Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Melungeons Revisited By Richard A. Pence, Revisited

 I was going through my files and found this gem of an article by the late Richard A. Pence. I know this article has been posted on other web sites and blogs, but I think it is worth being 'revisited'........

"The late Richard A. Pence ( October 17, 1932 - November 25, 2009) was a former editor of the National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group newsletter (the NGS/CIG DIGEST), was the founding system operator of the NGS Bulletin Board System and was a current co-sysop, was co-moderator of the National Genealogy Conference (GENEALOGY) and the GENSOFT (genealogical software) conference on the FidoNet amateur BBS network. He was co-author with Paul Anderick of the first edition Computer Genealogy (Ancestry, Inc., Salt Lake City, 1985) and editor of the revised edition (1991) of the book. He has been a frequent contributor to the quarterly Genealogical Computing(Ancestry, Inc.) and a contributor to the NGS Quarterly. He was editor in 1984 of the widely acclaimed The Next Greatest Thing, a pictorial history of rural electrification in the United States."


This article was published in the December, 1998, on-line publication of the International Internet Genealogical Society:

The Melungeons Revisited
By Richard A. Pence

When I first noticed the title of the article by Nancy Sparks Morrison in the October Newsletter, I thought: "At last." At last, I hoped, someone has graced the Internet with some genealogically factual information on the Melungeons.

I was mistaken. It's another rehash of a discredited book.

"The Melungeons," writes Ms. Morrison, "are a people of apparent Mediterranean descent who may have settled in the Appalachian wilderness as early or possibly earlier than 1567, according to N. Brent Kennedy in his book The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People."

While there may be some basis for supposing these people are a distinct and identifiable ethnic group, no documentation is provided by Ms. Morrison other than quoting Kennedy's book - where documentation is suspect or nonexistent. His book is a "believe it or don't" collection of folklore, mythology, legend and hand-me-down hearsay - large portions of which are demonstrably inaccurate.

In her lengthy bibliography, Ms. Morrison cites two National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) articles by Virginia Easley DeMarce, who is a historian with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and an authority on multi-racial ancestry in America. As importantly, she is a well-known genealogist with such credentials as being a past president of the NGS. Unfortunately, Ms. Morrison failed to include the most illuminating of Dr. DeMarce's articles on this topic: a review of Kennedy's book, which appeared in the NGSQ more than two years ago (Vol. 84, No. 2, June, 1996, page 134).

To put it succinctly, this critical essay absolutely demolishes most of what Kennedy has written - and does so by employing the traditional tools of a genealogist: research in the original records.

Dr. DeMarce begins by noting that Kennedy's "chronological leap over several centuries enables [him] to propose an exotic ancestry for '200,000 individuals, perhaps far more' (p. xv) - an ancestry that sweeps in virtually every olive, ruddy, and brown-tinged ethnicity known or alleged to have appeared anywhere in the pre-Civil War Southeastern United States."

She later examines Kennedy's own claimed ancestry and declares: "Those who already have conducted solid research on these lines will be dismayed at the extent of the genealogical errors set forth in so few pages."

In short, Dr. DeMarce concludes that Kennedy has invented "a new and historically nonexistent oppressed minority that belies his own ancestry."

Ms. Morrison cites Kennedy's "known or alleged" ethnicities and joins him in placing the Melungeons early in east Tennessee. Even if each of Kennedy's and Morrison's statements were accurate, a fatal logical flaw exists in this tale of exotic origins:

One cannot simultaneously be descended from an isolated group of Tennesseans and, as in Kennedy's case, descended from numerous families whose ancestry can be traced as far east as the Tidewater areas of Virginia and North Carolina with only a modest amount of research. If you are to believe Kennedy (and Morrison), then you must suppose that this tiny isolated inland band - after having been first created by the joining of peoples from several states as well as Central America and then reaching Tennessee in the 17th century - moved back to the east in such large numbers and with a gene pool so dominant that it affected huge numbers of early isolated groups - most of them with Scotch-Irish or English surnames.

"These people," writes Morrison (or perhaps Kennedy; there is a beginning quote but no closing one), "survived by blending into the surrounding groups of peoples. Over time, they were put into one of four permissible, inflexible and artificial racial categories: White (northern European), black (African), Indian, or mulatto, a mix of any of the first three. By the time the first U.S. census was conducted, there had been 200 years of admixture and cultural fusing. This ensured that the story would remain hidden and buried, and that no amount of census research could ever tell the story accurately. Traditional genealogy can not be used to find these people. There are no written records, no censuses, no marriage or death notices for many of them."

