NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.
Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.
And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn't sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.
"There were a whole lot of people upset by this study," lead researcher Roberta Estes said. "They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American."
Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon (meh-LUN'-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.
In recent decades, interest in the origin of the Melungeons has risen dramatically with advances both in DNA research and in the advent of Internet resources that allow individuals to trace their ancestry without digging through dusty archives.
G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who's spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn't part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn't a new phenomenon.
"All of us are multiracial," he said. "It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history."
Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery.
They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee.
Claims of Portuguese ancestry likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study's authors.
The study quotes from an 1874 court case in Tennessee in which a Melungeon woman's inheritance was challenged. If Martha Simmerman were found to have African blood, she would lose the inheritance.
Her attorney, Lewis Shepherd, argued successfully that the Simmerman's family was descended from ancient Phoenicians who eventually migrated to Portugal and then to North America.
Writing about his argument in a memoir published years later, Shepherd stated, "Our Southern high-bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc."
In another lawsuit in 1855, Jacob Perkins, who is described as "an East Tennessean of a Melungeon family," sued a man who had accused him of having "negro blood."
In a note to his attorney, Perkins wrote why he felt the accusation was damaging. Writing in the era of slavery ahead of the Civil War, Perkins noted the racial discrimination of the age: "1st the words imply that we are liable to be indicted (equals) liable to be whipped (equals) liable to be fined ... "
Later generations came to believe some of the tales their ancestors wove out of necessity.
Jack Goins, who has researched Melungeon history for about 40 years and was the driving force behind the DNA study, said his distant relatives were listed as Portuguese on an 1880 census. Yet he was taken aback when he first had his DNA tested around 2000. Swabs taken from his cheeks collected the genetic material from saliva or skin cells and the sample was sent to a laboratory for identification.
"It surprised me so much when mine came up African that I had it done again," he said. "I had to have a second opinion. But it came back the same way. I had three done. They were all the same."
In order to conduct the larger DNA study, Goins and his fellow researchers — who are genealogists but not academics — had to define who was a Melungeon.
In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities in the eastern U.S. — from New York to Louisiana.
Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks, Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas and South Carolina the Redbones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others. In Louisiana, which somewhat resembled a Latin American nation with its racial mixing, there were Creoles of the Cane River region and the Redbones of western Louisiana, among others.
The latest DNA study limited participants to those whose families were called Melungeon in the historical records of the 1800s and early 1900s in and around Tennessee's Hawkins and Hancock Counties, on the Virginia border some 200 miles northeast of Nashville.
The study does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage, but none were detected among the 69 male lines and 8 female lines that were tested. Also, the study did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred, for instance with Native Americans.
Goins estimates there must be several thousand descendants of the historical Melungeons alive today, but the study only examined unbroken male and female lines.
The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown, but there is no doubt it was considered a slur by white residents in Appalachia who suspected the families of being mixed race.
"It's sometimes embarrassing to see the lengths your ancestors went to hide their African heritage, but look at the consequences" said Wayne Winkler, past president of the Melungeon Heritage Association. "They suffered anyway because of the suspicion."
The DNA study is ongoing as researchers continue to locate additional Melungeon descendants.
Associated Press Writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this story from New Orleans, La.