The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People

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The year was 2005.  It was a time when the internet for me was rapidly evolving from a new-fangled medium on which to send communications and find romance to a serious research tool.   The Muscogee-Creek Nation had retained me to create an electronic book on the Native American history of the Southeast.1 This innovative book was an early experiment in web-based publishing.

Google’s search engines were exploding the amount of knowledge on the internet. A world was opening up that had been formerly confined to the environs of university libraries and the Library of Congress.

While working on the section of an electronic book on the history of the Georgia Mountains, I stumbled upon an article that mentioned the Nacoochee Valley.  Glancing at that paragraph only, I realized that the author placed the Nacoochee Valley in North Carolina.  It is not. It is in White and Habersham Counties, Georgia.  The Nacoochee Valley is one of the most sacred places of Georgia’s Creek Indians. This particular paragraph stated that during the 1690s British officers had observed large numbers of Spanish-speaking gold miners living in the Nacoochee Valley.  That whetted my curiosity.

The article was by Dr. Brent Kennedy, a history professor who lived in the southwestern Virginia town of Wise. Beginning in 1997, when he published, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People,  Kennedy was at the forefront of research about the Melungeons.2 He is of Melungeon descent, himself.  Publicity about his research got him a free trip to Turkey to work with Turkish academicians on solving the riddles of the Melungeons’ origin or origins.

The Melungeons are a mixed-heritage population living in the Southern Appalachians. They usually have black or dark hair.  Their skin was originally a dark olive color, but through generations of intermarriage may have no more pigmentation than their Anglo-Celtic neighbors.  The appearance of “full blooded” Melungeons is much like the stereotypical appearance of Hollywood Indians, because for many decades, Hollywood directors utilized Jewish, Italian and Armenian actors to portray American Indians.  Real Native Americans, especially the Muskogeans of the Southeast and the Pueblos of the Southwest, look Oriental.  A Creek Indian, with substantial indigenous heritage, usually has the appearance of a tall Indonesian.

Much of Kennedy’s research dealt with family genealogies, plus inherited physical traits and genetic diseases that Melungeons share with the people of the Mediterranean Basin.  What particularly intrigued me, however, were his bits of eyewitness evidence obtained from British Colonial archives and the memoirs of leaders on the Appalachian frontier.  For example, the man who built my former home in the Shenandoah Valley, Colonel John Tipton,  observed Spanish-speaking Jewish villages in southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee, when he and John Sevier were leading wagon trains of settlers into the region. That was in the 1780s.

There were many more historical accounts cited by Kennedy’s web article that described a history of the Southern Highlands which was quite different from what I had been taught in school.3 If true, evidently these facts were concealed by British scholars, and then the American historians, who wrote the first history books.  Each generation of scholars regurgitated what the previous one had said.  Kennedy wrote:

“There, on Roanoke Island he was besieged by stranded English settlers pleading for a ride home to England. The English colony of Ralph B. Lane had enough of the New World and wanted to go home. To fulfill their wish, Drake had to make room for them on his already crowded ships. According to English records, only 100 Turks were taken back to England where they were ransomed to the “Turkish Dominions,” There’s no further mention of the remaining 200 Moors, Turks, West Africans, Portuguese Soldiers or the South American Indians by Drake, and records show that Sir Walter Raleigh who visited the Island two weeks later found no trace of them. Where did they go?

Research indicates that Drake left them behind, assuring that he or someone else would be back for them. But that was no guarantee of safety from the pursuing Spanish of Portuguese. On Roanoke Island they were little more than sitting ducks. There is little doubt they made their way the short distance to the mainland, probably utilizing the small boats left behind by the English, and then traveled steadily inland. Along the way some intermarried with Native Americans, mostly Powhatan, Pamunkey, Nansemond and Hatteras.

Within the next decade or so they encountered the remnants of the Santa Elena colony, many of whom shared their Muslim heritage. And there, thousands of miles away from their homelands, these surviving groups became one people; Christians, Jews and Muslims . . . literally, the people of the book . . . living and worshipping the God of Abraham together.

In 1654, the English explorers learned from southeastern Indians of a colony of bearded people wearing European clothing, living in cabins smelting silver and dropping to their knees to pray many times daily, wherever they might be a people who did not speak English, but claimed to “Portyghee.”

In the mid 1600′s, there were people living among the Powhatans and related tribes of eastern Virginia and North Carolina who were described as being dark like Indians, but called “Portugals.” A similar people in South Carolina called themselves “Turks.” The early 17th Century Powhatan Indians’ description of Heaven is nearly word for word the description found in the Holy Qur’an.

In the 1690′s, French explorers reported finding “Christianized Moors” in the Carolina Mountains. When the first English arrived in the mid- 1700′s, large colonies of so called “Melungeons” were already well established in the Tennessee and Carolina Mountains. And, in broken Elizabethan English they called themselves “Portyghee,” or by the more mysterious term “Melungeon.”

