In the eighteenth century, land surveyors in the Appalachian Mountains reported encountering bronze-skinned, light-eyed people who fell to their knees in prayer five times a day. The mysterious mountain-dwellers, who lived far beyond the Western border of the thirteen colonies, referred to themselves as “Portuguese” in broken English. While their outward appearance suggested they were Mediterranean, the custom of praying five times a day hinted at Islamic roots. The French-speaking explorers, unsure what to call this mysterious community, described them as mélange, “a mix.”
That descriptor eventually evolved into the word “Melungeon.” For years, it was used as a slur to describe the mixed-race people living in and around Hancock County, Tennessee — although the Melungeon population extended well into neighboring Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. Outsiders have long wondered about the true origin of Melungeons. Countless theories abound. People have speculated they descend from the lost colony of Roanoke, or from shipwrecked Spaniards transporting African slaves. The real story, it turns out, might be surprisingly simple, especially in light of America’s history of segregation and racial strife.
Before I wrote this article, I used social media to find and interview several people who self-identify as Melungeon. I didn’t want to sensationalize their story, or “exotify” an ethnic group to which I do not belong. I began by asking a simple question: “What were you told about Melungeons and their origins?”
Luckily, I found people eager to share their family stories. Some grew up believing their ancestors were “Black Dutch,” Spanish Jews who fled to Holland after the Inquisition. “Black Irish” was another common explanation, as was Native American. Some had heard that Melungeons descended from the Roma — the much-maligned European minority group, often referred to as “Gypsies.”
Many had been told they were Portuguese. I expected this one: Melungeons throughout history have claimed Mediterranean ancestry. This was certainly true of Margaret Collins, nicknamed “Spanish Peggy.” Spanish Peggy was married to Vardy Collins, considered the “patriarch” of the Hancock County Melungeons. (Spanish Peggy’s restored log cabin is still standing in the Appalachian Mountains as a local…