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Transom Podcast

52 EpisodesProduced by TransomWebsite is an experiment in channeling new work and voices to public radio through the internet, and for discussing that work, and encouraging more. Our podcast offers some tasty little audio morsels to go.


A Code To Live By In Appalachia

About A Code To Live By In Appalachia

“Mysterious” is probably the first word most people associate with the Melungeons. They were a mixed race group that settled in southern Appalachia in the late 1700s. They lived in their own communities, separate from their white neighbors. Some stayed in those communities as late as the mid-20th century.

Jack Goins

The oldest generations of Melungeons had a striking look: dark skin, straight black hair, blue eyes. Nobody knew where they had come from or how, exactly, they ended up in the mountains along the Tennessee-Virginia border. Melungeons themselves often explained their distinct looks by claiming Native American or Portuguese ancestry. But their white neighbors would sometimes claim they had African heritage.

The mystery of the Melungeon people drew me in, just like it’s drawn in so many others. Growing up in Tennessee, I remember my mom occasionally mentioning the Melungeons. Whatever remarks she made always seemed to end with: “… and nobody knows where they’re from. Isn’t that something?”

Recently, a little googling led me to Jack Goins, the force behind the Melungeon DNA Project. Jack is a retired TV salesman in Hawkins County, Tennessee, who is descended from Melungeons. He’s been gathering DNA samples from other descendants to try to get some answers about Melungeon ancestry.

So Who Are the Melungeons, Really?

Jack’s DNA project is ongoing, but so far, he’s found that, for the most part, Melungeons have sub-Saharan African and European roots. These findings have surprised some Melungeon descendants who had assumed they were Native American or Portuguese. The study only found a single instance of Native American heritage in the group, and no Portuguese markers. Jack himself was surprised to find out his paternal line was African, because his great, great grandparents had been marked as Portuguese on the 1880 census. He theorizes that their predecessors had immigrated from an African country, such as Angola, that had been under Portuguese rule.

Vardy school

Jack co-authored a study on Melungeon DNA in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. It was published shortly after I met him last year. The Associated Press ran an article on the study with headlines like, “Melungeons aren’t who they thought they were,” and “Melengeon DNA study reveals ancestry, upsets ‘a whole lot of people.’”

A whole lot of people were upset. But from what I could tell, they were upset more by the way Jack conducted the study than the results he found. People had to be descended from a very specific “core group” of Melungeons to be included in the study. Plus, it was a Y-line test, so it only included men. So, a lot of people who identified as Melungeon descendants couldn’t be in the study. And when the article came out and stated definitively where the Melungeons had come from, it ruffled some feathers.

Telling a story without answers

Lots of people still claim Melungeon heritage. The hardest part about this project was getting a grasp on who the Melungeons actually were, and who counts as Melungeon now.

When I began the story, I was expecting to find hard answers. I thought my timing with the story was impeccable. At the time I was starting my research, Jack happened to be finishing up his study. A published paper on the Melungeons promised numbers and facts—a tantalizing prospect. I was going to be able to tell a story of a group of people who had never know where they were from, until they turned to Science. My story would start with a mystery, and end with a solution. Bam!

If only.

Johnnie at church

The more people I met, the more opinions I heard about who the Melungeons were. I realized that Jack’s study only encompassed a fraction of all the people who claim Melungeon ancestry today. I went to a Melungeon reunion in Virginia last summer, and practically everyone there told a slightly different versio...

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