Sometimes DNA tests hold surprising results, results that the individual didn’t expect. That’s what happened to Jack Goins, Hawkins County, Tn. Archivist and founder of the Melungeon Core DNA project. Jack, a Melungeon descendant through several ancestors, expected that his Y paternal haplogroup would be either European or Native American, based on oral family history, but it wasn’t, it was E1b1a, African.
Jack’s family and ancestors were key members of the Melungeon families found in Hawkins and Hancock Counties in Tennessee beginning in the early 1800s. In order to discover more about this group of people, which included but was not limited to his own ancestors, Jack founded the Melungeon DNA projects.
Over time, descendants of most of the family lines had representatives test within both a Y-line and mitochondrial DNA project. The results were a paper, Melungeons: A Multi-Ethnic Population, published in JOGG, the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, in April 2012.
Many people expected to discover that the Melungeons were primarily Native American, but this was not the outcome of the DNA project. In fact, many of the direct paternal male lines were African and all of the direct maternal female lines tested were European. While there are paper records, in one case, that state that one of the ancestors of the Melungeons was Native American (Riddle), and there is DNA testing of another line that married into the Melungeon families that proves that indirect line is Native American (Sizemore), there is no direct line testing that indicates Native ancestry.
Aside from the uproar the results caused among researchers who were hopeful of a different outcome, it also begs the question of whether the documents we do have of those families support the DNA results. What did the contemporary people who knew them during their lifetime think about their race? Census takers, tax men and county clerks? Are there patterns that emerge? Sometimes, when we receive new information, be it genetic or otherwise, we need to revisit our documentation and look with a new set of eyes.
It’s common practice in genetic genealogy circles when “undocumented adoptions” are discovered, for example, to revisit the census and look for things like a child’s birthdate being before the parents’ marriage. Something that went unnoticed during initial data gathering or was assumed to be in error suddenly becomes extremely important, perhaps the key to unraveling what happened to those long-ago ancestors. Like in all projects, some descendant lines we expected to match, didn’t.
Recently Jack Goins undertook such an analysis of the documentary records collected over the years in the various counties where the Melungeon families or their direct ancestors lived. We know that today, and in the 1900s, most of these families appear physically primarily European, an observation supported by autosomal DNA testing. So we’re looking for records that indicate minority admixture.
Do the records indicate that these people were black, Native, European, mixed or something else, like Portuguese? Was the African admixture recent, so recent that their descendants were viewed as mixed-race, or were the African haplogroups introduced long ago, hundreds or thousands of years ago perhaps, maybe in Mediterranean Europe? If that was the case, then the Melungeon ancestors in America would have been considered “European,” meaning they looked white. What do the records say about these families? Were they uniformly considered white, black, mixed or Native in all of the locations where family members moved as they dispersed out of colonial Virginia?
If these men were Native Americans, would they have likely fought against the Indians in the French and Indian War in 1754? Melungeon ancestors did just that and they are specifically noted as fighting “against the Shawnee.” Their families were found in census records as “free people of color” and “mulatto” countless times which indicates they were not slaves and were not white. On one later census record, below, in 1880, Portugee was overstricken and W for white entered.
Melungeon families and their ancestors were listed on tax records and other records as mulattoes, never as mustee and only once as Indian. Mulattoes are typically mixed black and white, although it can be Native and white, while mustee generally means mixed Indian with something else. On one 1767 tax list, Moses Riddle, a maternal ancestor of a Melungeon family is listed as Indian, but this is the only instance found in the hundreds of records searched. The Riddle family paternal haplogroup reflects European ancestry so apparently the Indian ancestor originated in a maternal line.
