20 Years of Melungeon Research


It has been 20 years since the genetic survey of Melungeons by Jones. This overview of studies of Melungeons from a genetic perspective by Donald N. Yates took shape first in 2002 and led to a chapter in Ancestors and Enemies: Essays on Melungeons (Phoenix: Panther’s Lodge, 2013). It incorporates original research published in an academic journal in 2010:  Donald N. Yates and Elizabeth C. Hirschman, “Toward a Genetic Profile of Melungeons in Southern Appalachia,” Appalachian Journal 38/1 (Fall 2010) 92-111. It is offered here because of the scarcity of genetic studies of the subject and continuing lack of research progress on the academic front after more than ten years (in 2020).

Unidentified granddaughter of Richard Blevins in Tennessee typifies Melungeons’ dark looks.

Albert Einstein was at a dinner party in Princeton when he held a position in physics at the Institute for Advanced Studies. The conversation turned to Einstein’s recent comment that God did not play at dice. The universe was not the result of random chance entirely. Was God then evil since so many events in our lives tended to turn out badly? “The good Lord is not mean,” Einstein explained, “but he’s crafty.”

Something similar can be said about DNA. It does not lie, but it is often rather oblique. Even geneticists—the scientists dedicated to unraveling its mysteries—are only at the beginning of understanding how it can make us smarter, taller, more artistic, better at math, prone to certain diseases, or able to excel at running long or short distances. The six-billion-marker map of our genes from the Human Genome Project was completed just a few years ago. It is still a matter of dispute exactly what a gene is in the first place. How can the layman fathom the intricacies and ever-changing revelations in such a field? It is like trying to know the mind of God.

As with most people, I possessed a very imprecise knowledge of genes and genetics, to say the least. I had only a begrudging interest in genealogy, which I considered was for the birds. Out of the blue, I got an email from Elizabeth Hirschman, a professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, just down the road from Einstein’s august old haunts. I’ll never forget the subject line: “Cooper Ethnicity?” As it turned out, Beth was a distant cousin. Like me, she was descended from a Kentucky pioneer named Isaac Cooper, whose grandfather William Cooper acted as guide and scout for Daniel Boone, and whose descendants intermarried with the Choctaw and Cherokee Indians. Was I aware that those pioneer Coopers were Melungeons, part of a rare Appalachian ethnic group? Did I know where the Coopers came from? Was I ever told they were Jewish? Did I have a male Cooper uncle or cousin of my mother, Bessie Cooper, whom she could test with DNA to confirm it?

I knew at once it was true. There was no question in my mind. It hit me like a thunderbolt. In a heartbeat, a new identity swept through my whole being. Despite the saying that nature does not like sudden leaps, I took in one breath as a Scots-Irish-part-Cherokee Southern Baptist and exhaled as a Jew.

It was time for me to lock my office door and go home. Teresa was waiting in the parking lot. I threw my briefcase and a pile of library books in the back seat of our Camry.

“Guess what, Babe,” I said. “We’re Jewish . . . at least, I am.”

I filled her in on Cousin Beth’s email and the Melungeons. My wife and I are also cousins, so I assumed in my heady shock of recognition that her family must be Jewish as well. I didn’t stop to wonder what the effect and impact of the news might be for her. A passage from a diary she kept during these times illustrates how one man’s mead can be another man’s poison:

I wanted to go back to before I had got in the car, before I had left our Low Country home in the pinelands. If I could just retrace my steps backwards to that safe haven of innocence! He had to be wrong. He must be wrong. Either that or I have to discover a way to make this unimportant.

“Melungeons are Sephardic Jews! My people are Jewish! We are Jewish! Your Rameys, my Coopers, most of the other lines!”
This was too, too much. Now in my forties I find I am Jewish? I thought, “I can ignore this,” and I did.

