Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tales of the Melungeons?

"Tales of Melungeons are packed with mystery and meaning in the Appalachian region," writes Indiana's The Republic. "Campfire stories about the dark-skinned mountaineers have long swirled through the hills and hollers, largely depicting the Melungeons as secretive, lawless, and even threatening to outsiders."

I'm a native North Carolinian who has NEVER heard of these folks. A conference in Swannanoa "may help unravel the mystery of the Melungeons, including DNA results that show that their dark hair and European features likely came from Arabic and Jewish immigrants centuries ago."

Melungeons have been traced back for more than four centuries in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, but their unusual appearance and familial closeness often kept them apart from many of their white neighbors.

Phyllis Starnes of southwestern Virginia said she began to probe her Melungeon ancestry a decade ago after she was treated for a bout of stomach and chest pain.

Born and raised in the mountains, Starnes was shocked to hear her doctor diagnose familial Mediterranean fever, a rare hereditary disease passed down by Arabs and Jews,

"My family has been in Appalachia for hundreds of years, so I thought: this doesn't make sense," Starnes said.

Following her own heritage trail led the Fort Blackmore, Va., resident to the Melungeons, a group that had often been stereotyped as less intelligent and lazier than their lighter-skinned neighbors.

"Melungeon ever so long was a dirty word. Nobody wanted to be Melungeon."

But with new research and a renewed interest in ancestry and family backgrounds, the affiliation is taking on a much more positive spin.

"Seems like everybody wants to be Melungeon now," said Starnes, 59.

Autosomal DNA testing, which measures mixed geographic heritage, offers a profile of Melungeons that includes Jewish, Middle Eastern, Egyptian and sometimes Gypsy ancestry. African and Native American heritage also appears. ...

The origin of the term Melungeon is unknown. It first appeared in written form in 1813 church records from Stoney Creek, Va., where someone accused a church member of harboring "them Melungeons."

Some say the term was derived from the French term mélange, meaning mixture.

Melungeon historian Brent Kennedy links arrival of the Melungeons in Appalachia to the Spanish Inquisition, when a half-million Jews and Muslims were exiled from Spain and Portugal in the 16th Century.

Kennedy writes that the exiled people became renowned for their seagoing exploits and sometimes wound up on ships headed for America — either as slaves or galley hands.

An early American historical account tells of British explorers in the 1600s encountering a settlement in the Tennessee Valley where people spoke in a foreign language they referred to as "Portyghee."

Genetics Professor J.P. Evans at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says it can be useful to combine DNA research with stories such as the one the British told in the 1600s.

"The Portuguese were the first Europeans in the Age of Discovery to start crossing the Atlantic," Evans said. "It would not surprise me at all if some wound up in the mountains of North Carolina or Tennessee." ...

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