Origins of the Melungeon Appalachian Sub-Culture
A more plausible explanation for the origin of Melungeons
By Henry Robert Burke
Copyright 1999. Henry Robert Burke - Marietta, Ohio
Along the Atlantic coastal region of the United States, and in various locations in Appalachia, there is a remnant group of people that are tentatively identified as having the mixed racial heritage Native American, African American and European American. Following the American tradition of labeling people by the color of their skin color, people that obviously are not descendants of purely northern European heritage, but instead seem to have a mixed racial heritage have been variously called; [WIN- White, Indian, Negro], Carmel Indians, Mustees, Brass Ankles, Nanacokes, Jersey Whites, Moors, Tri-Racial Isolates, Melungeons and some other names.
The skin colors of various individuals within these groups, range from brown to almost white; hair structure varies from curly to straight; and eye colors also may vary from dark brown to pale blue. In other words these physical characteristics have made the heritage of these people the subject to much speculation over the course of U.S. History. Different theories about the origins of these groups are common. Some of these theories seem to offer logical explanations and some seem to be highly speculative.
After reading the book - MELUNGEONS- The Resurrection of a Proud People -, by Dr. Brent N. Kennedy, my long held curiosity about this subject drew me into some research about their possible origins. There are a number of people who more or less fit the description of Melungeons living in southeastern Ohio, and over the years many of them have been my friends and associates. Very frankly, their heritage and customs have always been of interest to me.
Therefore I would like to add my conclusions about the origin of the Melungeons to the considerable amount of research data already available on the subject of the origins of the Melungeons as defined by Dr. Kennedy, but some or all of my conclusions may apply to other groups mentioned above. Generally speaking, people of Melungeon heritage are slightly darker than typical European people. While Melungeons may have some slight physical resemblance with African characteristics, these traits may very well have originated hundreds of years ago and thousands of miles from America.
At first glance, and considering the amount of miscegenation that took place in the English Colonies of North America, it seems reasonable to assume that Melungeons are the descendants of slave owners and slave women, with perhaps some Native American blood mixed in. To be sure, there are African-American families and family groups that do have this genetic makeup, but careful consideration suggests to me that the Melungeon culture may have originated from quite a different source. Incidentally, it was the observance of Melungeon tradition and culture, rather than their physical traits the are the clues from which my theory is based.
Any researcher will readily notice, that while Melungeons freely associate with other ethnic groups, it is an established Melungeon custom to marry within their respective ethnic group whenever possible. Research on Melungeon genealogy proves this point. But if the Melungeon ethnic culture didn't originate in the Americas, then where in the World did it originate?
My first clue came when I noticed that in some important ways the Melungeon culture resembles that of the Gypsy, or Rom culture, as it should properly be called. Rom were a migratory people who originated in the northwestern part of the Indian sub-continent (Asia). They began to move westward at the beginning of the 11th century, and are now found intermingled with native populations in many parts of the world. Many of them, but not all, speak Rom, a language closely related to Hindi, and some, but not all, are dark-skinned or swarthy. About 80% of the Rom are now sedentary. Their number is now estimated at 8-10 million worldwide, with an estimated 1 million living in the United States.
Like the origins of Melungeons in Appalachia, the origins of the Rom in Europe, was subject of much speculation for many hundreds of years. Various commentators erroneously claimed that the Rom culture was linked to Egypt; hence the word Gypsy. Other commentators claimed that they were Turks, Jews, or even Africans. At least this may have some basis in fact, for the long journey of the Rom did take them through Turkey, they also had some associations with Sephardim Jews, and may have had some ancient connections with Africans mercenaries.
By using linguistic and physical anthropological criteria, modern researchers have found strong indications that the Rom very likely are descendants from a composite population of non-Aryan Indians, such as the Dravidians, the Pratihara, and the Siddhi. The Siddhi was a group of African mercenaries assembled in India during the 11th century as a military force, to help India repel the Islamic invasion led by Mahmud of Ghazni.
Moving farther and farther west in a long succession of conflicts with the Muslims, the Rom passed through the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century, where they remained for some time before being pushed into eastern Europe where they acquired the name Gypsies. Arriving in Europe at the same time as the Turkish incursions into the Byzantine Empire at the beginning of the 14th century, the Rom were initially thought to be part of the Islamic tide. Some groups of Rom became enslaved by people native to the Balkans, while other groups moved farther west, reaching every country in Europe by 1500.
Wherever the Gypsies went in Europe, they were either shunned or enslaved. They were forbidden to attend schools or otherwise participate in national life, at best they were only allowed to existed on the fringes of European society. Because of their relatively dark skin, Rom people became the social outcasts of Europe. Their isolation from the mainstream of the many cultures they encountered on their journeys, reinforced their own culture as a survival tactic. From an early time in their travels, the Rom evolved laws which did not permit their members to become involved with the non-Rom world beyond the minimum required for business. One of the legacies among the Rom, inherited from India and rigorously maintained was the belief in ritual pollution, which regulates interactions between sexes. A modified version of this tendency may have existed right up to recent times among Melungeon groups living in Appalachia.
The discovery of the Americas and the establishment of European colonies in the Americas provided a useful dumping ground for Europe's Rom. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British began transporting Rom as undesirables from Europe. In the 17th century, Britain exported them to work as slaves on plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, and Virginia. Portugal sent them to Brazil, France transported them to Louisiana, and Germany transported them to Pennsylvania. Even Sweden had a policy of banishment to its short-lived colony on Delaware Bay. The first Rom to set foot on American soil accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1498. Additional small numbers from western Europe arrived in America during the 17th century.