The Melungeons are what anthropologists have termed a tri-racial isolate and what the ordinary person today might call people of color. They form a remote, intricately inbred population separated by history and geography from their neighbors. Their genetic background is mixed, exactly how mixed varies on a case-by-case basis. Their largest concentration lies in the rural, mountainous intersection of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia. Other Melungeon communities are found in southern Ohio (Mt. Carmel Indians), central Tennessee near Chattanooga (Graysville Melungeons) and Sand Mountain, Alabama (where my mother’s family was from). Estimates of the size of the Melungeon population range from 50,000 to more than 250,000. They constitute a not-insignificant ingredient in the national melting pot and may qualify as America’s oldest ethnic minority.

Typical surnames have been identified (Cooper among them), and characteristic medical conditions noticed, for instance, familial Mediterranean fever, an inflammatory disorder passed down in families coming originally from countries around the Mediterranean Sea. The word Melungeon could be French (“mixture”), Turkish (“accursed souls”), the name of an Angolan tribe Malunjin, or malungu, a Portuguese-African term meaning “shipmate.” Theories abound. By all accounts, these enigmatic people were discovered already in place when the first English settlers crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into the interior of North America. John Sevier, later governor of Tennessee, was one of the first to venture into Indian Country, along with the pioneer Daniel Boone, longhunters like Elisha Walden and Daniel Blevins, and Indian traders like James Adair, who wrote History of the American Indians. Sevier described a mysterious white mountain-dwelling people with guns, a community bell and all the marks of civilization. They spoke an unfamiliar tongue and were unusually suspicious of strangers.

Were they remnants of a Portuguese colony? Shipwrecked Moors? Phoenicians? Welshmen? Some sort of “white Indian” tribe? Runaway slaves? Whoever they were, and wherever they came from, it was clear they did not enjoy a very savory reputation. The first recorded use of the word “Melungeon” occurs in the minutes of the Stony Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Scott County, Virginia, in 1813. One of the members, Sister Kitchen, accused another woman of harboring “them Melungins.” Nashville journalist Will Allen Dromgoole, a descendant of Scottish Indian trader Alexander Dromgoole and Cherokee chief Doublehead’s daughter Nanny the Pain, catapulted the Melungeons into public awareness with a series of newspaper articles in the 1890s. She painted a pretty lurid picture of them:

Their complexion is a reddish-brown, totally unlike the Mulatto . . . . They are not at all like the Tennessee mountaineer, either in appearance or characteristics . . . . The Malungeons are filthy, their home is filthy. They are rogues, natural “born rogues,” close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and, to use their own word, “sneaky.” In many things they resemble the negro. They are exceedingly immoral, yet are great shouters and advocates of religion.

Insult turned to injury with Walter A. Plecker, director of Virginia’s department of vital and health statistics. Appointing himself keeper of the Old Dominion’s racial purity policies, and practicing a sort of paper genocide, Plecker treated Melungeons as mixed bloods trying to pass illegally as white. He kept lists of surnames (including Cooper) and registered those bearing these surnames as “mongrels.” The state accordingly denied many of these people the right to vote or attend school. Melungeon families ended up going under cover, some destroying their birth certificates to conceal their origins. They tended to stop telling their children the truth of who they were. When my mother entered Berry College in Georgia, her father Dolph Cooper of Sand Mountain, Alabama, swore an affidavit that she had no birth certificate. Plecker’s reign of terror lasted thirty years, from 1912 to 1942.

At this point, many readers are probably wondering why if these people were so despised and persecuted would anybody want to own up to being one of them. Remarkably, there are thousands today who cherish the idea. Popular and scientific interest in the Melungeons was revived in 1994 with the publication of Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People by N. Brent Kennedy. Born in the Melungeon heartland in Wise, Virginia, with an extra digit on his hands (a rare genetic trait known elsewhere in the Appalachians, also in regions of Turkey), as a young man he went on to recover from a near-fatal attack of familial Mediterranean fever.

