Carolyn Earle Billingsley's Web Site

Melungeons and Other Mixed Race Group

Bi- or tri-racial heritage is often overlooked by genealogists. But many of us unknowingly have a mixed heritage. This lecture sheds light on groups of people like Melungeons, who illustrate the complexity of researching based on an assumption of race.

Intended Audience:
All levels, but probably best suited for Intermediate or Advanced

Summary of presentation:

Melungeons are sometimes referred to as a tri-racial isolate group. That is—they’re generally considered to be a mix of white, black, and Native American people (to varying degrees), who usually lived in isolated places because of persecution due to their race—or rather, due to their apparent non-“whiteness.”

They were often forced to fight protracted legal battles to prove they were white (and thus, could attend certain schools, could marry freely, and could vote). In one famous court case in the 1800s, they won their case when they were “proven” to be descended from Carthaginians! But usually the people of this heritage claim a Portuguese ancestry.

There are many myths and conflicting opinions about the “mysterious” Melungeons and, in this lecture, different aspects of the controversy will be explored. Additionally, although the name “Melungeon” is often applied to any tri-racially-mixed people, there are many other groups of this kind, such as the Redbones and Brass Ankles, to name but two of many. The lecture will discuss the formation, history, and existence of this type of group, and will explore the consequences for the genealogical researcher.

In many of the cases where a genealogist hits a brick wall, there are aspects of race behind the mystery. Learning some awareness of the existence of mixed-race groups and of their characteristics will help genealogists enhance their research and more successfully knit together their family trees.

Moreover, by reading the types of books listed in the bibliography, particularly if it’s about a particular area of interest, the genealogical researcher will learn a great deal about the social history affecting their ancestors.