There exists in the state of Tennessee, and in the neighboring states of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, a people who were, and are in modern times, very different racially from the recognized settlers of the region. They were first noted in 1654, by English explorers who believed they were, indeed, a separate race. They were dark, but not black. They may have intermarried with Native Americans including the Cherokee, Creek, and Powhatans. They did not speak in any of the tribal languages but could speak in a broken form of English. One early European said he was told they were “Portyghee.” Oddly, they practiced a form of Christianity.
In the 1750s, large amounts of English and Scotch-Irish settlers encountered these strange people and claimed they spoke Elizabethan English, although the people denied being English. The neighboring tribes that could speak English did not understand their language. They are called ‘Melungeon’ and they are considered tri-racial.
While rarely the subject of the media, it is believed that there are many mixed ethnic groups in the United States. The Nanticokes and Moors of Delaware, the Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey, the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, and the We-Sorts of Maryland are just a few. Such groups are often described as having mysterious origins, a unique culture, and a broad kinship. Many have a handful of surnames in common. Unfortunately, their neighbors often stigmatize them.
In the nineteenth century, Melungeons were arrested (and later acquitted) for voting—as only white people could vote. They had laws passed against them for being non-white. Virginia had a law that even 1% of non-white blood disqualified one from white status.
Who Are They and Where Did They Come From?
It is generally believed that the French named them “Melungeon” from their word malange meaning mixture. Another theory is that their name comes from the Italian “melon gena” meaning eggplant that refers to people with dark skin. A third explanation is the word melungo an Afro-Portuguese term meaning shipmate. Early settlers described them as white people with long hair and beards. Modern DNA testing does indicate a high probability of Portuguese and Spanish—along with Moorish—heritage. In 1990 an analysis of blood samples indicated they might have come from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and North Africa. Despite DNA testing and their own belief in being Portuguese, their common surnames seem to be mostly English: Collins, Gibson, Mullins, Bowlin, and Dedham.
The location of their origin presents a larger question. Most certainly they are European. There is evidence that long before Columbus, there was European exploration in the form of fishing ventures, accidental crossings, etc. It is also known that for at least 300–400 years, Norse settlers were in America. In 1460 two Genoese brothers, Antonio and Bartolomeo de Noli sailed to Cape Verde. It was not an exceptional feat. Atlantic currents circled south, then north, carrying ships by purpose or storm to lands Columbus would later be credited with discovering. One theory of Melungeon origin is that Spanish explorers were in the region earlier than thought and that they had stayed and intermarried. In 1528, we know, Cabeza de Vaca reached Tampa Bay. In 1540 Hernando de Soto passed through much of the American Southeast and might have left behind some men.
Even earlier, Columbus, in 1502, recorded seeing a galley ship larger than his own. The ship carried forty men and women who wore “mantelets,” sleeveless shirts with an unusual design. Ferdinand, the son of Columbus who accompanied his father on the fourth voyage, recorded that the people he encountered had metal technology, implements, and many tools. It wasn’t until the 1890s that devices, such as forges and furnaces, were realized to have existed in America before the Europeans. Archaeologists from Peabody Museum had refused to identify them as such. Such artifacts, after all, might imply prior European contact, when NEBC (No Europeans Before Columbus) was the dogma. To suggest earlier visitors was a career killer. When author Arlington Mallery (The Rediscovery of Lost America) did ultimately identify such advanced metalworking technology in America, Viking crossings evidence was beginning to challenge the old party line. So when forges and furnaces were uncovered in Tennessee, he concluded that Vikings must have migrated to that state.
Others believe the lost colony of Roanoke Island might be the source of white settlers who intermarried with Native Americans. The colony was doomed from the start. In 1587 ship captain John White sailed back to England to get supplies but didn’t make it back for three years. He had left his three-year-old granddaughter Virginia Dare in the colony. He had told the colonists to leave a code word to the place where they were going if they were forced to leave. They left, or starved, or were killed, but they were never found.
The Knights Templar Connection
One interesting theory is that the Melungeons were actually descendants of Templar Knights. Indeed, their religious customs resembled that of Roman Catholics. The men wore long beards. Between 1932 and 1967, Hebrew Bar Kokhba coins were uncovered in three separate Melungeon settlement areas. Such coins were minted after the third Jewish-Roman war in honor of the Jewish leader Simon Bar Kokhba. Since the war was fought from AD 132–135 some conclude that refugees from those wars came to America at this early date. Alternatively, the coins could have been souvenirs of the Crusades in the Holy Lands, brought back by the former knights.