Brent began investigating his own ancestry in order to discover how “a Scotch-Irish white boy could get a Mediterranean-Jewish-Arab disease,” especially one requiring the presence of a recessive gene on both his mother’s and father’s side. Kennedy’s decidedly “non-white boy” appearance, as well as those of his parents, cousins and some of the neighbors, together with his discovery of falsified family records claiming “white” ancestry, led him to speculate that he was, in fact, of Melungeon descent. His heartfelt history sparked awakenings by others. A whole new generation who had gone to bed white woke up to find themselves brown, according to Elizabeth Hirschman. “And what was (possibly) more troubling,” she writes, “having gone to bed Christian, they awoke to find themselves having potentially Jewish or Muslim ancestry along with hereditary Jewish and Muslim diseases. . . . The seemingly quaint practices of their grandparents—for instance naming children Mecca, Omar, Menorah and Alzina, discarding eggs with blood spots, avoiding pork and thoroughly washing and salting all other meats—took on an ominous new meaning.”

The first attempt to define Melungeons with the contemporary tools of genetics was a study by English biologist Kevin Jones, working with the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and University College in London in 2000. Sampling men and women regarded as part of a “core group” from Newmans Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee, the Jones survey found that Melungeons, on the face of it, and on average, were about 90% European, 5% Native American and 5% African—not much different from the surrounding population. This was not the whole story, though. Within the European lines of descent, “there is significant diversity, and some seem to reflect areas outside the traditional northern European sphere,” noted Jones. And according to the president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, “The presence of Turkish and northern Indian haplotypes [descents] within the mitochondrial [female] DNA samples taken from modern-day Melungeons indicates that women of European/Asian origin were a part of the original mixture that made up the Melungeon ancestry.”

One of the female lineages in Brent Kennedy’s family, for instance, proved to be of the N haplogroup (branch), the first out-of-Africa human beings. This finding put to rest the assumption that European males, marooned Spanish and Portuguese sailors perhaps, took wives with Native Americans and African-Americans to produce the Melungeons. Since mitochondrial DNA is passed exclusively by mothers to their children, and only their daughters can continue to propagate the exact type, its presence meant that women formed part of the original nucleus of the colony or settlement. The conclusion was that the Melungeons were a coherent, endogamous population group, not just an ad hoc mix that happened to bubble up on the Tennessee frontier. They had a homeland—but where?

Some players in the still-unfolding drama, a number of whom might themselves be entitled to call themselves Melungeons, rejected the very concept of Melungeons, maintaining Melungeons are one and the same with the predominantly Scots-Irish and English settlers of the surrounding region. Leading the charge for the non-believers was Virginia E. DeMarce, who released a scathing review of Kennedy’s book in 1996. DeMarce assembled details from courthouse and other public records showing that the Goins, Gibson, Collins, Chavis, Riddle, Bunch and other surnames identified as Melungeon were actually surnames borne by mulattos, taxed Indians or just plain white persons moving to the frontier from the coastal settlements in Virginia and North Carolina. It remained for others to point out that the names had nonetheless an exotic element. Chavis, for instance, plainly came from the common Sephardic Jewish surname Chavez, derived from the name of a town in Portugal. Casteel probably originated with a native of Castile in Spain. Dula was the name of a Berber clan. Mozingo and Cumbow (Gumbo) were transparently African, and perhaps Muslim. Hyatt and Elliott were Arabic, as was Mustain. Tolliver came from the Spanish word for blacksmith. Lopes was Portuguese for Spanish Lopez. Hendrix was Henriquez. Sephard meant . . . well, Sephardic, and Moore . . . uh, Moor. The Kennedy name itself seemed to come from Turkish, designating someone connected with the “seat of the khan, or governor,” as in Candy, the capital of Crete (now Irakleion).

There were yet other camps who looked at the same findings. Paul Heinegg, a retired engineer who studied free African Americans for many years, believed the Melungeons were examples of early colonial blacks able to marry white women and own land in a day before discrimination. Eloy Gallegos and Manuel Mira both wrote passionate books tracing Melungeons to the Portuguese colonists of St. Elena (a sixteenth-century fort near Beaufort, South Carolina). Adam Eterovich argued they were Croatians. Theories about Melungeons flew thick and fast all over the place.

