Mellungeons and Myth


This article was published originally in the December 2002 issue of the Appalachian Quarterly, a genealogical magazine in southwest Virginia. Mountain people were at one time described as pure Anglo-Saxon. This was, of course, pure nonsense. Today some writers seem obsessed with describing mountaineers as mostly Celtic or Scots-Irish. The truth is that the mountain people have a varied ancestry, as do many people in America. I grew up among Gibson and Collins families in Knott County, Kentucky. Some members of a few families were very dark, with a distinctive Indian appearance, while some members had a more African American appearance. There were other local families that were said to have African American or Indian ancestry. Through genealogical research I have established that a very talented Knott County family of banjo players had a grandfather that was described as Mulatto in census records.

Gibson and Collins are common surnames among some remnant Indian populations. They are also the most common surnames among mountain families that are today described as “Melungeon.” There has been a lot of romantic nonsense written about Melungeons in various places, including the Internet. The Gibson and Collins families described today as Melungeon came originally from east Virginia to the border counties of Virginia and North Carolina. From there they migrated to southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and to other areas. I have found that several other families in eastern Kentucky also followed this general migration path. It was through this migration path, I believe, that banjos and banjo songs entered Knott County.


I grew up in Knott County, Kentucky. I learned at an early age that there were two groups of Gibson families: one group was described as black, the other white. I remember my father telling me about an elderly Gibson that lived near his grandfather. Dad said this Gibson was "black," but claimed to be Portuguese. I have since learned there is a record of families in northeast Tennessee who claimed to be Portuguese.

My father''s statement was unusual enough that I have remembered it for over fifty years. I was reminded of this recently when I visited a Baptist Minister in Kentucky. We were discussing our families when he remarked in a matter-of-fact manner: "You know, your family is from the old xxxxx Gibson set, but the xxxxx Gibson set were mulattoes." I am not using first names, because this is still a sensitive subject for some people. I have since researched and found that my Gibson ancestors were neighbors of the ancestors of the "black" Gibsons in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, so I suspect there was some relationship between the families. I have always been curious why some people, whom others defined as mulattoes or Indian, should claim to be Portuguese.

I have read books about Melungeons in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. Gibson and Collins are the most common names among these people. Gibson and Collins, of course, are names common in east Kentucky, particularly in Knott and Letcher Counties. I feel the Melungeon label has been used as a broad brush to include different families and groups of people that may have had differing origins. None of the people now so labeled ever claimed to be Melungeon. This was originally a derisive term used in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee to describe people with darker skins.

The minutes of the Stony Creek Baptist Church (1801-1814) in Scott County Virginia provide a wonderful window into the past. These minutes have been of interest to me because the most common name in the Church was Gibson. Some of the Gibson members were likely among my ancestors. The disparaging reference in the minutes to a member harboring "Melungins" has generated a lot of comment. The "Melungins" being harbored were probably a different group of people who had moved in, or were passing through the area. These people must have had some obvious differences with the local population. These differences most likely included a darker skin.

The most interesting aspect of the Stony Creek minutes for me, however, was the presence of black members in the church. Black and white people socialized together in early Colonial America and on the early frontier. The increasingly repressive laws regarding free blacks and slaves, especially prior to the Civil War, helped create divisions between black and white neighbors. These laws were coupled with a view, perpetuated by some Northerners and many Southerners, that people with African American ancestry were somewhat less than human. A few Baptist churches in the mountains, however, treated slaves and free blacks with more respect than they received elsewhere. The Stony Creek Baptist Church was one of these. The following question was posed in the minutes for February 26, 1809:

"A query to the church concerning a Black brother or Sister should be taken for a witness against a white Sister or Brother. The church answers, yes."

This statement is a wonderful testament to the members of this church, especially considering the treatment blacks were receiving in other areas of both the North and the South.

