Correlating Historical Facts to DNA Test Results

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.

1880 census
1880 census 2

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.



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26 thoughts on “Correlating Historical Facts to DNA Test Results

  1. I am a descendant of the Bowlings/Bollings. When I told my cousin that our Melungeon ancestors were the descendants of sub-Saharan males (slaves) and white women (likely indentured servants), he tried to “correct” me with the story that we’re actually Portugese. People don’t want to admit the truth.

  2. My haplogroup is E1B1A8A1. My origins are 91.83% Western European population Orcadian and 8.17% Middle East population Palestinian, Bedouin and Mozabite from tested results through FTDNA. I believe my sur name is through a female ancestor unless married with same sur name. I have not been able to prove this. Native American ancestry is throughout our oral family history. My test results show less than 1% ancestry from the United States. I have found the same ancestors in the 1800s listed as both mulatto and white. Today my known relatives would all be classified as white. My origins are from Virginia and North Carolina. I have a brick wall with my paternal ancestry and can only go back to abt 1817 in N. C. If I can find proof of one connection I believe I know then I could go back several generation into the 1700s.

    Floyd Anderson

  3. I read this some time ago and have always been fascinated by this part of history. I remember reading that Ava Gardner was mulengeon and thus part black. I can certainly see it in her features. Thanks for posting.

    • I am a third cousin to Ava Gardner (my paternal grandmother’s side) and have not found reference to mix races. However, any family from Md., Virginia and North Carolina whose families have been in America since 16 and 17oos probably have some mix blood ancestry. There were three to four times more men than women and in order to have a family they married whomever was available.

      • Agreed. All my family lines seem to go this route (VA, NC, SC, GA, AL) many for the last 300 to 400 years. There’s no paper record indicating any admixture whatever and my Family Finder results indicate 95.8% Western European and 3.62% Middle Eastern, yet my mtDNA Haplotype is L1c1a2. Ancient mtDNA origins were from Kenya.

        • My father was from N. C. and mother from Va. My DNA is 91.83% Western European and 8.17% Middle East. My haplogroup is EiB1A8A1 and we are all classified as White for generations…

  4. Since the article states that the Melungeon lines derive mainly from free African males & White females, perhaps one explanation might be that the male lines derive from early arrivals who were treated as indentured servants before the harsher slave codes were put in place. If those arrivals had derived from Portuguese dominated areas, there might be historical justification, in part, to their claim.

  5. My olive skinned, curly haired husband is a Goin [spelled Gowen in Kentucky] descendant through his paternal grandmother, Susan Gowen. Susan’s family was listed as mulatto in North Carolina but listed as white when they came to Kentucky. I am a blue-eyed, red haired, pale skinned woman but who, according to our 23andme tests, has more African ancestry than my husband.

  6. I found your article on the Melungeons very interesting. I have heard about a connection in my tree for years, but no documentation. I have the surnames of Trent and Bolling in my line, as well, as Sizemore, (my mother is a Sizemore, Haplogroup Q. The one thing I was surprised to read was about Aggie Sizemore marrying an African; also, that she was the daughter of George Sizemore. I am a descendant of George All Sizemore m. Aggie Shepard Cornett with no mention of a daughter Aggie. Maybe she is the daughter of another George??

  7. My mother did one of those dna tests. She is related to Joshua Perkins (son, of Esther). According to the DNA results, we have 2% African (Senegal) and 1% Iberian Peninsula. No Native American blood, which was surprising.

  8. I am from Hawkins county Tennessee and I am related to the core Melungens ( mother’s side was Collins and father’s side was Moore) and I can traced my
    Father’s family back to 1709 in the state of Tennessee

  9. All my life I heard stories of my Native ancestors. My mothers family(Bledsoe)had dark skin,wavy hair,gray eyes,and were suppose to be mixed with african,the native was suppose to be on my fathers side.My sister got her DNA done,showed no African and no native,mostly western Europe,with 8% Iberian. My gggrandfather on my mothers side married a dark woman who was most likely from Spain or Italy.

  10. Hi Mr. Goins,.
    My brother took the family tree DNA testing. My maiden name is Bunch. We belong to the John Bunch/Punch Em2 descendants. I looked into our ancestry and kept hitting a brick wall and finally we decided he should take the test. I have sure enjoyed your article thank you so much for the information.
    Sincerely, Teri Ortiz (Bunch)

  11. Hello, my name is Beth. I was wondering how I can contribute to the melungeon DNA project. I am a Direct descendent of many of the last names you are looking for.
    My Maternal side:
    Sizemore (My 6x g-grandfather is George all Sizemore and my 6x g-grandmother is Agnes Shepard)
    My paternal side:
    there are many other Melungeon surnames names in my family tree. I also have a direct line to Dillion Blevins Asher. My husband as well has a direct line to to the Evans, Estes, Adair’s, and Bell’s. Please let me know how I can help the project.