Hogwash. This contention is simply not true, as has been amply demonstrated by Dr. DeMarce. For example, she took the time to check the census records for each of the ancestors claimed by Kennedy. She also traced his actual ancestry in those numerous instances where he had obviously and hopelessly erred. Kennedy repeatedly maintains that his ancestors were for generations uniformly consigned to the status of "free people of color." As such, he says, not only do records not exist for them, they were consistently subjugated, persecuted, had their lands and other property confiscated and were forced to migrate ever-westward to seek refuge.

More hogwash. When Dr. DeMarce examined the census records of Kennedy's claimed ancestors - a basic bit of research that Kennedy totally neglected - she found the exact opposite: In EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE Kennedy's claimed or actual ancestors were shown as white on the records. This was true not only in the case of the censuses, but in cases where separate white and nonwhite marriage books were maintained. Beyond that, Dr. DeMarce found their names recorded among the deeds, wills and other county records at least to the same extent as their contemporaries, their supposed subjugators. And, contrary to Kennedy's claim, his ancestors were not disenfranchised because of their "color," for his ancestors could be found among the officeholders, both locally and statewide. In one instance, Dr. DeMarce notes, Kennedy claims that the family of a particular ancestor was forced from its lands because of legal edicts against nonwhites. The census-taker who enumerated this white family conveniently recorded that this couple's son was the sheriff of the county!

For emphasis: Among Kennedy's claimed or actual "persecuted" ancestors, in EVERY single instance these ancestors are shown in the ample records to be white. Not a single one - nada, zilch, zero, not any, none at all- is shown as being in any other ethnic or racial group.

The fact is that "traditional genealogy" can be used to trace these people. As Dr. DeMarce shows, not only did Kennedy fail to use any of these standard and basic avenues, he demonstrates his almost total lack of understanding of genealogical research in general by repeatedly falling into the common novice genealogical traps of "generation gap," "same-name syndrome" and too much reliance on oral tradition. Any genealogist should know this is a prescription for disaster.

Ms. Morrison notes that Kennedy's interest in the Melungeons began with a mysterious illness that was said to be found primarily among "Middle Eastern and Mediterranean peoples" and, he later learned, the Portuguese.

"How could a southerner, born and bred, have a Mediterranean disease?" asks Ms. Morrison.

There are perhaps 2,000 non-Melungeon answers to that question - one for each of the ancestors Kennedy had in the mid-18th century, both within and outside of Colonial America.

The question Ms. Morrison neglected to ask is far more revealing: Why is there no mention of any incidences of this rare disease among his near-relatives or extended family? These people obviously draw from the same "Melungeon" gene pool as did Kennedy. How could it be that the records for these are silent on this ailment? If it were an identifiable hereditary characteristic among Kennedy's claimed kin, surely by the time he contracted it, the symptoms would have been well-known to every parent, uncle, aunt or cousin in the family.

Skipping over the obviousness of the preceding and ignoring the possibility of genetic mutation or other logical explanations, Ms. Morrison goes on: "It was this question that Dr. Kennedy set out to answer, by tracing his family background, and in the process he rediscovered his heritage. His book ... is not about historical research, but is his family's genealogy and some very interesting theoretical problem solving."

The blunt truth is that not only did Kennedy not trace "his family background," he invented his heritage and his "interesting theoretical problem solving" is what is sometimes politely abbreviated as a WAG. (Sorry, if you don't know what that is, you'll have to ask someone.)

Ms. Morrison goes on: "If your family has an Indian Grandmother(father) 'myth' which you have been unable to prove, an adoption story that is unprovable, or an orphan myth, and they have been hard to trace and they lived in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia areas in the early migration years or if they seem to have moved back and forth in these areas and if they share any of the mentioned surnames and characteristics, you may find a connection here."

The light is beginning to come on. Since almost anyone in the United States either falls into one of the above categories or thinks that he does, the Melungeons - at least Kennedy's brand of them - can be used to "clean up" almost any existing genealogical puzzle. Simultaneously, you can claim that because these people were discriminated against there are no records to substantiate (or disprove) your claims. In addition to having the mystery "solved," you are relieved of the chore of actually doing any research. No wonder so many people are jumping on the "Melungeon" bandwagon!

