Melungeon-L ArchivesArchiver > Melungeon > 2003-03 > 1047608029
Subject: [Melungeon] Melungeon Origins Part I
Date: Thu, 13 Mar 2003 21:13:49 EST
I am going to reverse the order of approach because I don't want to sound
like I'm ganging up on Brent and the DNA. The simpler debate has to do with
what I have called the Hancockian Theory...but will change, re Wayne's
objections, to the Portuguese-Indian Theory.
First let me say this, every researcher worth his or her salt has a mentor.
In researching Melungeons my mentor is Arlee Gowen, head of the Gowen
Research Foundation. Ultimately he gets the praise or condemnation for what
follows because about 4 years ago he very casually sent me an email of just a
few words...which I believes cleared up a lot of confusion about Melungeon
origins. All I did was the leg work, documenting etc.
The Melungeon theory known as the Portuguese-Indian theory, which I oppose,
goes along this general line, with variations: Indians appeared in Hancock
County about 1800. Some said they mixed with people from Portugal. But the
Portuguese story is a myth, a common "cover story" used by Blacks to hide
African ancestry. Most of the adherents of this theory basically claim the
"original" Melungeons were these Hancock Melungeons of mixed NA and
This is incorrect on two counts. First, Melungeons do not have Portuguese
origins or ancestry. Second, it is true that these first were known as
"Indians." But the fans of this theory do not realize what being "Indian"
meant at that time. The "Our Melungeons" people do very good work when it
comes to documenting particular people, genealogy and records. But they
missed the forest for the trees. They may have read Helen Rountree, but they
did not apply Helen Rountree and her research "Pocahontas' People as they
should have. They did not take into account what was happening to Indians
east of the Appalachians from 1620-1800.
The Portuguese-Indian supporters brought this fight upon themselves. I agree
with much of what you have done. You almost won the cookie. You got 99% of
it and you are to be commended. However, you failed to satisfactorily
explain why the early witnesses described Melungeons as Indian AND African.
It would be very easy to make a slight tweak in their theory to get it
historically correct, but to date they have refused.
So be it.
Some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Melungeons in the 1800s say they
were Indian, Negro, or part Indian, part Negro. This is true. But the
Port-Indian fans have mistakenly eliminated those that were described as
"Negro" by saying they were not a part of the original Melungeons described
as Indian. The response is so what? You have placed a false dichotomy
between being "Indian" and being "Negro" that the records do not bear out.
You failed to take into account the rapid 17th century decline of the Indian
nations from the tidewater to the piedmont which had occurred BEFORE Indian
Melungeons showed up in Hancock County.
The following is part of my research. It supplies the missing 1% of the story
to make it correct. It may become garbled in transmission. I will try to
correct it if this happens. I may have to send it in two parts if it is too
'Tis enough that the child liveth." -Pocahontas, March 1617, as she died
giving birth to her only child by Englishman John Rolfe, Gravesend, Kent,
"The sarcasm drips from the words of White segregationist Dr. Walter Plecker,
director of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, in a letter he sent to a
Tennessee official in 1943. "We have in Virginia white people, descendants
of Pocahontas, who married John Rolfe about 1616. About twelve generations
have passed since then, and we figured out that there was about 1/4000th of
1% of Pocahontas blood now in
their veins, though they seem to be quite proud of that.
We will require other evidence than that of Captain Jarvis and His Honor
classifying members of the group who are now causing trouble in Virginia by
their claims of Indian descent, with the privilege of inter-marrying into the
race, permissible when a person can show his racial composition to be
or less Indian, the remainder white with no negro intermixture. We have found
very laborious and painstaking study of records of various sorts that none of
Virginia people now claiming to be Indian are free from negro admixture, and
are, therefore, according to our law classified as colored. In that class we
the melungeons of Tennessee."