Whether carried out professionally or conceived as an amateur DNA project, the Jones study and all others have been limited in one important respect. Only the Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA testimony was looked into. The strict male and strict female lines are by no means the only ones in a family tree. Conventional DNA tests don’t tell us anything about our mother’s father or father’s mother. If you go back ten generations, you have more than a thousand distinct lines. The old approach of genetic genealogy can target only two. Only recently has it become feasible to pry loose answers regarding all the in-between and hidden lines. Autosomal (non-sex-related) tests can look at markers scattered across a person’s entire genome. These procedures can estimate your total ancestral contributions, as well as ethnic composition. They have expanded our picture of the human genetic past by leaps and bounds.

It was time to try the emerging technology on the mystery of the Melungeons. Hoping to succeed where others had failed, Beth Hirschman and I applied the new DNA fingerprint test to a small sample of self-identifying Melungeons. Like most other tests, the DNA fingerprint uses polymerase chain reaction chemistry to amplify a cheek-swab specimen produced by rubbing something like a Q-tip against the inside of your cheek and collecting buccal (pronounced “buckle”) cells. The swabs are usually collected at home and sent back by mail to the lab. Technicians then extract your DNA. In this test, the markers discerned are not locations on the Y chromosome in the strict male line, nor are they mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of an ancient female lineage, but the loci used by forensic scientists to obtain a genetic identity profile and investigate crime scene evidence.

Most of us are familiar with this DNA profile from television police shows. In a revolutionary application of this method of identification to ancestry, an individual’s profile is put through special population frequency databases. A strong match with any population (say, France/Toulouse or Greek Cypriot or Apache) suggests you have ancestors from that part of the world. The DNA fingerprint test excels at finding small degrees of admixture and was perfect for our Melungeon survey. By evaluating the top matches for the group, we believed we might arrive at an overall ethnic profile for Melungeons, one showing what countries and parts of the world their ancestors came from and how much admixture they had from Native Americans and Africans.

All of our Melungeon volunteers had exclusively south central Appalachian ancestry over the past five generations and a surname from the list published in Brent Kennedy’s book. Brent and his brother Richard both gave samples, as did our own two extended families. Having siblings, parents, children, aunts, uncles and others, we decided, would help validate the methodology. More than one participant was a repeat from the Jones study. Most were prominent in the Melungeon awareness movement. Wayne Winkler, the president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, joined the project, as did Nancy Sparks Morrison, founder of a Melungeon health information service on the Internet.

Analysis of the data dispels any notion that Melungeons are ethnically non-diverse from the surrounding population or even homogenous among themselves. Melungeons are solidly distinct and highly diversified at the same time. Their most striking features are elevated Jewish, Middle Eastern, Native American, Sub-Saharan African and Iberian ancestry. All but two of the Melungeons in the study have a match with a Sephardic Jewish population as defined by the forensic team of Antonia Picornell. All have very strong to moderate Middle Eastern matches. One participant has high matches with every Middle Eastern population included in the database.

Another Melungeon has Saudi Arabia at the top and Yemeni in second position. For both, likely ancestral places of origin are uniformly distributed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan, while Northern Europe is, to a greater or lesser degree, de-emphasized. This result graphically illustrates the fact that Melungeon ethnicity on average is more Mediterranean and “browner” than that of their overwhelmingly Northern European neighbors. DNA brings out the difference like night and day—or rather, olive and white.

The Kennedy brothers emerge with an Ashkenazic Jewish pattern. As outlined by Brent Kennedy in his book, they have a “family origin story” suggesting the possibility of Jewish ancestors, but the whisper was confirmed through genealogical research only in the past few years. DNA is no respecter of feelings. Again, it blurted out a secret that no amount of paper-driven research could expose. Genes trump genealogy. Indeed, Beth Hirschman’s own pedigree on the face of it is linked to the illustrious Maryland Chases. Finding out that the Chase connection was manufactured to dodge racial prejudice and safeguard appearances launched her on her own journey toward discovering her true identity.