These immigrants established pockets of a diverse population of Rom in North America. Small groups of Rom that later became known as Melungeons were established in Virginia during the very early English colonial period. They were indentured servants on the early tobacco plantations in Tidewater Virginia. As their terms of indenture expired, they moved from the Tidewater region into Appalachia.
Melungeon culture shares so many characteristics with the Rom culture, that it suggests, to me at least, that the two cultures share a common heritage. Some history documents describe Melungeons in the early English colonies as "living separate" from other colonists, yet speaking perfect "Queen's English". Some Melungeons had a penchant for metal working, a skill acquired from their Rom ancestor, acquired during their long stay in the Byzantine Empire, and then carried westward across Europe and eventually into the English Colony of Virginia in the 17th Century. Physical and cultural traits of Melungeons are so similar to Rom that it strongly suggests a possible link between Rom and Melungeons. Perhaps some day, DNA comparative analysis will confirm this hypothesis.
On the surface, modern Melungeon culture appears to have significantly diverged from the earlier Rom culture. This is also true for other divergent Rom cultures around the World, but certain aspects of the Rom culture may still be present in Melungeon culture, particularly in their marriage customs. These marriage customs alone may be the single thread that still binds Melungeons to their ancient Rom culture.
In addition, the Rom share a similar history of being discriminated against, just as Jews, African-Americans, and other dark skinned people of the World have been discriminated against by Europeans. While most Melungeons rarely married outside their culture, those in Appalachia have traditionally had stronger ties with the African American and Native American cultures, than with mainstream American culture. There is even evidence that Rom music has influenced African-American "Soul" music. Severe assimilation policies were enacted by some countries in Europe, most notably in Hungary and Spain, where it was illegal to speak Rom or even call oneself Rom, yet Rom identity and culture continued to survive by the continuation of strong familial bonds and marriage practices evolved from the need for protection against discrimination and violence. Again, perhaps for the same reasons, some of these same practices in modified forms are noticeable in the study of the Melungeon culture in Appalachia.
As the Rom populations diversified and spread out across Europe, various groups acquired local characteristics just as the Melungeons in Appalachia appear to have done. Rom groups became associated with different countries and some of them intermingled with native populations. For example, Rom that settled in Britain came to differ in appearance and to some extent in the degree of retained culture. Some Rom even came to regard themselves as Britons or Spaniards or Hungarians, although most simply passed themselves as such for purposes of escaping discrimination.
For many centuries Europe's Rom were able to sustain a livelihood by providing many services to the non-Rom population. Metalworking, horse shoeing, horse trading, repair of cookware, sharpening of tools are but a sampling of the kind of service that sustained the Rom economically. One occupation, that of fortune-telling has survived unimpaired, but while this profession still enjoys prestige in India, from which it came, it was regarded with skepticism and hostility in Europe and North America often leading Rom fortune-tellers into conflicts with the law.
In Europe, numerous attempts have been made either to exterminate the Rom or to assimilate them by force. The most horrific example took place in 20th century Europe, when Gypsies, together with the all Jews, were singled out for annihilation as part of the "Final Solution" undertaken by Nazi Germany. One in four victims of the Holocaust, approximately the same ratio of Rom as of Jews, were exterminated during World War II.
After World War II the Rom of Eastern Europe who survived the Holocaust were protected to some extent by the Communist governments of the Soviet bloc, but loyalty to the state was required over ethnic identity. With the collapse of European communism in 1989, nationalistic passions reappeared in eastern Europe, and the Rom, easily the largest and most widely distributed ethnic minority in Europe, again became the target of ethnic discrimination especially in regions of eastern Europe. Now a new migration to western countries is in progress.
A second significant wave of Rom immigrants came from Britain in the mid-1800s. Then with the abolition of serfdom (slavery) in Romania in1864 the third major influx of Rom occurred during the latter half of the19th century. Recently, a fourth wave of Rom have followed with the collapse of European communism and the advent of "Ethnic Cleansing" in eastern Europe. Today, Rom live in all parts of America pursue a wide variety of occupations, and share much of the common American culture. Deep down, the Melungeons of Appalachia still retain the element of mystic along with their Rom cousins.
A possible scenario is that a relative small number of "Anglicized" Rom indentured servants sent to the early English colony of Virginia, were able to remain together because of their common language and traditions. Of course mixture with Native Americans and African slaves occurred, but the early Rom were able to hold on to a few of their original customs in Virginia, especially those customs that had protected them from discrimination in Europe for centuries. Not having strong ties with mainstream European customs, the Melungeons, who were after all not slaves, tended to move to the fringes of advancing European settlements until they reached the difficult to access regions of Appalachia, where they more or less found a peaceful place to settle.
Once in Appalachia, it is reasonable to assume that major Rom intermingling with Native Americans and possible limited intermingling with runaway African slaves affected their original culture. In the United States, groups such as the Nanacokes, Moors and Saponi, that reached the English colonies at an early time, the Rom influence has all but been obliterated.
Other groups that came to the U.S. later, have had less time to intermingle allowing them to retain more of their Rom traditions. Rom customs have been held together by the oral tradition, since they left northern India a thousand years ago. Gypsies were oppressed and persecuted along with Jews in Europe; likewise oppressed and persecuted with along Native Americans and Negro people in North America.
In summary, my point is that the Rom culture of Europe was changed into the Melungeon culture in America. I freely admit that the "melting pot syndrome" in America has most certainly influenced the Melungeon culture, but deep down I have the hope and feeling that some element of the "free spirited" culture of the Rom-Gypsies will always survive in the Melungeons of Appalachia!
Henry Robert Burke
The General Benjamin D. Fearing Sons of Union Civil War Veterans Camp #2 (Historian),
OHIO BICENTENNIAL COMMISSION'S Underground Railroad and Civil War Advisory Councils
Phone: (740) 373-3125