When I first noticed the
title of the article by Nancy Sparks Morrison in the October
Newsletter, I thought: "At last." At last, I hoped, someone has graced
the Internet with some genealogically factual information on the
I was mistaken. It's another
rehash of a discredited book.
"The Melungeons," writes Ms.
Morrison, "are a people of apparent Mediterranean descent who may have
settled in the Appalachian wilderness as early or possibly earlier than
1567, according to N. Brent Kennedy in his book The Melungeons: The
Resurrection of a Proud People."
While there may be some basis
for supposing these people are a distinct and identifiable ethnic
group, no documentation is provided by Ms. Morrison other than quoting
Kennedy's book - where documentation is suspect or nonexistent. His
book is a "believe it or don't" collection of folklore, mythology,
legend and hand-me-down hearsay - large portions of which are
In her lengthy bibliography,
Ms. Morrison cites two National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ)
articles by Virginia Easley Demarce, who is a historian with the U.S.
Bureau of Indian Affairs and an authority on multi-racial ancestry in
America. As importantly, she is a well-known genealogist with such
credentials as being a past president of the NGS. Unfortunately, Ms.
Morrison failed to include the most illuminating of Dr. Demarce's
articles on this topic: a review of Kennedy's book, which appeared in
the NGSQ more than two years ago (Vol. 84, No. 2, June, 1996, page 134).
To put it succinctly, this
critical essay absolutely demolishes most of what Kennedy has written -
and does so by employing the traditional tools of a genealogist:
research in the original records.
Dr. Demarce begins by noting
that Kennedy's "chronological leap over several centuries enables [him]
to propose an exotic ancestry for '200,000 individuals, perhaps far
more' (p. xv) - an ancestry that sweeps in virtually every olive,
ruddy, and brown-tinged ethnicity known or alleged to have appeared
anywhere in the pre-Civil War Southeastern United States."
She later examines Kennedy's
own claimed ancestry and declares: "Those who already have conducted
solid research on these lines will be dismayed at the extent of the
genealogical errors set forth in so few pages."
In short, Dr. Demarce
concludes that Kennedy has invented "a new and historically nonexistent
oppressed minority that belies his own ancestry."
Ms. Morrison cites Kennedy's
"known or alleged" ethnicities and joins him in placing the Melungeons
early in east Tennessee. Even if each of Kennedy's and Morrison's
statements were accurate, a fatal logical flaw exists in this tale of
One cannot simultaneously be
descended from an isolated group of Tennesseans and, as in Kennedy's
case, descended from numerous families whose ancestry can be traced as
far east as the Tidewater areas of Virginia and North Carolina with
only a modest amount of research. If you are to believe Kennedy (and
Morrison), then you must suppose that this tiny isolated inland band -
after having been first created by the joining of peoples from several
states as well as Central America and then reaching Tennessee in the
17th century - moved back to the east in such large numbers and with a
gene pool so dominant that it affected huge numbers of early isolated
groups - most of them with Scotch-Irish or English surnames.
"These people," writes
Morrison (or perhaps Kennedy; there is a beginning quote but no closing
one), "survived by blending into the surrounding groups of peoples.
Over time, they were put into one of four permissible, inflexible and
artificial racial categories: White (northern European), black
(African), Indian, or mulatto, a mix of any of the first three. By the
time the first U.S. census was conducted, there had been 200 years of
admixture and cultural fusing. This ensured that the story would remain
hidden and buried, and that no amount of census research could ever
tell the story accurately. Traditional genealogy can not be used to
find these people. There are no written records, no censuses, no
marriage or death notices for many of them."
Hogwash. This contention is
simply not true, as has been amply demonstrated by Dr. Demarce. For
example, she took the time to check the census records for each of the
ancestors claimed by Kennedy. She also traced his actual ancestry in
those numerous instances where he had obviously and hopelessly erred.
Kennedy repeatedly maintains that his ancestors were for generations
uniformly consigned to the status of "free people of color." As such,
he says, not only do records not exist for them, they were consistently
subjugated, persecuted, had their lands and other property confiscated
and were forced to migrate ever-westward to seek refuge.