It was Plecker's fanatical dream to strip all Virginia Indians of their
However, among the descendants of Pocahontas and John Rolfe were such
distinguished persons as the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and
Edith Bowling Galt, wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Even the family
of the famous Lady Montbatten claimed descent from Matoaka! These are the
claims anyway. Other descendants of the great Powhatan woman include
entertainer Wayne Newton and John Lindsey of New York. And as Plecker
caustically noted, they were indeed "quite proud" of their bloodlines to the
daughter of Wahunsonacock and Nonoma.
Because of these prominent White children of Pocahontas, the architects of
Virginia's Racial Integrity Law of 1624 were forced to exclude from the
"Negro" definition, ironically, anyone with less than one-sixteenth Indian
ancestry. In many cases in Virginia in the 20th century, if you had
one-sixteenth or less of Indian blood then you were an Indian. If you had
more than one-sixteenth Indian ancestry, you were NOT Indian: in Virginia you
After carefully sifting through all the available colonial and national
Virginia, genealogist Paul Heinegg made a surprising discovery. Heinegg
"(It is) evident that most Indians living on Virginia reservations during the
colonial and early national periods made little distinction between
themselves and African Americans…I did not find any nuclear Indian families
in the eighteenth century Virginia and North Carolina tax lists."
Thomas Jefferson in describing survivors of Virginia's Mattaponi Powhatan
in 1811 numbered them at "three and four men only and they have more Negro
Today not only do hundreds of Virginians claim they are Powhatan, but as of
the state has officially recognized them as such. How did a people who
numbered so few in 1800 come back? Six of the eight recognized chiefs of
Virginia come from families traced to 17th century African Americans. None
of the recognized Indians of Virginia claim they are "pure blooded" Indians
and they freely acknowledge their European and African ancestry. Some
Indians on reservations west of the Mississippi have questioned the
legitimacy of the Virginia tribes using arguments based on "blood purity."
This argument echoes the 1924-1983 views of Dr. Walter Plecker and official
Virginia and, unfortunately, coincide with the race attitudes of America in
general. If a person is part Native American, was raised as a Native
America, has ancestors who thought of themselves as Native Americans, isn't
that person a Native American regardless of the degree of blood?
Helen Rountree, arguably the most quoted scholarly authority on Virginia
took issue with the blood purity argument in her book Pocahontas' People.
She provides compelling evidence of a continuous Indian "group identity"
among the people on Virginia's reservations from the time of the collapse of
the Powhatan empire in the 1640s to the present day. That group identity
included the African Americans who intermarried with tribal remnants and
eventually eclipsed them. She gave modern examples of how this relationship
continues among "fringe groups" who identified more or less with the original
core ethnic community.
"All ethnic groups actually have an easily recognized core surrounded by a
fringe that contains people who are less recognizable and less intensely
involved. Fringe status embraces a great variety of relationships to the
core. In modern nation-states, with their carefully recorded censuses, it
can include expatriate, formerly core people; in-married foreigners;
tax-paying expatriates from other countries, nationalized or not; persons
with dual citizenship; members of separatist movements; and some of the more
disaffected and non-tax-paying poor. This list shows another characteristic
of many fringe people: they belong to two or more ethnic groups and feel some
loyalty to each."
Rountree's last sentence is provocative against the narrow, distinctively
view of race. Tri-racial people, even those on the fringe of the main core,
to each." Studies of modern Native Americans of Virginia and other fringe
groups such as the Melungeons show interesting changes over the years,
according to Rountree.
"Ethnic groups are always complicated entities, and the Powhatans have always
been no exception. People are capable of a wide variety of responses to the
world around them. All but the most repressively conformist ethnic group
(e.g., Old Order Amish) will show a considerable spectrum of responses at any
one time. As the centuries pass, the groups that survive use the parts of
the spectrum that work for them in dealing with outsiders, and thus they
retain or change the customs they consider to be "normal" and uniquely
"theirs." After making many adaptive changes, they may scarcely resemble
ancestors, but their group identity will still exist."