Native American matches appear in the profiles of all Melungeons according to the study. They are dominant in my own, Athabaskan Alaskan being No. 1, and ten out of twenty falling into the category. In my case, most of Northern Europe is, again, of lesser rank. Also, most of the Middle East is unimportant, the exception being the Jewish match brightly lit up in Israel on the map. When I learned of these matches, it meshed with my own prior understanding of my genealogy. In the study, the Native American Lumbee population of North Carolina registered as the top match for three Melungeons and was in second place for one other. The same result appeared in the lineup of one-fourth of all the participants. The Lumbee are often compared to Melungeons because of their mixed ancestry, marginalized history and unusual customs and traditions.

Like Native American and Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African admixture is an essential part of what it means to be Melungeon. Certain families such as the Goins, Collins and Driggers were either rumored to be black or confessed as much themselves. African matches had a strong showing in two-thirds of the individuals studied by us. Sub-Saharan African appears to be the overriding ancestry in at least two (although remember that matches cannot be equated with percentages). One of these, a Goins descendant, belonged to a “core” Melungeon family. Yet some Melungeons do not appear to have any indication of Sub-Saharan African heritage whatever. Sub-Saharan ancestry is thus relatively common, but not universal. Overall, the amount of admixture for both ethnicities is about the same as in the Jones study—5% Sub-Saharan African and 5% Native American.

Notable in the study was a low incidence of ancestry from England. This phenomenon can be glimpsed in the browning out of dots in Northwestern Europe. Matches to what the database defines as “Caucasian American” are few and far between. For some Melungeons, Sub-Saharan African, Middle Eastern, or North African ancestry evidently replaces Caucasian as the leading component of their ethnicity. Non-English looks, combined with a connection with Scottish, Irish and other minority cultures, evidently sealed Melungeons’ fates in the eyes the English majority population around them.

Iberian ancestry outranks any other in Melungeons. Although it is something totally counter-intuitive, people who live in Kentucky and Tennessee and other Appalachian locations have a lot of Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American and Hispanic genes in them. One-third of our Melungeons emphasized these ethnicities in their overall makeup. This fits well with the abundance of Spanish and Portuguese surnames among Melungeon families. The modal, or most common, response in the study is Andalusia in the South of Spain, a strongly Arab part of the country, and the last refuge of the Moors. Berber is another ethnicity that provides a common thread in Melungeon identity, as well as strong resonance in family histories. Moroccan and related North African populations are found at the top in several of our participants’ profiles. Recall that some of the surnames regarded as Melungeon are quite literally Berber; about fifteen percent of all Sephardic Jewish surnames are too. The Berber element seems largely related to Andalusian ancestry, since following the conquest of Spain by Berber armies in 710, Andalusia became the Moorish stronghold.

Several other countries cropping up in the profiles are Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Bosnia, Slovenia, Italy, and Poland. Except for Poland, all these lie within the Mediterranean orbit. Places like Livorno and Venice, Italy; Thessaloniki, Greece; and Izmir and Constantinople, Turkey were waystations in the diaspora of Sephardic Jews after their explusion from Spain. Florida Atlantic University sociology professor Abraham Lavender believes this distribution of DNA reflects the very footsteps of Jews fleeing persecution throughout the early modern era, although he also raises the possibility that it represents a far more ancient pattern of Jewish populations.

What European countries emerge as important? Here again there are distinct answers. France exhibits the highest number of matches, with the South (Toulouse) exceeding the North (Lille). Notably, southern France experienced a large population influx from Spain and North Africa during the Middle Ages. Scotland is not far behind, however, and in fact, if we add together the two sub-populations of these countries, wins the top spot. The Northeast (Dundee) measurably surpasses the Southwest (Glasgow). This is consistent Hirschman’s and my findings in When Scotland Was Jewish documenting a strong Sephardic/Moorish presence in northeastern Scotland following the Crusades. Melungeons seem to have far more Highlands than Lowlands kinsmen.