Ms. Morrison claims: "Dr. N. Brent Kennedy's book ... is a genealogy and theoretical search for answers and is a must read for anyone who is connected to this group. ... From some information in Dr. Kennedy's book ..., you can see the necessity for these people to hide."

Aside from the fact that they didn't hide - at least to no greater degree than any of the families around them - one is constrained to ask which of the following attributes of Kennedy's work makes it "a must read":

1. It is probably one of the best contemporary examples of how not to conduct and present genealogical research; therefore, it can serve as a guide for what you should avoid.
2. Its "imaginative problem-solving" might give you some good ideas for spicing up your own genealogy with a collection of folklore, myths, legends, anachronisms and WAGs. (Jump around as much as you like and don't bother to cite any authoritative sources.)

There follows in Ms. Morrison's essay a long litany of perceived injustices inflicted, both socially and legally, upon these "proud, strong, courageous, people" (many of whom, you will recall, are historically nonexistent). Again, this is drawn from Kennedy's book and "these peoples" include his considerably enlarged definition of "Melungeon." Many no doubt have these noble traits. However, try as she might, Dr. DeMarce notes she was unable to find a single instance where the records support a Kennedy claim. To the contrary, every record she did find - and there are as many for this supposedly "hidden" group as there were for any contemporary group - directly contradict Kennedy's contentions.

To quote Dr. DeMarce once again: "The early families of which he [Kennedy] writes were large ones, moving in groups to areas they thickly settled; their numerous children married into other pioneer families of Appalachia. After eliminating the collateral relatives, who was left to oppress them?"

Regarding Ms. Morrison's list of surnames associated with "the Melungeons" (apparently taken from Kennedy, who seems to have expanded on another published source without attribution), it likely could pass as the surnames in a passenger list for most any 18th century vessel carrying immigrants to the American Colonies. Ms. Morrison's admonishment that not everyone with these surnames is of Melungeon descent is one bright spot in a rather cloudy essay in "genealogy" - a discipline which admonishes you to take great care in attaching any significance to similarities or differences in surnames. (Kennedy, in explaining away a discovered inconsistency, says of an ancestor: "Surely he would have known how to spell his own name.") As you quickly learn in genealogical research, the one certainty is that spelling is, at best, "inconsistent." Even if a person "knew" how to spell his name, the one recording it likely didn't know - or care - how to spell it. (Dr. DeMarce's comment was that apparently Kennedy's research failed to bring him to discover the remark of Andrew Jackson, who declared he didn't trust a man who only knew how to spell a word one way.)

I have my own "must read" recommendation for anyone who suspects a mixed racial ancestry. First, you must read Dr. DeMarce's critical essay on Kennedy's book. Her informed and documented comments on his work will quickly disabuse you from following his prescription for discovering your heritage or your ancestry. You should also take a look at Dr. DeMarce's other two Quarterly articles:

Virginia Easley DeMarce, "'Very Slitly Mixt': Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South - A Genealogical Study," NGSQ, Vol. 80, March 1992, pp. 5-35.

DeMarce, "Looking at Legends - Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-Racial Isolate Settlements," NGSQ, Vol. 81, March 1993, pp. 24-45.

In these articles, Dr. DeMarce documents the origins of some of the "tri-racial isolates" - many of whom Kennedy and Morrison claim for the Melungeons - using genealogical research techniques rather than relying on the generalizations of myth and legend. Not only does she show it can be done, she does so quite convincingly.

Anthropologists and sociologists work with large groups about which they can make broad generalizations, sometimes using "hearsay" evidence. They do so in the knowledge that the individual mistakes tend to cancel each other. But these anthropological or sociological theories cannot substitute for the research required to determine your own ancestry. As a genealogist,you should realize that unsubstantiated generalizations can fatally flaw your work. Genealogical mistakes don't cancel each other - they just keep piling up.

That appears to be what is happening with the literature on the Melungeons being fed genealogists on the Internet. It's getting higher and deeper.

The study of legends or mythology can be fascinating in and of itself. But genealogy will be better served by those who stay within the practices and dictates of that discipline and avoid the realm of WAGs.

copyright Richard A. Pence

No comments :

Post a Comment