from Brent Kennedy
The long-awaited DNA results are in and as many of us have
maintained, the Melungeons are indeed a mixture of all races and
many ethnic groups. The DNA samples in this study represent the
oldest, most established Melungeon male and female lines in the
Hancock County community, and the Wise County community.
Extensive genealogies for these two populations -- and those
sampled -- are known and documented.
Respected members of each community assisted in the collection
of the samples, and these samples can be examined separately (by
community) and compared against one another.
In addition to Native American (approximately 5% of the sample),
African (approximately 5%) and European (approximately 83% of
the sample, but representing Europeans from north to south), the
study also showed approximately 7% of the samples matching
populations in Turkey, Syria and northern India.
In other words, the surviving genes from Middle Eastern and East
Indian ancestors are in equal proportion to those of Native
Americans and Africans. My gut feeling is that the original, seventeenth-century
percentages of all three groups (i.e., African, Native American,
and Middle Eastern/East Indian) were higher than what we're
seeing today. Time,
admixture, and out-movement of some of our darker cousins into
other minority groups have likely lowered the genetic traces of
their earlier presence.
But enough of them were there to still be traceable among the
Melungeons of today. The long discounted Mediterranean and
Middle Eastern heritages are irrefutably there.
Very importantly, this study is only a sampling.
It's impossible to get to every single bonafied Melungeon
descendant. Consequently, all this -- or any other -- DNA study
can do is CONFIRM heritages -- it cannot dismiss them. But via the genetic sequences found, it can give us a
hint at the ethnic make-up of the earliest Melungeons. In this
regard, I am still keeping an open mind regarding the theories
that are out there.
Four hundred years has allowed a great deal of time for
population admixture and each family has its own distinct
cultural and ethnic legacy.
The original people referred to as Melungeons may have been
Africans, or East Indians, or Native Americans, or Turks, or
Gypsies or Portuguese or whatever.
Not one of us knows with absolute certainty. What we do know is
that very early on these various populations combined into one
people known as Melungeons.
As those who attended Fourth Union heard, from both Dr. Jones
and Dr. Morris, this finding is incredibly important from a
healthcare standpoint alone.
Native Americans, Europeans, and African Americans can -- and do
-- carry Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diseases.
It takes very few individuals in a founding population to have a
dramatic impact on a gene pool.
African Americans and Native Americans can - and do - have
Familial Mediterranean Fever.
White Americans can -- and do -- have Sickle Cell Anemia. Having
the genetic and genealogical data to explain why is critical to
The study also underscores another important aspect of the
origins debate: nearly all theories are correct to some extent.
The only ones wrong are those that have been exclusive in their
premise. The long-standing academic position that Melungeons are
a "tri-racial isolate" consisting of strictly northern
Europeans, strictly West Africans, and Native Americans is
unwilling to add any other ethnic group to the mix have been
is what I stated in my book and have maintained for years: we
are mixed and highly inclusive, and that inclusiveness includes
Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and East Indian.
We should also keep in mind that these non Native-American
ethnic groups could have arrived in a myriad of ways, and likely
did. Those who have read my book or heard me speak know that
this has always been my position.
I have never been wed to any theory of arrival - what I have
been wed to is, simply, arrival.
Santa Elena and its outlying forts continue to help explain how
some of these people -- and their genes -- might have gotten
here. There were Gypsies and Conversos (e.g., Jews, Arabs,
Berbers, East Indians, Turks, Moors, Africans, etc.) at Santa
Elena who, even as "good Catholic Spaniards" and "good Catholic
Portuguese" would have carried their ancestral genes from their
The finding of Turkish genes (both male and female lines) in the
Melungeon population seems to indicate full families, so Santa
Elena remains an origin possibility for some of the Melungeon
ancestors. There were no women with Drake's Turks and the Turks
themselves weren't sending families here, at least as far as I
The British, however, were doing so.
Turkish and Armenian families were documentably present in
Jamestown, serving the English colonists as indentured servants
Whatever the case, historians are best equipped to determine HOW
the genes arrived. Finally, East Indians were brought to these
shores in significant numbers from the early 1600s on and Romany
(Gypsies) are also well documented in Virginia and the Carolinas
during the same time period.
There was, simply said, no shortage of the people necessary to
provide the genetic proof to back up the Melungeon claims of
I don't yet know my full family DNA results but when I do I, and
hopefully others, will share the information in an effort to
help solve the roles specific families have played in the
But I do know one sequence and this single piece of information
is enlightening. My Mitochondrial DNA, which I inherited from my Mother,
matches the Siddis of India.
The dark-skinned Siddis likely originated from what today is
Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia -- sub-Saharan, east Africa.
They were transported to India in a variety of ways, most not so
pleasant, and formed a major component of what became known as
the Untouchable Caste. Their lives -- and the life of my
ancestral Mother -- must have been horribly difficult. But she
survived long enough to have at least one daughter and that
daughter did likewise.
And generation after generation this original Ethiopian girl's
DNA was passed along until, in 1950, it came to me.
How my particular East Indian ancestor made her way to America
remains unclear. It
may have been as the wife of a sixteenth-century New World
Portuguese settler (the sixteenth-century Portuguese soldiers
married northern Indian women by the thousands).
Or she may have been the spouse of a seventeenth-century British
ex-patriot, or an East Indian female sent to the Caribbean as an
indentured servant. Still again, she may have arrived on these
shores as a Rom (or so-called, Gypsy) girl.
