Melungeons and your Tennessee Ancestors

In 2005, a new book on the Melungeons was published: Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman. Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America. Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 2005.  This is a modest book of 186 pages with footnotes, bibliography, index, photos,  and many, many names. The principal evidence is oodles of names!

The Foreword, written by N. Brent Kennedy, editor of the book series and an accomplished Melungeon  writer, says:

“Hirschman contends that the so-called “mystery people” of the American Southeast, the Melungeons, are but the tip of the iceberg of a much broader population of Semitic origins that fled the various regions of the world to America and ultimately, to  the Appalachians. She provides evidence and documentation that supports her position…Whether one agrees or disagrees with Hirschman’s  premise, the reader will likely never look at Appalachia or our nation or even the Diaspora in quite the same way.”

Kennedy further comments that “the European powers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were settling the New World not with their own children, but instead with the children of those they considered ethnically and religiously undesirable.”

What a fascinating proposition, considering that the same world view infects the migration and settlement  interactions with the Irish in both Ireland and America, as well as the enslavement and marketing of black and Indian slaves.

Of late, there is a concentrated effort to provide a new look at the people who  settled voluntarily or by government efforts in the American South, especially in Tennessee and Kentucky. And to suggest that mountain people have been misunderstood and underestimated for a long time.

As genealogists, you and I can benefit from such  studies when they are based on actual documents and names. Because we always search for names and because we often question the naming patterns that appear in our own families, finding already researched and sourced names with residences and potential origins is like manna! We can never get enough.

Hirschman’s study, however, offers the genealogist another resource for matching family tradition and speculation. Think for a moment. Make a list of some of the questions you have already speculated over and about.

  1. Why do Southerners talk about “Lost Tribes?” Worth S. Ray called his North Carolina ancestors “Lost Tribes.”
  2. How do we account for what appears to be truly unique names borne by  our Southern ancestors–like Zarina. or Sasson?
  3. Why are given names based so often on the Bible by ancestors who appeared to be openly unchurched during most of their lives?
  4. Why do unusual family names appear in name dictionaries only as Portuguese in origin?

These are some of my questions. You will have questions of your own about your Tennessee and Southern ancestors. So I recommend that you add Hirschman’s book on the Melungeons to your Fall/Winter reading list. I got my personal copy through Your favorite Tennessee genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS And I invite you to share your thoughts with our readers on the use of naming patterns and spelling of names as you read this provocative study.


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