DNA study sheds new light on my Melungeon ancestry...

Just prior to the Memorial Day weekend, I read an interesting story, published by the Associated Press and distributed nationally and across the state of Tennessee, detailing new DNA evidence that suggests that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.

My most direct connection to the Melungeons:
My grandmother, Pauline Goins (right)
with her mother Grace (center), sister Lucille (left),
and brother Neal (seated).
According to the article, the authors of the DNA study published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, "theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery. They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee." The article further states that claims of Portuguese or Native American ancestry "likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study's authors."

This story resonated with me because of my own recent discovery of Melungeon ancestry, through my paternal grandmother and her family. In 1906, my great-great-grandfather, William Volney Goins, filled out an Eastern Cherokee Application following an act of Congress in that year which set aside several million dollars with which to compensate the descendants of Cherokee who lost their land under the 1835 Treaty of New Echota just prior to the Trail of Tears. One of the many revelations that I discovered in this document was a sworn affidavit by my great-great-grandfather which reads in part...

W. V. Goins being first duly sworn, deposes and says:

That my parents were living in Hamilton County in 1851. My grandparents were all dead. Neither I nor any of my ancestors were ever on any Indian roll. I claim Indian descent thro [sic] both parents. My grandparents on my mother's side were born in Va. On my father's side in Grainger Co., Tenn. They were all living in Hamilton County in 1835. I have heard them talk of the Indians but don't know that they ever lived with them. I have no negro blood in me. I was never held as a slave, nor were any of my ancestors. [Emphasis mine]

Subscribed and sworn to before me at Chattanooga, Tenn. this 18th day of June, 1908.

The Associated Press story does note that this DNA study "does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage," and "did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred," but the study certainly does call into question the widely-held belief passed down in oral histories through many generations, even among my own ancestors, that they were of Portuguese or Native American descent.

Lead researcher Roberta Estes said, "There were a whole lot of people upset by this study." Don't count me among them. On the contrary, I find this study to be another fascinating piece of the puzzle that I have been looking for in my own family history, and I concur with G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who said of the study, "It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history."

However, as an aside, I do have one complaint about the Associated Press article. It never ceases to amaze me how often journalists fall into the trap of using clich├ęd language in their reporting. The reference to "dusty archives" in this story is as stereotypical as the "shushing librarian" or the "history buff," and the frequency with which they are used in reporting makes me wonder if these phrases are actually cited in the Associated Press Stylebook?

Nonetheless, I did enjoy reading this story, and I look forward to discovering more about my Melungeon ancestors and their complex history. Click here to read the entire article.


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.