A Code To Live By In Appalachia

January 30th, 2013 | by Mary Helen Miller with help from Viki Merrick
The Vardy Church

The Vardy Church

Intro from Jay Allison: There may come a day when races are so blended as to be irrelevant, but not yet. For our first 2012 Transom Donor Fund piece, producer Mary Helen Miller explores the racial identity of Melungeons in Appalachia. It’s not an easy task to come up with a definition, as it turns out, even in the age of DNA. The truth of heritage can be tough to admit for some. Mary Helen’s piece will clear things up for you, as clear as possible anyway, and includes a trip to the 16th annual Melungeon Reunion in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

About A Code To Live By In Appalachia

“Mysterious” is probably the first word most people associate with the Melungeons. They were a mixed race group that settled in southern Appalachia in the late 1700s. They lived in their own communities, separate from their white neighbors. Some stayed in those communities as late as the mid-20th century.

Jack Goins

Jack Goins

The oldest generations of Melungeons had a striking look: dark skin, straight black hair, blue eyes. Nobody knew where they had come from or how, exactly, they ended up in the mountains along the Tennessee-Virginia border. Melungeons themselves often explained their distinct looks by claiming Native American or Portuguese ancestry. But their white neighbors would sometimes claim they had African heritage.

The mystery of the Melungeon people drew me in, just like it’s drawn in so many others. Growing up in Tennessee, I remember my mom occasionally mentioning the Melungeons. Whatever remarks she made always seemed to end with: “… and nobody knows where they’re from. Isn’t that something?”

Recently, a little googling led me to Jack Goins, the force behind the Melungeon DNA Project. Jack is a retired TV salesman in Hawkins County, Tennessee, who is descended from Melungeons. He’s been gathering DNA samples from other descendants to try to get some answers about Melungeon ancestry.

So Who Are the Melungeons, Really?

Jack’s DNA project is ongoing, but so far, he’s found that, for the most part, Melungeons have sub-Saharan African and European roots. These findings have surprised some Melungeon descendants who had assumed they were Native American or Portuguese. The study only found a single instance of Native American heritage in the group, and no Portuguese markers. Jack himself was surprised to find out his paternal line was African, because his great, great grandparents had been marked as Portuguese on the 1880 census. He theorizes that their predecessors had immigrated from an African country, such as Angola, that had been under Portuguese rule.

Vardy school

Vardy school

Jack co-authored a study on Melungeon DNA in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. It was published shortly after I met him last year. The Associated Press ran an article on the study with headlines like, “Melungeons aren’t who they thought they were,” and “Melengeon DNA study reveals ancestry, upsets ‘a whole lot of people.’”

A whole lot of people were upset. But from what I could tell, they were upset more by the way Jack conducted the study than the results he found. People had to be descended from a very specific “core group” of Melungeons to be included in the study. Plus, it was a Y-line test, so it only included men. So, a lot of people who identified as Melungeon descendants couldn’t be in the study. And when the article came out and stated definitively where the Melungeons had come from, it ruffled some feathers.

Telling a story without answers

Lots of people still claim Melungeon heritage. The hardest part about this project was getting a grasp on who the Melungeons actually were, and who counts as Melungeon now.

When I began the story, I was expecting to find hard answers. I thought my timing with the story was impeccable. At the time I was starting my research, Jack happened to be finishing up his study. A published paper on the Melungeons promised numbers and facts—a tantalizing prospect. I was going to be able to tell a story of a group of people who had never know where they were from, until they turned to Science. My story would start with a mystery, and end with a solution. Bam!

If only.

Johnnie at church.