The Powhatans, the Siouan-speaking and Iroquoian speaking tribes, and the
Melungeon communities are examples of complicated entities changing their
responses as they survived four centuries of dramatic change. The decreasing
population of Native Americans intermarried with increasing population of
AfricanAmericans. While their descendants may reflect more of their African
ancestry in their physical appearance, they never ceased thinking of
themselves as Native Americans. At the same time, one Melungeon Native
American community might have cousins and in-laws over in the next county or
state who identified themselves as Black. The DNA was the same in both
groups, however more than DNA was at work in establishing self-identity.
Indian Tribes of Virginia
Visualize being an English settler arriving at Jamestown on the Susquehanna
1620. Several outlying English farms extend out about 20-30 miles in a radius
around the fort perched on the shore of the Chesapeake. There on the extreme
eastern edge of the North American continent you and your fellow settlers
have managed to get a toe-hold. A belt of tribes belonging to the Algonquian
speaking Powhatan empire immediately surrounds your small circle of Anglo
settlements. For the next four decades these will generally be the Indians
you will meet in war, trade and sometimes in marriage. Skip ahead to about
the 1660s. You have subjugated the Powhatans and they no longer present an
impediment to your westward advancement. Now as you reach the sources of the
four main Chesapeake rivers you are in the piedmont, or middle ground between
the Atlantic Coast you are leaving and the Appalachian Mountains to the west.
Here you encounter a different kind of Native American people. Surrounding
the old Powhatan empire in a larger belt also stretching north, west, and
south, these Indians live in federated towns and villages. They are the
Siouan speaking people of such tribes as the Saponi, Occaneechi, Monacan and
others. And beyond these American tribes you also quickly encounter yet a
third band reaching in a giant arc from Georgia to New York circling the
Siouan speaking people. These are the tribes of the powerful Iroquoian
speaking people; the Tuscaroras, Doegs, Catawbas and others. These three
consecutive Indian groups are like the layers of an onion. And beyond them
you will meet the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and others of the so-called
Five Civilized Nations. You will come into contact with each of these belts
of Native Americans as you head for the Cumberland Gap and nearby Clinch
Valley. Each of these Native American groups will affect and change your own
English, Scottish, German or Irish self-identity in the
different decades in which you will meet them, trade with them, hunt with
with them, and marry with them. You may not even be aware that you have
changed by these contacts, but you have. Those who remain unaware of the
changes will eventually assimilate into White society. Others however, will
be very aware of their new multiethnic and multicultural make up, and will
refuse to assimilate.
The ethnic diversity of present day Melungeons is due to Whites and free
Blacks moving west and coming into contact with each of these widening belts
of Indian nations from 1619-1790.
Why weren't they swept away?
The Chesapeake Indians
Today, millions of African Americans have American Indian ancestry. The
association of Blacks and Native Americans began long before slavery became
universal in the Southern colonies. In 1638 John Bass of Norfolk County,
Virginia married a Nansemond Powhatan Indian named Keziah Elizabeth Tucker
who was the daughter of "…Robin the Elder of ye Nansimuns kingdom, a
Baptized." According to genealogist Paul Heinegg many of their children
assimilated into White America but some descendants, through their son
William Bass, married into American Indian and free African American families
in both Virginia and North Carolina in the 1600s. In July of 1833 the
Norfolk Court issued certificates of Nansemond Powhatan ancestry to six free
African American families.
Joan Johnson, the free daughter of the old Angolan Anthony Johnson married an
Indian of the Monie nation named John Puckham in the mid 1600s. Other
family members, along with the Black American families of Harmon, Beckett,
Hansley, married into clans of the Nanticoke Indians of Sussex County,
Following the Powhatan-English treaty in 1646 the Algonquian empire in
began to fall apart. The Anglos began dealing with tribal werowances
rather than with a single Mamanatowick (great leader over all the tribes.)
name "Powhatan" disappeared from the records and the individual tribes
became more prominent over the following 200 years. During the same period
African Americans became heavily associated with American Indian communities.