James F. Gibson, my great, great grandfather, left Scott County Virginia in the 1860s and moved to an area of Letcher County Kentucky that later became Knott County. He preached at the Old Carr Regular Baptist Church in the 1880s. This church had black members who later formed their own church at Redfox, Kentucky. The Little Home Old Regular Baptist Church at Redfox has always had both black and white members, although most of the pastors have been black. Loyal Jones, in Faith and Meaning in the Southern Uplands, discusses the fraternization of black and white members in the Little Home Church.

I have been researching the history of the banjo, which came originally from Africa. I have therefore been reading extensively about early slavery, both in Africa and in America. Richard Jobson documents his travels in Africa in The Golden Trade, "Set down as they were collected in traveling part of the yeares 1620 and 1621." Jobson traveled to the Gambia in Africa acting as a scout for London merchants. Jobson was preceded to Africa by George Thompson, who sailed from England in 1618. Thompson''s ship, however, had been taken from him on the Gambia River. The ship was taken, according to Jobson, by "...a few poore dejected ‘Portingals'' and Molatos, whom they gave free recourse aboord, being only banisht people, and for the most part runnagados from their Country..."

Jobson was very suspicious of the ''Portingals'' when he met them on the Gambia, not only because some of them had pirated Thompson''s ship, but because they controlled much of the trade on the Gambia. These people were Creoles, who had both Portuguese and African ancestry. The Portuguese had been on the Gambia for near 200 years in 1620. Jobson has this to say about the "Portingales":

"And these are, as they call themselves, ‘Portingales,'' and some few of them seeme the same; others of them are ‘Molatoes,'' betweene blacke and white, but the more part blacke, as the natural inhabitants...they doe generally imploy themselves in buying such commodities the country affords...and as they [children] grow up, apply themselves to buy and sell one thing for another as the whole country doth, still reserving carefully, the use of the Portingall tongue, and with a kinde of an affectionate zeale, the name of Christians, taking it in great disdaine, be they never so blacke, to be called a ‘Negro'': and these, for the most part, are the Portingalls..."

Douglas Grant, in The Fortunate Slave, writes about the people on the Gambia.

"The Portuguese dominated West Africa for two hundred years...The English found the Portuguese settled on the banks of the Gambia when they first attempted an exploration of the river. When Jobson anchored on the Gambia...he discovered among the Mandingos near the mouth a number of ‘vagrant Portingall.'' They were Portuguese by language and sentiment rather than in appearance, for, though some were mulattoes, the majority were as black as the rest of the natives. They called themselves Christians and, whatever their hue, considered themselves to be white and took it as an insult to be classed with the Negroes. The river trade was mostly in their hands...By intermarrying with the natives, they [the Portuguese] had bred into their descendents something of the necessary genius of the place...Creole Portuguese was a useful trading language, widespread along the coast and along the Guinea waterways, and one of the most easily picked up by the English..."

Ira Berlin''s Many thousands Gone is a history of slavery in America. He defines "Atlantic Creoles" in the introduction to his book:

"Atlantic Creoles trace their beginnings in the historic encounter of European and Africans on the west coast of Africa. Many served as intermediaries, employing their linguistic skills, and their familiarity with the Atlantic''s diverse commercial practices, cultural conventions, and diplomatic etiquette to mediate between African merchants and European Sea Captains. "

It should be noted that the Europeans cited would have included people from some countries on the Mediterranean Sea. The Atlantic Creoles were wide spread along the coast of West Africa, and were also a large presence in Europe:

"In Europe – particularly Portugal and Spain – the number of Creoles swelled as trade with Africa increased. By the mid-sixteenth century, 10,000 black people resided in Lisbon, where they composed 10 percent of the city''s population ...Men of color drawn from Creole communities of Europe accompanied Columbus to the Americas and marched with Balboa, Cortez, De Sota, and Pizarro ... Other Atlantic Creoles traveled on their own, as sailors and interpreters in both the transatlantic and African trades. Some gained freedom and mixed with Europeans and Native Americans..."

