Christianity has been the bedrock to the foundation of life in the Appalachian Mountains for centuries. One needs only to visit the hollers and towns of the region to find evidence of this, as there are seemingly as many churches as houses in many places.
Yet, in typical fashion, the Appalachian Mountains may be keeping one giant secret: The first European settlers in the mountains of Appalachia may very well have been Muslim.
At the source of this intriguing enigma is a mysterious race of mountain people, known simply as “The Melungeons.”
The story of these bronze-colored people of eastern Tennessee and western Virginia can first be traced to 1690, when French traders, who were pressing through the virgin forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains, came across a village they would describe by saying, “It had to be seen to be believed.”
Tennessee History gives the following account of this village: “It was a town of log cabins grouped together with a population of people described as ‘possessing European beards, hair color, eyes and spoke a broken form of Elizabethan English.’ Their olive complexion and past experience with Mediterranean traders led the seasoned French explorers to conclude they had found a colony of ‘Moors’ (North African Muslims) in the New World of North America. Because the geography of their find was unclear, the stories were dismissed by scholars and the reports discounted as unbelievable.”
In the years ahead, Indian guides would tell of a “strange village of hairy people who, three times a day, would kneel with their faces eastward and pray at the ringing of a bell,” but these stories were dismissed by Anglican settlers who believed them to be nothing more than tall Indian tales.
Nearly a century later, however, John Sevier, would stumble upon a similar settlement in upper East Tennessee. After entering their village, Sevier discovered that the people spoke a broken form of English and possessed “European features.”
Even more interesting to Sevier was the fact that the dark-skinned inhabitants identified themselves with Anglo surnames like Goins, Mullins, and Collins.
On both occasions, the people of the village refused to discuss their ancestry. Further complicating any history was the fact that “the Melungeons” did not possess a written language.
The native tribes around them, often very territorial, seemed to view the people as an odd curiosity and enjoyed a peace with the tribe of dark-skinned people with white men’s features – even trading with them.
“As immigrants began their settlement of Southern Appalachia, the Melungeons became a source of mystery to all who would encounter them. Some people suggested they could be descendants from the Lost Colony of Roanoke, one of the lost tribes of Israel, or descended from one of the various legendary shipwrecked crews that reportedly traveled through the Southern Appalachian region.”
Sadly, in the years ahead, the mysterious race of humans would soon find themselves the subject of scorn and reproach by encroaching white settlers.
Early census records listed them as “free persons of color” and, by the 19th century, this was legal reason for the Melungeons to be barred from owning land, voting, and access to public education. Many of them protested, claiming they were Europeans and, in one particular episode, retrieved their right to vote at the point of a gun.
The harassment pushed the Melungeons further into isolation, the vast majority of which retreated into the deep recesses of mountains along the Virginia–Tennessee border.
“Like most mountain people, they were self-sufficient and possessed remarkable skills. They were expert miners and gifted silversmiths. Because of their race classification, gainful employment was rare and they often had to stay alive by moonshining and other various ‘underground activities.’ The ‘War Between the States’ created even more animosity between them and settlers in Southern Appalachia. ‘Melungeon marauders’ were often recorded as raiding villages and troops for food and supplies,” writes Tennessee History.
By the turn of the century, much of society would come to view the mysterious race of people who prayed toward the east as being less than human and throughout the 1900s, they would serve as the boogie man for children of the Appalachias.
In October 1889, Swan Burnett authored an article in American Anthropologist regarding the Melungeons, saying this about them:
“Legends of the Melungeons I first heard at my father’s knee as a child in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, and the name had such a ponderous and inhuman sound as to associate them in my mind with the giants and ogres of the wonder tales I listened to in the winter evenings before the crackling logs in the wide-mouth fireplace. And when I chanced to waken in the night and the fire had died down on the hearth, and the wind swept with a demoniac shriek and terrifying roar around and through the house, rattling the windows and the loose clapboards on the roof, I shrank under the bedclothes trembling with a fear that was almost an expectation that one of these huge creatures would come down the chimney with a rush, seize me with his dragon-like arms, and carry me off to his cave in the mountains, there to devour me piecemeal… In the course of time, however, I came to learn that these creatures with the awe-inspiring name were people somewhat like ourselves, but with a difference.”
So who exactly are these people? The answer to this question depends entirely upon whom one asks.
The Black Dutch Theory:
Some theories frequently suggest that the Melungeon people are the descendants of the “Black Dutch”, and the Powhatan Indian group. The Powhatan is an Algonquian-speaking tribe who inhabited eastern Virginia when the English first arrived.
Some writers recounted folk tales of shipwrecked sailors, lost colonists, hoards of silver, and ancient peoples such as the Carthaginians or Phoenicians. With each writer, new elements were added to the mythology surrounding this group, and more surnames were added to the list of possible Melungeon ancestors. The journalist, Will Allen Dromgoole, wrote several articles on the Melungeons in the 1890s.
Some In the late 20th century, researchers suggested that the Melungeons’ ethnic identity may include ancestors who were Turks and Sephardi (Iberian) Jews. The writers David Beers Quinn and Ivor Noel Hume theorize that the Melungeons are descended from Sephardi Jews who fled the Inquisition and came as sailors to North America, and that Francis Drake did not repatriate all the Turks he saved from the sack of Cartagena, but some came to the colonies.
Quinn states that “Whether any of them got ashore on the Outer Banks and were deserted there when Drake sailed away we cannot say…” but Janet Crain writes that there is no written proof of this theory.
Melungeon DNA Project:
In 2005, Family Tree DNA launched the Melungeon DNA Project in hopes of solving this mystery once and for all.
Retrieving DNA samples from professed descendants of the mysterious Appalachian tribe, mostly those residing in Hancock County, Tennessee, and nearby areas of Kentucky, the study found that female ancestors were shown to have had European DNA, while the male ancestors were shown to have had DNA from both African and European haplogroups.
Though science has been helpful in identifying the genetic makeup of the mysterious mountain people, it has not answered a series of pressing questions:
Chiefly, were the first European Settlers in Appalachia Muslim? And secondly, why on earth were they there in the first place?
Indeed, both Appalachia and her first European-settlers are keeping a tight lid on this great mystery.
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