Johnnie at church

The more people I met, the more opinions I heard about who the Melungeons were. I realized that Jack’s study only encompassed a fraction of all the people who claim Melungeon ancestry today. I went to a Melungeon reunion in Virginia last summer, and practically everyone there told a slightly different version of who the Melungeons were. Some people thought Melungeons were from one, specific community in Tennessee. Others seemed to think most mixed race people in southern Appalachia counted. By the time I left the get-together, more than one person had tried to convince me that I might be Melungeon, too. After I revealed that I had ancestors from a certain county in Virginia, one guy asked if he could feel my head, and he reached over to the base of my skull. “Uhuh. You’ve got the Melungeon bump.” Was it really that easy to tell? Was everyone from Virginia with a bump Melungeon? Whom was I to believe?

As a journalist, my instincts tell me to find the most specific, accurate information on a topic and explain it as clearly as possible. But in the case of the Melungeons, this was basically impossible. I never came up with a hard and fast definition of the Melungeons. So, instead, I decided to focus on people who strongly self-identified as Melungeon, or who thought they might be, but were hesitant to claim that ancestry for some reason.

I still can’t tell you exactly who the Melungeons were, or who they are now. But I hope my story gives some insight as to what it was like to be a Melungeon in the South when racism was at its height, and what it means to claim that heritage now.

Mary Helen Miller

Mary Helen Miller

About Mary Helen Miller

Mary Helen is producer/reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate in Chattanooga, TN. She spent the first couple of years out of college working as a print reporter, but then went to the Transom Story Workshop and realized what fun she was missing with radio! She has been producing local stories in Tennessee for about a year and loving it. You can find more of her work on her website.


Additional support for this work provided by the Transom Donor Fund.

Jeff on the outside


21 Comments on “A Code To Live By In Appalachia”

  • Helen Jolley says:

    Excellent!! A very enjoyable piece – well-researched.

    Helen Jolley

  • It seems if you had really researched this subject you certainly would have found some real truths – truths about the Melungeons, the Melungeon DNA etc. This sentence surprised me the most. “hese findings have surprised some Melungeon descendants who had assumed they were Native American or Portuguese. The study only found a single instance of Native American heritage in the group, and no Portuguese markers.” Did you really read the report Jack authored? One single instance of Native American? Are you including the FREEMAN family – they didn’t. Or the LAWSON family? Nope they left them out too. How about the mtDNA they mentioned? This huge Melungeon population and they could only find SIX females to test? Really? Two of those six females had Native American ancestry according to their report — their mtdna wasn’t. They found NO PORTUGUESE MARKERS? Seriously did you google the Portuguese DNA Project? http://www.familytreedna.com/public/portugal/default.aspx?section=yresults also try googling the Lumbee INDIAN PROJECT you will probably be quite surprised to find a significant number of MELUNGEON FAMILIES listed in the LUMBEE INDIAN project — http://the-melungeons.blogspot.com/

    • City says:

      That’s because the Lumbee are practically the same. Very little Indian and far more African than that. The Lumbee had their own DNA project and they had the same results. That’s why they don’t have federal recognition. As far as names go, You can find African Americans and everyday White folks with those same names. Get over it. Guess we will have to dig up the old bones for people like you, but that won’t be enough, hence thesentence that you found “surprising”. So pitiful

      • The sentence I found so surprising was the fact that the findings ‘surprised’ some Melungeon descendants. Any Melungeon descendant who has followed this research at all knows the Melungeons stated in 1848 they had mixed with the ‘blacks’ after they got to Tenn — And you KNOW the Melungeons and Lumbee are far more African – and you know that how? By OSMOSIS? Have you studied the genealogies of these people? Read the eyewitness accounts? Read the trial transcripts? Your comments sound very much like you have no clue what the history of these people is.

