So. What are Melungeons? According to several sources they are:
--a group of people of uncertain ancestry in the southern Appalachians, especially of Eastern Tennessee (Merriam Webster dictionary online)
--one of numerous "tri-racial isolate groups" historically associated with the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, including portions of Eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky; thought to be of mixed European, Sub-Saharan African and Native American ancestry; often referred to by other settlers as of Portuguese or Native American origin (Wikipedia)
--any dark-skinned group of people of the Appalachians, in East Tennessee, of mixed Indian, white & black ancestry (Free Online Dictionary).
In actual fact, no one really knows the entire truth about Melungeons. They are an anthropological mystery. Wild theories abound--such as they were the descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese or Spanish sailors who took spouses who were Native American or runaway slaves. Or they were the English descendants of the lost colony of Roanoke, who took spouses who were Native American.
Recently, Y-DNA tests have shown that some--but not all-- families that are recognized as Melungeon actually stemmed from a male ancestor of Sub-Saharan African, rather than Native American origin. The theory is that a freed slave or free man of color married a white indentured servant in the very early colonial period in Virginia. This was not uncommon before the anti-miscegenation law of 1662.
Here is a link to a recent article on this subject
Another current theory is that those known as Melungeons in 1800s & 1900s claimed Portuguese ancestry in order to avoid any social stigma or discrimination that might occur if they were believed to have African or Native American origins.
While possible, I am not certain that this is entirely true. Here's why:
In an excellent paper published 2011 by Roberta Estes, Jack H Goin, Penny Ferguson and Janet Lewis, Crain, entitled "Melungeons, a Multi-Ethnic Population", the latest Y-DNA results for the various familial surnames known to be Melungeon are presented. Some of the surnames/familial groups have Y-DNA haplogroups which are Sub-Saharan African. Some have Y haplogroups which are definitely European in origin.
This is the case with the surname RIDDLE. It is considered to be a Melungeon surname, when occurring in southwestern Virginia, particularly Lee Co Virginia, or Eastern Tennessee, particularly Hawkins Co or Hancock Co Tennessee.
The suspected patriarch was MOSES RIDDLE b abt 1716 probably Hanover Co Virginia. On a 1755 tax list for Orange Co NC, MOSES RIDDLE & his wife MARY GIBSON were called "mulattoes" (bear in mind that at that time this term could mean a person of ANY mixed race, not just African & European); in the 1767 Pittsylvania Co Virginia Tax list, he is named as "MOSES RIDLE, Indian" living next to "WILLIAM RIDLE"--who is not listed as Indian.
The RIDDLE descendants who have been tested for Y-DNA so far have had the Y haplogroup R1b1b2a1b and R1b1b2--which are European in origin.
It is thought that this "William Ridle" of the 1767 Pittsylvania Co Virginia tax list
1) was the son of MOSES RIDDLE known as Indian or Mulatto,
2) was the Loyalist Capt WILLIAM THOMAS RIDDLE who was living in Montgomery Co Virginia at the time of the Revolution, and
3) was hung as a traitor in May of 1781.
I am uncertain what proof exists to connect the two men, beyond the fact that they and other Melungeon families such as the COLLINs, BUNCHs and GIBSONs were intermarried & migrated together through the same areas in Virginia, Kentucky & Tennessee.
If my ggg grandmother HAPPY who married MOSES WHITECOTTON was indeed descended from these RIDDLEs, then we would have an explanation for the copper-olive skin & straight black hair that led my great grandmother to believe she was Cherokee.
(side note--the Native American ancestry of Melungeons has never been considered to be Cherokee, since the earliest Melungeons had roots in eastern Virginia--not an area in which the Cherokee ever lived)
But here is where so many questions arise.
--if Capt WILLIAM RIDDLE the Loyalist was indeed that "William Ridle" on the 1767 Pittsylvania Co VA tax list, and the son of "Moses Ridle, Indian"--why wasn't WILLIAM listed as Indian as well?? One would think that this fact would have been mentioned in the court documents that exist for the family in Montgomery Co Virginia in 1780-1782. The court records name him as WILLIAM RIDDLE, his wife HAPPY (or HOPPE) and two of his sons (JOHN & JAMES) who were indentured or "bound out" at a very young age, after being orphaned. I am relatively certain this is the same family whose antecedents migrated to Russell / Lee Co Virginia, and from there to Cumberland Co Kentucky or Hawkins, Hancock, Bledsoe & Bradley Co Tennessee (see the book "Annals of Southwest Virginia 1769-1800" by Lewis Preston Summers for transcriptions of the Montgomery Co VA court records)
--If the RIDDLE's are Melungeon--part white, Native american & African--why doesn't that show up in my DNA test?
According to my autosomal DNA tests from 23andMe and Family Tree DNA, my ethnic admixture is 100% European. My brother's test shows virtually the same admixture.
Two descendants of LINDLEY WHITECOTTON, the eldest son of HAPPY & MOSES WHITECOTTON, also have been tested. Their ethnic admixture is also 100% European.
Neither my brother & I nor the two descendants of LINDLEY WHITECOTTON have any Native American or sub-Saharan African DNA. But all of us have southern European ancestry--Italian, Balkan & "non-specific"--and that can't be accounted for in my family's case (I am not certain what Portuguese ancestry would look like, but it's worth finding out!).
--Was HAPPY actually a RIDDLE, and was she actually a descendant of Capt WILLIAM RIDDLE & HARRIET "HAPPY" ROGERS? There are some inaccuracies on the 1906 application to the Eastern Cherokee Tribe made by my great grandmother SILOAMA WHITECOTTON BRUTON. Was she mistaken about HAPPY's maiden name? (my instincts say no--see my previous blog post).
My work has just begun on this family. There is, apparently, a lot of confusion & misinformation on the family of MOSES RIDDLE & MARY GIBSON, and the family of Capt WILLIAM RIDDLE & HARRIET "HAPPY" ROGERS. Not all information I have found online or in books is actually based on the records available.
I am hoping to eventually be able to separate fact from fiction.
Have a great day!
© Betty Tartas 2013