Thursday, April 23, 2015

How to Research a Little Bit of Melungeon: A Basic Guideline

How to Research a Little Bit of Melungeon: A Basic Guideline.

Pat Spurlock presented this talk at the East Tennessee Historical Society First Families Fair on May 27, 2000. Reprinted here by permission of Ms. Spurlock
Good morning and Welcome to Knoxville! I appreciate you all showing up because I LOVE to talk about Melungeons. I’d like to keep my lecture short enough that we’ll have plenty of time for questions.
You’ll see on your handout a list of my frequently asked questions and the answers are:
How do you pronounce that word? Melungeon
What is a Melungeon? We’ll cover that in a minute.
Am I a Melungeon? Not that I know of but I want to be.
Are you a Melungeon? I don’t know.
These may seem like silly questions, and I do want us to have fun with the seminar, but without a serious definition and a plan, you won’t get very far in Melungeon research. Your handout highlights the boring parts about how to develop a theory and obtain dependable results. I know that researching Melungeons isn’t as dangerous as doing brain surgery, but you still need reliable methods and skills if you want reliable results.
The first step is developing an
Hypothesis – this is an assumption, conjecture, or an idea and it includes a definition of the subject. Next comes your
Theory – this is a developed hypothesis. I’d like to emphasize that we need a significant amount of evidence before our hypothesis becomes a theory. We do this by collecting evidence.
Proof – This becomes your body of evidence. By now, you probably think it sounds like we’re doing a murder investigation, especially since a Melungeon friend of mine recently told me I sounded like O. J. Simpson’s lawyer, but actually, these skills are useful in Melungeon research. Your handout shows some important concepts.
      1. Fact – a real occurrence or having the quality of being real. It is the orderly result of a developed theory.
      2. Fallacy – a statement or an argument based on a false or invalid conclusion, incorrect reasoning or belief.
One of the most important things to remember is to work backwards from the known to the unknown. Also, remember that "Because I know so," no matter who says it, or where you read it, is not proof. I cannot stress highly enough not to believe everything you read or hear about Melungeons.
You also need a thoughtful Definition. There are four levels of definition shown on your handout.
    1. Earliest-known usage and the people it applied to (historical Melungeons).
They were Native Americans of specific colonial-Virginia remnant tribes who, for various reasons, many white people thought of as free-people-of-color. They were found in extreme southwestern Virginia and in what is now Hancock County, Tennessee. They carried only a handful of specific surnames.
    1. By the 1830s, the word had developed into a derogatory political-and-social term. That usage expanded during the Civil War. It implied dishonesty, laziness, and a person capable of trickiness, especially if he was your political adversary.
    2. This was followed by a social-class definition that began during the 20th century and evolved into a general pejorative describing poor mountain people in the Appalachians, especially if they used public social services. By this time, the political meaning had been abandoned and the usage had little to do with original Melungeons.
    3. Finally, since the late-1980s, it has become an ambiguous, multi-ethnic genealogy catchall that has very little to do with the original Melungeons.
Any of these definitions are useful, but without narrowing the definition, you won’t find many answers to real Melungeon history.
If you’ll look at your handout, you’ll see several useful research sources.
Melungeon-specific resources
    1. County courthouses and repositories in the counties [listed below] and the National Archives. All of these will have original records covering Melungeon families.
    2. An attached reading list at the end of your handout will give you some more ideas.
    3. Hancock County holds a great festival every October and I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in Melungeons.
    4. Wise County, Virginia has a "Union" festival, with rotating dates.
    5. For Internet junkies, there are links to Melungeon resources listed at the Continuity Press website.
Some good Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina starting points.
Hawkins and Hancock County, Claiborne and Grainger County, Washington and Sullivan County, and Rhea County from about 1830 on. From these four areas, you’ll work backwards to Virginia and North Carolina. Keep in mind that historical boundaries have changed and Tennessee’s boundary history is a real booger!
Lee and Scott County, modern-and-historical Washington County, or any county bordering North Carolina [such as Grayson, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Halifax, Mecklenburg, Brunswick and all their adjoining counties] are wonderful resources.
Louisa County, Virginia and her parent counties are key resources.
Any county bordering the following rivers from circa 1770-to-1800 [New River, Dan River, James River, Meherrin River, Staunton and Roanoke Rivers]; the Germanna Colonies near the Rappahannock River (1714), French Huguenots (Protestants) at Manakin Town (1690-1700), and Governor Spotswood’s Fort Christanna in modern Brunswick County, Virginia are all important.
Any North Carolina county bordering Virginia [such as Ashe, Wilkes, Rockingham, Person, Granville, Warren, Halifax, Orange, Catawba, Alamance, Bertie, Guilford] and any county bordering the Dan or Yadkin Rivers.
In the last ten years, so many names have been called "Melungeon" that it looks like any family with roots in the Appalachians were Melungeons. When I first started, the name list was short and as I got deeper into my research, the more the evidence showed fewer names that were probably the original Melungeon surnames. Several others became Melungeon at a very early date, probably about 1710 or so. Your handout shows the breakdown on these names (see below).
In case you wonder what I mean by "core group," it is the original families plus the secondary group who married-in so early than the two are, effectively, one group.
What names are Melungeon?
The original primary core-names are Collins and Gibson. Secondary names that married-in long before 1750 are Bolen/Bolden/Bolton (but not the Pocahontas Bolling line) and variants that probably include some Baldwin families; Bunch; Denhan/ Denning/ Denham; Goins and its many variations; Miner/Minor; one branch of the Mullins family; and Williams. A few others married-in early but we cannot consider names entering after 1750 or so as intrinsically Melungeon. Names entering after the American Revolution are only Melungeon-related or else cannot be considered Melungeon at all.
Your handout shows other important questions and if your family descended from Melungeons, you need affirmative answers to these.
Where did Melungeons live?
That depends on which period you are researching. Evidence shows that historical Melungeons were in what is now Hancock County and Claiborne County about 1800, give-or-take a few years, but there is no evidence they were there before the first white adventurers came through, which would have been in the 1760s. Before 1800, they were in border counties along the Virginia/North Carolina state line.
Were they listed as free-colored or a variation, including Indian, before 1840?
If they were historical Melungeons, you will eventually find some document listing the person or family as free-colored at least before the 1840 census. Often you will find such listings at much later dates. Very dark skin is a criterion and without being free-colored, whatever that meant, your family could not have been Melungeon. Your goal, however, should not be setting out to find "free colored" information. Just search for facts and the "free colored" will eventually turn up if your family has Melungeon ancestry.
Is there evidence of historical "neighborhood thought" that the person or family was Melungeon? If not, they were not Melungeons.
Why do I say Melungeons are Indians?
    1. Because that’s what the preponderance of the evidence says. Melungeons born before 1850 self-identified as Indians. Supporting evidence affirms this. We can speculate on other ethnic additions, but without connecting evidence, the result is only spurious guesswork.
    2. I am unaware of any evidence showing that historical Melungeons originated in any foreign country. Early statements, and by this I mean after 1840, that said they were Portuguese cannot be traced to original Melungeon oral history or legal documents. It was likely an idea from news articles. Although many Native American families gave [testimonies in court that stated] their family was Portuguese, to my knowledge, none of these families has been traced to Hancock County’s Melungeons.
    3. Trial documents involving Melungeons indicted on counts of violations concerning Negroes and mulattos show that they were found not guilty or else the charges were dropped. The definition of "mulatto" is, however, ambiguous. We can infer from these decisions that if there were any chance they were African American, the courts would have found them to be Negroes from at least a legal standpoint.
What tribes did they originally come from?
Primarily the Saponi, and possibly the Meherrin, Tuscarora, and Nottoway were the original tribes. Later mixing occurred in the early-to-mid-1700s and perhaps a bit earlier with some of Virginia’s so-called "lost" Algonquian-speaking tribes. Blending probably first occurred at Fort Christanna in modern Brunswick County, Virginia. Some Melungeons are thought to have later married into families who had Cherokee ancestry.
What about the Catawba?
They are probably the most important peripheral connection. They may also help, in part or in full, to account for traditional Cherokee ancestry and later connections to the Lumbee. The Catawba were Siouan and cousins to the Saponi.
What about the Shawnee?
I don’t know of any evidence showing that the Shawnee help account for Melungeon ancestry. They may account for some of the traditional Cherokee of Scott County, Tennessee, which is nearby, and they certainly account for many mixed-blood families in the modern counties along Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia’s border. Their history is completely separate from that of the Melungeons, but just as interesting.
Finally, we’ve reached the reading list and I’ll leave that for you to look at later. I hope I’ve left time for questions, but first, I’d like to thank the East Tennessee Historical Society and Cherel Henderson for having me and thank you all for attending.