In conclusion, Melungeons have predominantly northeastern Scottish ancestry along with southern European elements such as Portuguese and southern French. They exhibit less solidarity with the northwestern European countries adjacent to Scotland—England/Wales, Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, neighbors that might be expected to figure more prominently in their mix—than they do to the Mediterranean lands. Whenever such an anomaly occurs, the explanation must lie in more than the straightforward, random expansion and blending of peoples. Population geneticists speak here of a non-starlike distribution pattern. Notably, northern Scotland, especially Aberdeen, had closer historical links with Poland and the Baltic than with, say, England. Scotland traditionally sought alliances with France, not England.

It seems that the isolation of Melungeons began before they arrived in the future United States. They brought over to the Appalachians an essentially disparate and distinct Scottish population. What they shared physically were, of course, darker coloring of their skin, hair and eyes and more exotic looks. On the English frontier, these traits set them apart from northwestern Europeans and led to their being branded “foreign,” “colored” and “non-white.”

It is easy to imagine that most of the original founding Melungeon foremothers and forefathers were not Christian. Native Americans, Berbers and Sub-Saharan Africans would have held religious beliefs of an animistic form, invoking solar, lunar, water, earth, fire and spiritual forces as well as natural calendric ceremonies. Arabic and Turkish-descended Melungeons probably probably imbibed a syncretistic blend of Sunni and Shi’ia traditions. Iberian and Polish/Balkan Jews blended their Sephardic and Ashkenazic religious practices. If South Asians were present in the early Melungeon settlements, they probably contributed Gypsy or Romani customs.

Autosomal DNA clearly shows that Colonial North America—at least in the southeastern region—was inhabited by a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population from its inception. There is an astonishing level of diversity buried in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I should have known,” I told Beth and my wife at the time all our lives took a sort of strange turn. “One grandmother was named Palestine and I had an uncle named Josephus.” But why hadn’t my family told me of this? When I confronted my mother, she said, “Well, what of it?” Teresa’s experiences were similar. Her father admitted having been made to wear a yarmulke as a little boy, and having an aunt who sang “in the synagogue.” Wondrous artifacts crept out of the closet—a silver menorah, letters between two great-granduncles calling each other Jews, whispers of free loans from a bank run by relatives . . .  . Now suddenly Jewish, we ventured on a tour of Mickve Israel in Savannah, North America’s third oldest Jewish congregation. There we met Rabbi Arnold Belzer. He knew of the Melungeons and had heard similar tales about crypto-Jewish families. “You can’t convert to Judaism,” he explained. “You can only return.” He told us that when Bevis Marks Synagogue was built in London in 1703. He was just then about to embark on a trip to attend its 300th anniversay. Spanish and Portuguese crypto-Jews returned there to Judaism after as long a lapse as four hundred years. So we returned.

Modern genetics often have a deep influence on people’s lives. Giving up the teaching profession, I founded a DNA testing company, DNA Consultants. Few customers, I learned, could easily dismiss the results of a DNA test once that step was taken. Those for whom it became a life-altering event are more common than the opposite. Customers’ testimony to the uncanny truth of DNA poured in on all sides. Fellow Melungeons were particularly grateful for answers to the longstanding questions in their lives.

Richard Stewart in West Virginia wrote, “I was always told that we were Scottish, English, Irish. Now I know I have more Southeastern Europe (Turkey) and Middle Eastern (Jewish) ancestry than I do in Northern Europe.”

Julia Starnes, whose mother and father’s DNA happened to have a significant amount of Middle Eastern though they were sixth generation East Tennesseans, told a Melungeon discussion board:

What I find personally interesting is that for seven years I have been studying dances of the Middle East, Spain, Turkey, and most recently India—following the Romani trail. I have a particular passion for the music and dance of the Turkish Romani…. It took very little for me to become attuned to the instrumentation and rhythms associated with the music of these countries…. Maybe I’m just being silly, but I feel that the Romani music especially speaks to my heart and soul. I feel that I perform at my best when picking music from the regions that are connected to my genetic (though not cultural) heritage.

Bowled over by Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American matches, another test taker wondered, “Ethically and legally, on a census or job form that asks for racial identity, should I now be filling out Hispanic instead of Caucasian?”