      • City says:

        If you want to consider a sperm merging with an egg osmosis, yes. I happen to be connected by blood to several of these families. I do realize that the label Melungeon has come to include a wider spectrum of people than it probably should, but before this there was no “They are not true Melungeon” accusations like there are now. I’ve studied the families who originated from the exact same places. Tracked their migration from the coastal Carolinas to Appalachian highlands.They left trails of family everywhere along the way who have become disassociated over the decades and I talked to the old people decades ago as I was growing up. Everything they told me has panned out. There are some families who have far more Native blood than the others, but most are just Black and White. On my maternal side I am Hill, Richardson, Valentine, Strickland, Carter, Martin and Collins out of Southwest Va and Rockingham, Stokes, Surry, Forsyth. On my paternal side Cummings, Goin, Lyles, Hill and a few more. I’m Carolina and Va. to my core dating back to the 1600s

  • Scott Preston Collins says:

    How does the JOGG article or “Melungeon DNA Project” “…stated definitively where the Melungeons had come from…”? The test results were not collected scientifically, the project isn’t over, there has been loads of cherry picking, mis-information and a media campaign not unlike the ones Plecker used to run our people. Vardy Collins in an R1a which is found in both European and Native American populations. This article is just another smear campaign against our people. How come you media folks don’t bother to get all the side of the story before you make assumptions. SHAME ON YOU!

  • “Persons that are known and recognized by the Constitution and laws of Tennessee, as free persons of color are those who by the act of 1794 section 32 are taken and deemed to be capable in law to be certified in any case what is in, except against each other or in the language of the statute ” all Negroes, Indians, Mulattoes, and all persons of mixed blood descended from Negro or Indian ancestors to the third generation inclusive though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person, white bond or free” “That if the great grandfather of Plaintiff was an Indian or Negro and he is descended on the mother’s side from a white woman, without any further Negro or Indian blood than such as he derived on the father’s side, then the Plaintiff is not of mix blood, or within the third generation inclusive; in other words that if the Plaintiff has not in his veins more than 1/8 of Negro or Indian blood, he a citizen of this state and it would be slanderous to call him a Negro” Jacob Perkins vs John White, Johnson county, Tennessee http://jctcuzins.org/pam/perkins/jury.html

  • 52337 Vardeman Collins Unknown Origin R1a1a
    87771 Vardy Collins b 1764 Unknown Origin R1a1a
    153567 Shepherd Gibson Unknown Origin R1b1a2
    69729 David Denham, b. 1754, Louisa County, VA. Unknown Origin I1
    246966 Vardemon Collins b.1764 and d. 1850 United States R1b1a2
    87373 Irish Jim Mullins of Hawkins Co. TN, b. c. 1780 Unknown Origin R1b1a2
    247883 Samuel Bunch, b. ca. 1814, d. June 2, 1865, Sneed Unknown Origin R1b1a2a1a1b4

    These are the Newman’s ridge Melungeon results that Jack is talking about, Those are NOT African Haplogroups, so why Jack said they was African I have zero clue.

    “Welcome to Y-chromosomal Haplogroup R1a1a. This widespread haplogroup covers central/eastern Europe, central Asia and south Asia (India). Smaller populations can aslo be found in Scandanavia, the UK and southern Europe.”

    “Haplogroup R1

    R1 is the dominant haplogroup in Europe today, accounting for well over half of all men.

    Haplogroup R1a1

    Haplogroup R1a1 appears to have arisen in the Near East or present-day Pakistan during the peak of the Ice Age about 18,000 years ago. Until the Ice Age began to wane about 15,000 years ago, it may have been limited to the area around the Black Sea, a region that remained relatively ice-free and hospitable while much of Eurasia was covered by glaciers and tundra.
    Haplogroup R1a1a: Eastern Europe

    After the Ice Age, northward migrations carried R1a1a into the gradually greening territory surrendered by the receding glaciers. The abundance of R1a1a in Ukraine, where it reaches levels of about 50%, and the haplogroup’s high genetic diversity among Ukrainians, have led researchers to suggest that it expanded from the relatively ice-free region around the Black Sea about 12,000 years ago. Much of the haplogroup’s distribution in eastern Europe today can be explained by events associated with the recolonization process. It is most common in a swath stretching from southern Ukraine and the Balkans, north and west into Scandinavia. The frequency of R1a1a decreases farther south in the Balkans and in Scandinavia’s far north.