The Order of the Knights Templar became the most powerful entity in Europe in the thirteenth century, but their power wouldn’t survive long into the next century. After losing control over the Holy Lands, they ultimately lost the favor of their own people, even as their power and wealth incurred the wrath of the French king who joined with the Pope to finish them off.
On Friday the thirteenth of October 1307, in a thinly veiled attempt to take possession of the Templar’s wealth, Philip ordered the arrest of the knights. From the Paris Temple, it is believed, gold was taken by wagon train to La Rochelle where it was placed on ships and transported to Scotland. In England many knights disbanded and went into hiding. In the lands that became Spain and Portugal, Templar ships were employed in the slave trade and in piracy. The Templar fleet at the time their order was disbanded was, it is surmised, the greatest in the world. They were experienced navigators of the Atlantic. It is believed that on April 11, 1307, a caravel belonging to the Templars sailed down the Seine from Paris and set sail for the Canary Islands.
One of the greatest Templar bases was, until 1310, at Tomar. When the Portuguese Templar order was dissolved, Tomar was a base for explorations, which then expanded. Nearby is Santa Maria de Olival, a Templar church considered the mother church for all the colonies of Portugal to come.
The story of Portugal’s excursions across the Atlantic seems to begin with Henry the Navigator, but it may have started much earlier. After the arrests of the Templars in Paris, Pope Clement V ordered the King of Portugal to take action against the Templars in his realm. King Dinis took his time responding and ordered the archbishop of Lisbon to investigate. It is possible his actions were a cover, under which Templar ships could have gotten the jump on their enemies and taken to the Atlantic.
The Genoese were already paving the way. In 1291 the Vivaldi brothers of that city sailed into the Atlantic and explored the African coast. It is inferred by some that they decided to sail west to discover a route to India. The overland route through the East was too dangerous, as the last bastion of Christian power, the fortress at Acre, fell to the Saracens that year. In 1312 another Genoese, Lancelotto Malocello, reached Lanzarote. The expedition is described as Italo-Portuguese. The journey is well recorded, and he built a fort there from which he commanded the island for twenty years. It was King Dinis who invited a Genoese noble to bring twenty Genoese sea captains to Lisbon. One hundred and fifty years later, that community still thrived and that was the reason Columbus came to Lisbon.
Atlantic islands would become stepping-stones for the ocean crossing. Columbus would use Madeira as a base, and much later, Verranzano would stock up on supplies there.
Former Templar Knights, especially the Portuguese, would have experience exploring the Atlantic. They would be aware that the Atlantic currents would then aid in the westerly crossing of the ocean. King Dinis was an early Renaissance man who established a university in Lisbon. He was a lover of literature, writing and poetry, and a prime mover for industry who established commercial treaties with other nations. He promoted agriculture as a way of resettling his country after pushing out the Moors. For this he was affectionately dubbed the “Farmer.”
Just how early Portuguese ships were exploring the Atlantic is unknown, but there may have been a reason they didn’t listen to Columbus about a Western continent. They already knew it was there. It was probable they had sailed to America on the southern currents and returned on the northern currents. Historians claim that the story of Cartier’s trip to the maritime provinces of Canada has a sailor nicknamed Lavrador (Labrador) leaving his name on that province. Since few, if any, sailors got to name a vast section of land, it is just as likely King Dinis was given the honor.
From 1307 when the Templars were arrested, the Iberian Templars were in a sort of limbo. They would have been concerned that the church and country of France might make further moves against them. King Dinis appeared to offer them protection, and when Pope Clement stepped up his orders to suppress the order in Portugal and to seize all their assets, Dinis tried to reason with Rome. Despite such efforts by the king, individual knights may have feared what was in store. It would have been in the years immediately after 1307 that this condition of being in limbo and under threat of arrest existed. This would be the time Templar Knights—Portuguese and others—would have sailed to America.
Dinis reported to the Pope that the order no longer existed. He claimed all the lands in Portugal once owned by the Templars had been given back to the rightful owners, namely king and country. He ordered the Templars to remove themselves from Tomar. After an extended vacation in the Algarve, the king created another order, the Knights of Christ and brought back the “disbanded” order and invited them to re-take their place at Tomar. He had simply reconstituted the Templars in Portugal in 1317 as the Knights of Christ. News would have traveled slowly in the fourteenth century. Templars who sailed to the Americas might have never learned it was safe to come home.
While many of the diverse groups of population are often marginalized by society, several writers claim the Melungeons rose above such discrimination and achieved success both as individuals and as communities. The Melungeons: Resurrection of a Proud People by Brent and Robyn Kennedy is one. Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend by Patrick Spurlock is another. A third, Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America by Elizabeth Hirschman even makes the claim that thanks to DNA testing, genealogies, and historical records, she believes Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, and Jefferson Davis should be included in these ranks.