Nancy Sparks Morrison, who runs the Melungeon Health discussion list, passes on story after story from those who benefited from a DNA analysis by being better able to accept or manage their health. One Appalachian native finally got her doctor to diagnose her with familial Mediterranean fever and prescribe the drug colchicine after bringing in an ancestry report demonstrating she had genetic forbears in Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean. The family practitioner knew very little about the disease, which was clinically unreported previously in Tennessee.

The opportunities to learn from DNA are especially rife for adopted children who do not know their biological parents or ethnic background. It is estimated as many as fifteen percent of Americans are either adopted or descended from an adopted person. I will let one of these—or rather her adoptive sister—tell in her own words what taking a DNA test did for them.

When Tina was given up for adoption, all information about her birth father was provided by her birth mother, who was Caucasian of Czechoslovakian/German heritage and stated the father was very light-skinned African American. The last dozen years or so, Tina has questioned her ethnicity. She has been asked repeatedly if she is African American, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Latin of various types, East Indian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Greek, or Armenian. Some people have said she looks Russian, Native American Indian, Hawaiian or even Asian!

Tina’s report showed Hispanic (Spanish/Portuguese) and Scottish/English/Welsh with Middle Eastern and American Indian admixture. Also, it said, there may be Slovenian/Polish/Gypsy . . . with a medium match to Sephardic Jews. There was no Sub-Saharan African or East Asian. Her deep ancestry was all Mediterranean, North African Arab and/or Berber, Portuguese and Middle Eastern. In my own ignorance, I had not realized that other groups of people also had her markedly curly hair. It was so much fun finding pictures of Berber/North African Arabs with my sister’s hair and nose.

Tina is delighted with her Mediterranean and Middle Eastern roots . . . . She was not as surprised as I was. It is as if her spirit bore witness to the truth for years before this testing was even possible. It settled her . . . . It gives her a settled identity, not a presumed identity. It has opened my eyes to the beauty of many people in the world I had never paid attention to before.

If DNA is a hobby, it is a serious one. It is not a quest that should be entered upon just for fun. The most fulfilling aspect of DNA testing for me personally and professionally has been to see the effect it has had in opening up an interest in other peoples and countries. By revealing the interrelatedness of us all, DNA can not only give new meaning and depth to self-identity but also play an important part in fostering peace, tolerance and understanding around the world.


Brent N. Kennedy and Robyn Vaughn Kennedy, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People. Rev. ed. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998).

Elizaabeth Caldwell Hirschman, Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe (Mercer UP, 2004).

Donald N. Yates and Elizabeth C. Hirschman, “Toward a Genetic Profile of Melungeons in Southern Appalachia,” Appalachian Journal 38/1 (Fall 2010) 92-111.

Phylis E. Starnes and Donald N. Yates, Ancestors and Enemies: Essays on Melungeons (Phoenix: Panther’s Lodge, 2015).

Studying Them Melungeons, Reading by Ginger Cuculo of the chapter “Cyberfeud on the Ridge” from Ancestors and Enemies (podcast episode hosted by Pete Ferrand, March 18, 2019)

Melungeon Population” (description)

Melungeon DNA Test

Melungeon Heritage Association FAQ’s



  Comments: 19

  1. Hi. I descend from the Free People of Color Clark/Cooper line. They were from the boarder of SC/NC then ended migrating to western NC. The Clark line are mentioned as being Portuguese. I have done research and it has led me to these families being Croatan/Tuscarora./Waccamaw tribes. However, I have seen the Clarks listed as Indian (Cherokee) and a Cooper family applying for a Cherokee membership. If there are any Native/Melugeon Cooper and Clark relatives that could contact me via email saponi1976@gmail.com, that would be greatly appreciated.


    • Linda (Windland)Hawkins

      My 6th great grandfather is William Cooper who married Malea Labon. I am very interested in Melungon information. This is a great reference article for me!