    Haplogroup I1 and I2

    I is found almost exclusively in Europe, where about 20% of men have Y-chromosomes belonging to the haplogroup. It began spreading about 30,000 to 45,000 years ago with some of the first Homo sapiens to inhabit Europe.

    The arrival of I1 into Russia may be connected to the expansion of Slavic-speaking tribes from central Europe beginning around 600 AD.” http://www.23andme.com

    So clearly the Newman’s ridge families DO NOT have African Haplogroups…instead they was European, so why someone made the mistake of saying these Haplogroups was African I have no idea. As for the Free Person of Color, anyone who said they had Indian ancestry was required by Tennessee law to be listed as Free Person of Color.

    “These two, Vardy Collins and Buck Gibson, were the had and source of the Melungeons in Tennessee. With the cunning of their Cherokee Ancestor, they planned and executed a scheme by which they were enabled to “set up for themselves” in the almost unbroken Territory of North Carolina. ” Will Allen Dromgoole The Arena ; v. 3 (May, 1891), p. 749-751.

    “Hopefully locating and indexing the Hawkins County records 1795-1850 will answer some of these questions and I can remove this ‘maybe Melungeon’ label from my Goins family. ” Jack Goins on his link to Melungeons http://www.jgoins.com/maybe_melungeon.htm

    It should also be good to note that Women can NOT do Ydna testing, only men can do a Ydna test.

  • Jack and Roberta have been heard talking about the Bolton supreme court case, however what they are reluctent to say is the Bolton family WON that court case, and the Bolton families ALL came back as European in the Bolton DNA porject (which if I remember right Roberta estes is over which would if anyone should know the Bolton’s did not come back as African then she surely should be aware of this). This Martha Simmmerman/Bolton case was actually a quite sad story and if anyone knew the full story would not use this court case to claim Martha was a liar. You can see the full story here:

    • City says:

      Those old court cases don’t mean a thing. Its easy to manipulate the undesired results by testing selected individuals so as not to include male lines

  • Now another thing Jack and Roberta are often heard quoting is the Perkins court case, here is the things they are reluctant to mention, This court case was from a family fued, it was NOT any city or government officials bringing the Perkins family to court, in fact the Perkins family was not forced to court…it was the Perkins family who was bringing the White family to court. The Perkins family was suing the white family. There was a bunch of he said she said and no one in the court could even decide from the Perkins family who was in the court room if they did or did not have any African ancestry. The court was very clear that the African ancestry had to come from the direct male Perkins line. The Perkins family was not able to bring direct evidence showing no African ancestry for the direct male Perkins line. The Perkins stated their ancestry on the male line was from Portugal, keep in mind this was in 1800’s where no DNA was used in court cases. Perkins was unable to sue the Smith family. So now we jump in time where DNA testing was done, The direct male Perkins line turned out to be European (Portugal is European by the way). The actual haplogroup was I1. Now more interesting is the DNA Marker found for this male line was “M253″. Interesting thing about this marker…..it is a PROVEN Portugal (the country not colony) marker. Believe it or not but this DNA is in the Melungeon DNA project and Jack and Roberta would be well aware that this male line not only was European but also had the Portugal marker of M253. 218793 Esther Perkins 1710-1748 Unknown Origin I1. So why did they say no Portugal markers was found? I can not answer why they did not mention this to the Melungeon people or the Newspapers or the Jogg people but you can check this information out yourself and see it is the truth. You can also see this following video and see the whole story behind the Perkins case. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5yBqOeVrLo