Berlin has this to say about the first generation of slaves in Virginia:

"Atlantic Creoles shaped black America''s charter generations in the Chesapeake. They numbered large among the ‘twenty Negers'' a Dutch man-o''-war sold to John Rolf at Jamestown in 1619...Although some of the new arrivals hailed directly from Africa, most had already spent some time in the New World, understood the language of the Atlantic, bore Hispanic and occasionally English names, and were familiar with Christianity and other aspects of European culture. Set to work alongside a mélange of English and Irish servants, little but skin color distinguished them from others who labored in the region''s tobacco fields. Through the first fifty years of English and African settlement in the Chesapeake, black and white workers lived and worked together in ways that blurred racial lines. The small number of people of African descent (never more than 5 percent of the region''s population during this period) combined with the peculiar demands of the tobacco economy to strengthen the bargaining position of black people, whose status as slaves remained undefined in law, although not in practice. Many escaped bondage and secured a modest prosperity. Reviled and disparaged, black America''s charter generations nevertheless found a place in the society with slaves that emerged around the Chesapeake during the middle of the seventeenth century."

Some of the charter generation of enslaved and free blacks discussed by Berlin include the following: Emanuel Driggers (or Drighouse, probably Rodriggus), Bashaw Farnando (or Ferdinando), Francis Payne, John Graweere and his wife, Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary, Domingo, John Francisco (later Sisco), Anthony Longo, and somewhat later Robert Cain (1660).

Berlin makes the following observation about free blacks:

"By mid-century (1650) the Johnsons, the Paynes, and Graweeres were not alone among people of African descent who enjoyed freedom in the Chesapeake. Small communities of free blacks sprouted up all around the perimeter of the Chesapeake Bay, with the largest concentration on the eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland."

The social life of the early servants and slaves are discussed:

"Many blacks and whites appeared to enjoy one another''s company, perhaps because they shared so much. Behind closed doors, far from the eyes of suspicious slaveholders, black and white joined together to drink, gamble, frolic, and fight. Indeed, it was the violence that followed long bouts of ‘drinkinge and carrousinge'' that time and again revealed the extent of interracial conviviality..."

Berlin discusses the early mixing of races on the Chesapeake:

"Inevitably, conviviality led to other intimacies...Bastardy lists suggest that the largest source of mixed-race children in the seventeenth century Chesapeake was not the imposition of white planter men on black slave women but the relations of black slaves and white servants. Fragmentary evidence from various parts of Maryland and Virginia affirms that approximately one-quarter to one-third of the illegitimate children born to white women had fathers of African descent..."

He summarizes the close relationship between blacks and whites in the seventeenth century:

"Throughout the seventeenth century, black and white ran away together, joined in petty conspiracies, and upon occasion, stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the weighty champions of established authority. In 1676, when Nathaniel Bacon''s ‘Choice and Standing Army'' took to the field against forces commanded by Virginia''s royal governor, it drew on both white and black bondman in nearly equal proportions. Among the holdouts were a group of eighty black slaves and twenty white indentured servants, who bitterly condemned as a betrayal the surrender of Bacon''s officers."

The plantation regime, which Berlin discusses, began to put new strictures on the life of slaves and freed slaves. Berlin relates the following:

"In the 1660s the Johnson clan abandoned Virginia for Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. John Johnson and John Johnson, Jr., the son and grandson of Anthony Johnson, took refuge among the Nanticoke Indians and so-called Moors, among whom the Johnson name has loomed large into the twentieth century. Near one Nanticoke settlement in Delaware stands the small village of Angola, the name of John Johnson''s Virginia plantation and perhaps Anthony Johnson''s ancestral home. Similar ‘Indian'' tribes could be found scattered throughout the eastern half of the United States, categorized by twentieth -century ethnographers as ‘tri-racial isolates.''"

