Documenting the links to my Melungeon past...

I enjoyed meeting Lisa Alther at STA2011.
During the recent STA2011 Society of Tennessee Archivists annual meeting, I had the honor of meeting and introducing our guest speaker for our group's awards dinner, author and novelist, Lisa Alther.

Ms. Alther is the author of five best-selling novels, and a personal memoir entitled, Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree, which chronicles her search for her Melungeon ancestry. Her search for her ancestors also inspired her latest novel, Washed in the Blood, which was just released in hardcover in October. I was grateful for receiving a copy of Kinfolks as a gift from Ms. Alther, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

During the awards dinner, Ms. Alther told us of the story of her Appalachian heritage and her links to the Melungeons, an isolated group of dark-complected people living primarily in East Tennessee. There is wide disagreement among scholars, and even among genealogists who have studied the subject, as to the Melungeons' ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and geographic origins and identity. The origins of the Melungeon people, and even the name "Melungeon," has been a source of controversy and intrigue for many years.

It is interesting to me that while most people associate America's "Melting Pot" with the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City during the nineteenth century, many years earlier, the Southeastern United States was a more diverse "Melting Pot" of races and cultures. But in Kinfolks Ms. Alther asserts that "America has never really been a melting pot. It's actually a stir-fry. Like picky children, each generation selects only the vegetables it deems palatable." Such was the fate of the Melungeon people.

Readers of The Posterity Project will recall that I recently discovered my own family's link to the Melungeons through the story of my great-grand uncle, Arthur Goins, and his brother -- my great-grandfather -- William Paul Goins. This revelation has inspired me to begin exploring my own Melungeon heritage. I plan to spend some time over the next few months investigating this interesting branch in my family tree. Who knows? Maybe I'll discover that Lisa Alther and I have more in common than a love of literature.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Lisa Alther's memoir, Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree, and her just-published novel, Washed in the Blood, for a glimpse into the lives of the mysterious Melungeons. For anyone with an interest in history, genealogy, and great literature, they are definitely worth a read.



Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.