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." ...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Parks are cut, but thankfully they are still open

The Raleigh News & Observer/Charlotte Observer (they're essentially the same now, after all) has a nice piece on the impact of the state budget on the state parks. It is significant. Thankfully, the parks are still open and essentially free to visit, though some fees (camping, for example) went up.

"As states struggle with deficits, the nation's parks are under siege. California will close 70 of its 278 parks. Washington state withdrew all its state support. Ohio plans to allow oil and gas drilling in its parks," says the article.

No North Carolina parks or recreation areas are expected to close. But visitors will pay more to camp, swim or picnic, because of fee increases. They'll find fewer rangers and more peeling paint.

"You can only nail, hammer and paint so much," said Shederick Mole, superintendent of Jordan Lake State Recreation Area in Chatham County. ...

As the state park budget is reduced over the next few years, less money will be available for parks to renovate and remodel existing buildings. ...

Legislators diverted $8.4 million from the trust, which gets income from real estate excise taxes, to help balance the state budget. They also took an additional $6 million for park operations. ...

A recent study from N.C. State University found that the cost of installing and staffing fee stations would offset the revenue from a fee. The study also predicted that visits would fall, hurting the parks' $400 million annual contribution to local economies.

Click here for the rest of the article.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Oh, the humanity!

From MyFox8:

Vandals destroyed an iconic sign on the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Haywood-Jackson county line.

Rangers tell the Asheville Citizen-Times that the latest sign to be hit was a 5-foot tall wooden marker indicating the highest point on the parkway near the Haywood-Jackson county line. The sign was pulled off its stone base sometime in the past two weeks.

Seriously? What is this world coming to?

"Officials say the Cold Mountain Outlook sign is frequently stolen. They also have seen an increase in graffiti. ... Park rangers say they are seeing an increase in vandalism along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rangers say several pieces of large equipment such as tractors and mowers have been damaged."

So folks want to steal a sign referencing an overrated story? (Sorry, I probably shouldn't say that.) That's just weird.

Anyone with information about this incident should call 800-PARK-WATCH or 298-2491.