More hogwash. When Dr.
Demarce examined the census records of Kennedy's claimed ancestors - a
basic bit of research that Kennedy totally neglected - she found the
exact opposite: In EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE Kennedy's claimed or actual
ancestors were shown as white on the records. This was true not only in
the case of the censuses, but in cases where separate white and
nonwhite marriage books were maintained. Beyond that, Dr. Demarce found
their names recorded among the deeds, wills and other county records at
least to the same extent as their contemporaries, their supposed
subjugators. And, contrary to Kennedy's claim, his ancestors were not
disenfranchised because of their "color," for his ancestors could be
found among the officeholders, both locally and statewide. In one
instance, Dr. Demarce notes, Kennedy claims that the family of a
particular ancestor was forced from its lands because of legal edicts
against nonwhites. The census-taker who enumerated this white family
conveniently recorded that this couple's son was the sheriff of the
For emphasis: Among Kennedy's
claimed or actual "persecuted" ancestors, in EVERY single instance
these ancestors are shown in the ample records to be white. Not a
single one - nada, zilch, zero, not any, none at all- is shown as being
in any other ethnic or racial group.
The fact is that "traditional
genealogy" can be used to trace these people. As Dr. Demarce shows, not
only did Kennedy fail to use any of these standard and basic avenues,
he demonstrates his almost total lack of understanding of genealogical
research in general by repeatedly falling into the common novice
genealogical traps of "generation gap," "same-name syndrome" and too
much reliance on oral tradition. Any genealogist should know this is a
prescription for disaster.
Ms. Morrison notes that
Kennedy's interest in the Melungeons began with a mysterious illness
that was said to be found primarily among "Middle Eastern and
Mediterranean peoples" and, he later learned, the Portuguese.
"How could a southerner, born
and bred, have a Mediterranean disease?" asks Ms. Morrison.
There are perhaps 2,000
non-Melungeon answers to that question - one for each of the ancestors
Kennedy had in the mid-18th century, both within and outside of
The question Ms. Morrison
neglected to ask is far more revealing: Why is there no mention of any
incidences of this rare disease among his near-relatives or extended
family? These people obviously draw from the same "Melungeon" gene pool
as did Kennedy. How could it be that the records for these are silent
on this ailment? If it were an identifiable hereditary characteristic
among Kennedy's claimed kin, surely by the time he contracted it, the
symptoms would have been well-known to every parent, uncle, aunt or
cousin in the family.
Skipping over the obviousness
of the preceding and ignoring the possibility of genetic mutation or
other logical explanations, Ms. Morrison goes on: "It was this question
that Dr. Kennedy set out to answer, by tracing his family background,
and in the process he rediscovered his heritage. His book ... is not
about historical research, but is his family's genealogy and some very
interesting theoretical problem solving."
The blunt truth is that not
only did Kennedy not trace "his family background," he invented his
heritage and his "interesting theoretical problem solving" is what is
sometimes politely abbreviated as a WAG. (Sorry, if you don't know what
that is, you'll have to ask someone.)
Ms. Morrison goes on: "If
your family has an Indian Grandmother(father) 'myth' which you have
been unable to prove, an adoption story that is unprovable, or an
orphan myth, and they have been hard to trace and they lived in North
Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia areas in the
early migration years or if they seem to have moved back and forth in
these areas and if they share any of the mentioned surnames and
characteristics, you may find a connection here."
The light is beginning to
come on. Since almost anyone in the United States either falls into one
of the above categories or thinks that he does, the Melungeons - at
least Kennedy's brand of them - can be used to "clean up" almost any
existing genealogical puzzle. Simultaneously, you can claim that
because these people were discriminated against there are no records to
substantiate (or disprove) your claims. In addition to having the
mystery "solved," you are relieved of the chore of actually doing any
research. No wonder so many people are jumping on the "Melungeon"
Ms. Morrison claims: "Dr. N.
Brent Kennedy's book ... is a genealogy and theoretical search for
answers and is a must read for anyone who is connected to this group.
... From some information in Dr. Kennedy's book ..., you can see the
necessity for these people to hide."