According to Heinegg several free Black families were members of the Pamunkey
community when that tribe sent a petition to the governor in 1836. Seven
years later White counter-petioners in Prince William County, Virginia
claimed of the Pamunkey Powhatan Indians that "they are so mingled wit the
negro race to have obliterated all striking features of Indian extraction."
The Pamunkeys replied that most of them had at least half-Indian ancestry.
The Gingaskin Powhatan Indians in Northampton County were said to be the
Indian tribe in Virginia and they numbered only about thirty members in 1769
according to Heinegg. Their grandchildren were described as part Black. In
1828 the Northampton County clerk called them respectable "free Negro
landowners" and omitted any reference of Indian. In the 20th century the
state of Virginia would claim that the Gingaskins of Virginia were simply
modern Black people posing as Indians, but the records prove more they had
more than a century of mingled Black and Native American history. And just
as importantly, they identified themselves as Native American long before
Virginia became interested in "pure genes."
The American Indians known as the Nottaway were so reduced by poverty,
and calamity that they numbered only six adults and eleven children in 1808.
In 1818 a Southampton county petition stated of the Nottoway that "…their
husbands and wives are chiefly free negroes."
In 1734 the Chowan Indians like the Nottaway were reduced to selling
acres of their reservation lands to survive. These Indians of North Carolina
twelve adults in 1791 and most of them were settled farmers who had abandoned
Indian customs and intermarried with free Blacks and Whites.
These were all that remained of the approximately 15,000 Powhatans who had
encountered the original Jamestown settlers in 1607. Thousands moved from
Virginia and went to New York and Pennsylvania. According to all surviving
colonial records no "pure blood" Powhatan family remained in Virginia. But
blood purity does not define the Native Americans of Virginia, North
Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. The Powhatan tribes of Virginia did in fact
survive as Indians by intermarrying with free African Americans. That the
federal government, in the opinions of many, wrongly, insists on identifying
Native Americans by "blood purity," is the curious double standard in the
United States that polarizes ethnicity by rigid definitions. Debates on such
issues as slave reparations are ultimately affected by this controversial
Virginia's Black Indians never ceased existing. For centuries they
themselves as Powhatans, or Saponis, or Tuscaroras. They thought of
themselves as Native Americans. They fought as Native Americans. They were
persecuted as Native Americans. Regardless of the percentage of their
individual ethnicity there has never been a day in the past 300 years that
"the People" have ceased from the land called Tsenacommacah.
The Virginia Piedmont Indians
The results of war, conquest, sickness, and poverty dramatically reduced the
of the three dominant Indian languages of Virginia so that they had little to
say as the
English took over their tribal affairs. Anglo governors took scant notice of
cultural and language differences and usually lumped them together as they
convenient to the welfare of White people. The Indians adjusted the situation
relocating with or without White authorization. James H Merrell describes
these mergers in The Indians' New World.
"Neither priests nor gods proved able to order the diseases to go away or
those afflicted. Eventually epidemics left Cheraws and everyone else in the
upcountry too few and too weak to sustain an independent existence, forcing
survivors to combine with others who found themselves in similar straits.
The result was a kaleidoscopic array of mergers, an ordeal already under way
when de Soto and his men arrived on the borders of the upcountry. The
Spanish, curious about those ghost towns among the Cofitachiques, were told
that survivors of the "pest" had moved in with their neighbors. Thereafter
the details of mergers are hazy, but it is clear that no one in the piedmont
was immune. The various peoples of the Mannahoac constellation (John) Smith
met melted into a single remnant group, and Monacans apparently did the same,
becoming one village by the end of the 17th century. Eventually the only
was to look beyond one's own people. Saponis, for example, lived with the
Nahyssans in 1670, Occanheeches a decade later, and Tutelos and Keyauwees
shortly after 1700. The Keyauwees soon left this last arrangement and tried
live on their own for a time before joining Cheraws. And so it went, with
characters changing but the plot much the same…Refugees, in order to soften
the impact of disease and depopulation, followed the "principle of least
to coalesce with others most like themselves. Hence Saponis sought out
Siouan-speaking, piedmont-dwelling Tutelos or Occaneechees but shunned
Iroquoian Nottoways and Algonquian Nansemonds of the coastal plain."
