A Southern novelist searches for her hidden Melungeon ancestors
Growing up in a Tennessee family in the 1940s and ’50s, Lisa Alther thought she knew who she was and where she came from, genealogically speaking: Britain. Alther certainly had no idea she could number Melungeons among her ancestors—she was rare enough at the time in having heard of them at all, although not in a way likely to convince her Melungeons were even human. One day, after she’d been caught hanging her little brother’s teddy bear by a noose from the upstairs bannister, a grizzled, brown-toothed babysitter told her what happens to wicked little girls: the Melungeons, sixfingered, dark-skinned childsnatchers, carry them off to their forest caves.
That nasty bit of folklore is redolent of the South’s ancient racial divides, but it’s scarcely more lurid than some of the other legends about one of America’s more mysterious population pockets. A “tri-racial isolate” (in the poetic terminology of social scientists) of mixed European,
African and Native American ancestry, Melungeons are an Appalachian population distinguished by black, wavy hair, skin copper-coloured or darker, a startlingly frequent incidence of blue eyes, and a high rate of polydactyly (extra digits).
Digits aside, for looks think Elvis Presleymany proud Melungeons do. Small wonder, since their poverty and geographical isolation meant few Melungeons ever rose to national prominence. Beyond Elvis, perhaps the most famous is Mahala Mullins, a 19thcentury moonshiner whose weight was calculated as anywhere between 200 and 325 kg. Living on a mountaintop only accessible by foot, Mullins was essentially arrest-proof; one frustrated revenuer described her as “catchable, but not fetchable.”
Less visibly, and far more controversially, some Melungeons also claim they are marked by high rates of Mediterranean genetic dis-
eases like thalassemia, that are relatively unknown among the surrounding white population. That’s more grist for the controversy over their origins. As Alther, now a 62-yearold novelist, notes in her fascinating memoir Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree, the Melungeons were essentially raceless in a society where race ruled everything. They had every reason to obscure non-white parts of their heritage— at times that meant the difference between slavery and freedom—or concoct tales of Turkish ancestry. “If protecting their descendents from persecution was my ancestors’ reason for silence and subterfuge,” she writes after recalling the segregated water fountains of her childhood, “then I’m grateful.”
Even the origin of their name sparks dis-
putes. Most scholars derive it from the French word mélange, meaning mixture. Others, like Alther’s third cousin Brent Kennedy, who had his sixth fingers removed in childhood, opt for the Turkish explanation (melun can means cursed soul in Turkish) or the English dialect word malengine, meaning evildoer—a curse from their neighbours.
When Alther has her DNA analyzed, she’s astonished at the results: a full 42 per cent of her derives from eastern Mediterranean ancestors, and the 17 per cent admixture of Northern European genes is almost matched by the 13 per cent Native American contribution. Maybe the Turkish story is true, she ^ thinks; more importantly, the old racial divg ides were nonsense then and now. “All the ^ recent immigration that has supposedly < changed America? It’s just a layer on what’s £ been a melting pot from the start.” M m
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.