      • I am also from the coopers. Malea labon, Henry labon, Rebecca cooper. Would love to share/exchange familial info with either of you !
        Feel free to call me 580-819-1915

        • I am not professional either but will tell you what I have in own genes from area of topic. Swedish, Spanish, Irish/Scotland, Mediterranean, African, and Choctaw. Shepardic, and Ashkenazi, Isreal, Turk,Pakistan, Saudi Arabia,Georgia as in Russia etc…Percents give or take are 25,25,10,3,3,3,3,3,10%. I find it odd that my DNA shows more than just a black and White child, and my ancestry matches up with other names in area. So DNA test that was done recently was not large enough group. If I had to guess about theories I would say Hernando Cortez, or Viking, or mix of many cultures.

  2. Hello! This is great blog. I was looking for relevant information and came across this article. So glad to found it. Read more for more information.

  3. Nice Article. Hope to see morefrom you..
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  4. I was really surprised to get my results back showing Melungeon. Now I have to find the ancestors, if I can! I am in some genealogy research groups with some Goins, Chavis, Driggers, etc. descendants and I match their DNA on gedmatch but had assumed it was due to other shared ancestry, such as Native American, which is the usual focus in the groups I’m in. Now I have to think out side that box! My gedmatch kit # is RL048381C1, if any Mulungeon descendants want to compare. My results state:

    “…Mulungeon (7, megapopulations #2, map – green diamond in Tennessee…”

    • Hi Debbie…we might be related!! I was born in Kingsport, Tenn. My relatives are the Littles, Hash’s, Robinettes, and Fleenors. I’m just starting to research this. Cheers

  5. Fascinating! I’ve always been interested in the Melungeon story, although I have no known Melungeon ancestry. I want to read more.

  6. If anyone has information on my family from Appalachia Virginia.
    My mother was a Miller. Great great grandfather was Hiram Lawson or Losson.
    I believe he was Melungeon but have no proof. I was always told he was indian
    Any information would be helpful.

  7. Kris Cooper Wilson

    For over 40 years have been searching for the father of my GG Grandfather Reuben William Cooper 1792 – 1870, from Virginia and Belpre, Ohio. He married Mary V Monroe in 1820 from Wood County Virginia. Our family lore says we Coopers were something called “Black Irish”.

    DNA results were recently returned that indicate we share a Cooper ancestral line with Quata Gilliam beginning with William Baxter Cooper who was born 1 December 1813 in Virginia (in an area now in West Virginia). He married Jemima America Brittain (1828–1896) in Dubois County, Indiana, in 1844 and died 14 July 1864 in Dubois County.

    Based on this common DNA this shared ancestor may be William Baxter Cooper’s father Issac Cooper, Issac’s father Henry Labon Cooper, or Henry’s father William A. Cooper.

    I have joined the Big Y Cooper DNA project to learn more. Given this possible Sephardic origin is there another Group of Coopers studying the specific Daniel N Yates lineage of Issac Cooper 1774–1831 ?

    • Hello! I decended from Henry cooper and malea cooper and William cooper as well. Feel free to contact me to share/exchange any info. Call or text me at 580-819-1915

  8. Cindy Burnett-Mendenhall

    I have been very interested in researching my lineage for a long time. I have always been told my family has Scottish roots (Burnett), but also Native American (Cherokee) roots. My father is Burnett… his mother was Blevins. My father’s maternal grandmother (my great grandmother) was said to be Cherokee. I have dark skin (like a good tan), dark curly course hair, brown eyes. Also of interest, my son died of a rare storage disease (Hurlers syndrome similar to Tay Sachs). On my mother’s side is Jenkins and Stanley surnames and also Hardy. Father’s side is Burnett, Blevins, Brannock. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  9. Kenny Wayne Shavers

    I have been working on my family ancestry for a few years. My family name Shavers comes from the Chavis line. I also have Evens and Shoemake. This have been both rewording and frustrating trying to learn where my family came form.

    • I am of the same linage Mr Shavers, we are Melungeon. Related to the Lumbee. Descendants of Free Black men and indentured White women.

  10. My 5th great grandmother was Malea Labon, I have always been told we were black dutch and am curious if I am melungeon. I took your test and am excited to see the results. My mother was a Cooper so I am closely related, it think.

    Dori Foster

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