Melungeon Redux

While this blog/journal is mainly for my ponderings on speculative reality. At heart, I am a science fiction writer or at least a writer of magical realism nothing here is meant to be taken as anything but the ramblings of my fevered imagination. I may write about intellectual birds or space travel from time to time, but those things are meant to be taken with a large grain of salt. On the other hand, sometimes I write about topics that do have some reality, this is one of those topics.

     I was told I was white. I guess I am. I was white, but growing up if I grew my hair long it curled tight. Tight enough that I was constantly questioned. I remember the questions being asked over and over “Is that a perm? “…white boys don’t have hair like that.  I have a vivid memory of being at a local park in Valdese North Carolina (McGalliard Falls). I was maybe ten years old not much older. This kid (who was white) just kept asking over and over if I was a girl because I had a “perm”. (A perm is an artificial tight hair curl). It was so persistent and even angry that I remember it as if it happened yesterday. This would happen again when I was about sixteen and in high school. I was asked the same question this time by an African American student. The question was almost the same and made with the same persistence. By sixteen I had a goatee and I was obviously not female. The hair seemed to bother them, it was out of place on me. No possible way that was natural, or so they thought. I began to wear my hair short. In college I tried to grow it out again. It was called a “white afro”. I suppose in hindsight it was. I never had an inkling it was anything else. I was white?

      I took a DNA test a few years ago not expecting to discover anything strange, but because by then I was an archaeologist and it was just another avenue to the past. I was white, I wasn’t going to discover anything but what countries my whiteness originated from…I was white, but it turns out not all white. There was so much more in that DNA test than I expected. African very specifically Congolese, Native American, in fact, more Native American than my wife had in her test and her mother was a member of the Cherokee nation. South Asian more specifically Papua New Guinea and Vietnamese. I was still mostly white but somehow I wasn’t.  The hair thing started to make more sense at least.  

      I discovered a word. Melungeon, I had heard the word before. It had been in an offhand sort of way. Mixed race people who lived in the Appalachian mountains, who looked like whites but sometimes had dark skin or kinky hair.  I was born in Appalachia my parents had been born here and their parents before them, although my father’s family had come from Atlanta in the 1920s. My Mother’s family had been here since the 1700s. Living in the same isolated area, marrying into four or five of the same families for two hundred years.

In the last article, I discuss how I went looking at old photos. I found a photo in my mother’s things that was of an African looking man with two girls standing beside him. I asked my mother. Who are these people? “Oh, that one girl is my grandmother I don’t know who the other is or who the black man is.” She honestly didn’t know who the “black man” was. She had never been told.  The family had whitewashed their history the generation before she was born. She had no idea.

          I asked my grandmother’s brother who this “black man” was. He reluctantly admitted that was his great grandfather.  The DNA was beginning to make sense. At different family gatherings, the people in my grandmother’s generation began to come clean. Yes, they were Melungeons, but the man in that picture wasn’t African…according to them he was white. The African ancestor was my great-great-grandfather, the son-in-law of the man in the picture and the father of the dark-haired girl, George Thacker.  George Thacker had come from Ohio to marry my great-great-grandmother having never met her. (This is another story that involves another level of family intrigue that I am just getting into). George Thacker was mulatto. The son of Ivory Thacker and probably the nephew of Edwill Thacker an early civil rights pioneer, who had brought a lawsuit prior to the Civil War that gave mixed-race people the vote in Ohio. George Thacker was black according to family lore, not his father-in-law. That was the final word on that matter. They were right, the man in this picture was not African.

   My second cousin had her DNA tested much as I did. She was looking for her own answers. She is my mother’s first cousin.  Genetically she and I are also first cousins. We are Mountain people and Melungeons and because we come from a very isolated community there had been inbreeding up the line which left us closer genetically than we might like to admit. This genetic closeness did answer some questions. Because her great- grandfather was George Thacker and George Thacker was my great-great-grandfather and he was not part of that isolated genetic community. Any DNA she had that came from him should be roughly half shared by me. Sure enough, I possessed exactly half the African DNA that she had. We did, however, have the exactly same amount of South Asian and Oceanian DNA. Our family had lived in the same mountains since the 1700s. How did we even have South Asian or Oceanian DNA? I had thought at first the DNA reading was mistaking Native American DNA for Asia. We certainly have Native American DNA in the mix, and thinking back to the picture maybe we were confusing a very native looking man for African?

Further DNA sleuthing however pinpointed the sample which showed as South Asian/Oceanian to a mixture of the Dai people of Vietnam and natives of Papua New Guinea with over 90% certainty. The Native American hypothesis vanished. Somewhere in the 1700s, a South Asian person or a South Asian family had arrived in Western North Carolina. The man in the picture was not African. The man in the picture was of South Asian ancestry.


The inset spreadsheet is my cousin’s information confirming the Oceanian DNA as Papuan at the same percent confidence as my own sample

I tossed around for a theory. A popular Melungeon theory is that they descended from pirates that abandoned their ships and headed into the mountains.  I don’t discount this totally, but it is unlikely. It is very likely that my ancestor was a South Asian slave brought to colonial America in the late 1600s or early 1700s. Many of these slaves had been brought to Europe and England before they came to the colonies and had learned marketable skills. They also tended to run away because those skills were so tradable in colonial America. Most likely I was the descendant of a runaway who found freedom in the hills of North Carolina and made a life and family there. It is possible my great grandmother married George Thacker to bring new blood into the family without bringing attention to the fact they were not fully white (This is a line of inquiry I am currently following). Thacker could pass and indeed in census records after the Spanish American war he goes from listed as mulatto to white. I now think I know who and what I am…A multi-racial isolate whose family did whatever they could to hide and blend in, even to the point of lying to their own children about who they were and where they came from. I am a mosaic.

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One thought on “Melungeon Redux

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I ironically have Baird’s in my family too, however I and several of my cousins get this mysterious Oceanian DNA. Ancestry picked it up originally, now Gedmatch does over 2%, some calculators it’s in my secondary populations.

    My family also comes from Western NC and East Tennessee. In addition to this DNA I have lots of Middle East, North African which is at sometimes 15% to 27%.

    I would be vary interested if we were somehow linked to the same family or person, over the years several of us have been puzzled who these mystery ancestors are…. I can’t seem to pin point it at all.

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