Ask the Melungeon!

In this thread, I was asked by a couple of posters to do an “Ask the Melungeon” thread. I promised I would start one over Easter holiday, and here I am.

Every so often, a question or two will pop up on the SDMB asking about Melungeons, also called “Black Dutch”, “Black Irish”, and various other names. I don’t claim to be an anthropologist, but I am of Melungeon descent, and I’ll do my best to answer any and all questions that might be posed about Melungeons.

So, if you have any questions, fire away!


What constitutes “Melungeon descent”? Is there, in fact, a recognizable and distinct ethnicity involved?

Is there any majority opinion among Melungeons where the name comes from? I’ve heard of the Turkish words for “doomed ones” being one theory; are there others?

Did you know that an anagram for Melungeon is “Lounge Men”?

Seems like the French word “melange” (if I’ve spelled it correct) would be the most likely source.

Isn’t it likely that there are several soruces of “Melungeon” people? Some may be partly Native American, some may be partly African, and maybe others.

Where might be some pictures of Melungeons? In the site referenced in the other threads, I don’t think I found any.

Discover Mag just did an article on that group last month. If they don’t have any photos online, the hard copy has quite a few examples. Judging from those pictures, the ethnic “look” is very subtle.

ElvisL1ves – Melungeons can be found primarily in Appalachia, in parts of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and (this is where my ancestors hailed) Tennessee. Melungeons are NOT a race; that’s absurd. We are instead a mixture of several races and ethnic groups. We’re a pretty difficult bunch to peg because we don’t neccesarily all look the same (colorations range from very dark to very pale, and everything in between) and we don’t speak a unique language, like Amerindian tribes. We do, however, share a common identity as Melungeons and many carry recognizable Melungeon characteristics.

For instance, I myself possess the “shovel teeth”, commonly found in Amerindian and Asian populations, along with the Anatolian bump and a head ridge. So far I’ve managed to avoid getting any diseases associated with Melungeons, such as Machado-Joseph’s Disease or Mediterranean fever, but I’m always on the lookout for symptoms within my family.

There’s a number of suggested origins for the word “Melungeon” – it could be from Malange, a place in Angola; from “melange”, as John Mace pointed out; from “Mullins”, a common Melungeon surname; or derived somehow from Turkish. I personally think a French origin is probably correct, but take your pick.

John Mace – As mentioned before, Melungeons are a mixture of several races and ethnicities. DNA work done on some Melungeons has shown 5% Amerindian genes, 5% African, and 90% Eurasian. The last is a VERY wide-ranging group, and one of the more unusual groups that Melungeons shared DNA with are the Siddhis from India. I think the article in Discover Magazine (which I read, by-the-way, it was pretty good) has more on this. Melungeons tend to be susceptible to diseases uncommon in the general population, such as Mediterranean fever, which is found mostly in Arabs, Armenians, Turks, and Jewish people from North Africa.

“Ethnic looks” vary wildly among Melungeon descendants; I’ve met people of Melungeon descent who were black as soot, and I’m pale and blonde myself. Some identifying characteristics include the “shovel teeth”, Antolian bump, and head ridge, all of which I possess.

Hamlet – No, I didn’t know! I do like to lounge about, but I’m not a man. Oh well.

Best wishes!


Have there been any movies featuring Melungeon characters or themes? I remember a play a long time ago called “The Dark of the Moon” (I could be misremembering) about some guy falling in love with a Melungeon girl.


It’s really kind of misleading to say someone has “5% african genes”. Since all humans are 99.x% genetically the same (you can argue whether “x” is 6 or 8 or 9, but doesn’t really matter too much), and there haven’t been any “racial genes” identified, the best you can say is something like this:

  • 5% of this group have genetic markers common to people of African decent.


  • This group typically shows some of the genetic markers common to people of African decent.

I just don’t want viewers of this thread to go off thinking there are such things as “African genes”. That’s a whole 'nother topic, but the only true statement we could make along those lines might be that ALL humans alive today have 99% or more African genes. But since that number is so high, it really doesn’t mean anything other than 1) we all recently came out of African and 2) we’re all REALLY very similar genetically.

John Mace – You’re right, of course, but I didn’t want to try to explain everything in excrutiating detail. Not only does that clunkily interrupt the flow of a discussion, but I also consider the average reader of the SDMB literate enough to understand what I mean without having every term spelled out.

But, to put my previous entry in clearer terms: DNA analysis done on some Melungeons (members of an ethnic group hailing from American Appalachia) has shown they share 5% of their genetic markers with people of Amerindian (Native American) descent, 5% of their genetic markers with people of Sub-Saharan African descent, and 90% of their genetic markers with people of European and Asian descent.

There we go.

Krokodil – I’ve never heard of that play, but now I’ll have to go look it up! I’m unaware of any movies with Melungeon themes, but there are several recording artists like Shalacy who celebrate their Melungeon heritage in song.



You are correct about the average reader of SDMB, but there have been lots of threads lately making some really wild claims about genetics and race.

BTW, your second version of the statistics was very well put.

Now a question or 2:

  1. Are Melungeons pretty much self-identified?

  2. Is there (still?) much social stigma associated with being Melungeon?

  3. I’d guess that at least 99% of Americans outside Appalachia have never even heard the term. In the Appalachian regions, are there many people who also have never heard the term?

I realize #2 probably has no simple answer, but I’d be curious as to what your experiences have been.

