Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs

Was Elvis a Melungeon?


Elvis was born far from the hills of southwestern Virginia in Tupelo, Miss. But researcher Brent Kennedy, a college administrator in Wise, theorizes that the King, as well as Abraham Lincoln and Ava Gardner, might trace their ancestors to the mysterious Melungeons. These dark-skinned, blue-eyed people were first documented in Virginia’s Blue Ridge in the late 1700s. Over the years, various myths about their origin arose. Some believed they were either survivors from the Lost Colony of Roanoke or Portuguese shipwrecks. Others suggested they were descendents of one of the lost tribes of Israel or of early Carthaginian or Phoenician seamen.


Kennedy’s controversial 1994 book, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, is credited with reviving interest in this “little race.” He offered a theory, still debated today, that the mixed-race group can trace its lineage to Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 16th century and perhaps their Turkish sailors and slaves. The Mediterranean and Middle Eastern settlers later intermarried with Native Americans and freed slaves. Prior to Kennedy, sociologists and anthropologists had referred to Melungeons as “tri-racial isolates,” with Scotch-Irish, Native American and African-American origins.


Kennedy, who is a native of Wise, became interested in Melungeons when he was diagnosed with a rare disease that was most common among African Americans, people of Mediterranean descent and New England’s Portuguese immigrants. He had always been told his heritage was Scotch-Irish, despite physical evidence--swarthy family complexions--to the contrary.


Not only is Melungeon racial heritage clouded in mystery, but even the term has obscure roots. In the 17th century, the French encountered Mediterranean-skinned people with straight black hair, fine European features and high cheekbones in the North Carolina hills. They called themselves “Portyghee.” Thus, some scholars argue that “Melungeon” is a variation of the French “mélange” for “mixture” or “mixed-blood.” Others believe the term derives from the Portuguese “melungo” or “shipmate” or has Turkish or Arabic roots meaning “cursed soul.”


What is universally agreed is that the dark-skinned Melungeons were discriminated against by their Anglo-Saxon neighbors. Because they were thought to have intermarried with blacks, they were declared “free persons of color.” Melungeons were denied such rights, as the right to vote; own their own land; educate or send their children to school; defend themselves in court; or intermarry with anyone other than a Melungeon. The term itself became an insult. As the Scotch-Irish immigrants moved down the Shenandoah Valley, they pushed the Melungeons farther and farther into the remote hills and valleys of the Appalachians.


As interest in Melungeons revives, however, more and more individuals are finding hidden clues in family trees. Estimates of those with Melungeon heritage range from 5,000 to 75,000. At the first gathering of people of Melungeon descent in Wise in 1997, organizers expected 50 or so participants. Instead, 500 attended. They came to explore family stories of “Portuguese” blood; why an ancestor changed his surname from “Duck” to “John Adams;” or a family that referred to itself as “Black Dutch.”


Four years later, at the now-annual gathering, Kevin Jones, a University of Virginia College at Wise biologist, reported on a two-year study of Melungeon DNA. Studying about 120 mictochondrial DNA samples of Melungeon people, five percent had Native American ancestry on the female side and five percent had African and African-American ancestry on the female side. The remaining 90 percent was “Eurasian,” which can be traced to northern Europe, the Middle East, India and the Mediterranean. He concluded that Melungeons have European, African and Native American ancestry, as early scholars believed, but also genetic commonalities with groups in Turkey and northern India.


But, he cautioned, being a Melungeon is not defined by genetics alone. A person might also believe they are Melungeon because of oral tradition, genealogy or family history. “Melungeons are a self-defining population,” he explained.


Whether Melungeons are a race or a culture may never be resolved. But in Cesme, Turkey, sister city to Wise, they are definitely remembered. Located on the Aegean where ancient sailors roamed, the city has renamed a nearby peak, “Melungeon Mountain.”


We think Elvis, Abe and Ava would be proud.       


UP NEXT: Mr. Peanut Comes Home: Virginia Brands


-- January 17, 2005
























About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.





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