Many Romany share the Siddi mitochondria and the Romany-related
surnames that follow this particular mitochondrial line in my
family (Mullins, Bennett, Rose, etc.) would seem supportive of a
Regardless of her mode of arrival to the New World, what is
clear is that she --and her genes -- did indeed make their way
Mother and I are living proof of this woman's legacy.
All this to say that had a young, sub-Saharan east African girl
never lived, never been transported to India, and never had a
daughter of her own, I wouldn't be here.
So, what is the meaning of all this? For me, I can
sum it up this way:
While I am likely -- and proudly -- of northern European
heritage, I am also of Siddi heritage. And I am equally kin to
the Scotsman tilling his field outside Glasgow, the Chickahominy
Indian fighting to keep tribal pride alive, and the various east
Africans at one another's throats in Somalia.
The Israelis and Palestinians dealing out death on a daily
basis, the Appalachian blue grass banjo picker, the Indian and
Pakistani soldiers staring one another down in Kashmir, and --
yes -- the down-beaten Untouchable in the poorest ghettos of
southern India are also family.
All are literally, not just figuratively, MY people. Genocide in
the Balkans, earthquakes in Turkey, riots in Argentina, and
repressive regimes in Afghanistan are no longer faraway
occurrences of little consequence. In every tragedy on this
Earth, a relative is suffering.
And this leads me to a deeper understanding of just what the
Melungeon story really means, and the transition that I must
We in Appalachia are known for our powerful storytelling
Beginning today we have the opportunity to tell the most
important story in our history -- the story of the Oneness of
Mankind and how this Oneness is exemplified in the Appalachian
irony that we in Appalachia and those whose roots lie in these
mountains -- long considered the lowest of the low -- could play
a role in World ethnic harmony is staggering in its
it's not a pipe dream.
We can send a powerful message to all people everywhere, that:
No place, no region, no human being is too small, too remote, or
too insignificant to justify dismissal.
We are all of the same flesh and each of us matters.
From this point on, our mission lies in spreading this message
beyond these mountains.
And we need to start at the earliest levels of teaching -- our
elementary schools -- as well before the seeds of racism and
hate have been sown.
Beginning this week, I commit myself to this mission.
The time has come for me to leave the historical and origins
research, further DNA analysis, and other academic pursuits to
those more qualified.
My task was to be a catalyst
-- an instigator.
Fourteen years ago, very few people cared about the Melungeons
or any other mixed race population for that matter.
That deeply bothered me, as I felt that these various
populations deserved more attention from academia and, indeed,
had played a far larger role in building this nation than they'd
ever been given credit for.
Placing them all into a box labeled "tri-racial isolate" and
closing the lid seemed a grave injustice. I wrote my book to
force the acknowledgment of our multi-racial communities and, in
a sense, to help bring them out of the closet in which academia
had shoved them. I
believe I've contributed to an increased awareness and,
hopefully, an increased pride.
The level of interest and the sheer volume of books and articles
being written today is enormous compared to the late 1980s and
early 1990s. This
was my dream and I am now confident that this interest will not
There are a myriad of talented researchers exploring a variety
of Melungeon related issues.
Dozens of younger scholars are joining the older established
writers and researchers in the search for Melungeon origins and
the meaning of that search.
Over the past decade, people like Jack Goins, Manuel Mira, Eloy
Gallegos, James Nickens, Pat Elder, Mike Nassau, Wayne Winkler,
Tim Hashaw, Carroll and Betty Goyne, and Virginia DeMarce have
added substantial knowledge to what we might soon begin calling
Each of these individuals deserves our gratitude and our praise.
My long-standing hope has been, and continues to be, that all
those researching this important topic can somehow pull
together. That we
acknowledge our differing opinions on historical matters, but
that we come to recognize our shared commitment to
(1) caring for these people and their culture, and (2) abhorring
racism in any form.
These shared commitments far outweigh the debate over who showed
up first, where the name came from, or what color John Doe might
have been. Perhaps
my greatest disappointment over the years has rested in the
inability or unwillingness of what should have been fellow
travelers on a very bumpy road to travel together.
It's not too late.
In closing, I’ve done all that I can do for those who came
before us. From
this point on, I plan on devoting my efforts to making this
Earth a better place for the living.
If I've learned anything in this nearly fifteen-year journey,
it's the sobering reality that human prejudice exists everywhere
-- even within the very groups that have been the target of such
The heated debates over who can -- or cannot be -- a Melungeon
are reminiscent of the earlier debates over who can -- or cannot
be -- white. I know
we don't intend it to be this way, but this is what invariably
happens when we humans insist on categorizing and refining human
ethnicity. It's this same mindset that, when carried to an extreme,
results in prejudice, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately,
genocide. "Race" is
cultural, not genetic. I've been accused time and again of
"diluting" Melungeon ethnicity to the point of blurring the
boundaries and, in the words of one critic, "making them related
to everybody." This
is precisely what I intended to do and the DNA study results
have supported this contention.
That's the underlying beauty of this story, and to miss that
point is symptomatic of the too narrow focus that inevitably
leads to ethnic tensions.
And so, what energy and time I have will be expended in bringing
people together wherever and whenever I can. In teaching and engaging in projects that can impact how
human beings -- and especially our children -- view their fellow
human beings. That
we are not just figuratively-- but literally -- one human
family. From Africa
and India, to Turkey, Portugal, and the United States of
America, we are one race.
Where I can make a difference in helping others to understand
this, I will. Where I cannot, I'll try.
And I pledge to live by our Melungeon creed, "One People, All
I thank God for an amazing fourteen years of Chapter One and,
God-willing, at least that many more for Chapter Two.
© June 24, 2002 by Brent Kennedy
Top of page