Court records identify Melungeon families as “colored” and “black” and “African” and “free negroes and mulattoes” as well as white. In the 1840s, a group of Melungeon men, descendants of these individuals classified as mulattoes and free people of color were prosecuted for voting, a civil liberty forbidden to those “not white,” and probably as a political move to make examples of them. Some of these men were found not guilty, one simply paid the fine, probably to avoid prosecution due to his advanced age, and the cases were dismissed against the rest. Some were also prosecuted for bi-racial marriage when it was illegal for anyone of mixed heritage to marry a white person. In earlier cases, in the 1700s in Virginia, these families were prosecuted for “concealing tithables” specifically for not listing their wives, “being mulattoes.” In another case, the records indicate an individual being referred to as ‘yellow complected,’ a term often used for a light skinned mulatto. And yet another case states that while the men were “mulattos,” their fathers were free and their wives were white.
There are many records, more than 1600 in total that we indexed and cataloged when writing the paper, and more have surfaced since. In all of those records, only one contemporaneous record, the 1767 Riddle tax list, states the person was an Indian. None, other than the 1880 census record, state that they were Portuguese. There are many that indicate African or mixed heritage, of some description, and there are also many that don’t indicate any admixture. Especially in later census, as the families outmarried to some extent, they were nearly uniformly listed as white. Still, this group of people looked “different” enough from their neighbors to be labeled with the derisive name of Melungeon.
While this group, based on mitochondrial DNA testing, did initially marry European women, generations of intermarriage would have caused the entire group to be darker than the nonadmixed European population in the 1700s and 1800s. By this time, neither they nor their neighbors were sure what they were, so they claimed Portuguese and Indian. No one claimed to have black ancestors, in fact, most denied it vehemently. By this time, so many generations had passed that they may not have known the whole truth, and there is indeed evidence of two Indian lines within the Melungeon community.
In light of these records, the DNA results should not have been as surprising as they were. However, this body of research had never been analyzed as a whole before.
Since the original paper was published, four additional paternal lines documented as Melungeon but without DNA representation/confirmation in the original paper have tested, and all four of them, Nichols, Perkins, Shoemake/Shumach and Bolin/Bolton carry haplogroup E1b1a. They are not matches to each other or other Melungeon paternal lines, so it’s not a matter of undocumented adoptions within a community.
The DNA project administrators certainly welcome additional participants who descend from the Melungeon families. Y-line DNA requires a male who descends from a patriarch via all males, given that males pass their Y chromosome to only sons.
There may indeed be Native American lines yet undiscovered within the female or ancestral lines, and we are actively seeking people descended from the wives of these Melungeon families through all women. Mitochondrial DNA, which tests the maternal line, is passed to both genders of children, but only females pass it on. So to represent your Melungeon maternal ancestor, you must descend from her through all females, but you yourself can be either male or female.
While the primary focus is still to document the various direct family lines utilizing Y-line and mitochondrial DNA, the advent of autosomal testing has opened the door for other Melungeon descendants to test as well. In fact, the project administrators have organized a separate project for all descendants who have taken the autosomal Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA called the Melungeon Families project.
The list of eligible Melungeon surnames is Bell, Bolton, Bowling, Bolin, Bowlin, Breedlove, Bunch, Collins, Denham, Gibson, Gipson, Goins, Goodman, Minor, Moore, Menley, Morning, Mullins, Nichols, Perkins, Riddle, Sizemore, Shumake, Sullivan, Trent and Williams. For specifics about the paternal lines, patriarchs and where these families are historically located, please refer to the paper.
Furthermore, anyone with documented proof of additional Melungeon families or surnames is encouraged to provide that as well. Surnames are only added to the list with proof that the family was referenced as Melungeon from a documented historical record or is ancestral to a documented Melungeon family. For example, the Sizemore family was never directly referred to as Melungeon in documented sources, but Aggy Sizemore (haplogroup H/European), daughter of George Sizemore (haplogroup Q/Native) married Zachariah Minor (haplogroup E1b1a/African). The Minor family is one of the Melungeon family names. So while Sizemore itself is not Melungeon, it is certainly an ancestral name to the Melungeon group.
For more information, read Jack Goins’ article, Written Records Agree with Melungeon DNA Results.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research