Berlin also discusses black people on the frontier:

"Others moved west to a different kind of autonomy. Scattered throughout the frontier areas of the eighteenth-century were handfuls of black people eager to escape the racially divided society of plantation America. In upcountry South Carolina, backcountry Virginia, and piedmont Georgia, white frontiersman with little sympathy for the nabobs of the tidewater sometimes sheltered such black men and women, employing them with no questions asked. People of African descent found refuge among the frontier banditti, whose interracial character – a ‘numerous Collection of outcast Mulattoes, Mustees, free Negroes, all Horse-Thieves,'' by one account – was the subject of constant denunciation by aspiring planters."

William Byrd, who was one of a party surveying the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728, confirms Berlin''s account of blacks on the frontier. He states the following in the History of the Dividing Line:

"We had encamped so early that we found time in the evening to walk near a half mile in the woods. There we came upon a family of mulattoes that called themselves free, though by the shyness of the master of the house, who took care to keep least in sight, their freedom seemed a little doubtful. It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbors discover them... Nor were these borderers content to shelter runaway slaves, but debtors and criminals have often met with like indulgence."

The "mulattoes," and others were welcome on a frontier where neighbor had to depend on neighbor. William Byrd and other planter elites had a less than flattering view of people on the frontier.


Reading Berlin and others leads me to conclude that many slaves in early America and the West Indies were Atlantic Creoles from the western coast of Africa. Slaves were imported into America for over 200 years, so it is likely some Atlantic Creoles arrived in America well after the first slaves in 1619. Is it possible that some mountain families claimed they were Portuguese because they had Atlantic Creole ancestry? It is an interesting possibility, and has some support in the historical record.

Atlantic Creoles were the result of racial mixing that began long before America was settled. Racial mixing continued in Colonial America among people of European, African, Atlantic Creole, American Indian and other ancestries. Racial mixing also continued on the early frontier. It is likely therefore that some mountaineers have both African and Atlantic Creole ancestors.

It appears to me that the debate about Melungeons has more to do with creating myths about ones ancestors than it does with exploring the historical record. Some genealogists deny that any Melungeon families had African ancestry. They describe Melungeons as a people with Indian and European ancestry. These researchers ignore the early mixing of eastern Indian tribes with Africans as well as Europeans. Some claim a group of Portuguese sailors, stranded in early America, mixed with native Indians and later with Europeans to form Melungeon families. I find no evidence for this in the historical record. If this theory were true, however, Melungeons would still have some African ancestry. Atlantic Creoles, with both Portuguese and African ancestry, would have had a large presence among any group of Portuguese sailors in early America. There are other theories that claim Melungeons have Turkish, Gypsy, Jewish or some other ancestry. There is no doubt that there was a remarkable mixture of people in early America. There is little evidence at this time, however, to support the more exotic claims for Melungeon ancestry.

A mathematician recently discussed the fact that every person living in America today can be proven to have descended from any historical person, if that person is distant enough in the past. The time frame discussed regarding possible Melungeon ancestry is from about 1600 to 2000, or 400 years. If a generation is 25 years, then we are discussing 16 generations. Any person living today would have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, and so on. Continuing this for 16 generations means each of us would have had 65,536 ancestors living in 1600. This is clearly impossible considering the large population living today and the much smaller population existing in 1600. This means we have many ancestors in common, which is another way of confirming all humans are related, however distantly. Mountaineers should be proud of all their ancestors, regardless of their color or ethnicity.

Melungeons And Other Pioneer Families, by Jack H. Goins, is a well researched book on the origin of Gibson, Collins and other families that were described as Melungeon in the early 1800s in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee.

The author, George R. Gibson, welcomes comments about this article. His email address is; his address is 1311 California Avenue, St. Cloud, FL 34769. George is seriously researching the origin of the banjo in the mountains. He would like to hear from any genealogist who has oral history of family members playing banjo prior to the Civil War.