    • If you have tested at Family Tree DNA, you can join the Melungeon Family project. If your lineage is matrilineal, you would also qualify to join the Melungeon mtDNA project too.

  12. Roberta, thank you so much for this post. I had kind of the opposite experience in my research. I have worked on my paternal side’s genealogy for many years and have found them listed as “mulatto” and “free person of color” in many records, including my great-grandfather’s and his cousin’s Civil War military records — both were listed as “mulatto, light skin, black hair, BLUE eyes.” They were all born and raised in Jones County, NC (my earliest known ancestor was born there in 1810) and as soon as they moved out of their native area, around 1890, suddenly they were “white.” My father and brother are both dark skinned with black hair and gray eyes, while my sister and I look very English. My brother once had to shave off his mustache because people kept coming up to him speaking Spanish! I grew up with stories of Native American ancestry, but everyone seems to claim that these days and I took no stock in the stories. I decided to take the FTDNA and Ancestry autosomal tests to put down the mystery. My brother took the FTDNA autosomal, Y67, and full Mt tests.
    Yet, I’m still not satisfied that I know exactly why they were listed as mulatto.
    My FTDNA test says <2% W. Africa; <2% S. Central Asia; 25% British Isles; 18%Scandinavia; and 55% W. & Central Europe. My Ancestry test says <1% Africa; <1% Asia; 52% W. Europe; 21% Ireland; 12% Iberian Peninsula (This I find VERY interesting that it did not show up in my brother's); 5% Scandinavia; and 5% Great Briton.
    My brother's FTDNA test said <2% W. Africa; <2% S. America (another big surprise); <2% S. Central Asia; 8% British Isles; and 89% W. & Central Europe.
    Unfortunately, my father has passed away and I don't know any other males as old or older than him along that line.
    My goal is to determine why my tests from the two companies are so different, and most importantly, how/why my family was listed as mulatto.
    The journey continues!

  13. My paternal grandmother was the daughter of Benjamin Harrison Perkins. She always claimed to have Spanish and Indian ancestry. I was in my early 30s when I first saw a photograph of my Great grandfather and was immediately struck by the fact that he looked African to me. I have since learned that during early colonial times, the Spaniards of the Castile crown, and in Spain’s Iberian Peninsula — Portugal, were indeed of African ancestry. Seems that most discussions of the Melungeons omit this fact. Clearly they can be Spaniards, Portuguese AND African, although it seems the American Indian ancestry is still in question. It is my understanding that the Indian connection is in the Crotoan or Lumbee tribe.

    • The “positive” Chowan families from earliest records of at least 1730 were the Bennett, Perkins, Beasley, Hoyte/Hoyter/Hoytes, Reed & Robins. By 1800 they had also included the Martin and Weaver families. The head researcher of the Nansemond Nation, Fred Bright, is under the opinion that the Perkins, Weaver, Newton families were Chowan.

    • My gg grandfather Whitmel Anderson of Edgecobe Co., N. C. (1819) was listed as both mulatto and white. I believe the Andersons were originally from Virginia. Oral family history said we were part Native American. This does not show in my DNA. A couple photos of my great aunts (Whitmel’s daughters) looked more like Native American. My haplogroup is E-U290. My distant and current family are of Caucasian appearance with blue eyes. Whitmel’s ancestry is a brick wall in my research. It appears he was raised by an aunt Elizabeth Anderson (1784-1880) who never married. She also raised a couple of other Anderson children. One was probably a niece and the other a great niece. I cannot identify the parents of any of these children. I can follow the nieces and their marriages.
      Floyd Anderson

  14. I am Melungeon on my father’s side. Minor’s of South east Virginia and my great great grandfather Zachariah Minor from east Tennessee. Feel free to contact me!

  15. I am related to a Rebecca Bowlin, who married an Absalom Elkins, in Hawkins County Tennessee around the 1840s I believe. In some documents, she’s listed as a free person of color, and some she’s listed as white. In some documents, it’s listed that she was born in Tennessee, others Virginia, and others Senegal in Africa! Unfortunately, I have nothing on her parents due to a courthouse fire, so some records during and before the Civil War are lost. I read that the name Bowlin in East Tennessee was Melungeon, and I figured I put the puzzle pieces together, but I wanted to get another opinion. My family tree on is public.

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