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Who are the Melungeons?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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The Melungeons are a group of racially mixed people who can be found in Southeastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, and Northeastern Tennessee, in a region called the Cumberland Gap. A number of myths surround the origins and history of the Melungeons, and it can be difficult to find verifiable information about them. The group has been a topic of widespread interest and discussion since the mid-1800s, and in the late 20th century, many genealogists became interested in tracing the genetic and cultural history of the Melungeons.

Different people have different explanations for who exactly the Melungeons are and where they came from. As a general rule, it is agreed that members of the group are of mixed ancestry, probably combining European, Native American, and African genes. The dark complexion, hair, and eyes of many Melungeons suggests that they may have a high proportion of Hispanic or Middle Eastern ancestors. Genetic testing has strongly supported the idea that Melungeons have a great deal of Southern European and Native American blood.

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The precise definition of what a Melungeon is, precisely, varies widely, depending on who one talks to and what their views about the origins of the group are. It is estimated that at least 1,000 distinct Melungeons are probably living in Cumberland Gap, and that there may be more. The surnames Collins, Gibson, Goins, Mullins, Bowling, Bunch, Goodman, Minor, Mise, and Wise are all associated with the Melungeons, although plenty of people who do not belong to the group also bear these names.

The origins of the name “Melungeon” are a topic of debate, much as the origins of the people themselves are. The term appears to have arisen in the early 1800s, and it was used as a pejorative until the 20th century. One of the most likely explanations for the term is that it's a corruption of the French melange, for “mixture,” although other theories have the word being borrowed from Turkish, Arabic, or Italian.

These ethnically diverse individuals are sometimes called the “lost” or “mysterious” people of Appalachia, since their origins are a bit mysterious, thanks to general confusion and popular mythology. Genealogists believe that the Melungeons were the natural result of ethnic intermarriages in the early colonies, and that they may have moved into Appalachia to avoid discrimination, a common problem for ethnically mixed individuals in the Americas. As a result of their self-imposed isolation, the Melungeons developed into a somewhat distinct and unique group, which some people refer to as a “tri-racial isolate,” in a reference to their mixed ancestry. Their appearance is quite distinctive, causing Melungeons to stand out from their neighbors.

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