John Mace – Many Melungeon descendants have only recently begun to accept their roots, as being labeled Melungeon or “Black Dutch”, etc. was considered very negative until recently. Due to the ambiguous racial status, many Melungeons preferred to be seen as white, and thusly there are many who have no idea that they’re of Melungeon descent at all. Many only discovered their ancestry when they came down with some rare disease.

Slowly, more and more folks are acknowledging their ancestry, and you can find a number of genealogical websites and such if you check. There are Unions held biannually by the Melungeon Heritage Association. The discrimination is breaking down at last, a good thing for everyone.

Your second question is very good. Historically, Melungeons weren’t well thought of, and as a consequence many concealed their origins and passed for white. I don’t live in Appalachia, so I’m unsure of the exact climate there now. If anyone from the area could drop in and give the general perception of Melungeons in Appalachia, I’d appreciate it.

Outside Appalachia, I’ve met exactly one person who’d heard of the Melungeons, but then I don’t exactly run around with a “Melungeon and proud of it!” T-shirt on or anything, so it’s hardly a scientific sampling. On the rare occasions people bring up Melungeons, they usually ask if they exist at all – as though they were some half-forgotten legend or mythical tribe. The few people I’ve mentioned my ancestry to are rather perplexed. One friend even felt the back of my head to check to see if I actually had a bump and a ridge, then checked her own and was astonished to discover that she didn’t.


By the way, the “Dutch” in “Black Dutch” is actually a reference to German ancestry, not Dutch. “Deutsch,” meaning “German”, has been mis-heard by English speakers over the years, and mangled into “Dutch”. (Same deal with the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, by the way.)

There was a large German community in western North Carolina in colonial times. They were in fact connected to the “Pennsylvania Dutch”. (Most of the Germans who wound up in North Carolina arrived initially in Pennsylvania, and then migrated south, along the Great Wagon Road, which led down through western Virginia, and into the Carolinas.)

I’m not sure how the “Black Dutch” appellation got started, but I’m guessing that some of these Germans must have mingled with Cherokee, blacks, and/or others. Not surprising at all.

(And yes, it occurred to me to point out that “Black Dutch” is mostly an Appalachian appellation…)

Here’s another question.

Other than the physical identification, are there any cultural nuances peculiar to Melungeons?

In other words, say my family was from Appalachia on both sides, but only my mother was Melungeon. If I went to visit both sets of grandparents, would I be exposed to any differences? Would my maternal grandmother cook anything different from my paternal grandmother? Would either grandparent tell different stories or have different “sayings”?

Since I am not motivated to arque MENA things at present:

Well this is highly peculiar.

I have both the shovel teeth and the bump, insofar as I can tell from doing a bit of a search. Interesting indeed, for I have no Appalachian ancestry at all, coming from an old New England family. In that context, of course, it is not only possible but likelihood the family had ‘genetic inputs’ from non-northern European sources in the early years before racialism settled in, while fully excluding ‘Mulungeonness” per se.[sup]*[/sup]

However, a question arises in my mind on a number of the characteristics asserted on the Mulungeon sites, to what extent are these “just so” assertions versus scientifically supported ones. For example the Anatolian bump, which I appear to have per the descriptions on the websites. What supports the assertion that this is a particularly Anatolian feature (or from whence it comes, nota bene, parts of Anatolia where settled by Celtic tribes in the late Hellenic period)? What supports the shovel teeth being particularly an Asiatic attribute? I ask out of real curiosity – I would hasten to add I would be insufferably pleased with myself to be able to claim some Turkish connexion as I am frequently mistaken for a Turk in this region – but also a high degree of skepticism as in my experience many of such claims are in fact ‘just so stories’ that do not withstand critical scrutiny.

I point, for example to this essay which appears modestly critical of the ‘scholarship’ of some research in re the group:

Mind you all in all I rather like the idea of groups of Americans embracing historical mixedness. I recall being pleasantly surprised when my own father, an arch conservative and something of a polite gentlemanly racist in that old WASP mold (the man being well over 70 this is unsurprising) observing on the racial mixing in the early colonial period and allowing that certain family features might derive from there. Of course a good 350 years in the past, this is safe territory.

[sub]*: I can regrettably make such a statement as a large percentage of my family have an entirely unhealthy and in the end terribly tedious obsession with genealogy.[/sub]

John Mace – Melungeons did (and still do, in some communities) have traditions, foods, and sayings distinct from those of their neighbors. One tradition is building little wooden houses over their graves.

Collounsbury – What does MENA stand for?

It’s entirely possible that you got your characteristics from Indian ancestors somewhere down the line. Are you sure you have a bump? On me, if I press two fingers against the back of my neck where my spinal cord disappears into my skull, I’ll find them trapped by a fairly deep ridge. Running my fingers up that ridge leads me to a large bulge on the top of which is a small knot about the size of a marble. It’s like an outgrowth of my skull.

As for the rest of your question, I fear I am not of much use. As I said in the OP, I’m not an athropologist, and cannot be considered an expert on human phenotypes. I wish I could give you the answers, but my knowledge in this area is too limited.


What are ‘shovel teeth’?

I did some research and it looks like I have shovel teeth and the Anatolian bump. I’ve always thought come pretty much entirely from Scandanavians. My family does have a “kidnapped by Indians” legend. Perhaps there is some kind of truth to it.

Their inner surface is curved like a shovel – hence the name. There’s also a ridge at the gum. If I place my fingernail behind my incisors on the gumline and press down, I’ll hear a clicking sound as my nail scrapes against the bump. This site has a nice diagram to explain in more detail.