Melungeon DNA Project - Background

Background

Melungeon researchers determined participants' genealogical suitability for inclusion based on historical documentation. The study was started in 2005. Jack Goins, the coordinator, is the Hawkins County archivist. Of proven Melungeon ancestry himself, Goins has been researching the group for years and is the author of Melungeon And Other Pioneer Families and Melungeons; Footprints From the Past. Additional project administrators are Roberta Estes, Janet Crain, Penny Ferguson, and Kathy James. Project administrator Roberta Estes founded DNA-explained in 2004.

Participants must descend in a direct paternal line for Y chromosome testing, or in a direct female line for Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing.

Group 1: Core Melungeon The project organizers have designated the following as core families, based on historical documentation:

Bunch, Goins, Gibson, Minor, Collins, Williams, Goodman, Denham, Bowlin, Mullins, Moore, Shumake, Boltons, Perkins, Mornings, Menleys, Breedlove, Hopkins and Mallett, with name variations.

More names may be added as this is an ongoing project.

Group 2: Melungeon related. If the above names are in the participant's family but are not in a direct line to enable Y-DNA or mtDNA testing, participants will be placed in Group 2: Melungeon related.

Results of the Core Melungeon DNA Project are available here:

  • Y line Results, Family Tree DNA
  • mtDNA results, Family Tree DNA

To summarize, as published in "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population", Journal of Genetic Geneaology, April 2012, the few women tested were all Haplogroup H in the direct female line. Males have had Y-DNA haplogroups of sub-Saharan African, European, and some Native America origin (Q1a3a1) in the male line. Although only 1 person (The Freeman line) in the Melungeon DNA project showed as Native American on the Y side, the Collins, Goins, and Gibson of Newman's Ridge area have been identified as Native American by Professor and Archaeologist Robert K Thomas in "Cherokee communities of the South" research of 1978. He was quoted as saying "although there is fairly good evidence that Collins is a Saponi family name". The Guion Miller rolls contains over 30 pages dedicated to the families associated with the Melungeon DNA project. In the 1890s, Will Allen Dromgoole visited Newman's Ridge and stated they were Native American. The Hyde County Court Minutes of 1765 list a Cati Collins or Cate Collings as an Indian being held against her will by the Gibbs family.

The results of the Melungeon DNA project were as follows: R1b (38 people) 47.5%, e1b1a (27 people) 33.75%, R1a (6 people) 7.5%, I1 (3 people) 3.75%, A (2 people) 2.5%, eb1b (2 people) 2.5%, Q1a3a1 (1 person) 1.25%, I2 (1 person) 1.25%. There may have been slaves who were of Iberian/African ancestry, men who had African mothers and Portuguese fathers and were born in the slave ports in Africa. They were part of an Atlantic Creole generation, as described by the historian Ira Berlin. The Portuguese left the slave trade in the sixteenth century, and their descendants would have been less likely later in the colonial period.

Eight lines were found to be of African ancestry, and 12 were European. This multiracial ancestry is consistent with the late-20th century findings of Paul Heinegg and Dr. Virginia DeMarce, based on their historical research of ancestors of families of color listed in the 1790-1810 censuses for Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

There is no single mtDNA maternal line for all Melungeons. Each woman's mtDNA line comes from her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on, and each is different. The results by surnames tested are not shown on the public website for the project, but all the mtDNA of subjects tested was found to be European. Because the maternal ancestors were white, their children were born free under the laws of Virginia after 1662, even if the fathers may have been full or partially African.

Paul Heinegg, in Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware traced many "free people of colour" listed in the 1790-1810 censuses of North Carolina to descendants of marriages and unions between European women and African men in colonial Virginia. The women were free or indentured servants; the men were free, indentured or slaves, though sometimes freed slaves. By the early 19th century, their mixed-race descendants had joined the movement to the frontiers in Virginia and North Carolina (and later Kentucky and points west), in part because they found it an easier social environment than the Tidewater plantation area. In the frontier areas, the mixed-race people were sometimes identified as Portuguese, Arabs, or Indian. The term "Melungeon" was used by others from the nineteenth century to describe a group of multiracial people living in Hancock County, Tennessee, and nearby areas. It was at that time a pejorative name. To date Paul Heinng has not traced any of these families directly to those of Newman's Ridge, which leaves a mystery as to their origins. Roberta Estes states the first mention of Melungeons was in 1810, listing them as neither Negro nor Indian yet as "foreigners". This would match Vardy Collins of the Melungeon DNA study whose real name was Vardemon Navarrh Collins. His grandfather was a Portuguese "servant" of Thomas Woods named Henry Collins, which surname was found in Saponi Indian villages. Vardy Collins' DNA was R1a1a and his wife was nicknamed "Spanish Peggy". Spanish Peggy's DNA is haplogroup H. "Margaret "Peggy" Gibson, wife of Vardy Collins (R1a1) and a sister of Sheperd Gibson, is thought to be the daughter of Andrew Gibson (R1b1b2)".


By the mid to late nineteenth century, Melungeons were often viewed as white by their neighbors and by the law, since they frequently served in the military, voted, and carried arms, all citizen obligations (and rights) of white men. While endogamous until 1900, Melungeons of both genders increasingly married white spouses. Marriages between Africans and Native Americans, or any free people of color, with whites were prohibited by laws from the mid-eighteenth century.

Because of frequent warfare, as well as enslavement and epidemics caused by new infectious diseases, Native American populations suffered many losses during the period of colonization, especially of males. Some tribes adopted and assimilated captives to replace their lost members. European settlers took up with Native American women in the early colonial years, and trappers and traders frequently had their primary relationships with Native Americans in the frontier areas. By the nineteenth century, tribes close to the coasts had multiracial members, particularly showing European paternal ancestry, but who identified as tribal. To a lesser extent, African DNA was also introduced into the Indian populations through male ancestors.

The DNA test shows the continental origin (and commonly understood race) of the original ancestors of the direct male or female lines, but not which culture descendants identified with in succeeding years. In terms of overall group identity, an individual's ethnicity could be determined by relatives not in a direct line. For instance, an individual male could have had more than one generation of female ancestors who were Native American culturally, but his direct male line of descent may have been from an African man, or his multiracial son, child of a white women. By the twentieth century, most Melungeons identified as white, married white, and were so classified in census and other records. They shared the Baptist religion, English language, and southeastern culture with their neighbors in Tennessee and other states.

Read more about this topic:  Melungeon DNA Project

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