In 1714 the English colony required Saponis, Stuckanocks (Mannahoac
Occaneechees, and Tutelos to settle together on Virginia's southwest frontier
according to Merrell, where, according to treaty they would "hereafter be
deemed as incorporated into one Nation." The Monacan Indian nation was
officially recognized by Virginia in 1989 but the Monacans called Amherst
County's Bear Mountain home long before Jamestown was established in 1607.
There are about 700 Monacan Indians enrolled in the nation today. The
Monacan Indians absorbed several groups including the Saponis. North Carolina
also recognizes a related group, the Haliwa Saponi.
The villages of the Siouan speaking people of the piedmont uplands were a
federation of tribes unlike the subdued tribes in the empire of the Alonguian
Powhatans on the Chesapeake coast. The Monacan, Occaneechi, Saponi, Tutelo
and others moved freely along the Warrior's Trading Path stretching east of,
and parallel with, the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 1714 many of these tribes
had agreed to move to a site on the Meherrin River to be educated in a school
at Fort Christanna built by the Whites. The fort was an effort by the
Virginia governor to end migratory Siouan customs and impose the
European-style farming culture. Fort Christanna did not last long and some
of the students were transferred to the Brafferton School at William and Mary
in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Because they lived further west, these Siouan speaking Indians did not
with free African Americans and settle down as early as did the Powhatans.
bands of Saponi Siouan Indians continued to move in the old ways, leaving and
entering Virginia. One Saponi group disappeared and eventually reappeared in
Orange County, Virginia in 1742 where they were accused of alarming local
About a dozen Saponi Indians were arrested and brought to court accused of
"terrifying one Lawrence Strouther and on suspicion of stealing hogs."
"Alexander MacHartoon, John Bowling, Manincassa, Capt Tom, Isaac, Harry,
Blind Tom, Foolish Jack, Charles Griffin, John collins, Little Jack, Indians
being brought before the court for stealing Hogs, Ordered that their Guns be
taken away from them till they are ready to depart of this county, they have
declared their intentions to depart this colony within a week."
By the middle of the 1700s the Siouan tribes of the piedmont were finding it
to move along the ancient migration trails without bumping into White
Indian custom had strict regulations against stealing from those of your own
village, theft from outsiders was no crime. The "hog raid" would have been
similar to Comanche Indians raiding Spanish horse herds in Mexico and Texas,
indicating that the Saponi were not completely subdued in Virginia at that
time. "Charles Griffin" was the same name as the Saponi teacher at old Fort
Christanna. Apparently the British plan to end Indian migrations had failed
with some Saponi Indians. The Indians arrested for stealing hogs in Orange
County had Anglo surnames revealing they had become Christian, perhaps during
their stay at the school. The names of these Saponi Indians; Bowling,
Griffin, Collins, and Gibbes, appeared in the Hawkins County, Tennessee
community of Melungeons around 1800.
Melungeon researcher Jack Goins found another list of names of Saponi Indians
were indicted for concealing tithables. In other words they were accused of
claiming to be White, indicating their accusers considered them non-White.
"William Hall, Samuel Collins, William Collins, Samuel Bunch, George Gibson,
Benjamin Brannum, Thomas Gibson, & William Donothan appear to answer an
indictment for concealing tithables. Plead not guilty, Case continued.
(Louisa County, Va., Tithables and Census)."
Hall, Bunch, Collins, Gibson and Brannum/Branham are all surnames still found
today in the Melungeon communities of Hancock County, Tennessee. "Branham"
is also the name of the current chief of the Monacan group into which the
The governor of Virginia was visited at Williamsburg in 1757 by a delegation
representing Tuscarora, Meherrin, Saponi and Nottoway Indians. Saponi
living in Orange County Virginia in the 1750s, included those named Bunch,
Collins and Gibson, and some of them also had African American ancestry.
