Friday, November 7, 2008

What is a Melungeon?

Black Dutch, Redbones, Brass Ankles, Carmel Indians and Guineas are all terms which have been used to describe the group of olive skinned, dark haired people which appeared in the United States as early as the late 1600's, collectively known as Melungeons.

Usually living way back off the beaten path in their own small settlements of log houses with arched windows, the Melungeons have been the topic of rumor and legend for centuries. When asked, they would tell you they were "Portuguee" but recent DNA evidence and some cultural clues weave a tale of Turks, Gypsies, Greeks and Sephardic Jews, most likely brought to our shores aboard ships as slaves. The word itself, Melungeon, is believed by some researchers to be derived from the Turkish phrase "Melun jin" meaning "cursed soul."

One of the stories that is told over and over is that of Mahala "Big Haley" Mullins. Mahala lived in a cabin at the top of a mountain in Newman's Ridge, Tennessee, the best known of the Melungeon settlements. She weighed anywhere from three hundred to five hundred pounds depending on who was telling the story and sold moonshine from a stash beside her bed. Everyone knew Mahala had the best corn liquor, including the local sheriff. He sent the deputy out to arrest her but the deputy arrived back at the courthouse empty handed. It seems Mahala was too large to fit through the door of her cabin, or as the deputy explained it, "she was ketchable, but not fetchable." When Mahala died, her friends and relatives had to knock a hole in the chimney in order to remove the body and being too large for a casket, one was built using the frame of the bed she'd spend most of her life in.

The name Mahala is an unusual one, but not among this unique culture. It could stand as a clue to part of the origins of this group. I found the word "mahala" in a Romani, or Gypsy to English dictionary, meaning "a quarter of town," used like you would to identify a section of the city, such as the French quarter would be the French mahala. It reminds me of how we here in the southern appalachains call our valleys "hollas" or "hallers." Only well meaning city folk refer to them as "hollows." The spot where my grandmother's house sat and my trailer sits now, has always been refered to by the old folks as "Frog Pond Hollar."

If this all sounds strange to you, I understand. It wasn't until two years ago that I heard anyone utter the word Melungeon. My discovery that I was decended from this quirky group was soon to follow. If you have ancestors from the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee or Virginia, if you've been told that you tan easily because great great grandmother was an indian, but no one knows for sure what tribe nor is there a record of it anywhere, if people comment on your unusual skin tone or the rich tones of your deep blue or emerald green eyes, you might be a Melungeon too.

A few of the surnames that are most common among those with Melungeon ancestory are: Davis, Bowman, Goins, Mullins, Gibson, Collins, Weaver, Stanley, Perkins, Moore, Nash, Kennedy and many others. To have one of these surnames in your family doesn't prove anything, it's just one piece of the puzzle. Another way to tell are by some unusual physical characteristics. Asian shovel teeth are one. Feel the backs of your two front top teeth. If they are curved, like a shovel, you have shovel teeth. There is also a tiny ridge near the gumline that will click when your fingernail is scraped across it. I was amazed by this when I first read it, I thought everyone's teeth were shaped that way. I had everyone in the office picking at the backs of their teeth to see if they were curved or straight. Another physical characteristic is the anatolian bump. If you run your finger from the base of your neck, up the center of the back of your head, you'll feel a bump. Some are the size of a finger tip, some are as big as a golf ball. The Asian eye fold is another one, but a little more tricky to see. There are different variations of this, depending on what area of Asia your ancestors came from and a lot of Native Americans also have it. Basically, if you look in a mirror and draw an imaginary line from the outside corner of your eye straight across to your nose you should be able to tell if the inside corner of your upper eye lid begins at a point below that of the outside corner. Don't try this while you're doing something important like driving. Another way to tell is to place your finger just below the inner eye lid and gently pull the skin down, if you have the fold, it will show. There are also stories of Melungeons having an extra toe or finger at birth, a trait of a large group of people in Turkey. I had a best friend for years who had an extra toe on each foot and who's father was from the North Carolina mountains AND had one of the common Melungeon surnames. I say this to prove the point that you can't go by skin color alone. This friend was tow head blonde and lilly white.

Next time I'll share my favorite theory on the origins of the Melungeons. Now I'll leave ya'll alone to pick at your teeth and go grope the back of your mama's head checkin' for a lump.