
* Brown People of Kentucky
* Guineas of West Virginia
* We-Sorts of Maryland
* Nanticoke-Moors of Delaware
* Cubans and Portuguese in North Carolina
* Turks and Brass Ankles of South Carolina
* Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Among the Native Americans, connections exist within:
* Algonquian tribes of eastern and central Virginia
Each of these groupings of Melungeons has a particular history and culture, but historical evidence shows relationships between them and indicates a common origin.
Melungeons claim to be of the following origin:
* Native Americans
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins are confirmed by contemporary genetic and medical evidence. A 1990 gene frequency study (Guthrie, Tennessee Anthropologist, Spring 1990) utilizing 177 Melungeon blood samples showed no significant differences between eastern Tennessee and south-western Virginia Melungeons and populations in:
* North Africa
Physical traits such as sexdactyly, "Indian toes" and the Anatolian bump are common in the Melungeon bloodline and hark back to the ancestral populations in Turkey, the Americas, etc.
The Melungeon population have been determined to suffer from the following genetic conditions (genetic ailments are often seen as a defining characteristic of racial specificity):
* Behcet's Syndrome
* Machado-Joseph (Azorean) Disease
* Familial Mediterranean Fever
The number of Melungeon and Native American terms which have been preliminarily linked with Ottoman period Turkish and Arabic words with identical pronunciations and meaning (and thus 'reinforce the Melungeon construct') is at least 1000. The origin of "Melungeon" as a term is highly controversial.