Melungeons: Post 1. The Beginnings of my Journey

 

I came in to make corrections on my original post about Catawbas and Melungeons and I accidentally erased the entire thing! So, here I am, back at the keyboard. Oh well, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I need to take a step back and look at it from the beginning, look at the what’s the who’s and the why’s.

I realize that I am NOT an expert on the early history of Kentucky. It’s true that I’ve been studying it forever and have even taught it and it’s true that I’ve conducted workshops on the Melungeons and Natives of this area, but it is also true that history is like a kaleidoscope and the images are complex and my understanding of what I’m seeing is constantly changing.  When I post something on this blog, it’s not set in stone. It’s as changeable as a television station. As my understanding changes, so do my posts, so please bear with me. In my last post, I tackled the mystery of Joe Pabilo, my great-great grandfather. In this one, I hope to talk about my maternal grandmother’s family history.

I never heard the word Melungeon until I was a grown woman and my aunt brought me an article about Elvis Presley and Abraham Lincoln being “Melungeons” and told me about a book by Brent Kennedy. My aunt, who is probably reading this blog post, told me that she believed we might be “Melungeons” because our family on my mom’s side had originally come from Hawkins and Hancock County Tennessee and with a list of names like Blevins, Collins, Sizemore, Gibsons, Bowlings, etc., it certainly did seem possible. So began my research. I discovered no less than 30 surnames in my mom’s family tree that were known Melungeon surnames, coming from known Melungeon areas. Proving that she was or wasn’t Melungeon was something else again. And if she was a Melungeon? Then what? What did that mean anyway? And did my dad have Melungeon ancestry, too? If so, what did that mean for me? I contemplated DNA testing when it first came out but I was scared of it. I doubted it’s accuracy and I questioned what the testing companies would do with my info. Okay, okay, yes, I was paranoid.

I watched a PBS special on Melungeons and read Jesse Stuart’s Daughter of the Legend. There was definitely something drawing me to these people and I just couldn’t let it go. I then read Brent Kennedy’s work and I thought that he had a coon treed, so to speak. I got online and googled as much as I could. There wasn’t as much info out then as there is now on Melungeons, but I was feeling my “Anatolian bump” and sticking my tongue into my “shovel teeth” and nothing how my second toe is longer than my first toe and how the corners of my eyes overlap, I had “almost” black hair, blue eyes and all those “markers” that are supposed to indicate Melungeon heritage. I had every one of them, of course. I was satisfied. I was Melungeon. But I was also deflated. What did that even mean, really? How did it impact my life?

I put it aside for a while. My life got busy and the knowledge of Melungeon heritage got stored in a file in my head as I went about my business. This past spring I was asked to come give a talk on Melungeons and that restarted my digging. A brilliant researcher sent me amazing links that hadn’t existed during my first stomp through the Melungeon patch.  I will forever be grateful to her for her help in my Melungeon understanding.

I finally submitted to the temptation to have a DNA test done, not just one but TWO! I reasoned that if the powers that be wanted my DNA, they had access to it anyway. I mean I worked for a public school system, my off-the-gridness and privacy were forfeited the minute I became a teacher.

 

Well, explaining DNA results is a whole other post, but by the time it was said and done, and I had run my raw data through multiple calculators and even gone to Standford University’s Genotation, it turned out that I had DNA from 6 out of the 7 continents, so that didn’t tell me the answers I had hoped for. I had segments from the British Isles, Iberia, Basque Country, Slavic, Baltic, Finnish, Native American,  West Africa, Steppe, Anatolian, Southern Asia (Northwest India and Pakistan), Scandanavia. I was thoroughly mixed, so I decided to zero in on the time period when the Melungeons first came into contact with English colonists. Luckily, 23andMe gives you this time line that shows at approximately what time in history certain elements were introduced into your genes. My timeline showed that during the 1700s to early 1800s, I had West African (Mali and Morrocco), Iberian and Native American ancestors. Now, granted, some of that may have been due to Joe Pabilo (see the previous post) being Spanish/Native mix but it also coincided with the time of the Melungeon families coming into my line of direct ancestry.

So, over the past three weeks, I’ve turned my attention to my maternal ancestors who settled in Wayne, Clinton, Russell, Cumberland and Adair County, Kentucky. If you look at a map, you can see that all of these counties are adjacent and center around one important geographical feature, the Cumberland River. They all lived within about 40 miles of each other, if you go as the crow flies, or cross country as they did in the days way back before roads were carved out between the twisting, winding hills of southern Kentucky.

Therefore, my next post is a redo of the one I accidentally deleted: How the Catawba met up with the Melungeons and Wound up in Kentucky.

 

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