  • Yet another thing Jack and Roberta are often heard Quoting from is Lewis Jarvis, again they are relucetent to say that ALL the people Lewis Jarvis called Melungeons turned out to have no African Haplogroups, these people are all in the Melungeon DNA project so Jack and Roberta would be well aware of this. Anyone who wishes to check this out for themself they can go and look at the Melungeon DNA project themself and double check Lewis Jarvis’ records to see for themself. Out of all these men, one was a E1b1 haplogroup and that would be James Collins. Interesting is E1b1 is a known Pheonician Haplogroup and among those found with this Haplogroup is Adolf Hitler. E1b1 makes up 1/3rd of European DNA. If we jump back to the Supreme court case of the Bolton family it was stated in that court that Melungeons had a Phoenician ancestry that went to Portugal. E1b1 (Portugal and Pheonician) would help confirm this and so would the M253 (Portugal) marker. In 1969 a Genetic study was done exclusiviely for Newman’s ridge families and the testing results from those samples listed the Pheonician homeland as the number 2 point of Origin which again supports this, This testing was peer reviewed and it followed the legal chain of custody procedure (which by the way the family tree dna Melungeon project did not follow the legal “chain of custody” procedure, to date family tree DNA results are not allowed in court of laws as evidence due to this very reason, however the 1969 test samples are allowed as Legal evidence in court of laws). Family tree DNA was asked about E1b1 and it’s relation to Portugal and they stated it could very well show Portugal origins as Portugal is known for E1b1, anyone who does not believe me on that then they can email family tree DNA and see for themself. Anyway if anyone cares to learn more about the E1b1 Haplogroup then they can check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOM9GG_1gwI

  • City says:

    As I was tracing my own family genealogy, I was seeing a lot of strictly Lumbee or Melungeon names. Then I noticed a pattern of migration from Va. and NC coastal areas. These families were marked as White and some mulatto(most). They eventually worked their way through Appalachia and into Tennessee over the decades. Collins, Oxendine, Lowery, Hill, Cummings, Valentine, Strickland and Hella lotta Goins(mulattoes) and Revels. None mysteriously applied for Native American funds at that time when they were made available.

  • City says:

    I have a feeling that SOME of these people could be millionaires if they put as much energy into a business project as they do disproving that they might have a pin prick’s worth of the “tainted blood” of Africa. President Obama’s own White mother who was a member of the Bunch family was recently found to actually have a Black Paternal ancestor. The Bunch is another one of those prominent Melungeon families, but I’m sure by now they have been diverted to another line and disowned just like the Goins. This has been a sore spot for many centuries. My grandfather who died in 1988 used to tell me how families would be divided because some looked too close to Black. These are the families that were left along the way on the migration path because they fell in love with the wrong person or didn’t want to disown a relative.

    • There is 1 documented case in writing of two men being referred to as Melungeon – Collins and Gibson. Vardy Collins and Shepard “Buck” Gibson, their descendants YDNA test did NOT come back with Sub Saharan halo-type. That’s clear for anyone who has eyes to see. That’s it Collins and Gibson. Claiming affiliation to these men by intermarriage is fine, but that’s not CORE anymore is it? That’s affiliated. What’s with NPR disseminating false information. Is the author just ignorant of YDNA test results findings to understand the difference between European and Sub Saharan African halo-types?

  • Karen says:

    Being a descendant of GOIN family I want to have DNA done. Where do I sign up.

  • Andrew says:

    We do know where they are from. Most can be traced back to Virginia , North Carolina, South Carolina. It is not a secret. It is not mysterious. It is recorded historically that there were 150 Cherokee Indians living in Hancock Co early on. In a Fed census of 1890 of Indians Taxed and not Taxed it gives a description of what census takers saw. They saw 31 Indians , but there were many more. This government document verifies the mixture that were in the families in 1890 and is consistent with the historical settlers in that area who where Indians described by white people who lived in surrounding areas. They were not geographically isolated, they were culturally isolated and this to has been proven by interviews of people born nearly a hundred years ago. By white history it has been around 219 years in recorded white history that the Indians had to set down after the Revolution that ended in 1783. Hancock Tn. was one of the places they set. Some migrated on to Ky. on north to Indiana and to Mi. and worked and labored in the onion fields in those areas.

    No mystery, no space aliens, no hyped up lie to make money from folk who fail to analyze history and does it with intent . Just the plain truth. Several did apply for Enrollment to Cherokee. 2000 Sizemore Indian folk alone applied.

    This “Melungeon” thing is hype . Follow the money.

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