Some of these Gibsons later moved to Macon County, North Carolina to
establish a Melungeon community while others joined the Bunch and Collins
clans planting Melungeon communities in eastern Tennessee. Among Meherrin
Indians, Melungeons and Lumbees the surname Chavis has been common since
William Chavis sold land near the Saponi settlement in what was then
Granville County in 1768.
In the 1760s Saponis and other Siouan speaking tribes began migrating with
African Americans leaving Virginia and North Carolina. Europeans were
the Saponis and many began returning to their ancient land in the Ohio
Valley. Richard Hedgepeth, a Saponi Indian who researches Saponi ancestry
writes of several free Black Native Americans at, Ohio's Invisible Indians.
His research shows families identified as African Americans moving with
migrating Native Americans. John Griffins settled on a 250 acre farm on the
Congaree River in 1764. Griffins was recorded as a "free person of color" in
the Richland District of South Carolina. His father-in-law was a Saponi
Indian from North Carolina.
The Male and Norris clans of the Virginia Melungeons known as "Guineas" were
related to the Harris family. Peter and Billy Harris were recorded as
Catawba Indians. These families can be found today in several Ohio counties
as well as in Virginia.
The 1790 U.S. Census listed several Eno Indians in Halifax County, North
and among them were the old Melungeon and African families of Swett (Sweat),
Lantrum and Sampson. In 1816 the Melungeon named John Stewart, described as
"an eighth breed Negro and Indian," was the Baptist preacher to the Monacan
tribe known as the Wyandot Indians in Powhatan County, Virginia. Stewart
married aMattaponi Indian woman named Fannie Dungie in 1797.
In 1834 James Jeffreys, originally from Greensville Couny, Virginia, was a
manufacturer in Cedarville, Ohio.1834. James descended from Silas Jeffreys
who was part Catawba Indian and part African American. According to Heinegg
the patriarch of the Jeffreys clan was John Jeffreys, an African slave of
Captain Robert Randall of Surry County, Virginia until he was freed in 1698.
His descendants married into the Melungeon clans of Sweat and Tan, some of
who moved to Ohio in the 1800s.
The Nat Turner slave rebellion and subsequent Indian removals in the 1830s
many mixed Melungeon families robbed of their lands and stripped of their
property and exiled from Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee according to
Haithcock. These Melungeons settled on the Ohio River with several Saponi
Again in the 1850s another massive Indian Removal sent scores of remnants
the Tuscarora and Saponi Indian tribes along with Melungeon families from
County, North Carolina into Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Haithcock says that
these African American Indians were recorded as Mulatto, Colored and Black
attempt to later claim reparations would be out of the question. He quoted
Black Saponi John Jeffries who said, "you cut the grass, but you didn't kill
Individual Black Native Americans
Many records from colonial North Carolina and Virginia note Black and
Indian intermarriage but do not show the tribal affiliations. Heinegg found
Cockran, identified simply as "Indian," who had a child by a man named "Negro
Ben" in Goochland County in 1765. The children of the Indian woman named
Judith Cypress married free Blacks in Surry County, Virginia. The Indian
John Teague of Accomack County, in 1725 had a descendant named Robert Teague
described as a "Mulato" in Northampton County, Virginia in 1787. Another,
Sacker Teague, was listed as a "free Negro" and described as a "light
Black…Born free." In 1730, according to Heinegg, William Press was
registered as an Indian "born of the body of free Negro called Priscilla."
Millions of African Americans are related to many American Indian tribes far
beyond Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. Many of the Cherokee
Tennessee, the Choctaw of Mississippi and the Seminole Indians of Florida
intermarried with Black Americans. Those lower South tribes moved to the
Oklahoma Territory during the Trail of Tears" about the time of the Nat
Turner uprising. However, all of the Native Americans of Virginia and the
piedmont who did not migrate and were not forced out, today have African
ancestry. In some places they are known by the names of Indian tribes, in
other areas they are known as Melungeons. Their African ancestry dates to
the free Black people who came to America before slavery became universal.
End Part 1
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