Reading List for Melungeon studies.
Please note – I compiled this only from books-in-print. The books vary in accuracy and usefulness. Items are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. There are probably others. For those interested, most of the titles are available from vendors here at the genealogy fair. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction, and others are Appalachian studies without being specifically Melungeon, although very useful for Melungeon research. There are many useful journal articles not listed here.
The Melungeons by Bonnie Ball
Melungeons Yesterday and Today by Jean Patterson Bible
Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend by Pat Spurlock Elder.
The Spanish Pioneers in United States History. The Melungeons: The Pioneers of the Interior Southeastern United States 1526-1997 by Eloy J. Gallegos.
Melungeons: And Other Pioneer Families by Jack H. Goins (available mid-July).
Daughters of the Appalachians. Six Unique Women by Linda Goodman (fiction)
The Hawk's Done Gone by Mildred Haun. Edited by Herschel Gower (fiction).
Alex Stewart. Portrait of a Pioneer by John Rice Irwin.
My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman's Ridge by Mattie Ruth Johnson
The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People by N. Brent Kennedy with Robyn Vaughan Kennedy.
The Melungeons: An Annotated Bibliography: References in both Fiction and Nonfiction, Barbara Tracy Langdon, compiler.
The Blacksmiths of Blackwater. An Annotated Genealogy Of the Family and Descendants of Hezekiah Minor 1765 to 1998 by Lloyd D. Minor.
The Forgotten Portuguese. The Melungeons and Other Groups by Manuel Mira.
Alexander Goins Family of Newman’s Ridge. Hancock County, Tennessee by Johnnie Clyde Gibson Rhea
Pocahontas’s People. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries by Helen C. Rountree.
Swift's Silver Mines and Related Appalachian Treasures by Michael S. Steely.
Daughter of the Legend by Jesse Stuart (fiction). 

Copyright © 2000. Pat Spurlock. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this text may be stored or used in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author. Exception is granted for making one personal copy to those using it for their immediate-family research.

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