Aside from the fact that they
didn't hide - at least to no greater degree than any of the families
around them - one is constrained to ask which of the following
attributes of Kennedy's work makes it "a must read":
It is probably one of the
best contemporary examples of how not to conduct and present
genealogical research; therefore, it can serve as a guide for what you
should avoid. Its "imaginative
problem-solving" might give you some good ideas for spicing up your own
genealogy with a collection of folklore, myths, legends, anachronisms
and WAGs. (Jump around as much as you like and don't bother to cite any
authoritative sources.) There follows in Ms.
Morrison's essay a long litany of perceived injustices inflicted, both
socially and legally, upon these "proud, strong, courageous, people"
(many of whom, you will recall, are historically nonexistent). Again,
this is drawn from Kennedy's book and "these peoples" include his
considerably enlarged definition of "Melungeon." Many no doubt have
these noble traits. However, try as she might, Dr. Demarce notes she
was unable to find a single instance where the records support a
Kennedy claim. To the contrary, every record she did find - and there
are as many for this supposedly "hidden" group as there were for any
contemporary group - directly contradict Kennedy's contentions. To quote Dr. Demarce once
again: "The early families of which he [Kennedy] writes were large
ones, moving in groups to areas they thickly settled; their numerous
children married into other pioneer families of Appalachia. After
eliminating the collateral relatives, who was left to oppress them?"
Regarding Ms. Morrison's list
of surnames associated with "the Melungeons" (apparently taken from
Kennedy, who seems to have expanded on another published source without
attribution), it likely could pass as the surnames in a passenger list
for most any 18th century vessel carrying immigrants to the American
Colonies. Ms. Morrison's admonishment that not everyone with these
surnames is of Melungeon descent is one bright spot in a rather cloudy
essay in "genealogy" - a discipline which admonishes you to take great
care in attaching any significance to similarities or differences in
surnames. (Kennedy, in explaining away a discovered inconsistency, says
of an ancestor: "Surely he would have known how to spell his own
name.") As you quickly learn in genealogical research, the one
certainty is that spelling is, at best, "inconsistent." Even if a
person "knew" how to spell his name, the one recording it likely didn't
know - or care - how to spell it. (Dr. Demarce's comment was that
apparently Kennedy's research failed to bring him to discover the
remark of Andrew Jackson, who declared he didn't trust a man who only
knew how to spell a word one way.)
I have my own "must read"
recommendation for anyone who suspects a mixed racial ancestry. First,
you must read Dr. Demarce's critical essay on Kennedy's book. Her
informed and documented comments on his work will quickly disabuse you
from following his prescription for discovering your heritage or your
ancestry. You should also take a look at Dr. Demarce's other two
Virginia Easley Demarce,
"'Very Slitly Mixt': Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South - A
Genealogical Study," NGSQ, Vol. 80, March 1992, pp. 5-35. Demarce, "Looking at Legends
- Lumbee and Melungeon: Applied Genealogy and the Origins of Tri-Racial
Isolate Settlements," NGSQ, Vol. 81, March 1993, pp. 24-45.
In these articles, Dr.
Demarce documents the origins of some of the "tri-racial isolates" -
many of whom Kennedy and Morrison claim for the Melungeons - using
genealogical research techniques rather than relying on the
generalizations of myth and legend. Not only does she show it can be
done, she does so quite convincingly. Anthropologists and
sociologists work with large groups about which they can make broad
generalizations, sometimes using "hearsay" evidence. They do so in the
knowledge that the individual mistakes tend to cancel each other. But
these anthropological or sociological theories cannot substitute for
the research required to determine your own ancestry. As a
genealogist,you should realize that unsubstantiated generalizations can
fatally flaw your work. Genealogical mistakes don't cancel each other -
they just keep piling up.
That appears to be what is
happening with the literature on the Melungeons being fed genealogists
on the Internet. It's getting higher and deeper.
The study of legends or
mythology can be fascinating in and of itself. But genealogy will be
better served by those who stay within the practices and dictates of
that discipline and avoid the realm of WAGs.