Tennessee Governor John Sevier records a 1784 encounter in what is now Western North Carolina with a dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, who claimed to be Portuguese. In east Tennessee in late 1700′s, Jonathan Swift, an Englishman married to a Melungeon woman, utilized Melungeon men in his own silver mining operations. His dark-skinned companions were known as “Mecca Indians.”4

There were no reference notes at the end of Kennedy’s article.  I wondered where he had dug up all these facts. I could only verify the story of captured Spanish galley slaves possibly being freed on the South Atlantic Coast.   Also, Kennedy needed to know more about the Nacoochee Valley.

I was also curious about his reference to the “Mecca Indians.”   Did he misinterpret the word, Mecco, which is Creek for “leader,” or was there really an Indian tribe in Tennessee with an Arabic name?

I was able to find Brent Kennedy’s email address.  I sent him an email that politely stated the Nacoochee Valley’s location was in northeast Georgia, not western North Carolina.  I also mentioned that Georgia’s first anthropologist, Charles C. Jones, Jr. had written a book in the early 1870s that described the ruins of a 16th century gold mining village on Dukes Creek in the Nacoochee Valley.5 The miners had even found a cigar mold!   Also, 16th or 17th century Spanish mines had also been found in the Andrews Valley of North Carolina.

Kennedy immediately wrote back and asked for my telephone number.  His email stated that he was merely quoting a story from the late 1700s or early 1800s and had no way of knowing if Jonathon Swift had misinterpreted a Native American word.  He has listed the story as “possible evidence.”

A call back to the famous author precipitated an immediate friendship.  Since writing his book, Brent had continued to do research in the Colonial archives in South Carolina.  He had recently read an account from 1745 from a trader, who also served as an agent to the Cherokee Indians.  In 1745 the Cherokee Indians had entered the Tuckasegee River Valley for the first time.  The Cherokees had encountered villages of white men with skin the color of Indians, who apparently spoke Spanish.  They had long beards and “worshiped a book.”  They lived in log houses with arched windows.   They survived by growing gardens and working gold and silver.

I wondered, everybody knows about the Georgia gold fields, but where did they find the silver for their craft.  I never heard of silver being mined in the Southeast. The Cherokees said that they encountered no Indians living in the Tuckasegee Valley.  Since they were not British, the Cherokees had killed any of these white men who resisted eviction and had driven out the rest.   Apparently, the Cherokees were under orders from the British to eliminate any French or Spanish intruders on lands claimed by the British Crown, but also legitimately claimed by France and Spain.

Kennedy’s story initially seemed odd to me. Since 1976, North Carolina’s archaeologists AND its state government had adopted an official policy that the Cherokees had been living in the western North Carolina Mountains for at least 1000 years.  The official history of Jackson County, NC, where the Cherokees were immigrating, states that the Cherokees had lived there for at least 1000 years and carved the famous Judiculla Petroglyphic Boulder.6 Yet, here was a story that placed a region only 16 miles from the Eastern Cherokee Reservation, where the Cherokees had never lived until 1745.

Someone’s history had been fabricated.  The more I got to know Brent Kennedy, who had a PhD, the more I believed his version of history.  He had moved to the Atlanta Area at the same time that I had moved from Atlanta to Asheville, NC.  We shared some mutual friends in Atlanta.

Throughout the fall, our intellectual exchanges continued.   Kennedy had been tipped off that there were ancient stone ruins on the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County, NC that he suspected were the sites of Melungeon villages.  He wrote me to see if I would be interested in joining him in an exploration of the ruins.  He also wanted to see the Nacoochee Valley.  He suggested that when things warmed up in March of 2006, he would meet me in the North Carolina Mountains.

In December of 2005, Brent Kennedy had a massive stroke, after giving the eulogy at a colleague’s funeral.  He was in a coma for a considerable length of time before becoming partially aware of his surroundings. Since then he has been primarily confined to a wheel chair and is speech impaired.

Footnotes

  1. Thornton, Richard, Southeastern Exposure, the History of the Southeastern Native Americans, Okmulgee, OK:  Muscogee-Creek Nation, 2005.  This electronic book is only available to citizens of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. 

  2. Kennedy, N. Brent, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997. 

  3. Kennedy, N. Brent, “The Melungeons, An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America,” Islamic Horizons Magazine (November/December 1994). 

  4. Kennedy, N. Brent, “The Melungeons, An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America,” Islamic Horizons Magazine (November/December 1994). 

  5. Jones, Charles C.  Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes, (Reprinting of original book published in 1873 by D. Appleton Co. of New York) Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999; p. 48. 

  6. Martin, Jonathon, “History of Jackson County, NC,” North Carolina History Project, Raleigh, NC: John Locke Foundation. 



MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-melungeons-the-resurrection-of-a-proud-people.htm - Last updated on Jun 15th, 2014


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