Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors

Posted in Anthropology, Autobiography, Books, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2011-07-09 02:45Z by Steven

Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors

Arcade Publishing
April 2007
264 pages
Hardback ISBN-10: 1559708328; ISBN-13: 9781559708326
Paperback ISBN-10: 1-55970-876-X; ISBN-13: 978-1-55970-876-0

Lisa Alther

Best-selling author Lisa Alther chronicles her search for missing branches of her family tree in this dazzling, hilarious memoir.

Most of us grow up knowing who we are and where we come from. Lisa Alther’s mother hailed from New York, her father from Virginia, and every day they reenacted the Civil War at home. Then a babysitter with bad teeth told Lisa about the Melungeons: six-fingered child-snatchers who hid in caves. Forgetting about these creepy kidnappers until she had a daughter of her own, Lisa learned they were actually an isolated group of dark-skinned people—often with extra thumbs—living in East Tennessee. But who were they? Descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, or of shipwrecked Portuguese or Turkish sailors? Or the children of frontiersman, African slaves, and Native Americans? Lisa set out to discover who these mysterious Melungeons really were—and why her grandmother wouldn’t let her visit their Virginia relatives.

Part sidesplitting travelogue, part how (and how not) to climb your family tree, Kinfolks shimmers with wicked humor, showing just how wacky and wonderful our human family really is.

INTRODUCTION

Many People are born believing they know who they are. They’re Irish or Jewish or African-American or whatever. But some of us with culturally or ethnically mixed backgrounds don’t share that enviable luxury.

My mother was a New Yorker and my father a Virginian, and the Civil War was reenacted daily in our house and in my head. My Tennessee playmates used to insist that Yankees were rude, and my New York cousins insisted that southerners were stupid. I knew I was neither, but I had no idea what I might be instead. Hybrids have no communal templates to guide them in defining themselves.

In my life since, I’ve often lain awake at night trying to figure out how to fool the members of some clique into believing that I’m one of them. For a long time I lived with one foot in the PTA and the other in Provincetown. I also moved to several different cities, hoping to find a homeland. But each time I discovered that joining one group required denying my allegiances to other groups. In Boston, New York, and Vermont, I pretended not to hear the slurs against the South. And in London and Paris, I remained silent during anti-American rants.

But I have gradually become grateful for this chronic identity crisis because it has fostered my career. Everything I’ve ever written has been an attempt to work out who I am, not only culturally but also sexually, politically, and spiritually.

I rationalized my penchant for protective coloration by reviewing what I knew about my hapless ancestors, who were usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were Huguenots in France after Catholics declared open season on heretics; English in Ireland when the republicans began torching Anglo-Irish houses; Dutch in the Netherlands during the Spanish invasion; Scots in the Highlands during the Clearances; Native Americans in the path of Manifest Destiny; Union supporters in Confederate Virginia. I concluded that I’d inherited genes that condemned me to a lifetime of being a stranger in some very strange lands.

Then I met a cousin named Brent Kennedy, who maintained that some of our shared ancestors in the southern Appalachians were Melungeons. The earliest Melungeons were supposedly found living in what would become East Tennessee when the first European settlers arrived. They were olive-skinned and claimed to be Portuguese.

Conflicting origin stories for the Melungeons abound. They’re said to be descended from Indians who mated with early Spanish explorers, or from the survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, or from Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on the Carolina coast, or from African slaves who escaped into the mountains. Brent himself believed them to have Turkish ancestry. Before the Civil War, some were labeled “free people of color” and were prohibited from voting, attending white schools, marrying white people, or testifying against whites in court. After that war, some were subjected to Jim Crow laws. A friend who worked as a waitress told me she was ordered to wash down the booths with disinfectant after Melungeon customers departed. She also said that her mother warned her as a child never to look at Melungeons because they had the evil eye.

Growing up, I’d heard that Melungeons lived in caves and trees on cliffs outside our town and had six fingers on each hand. Brent’s showing me the scars from the removal of his extra thumbs launched me on a journey to discover who the historical Melungeons really were and whether my father’s family had, in fact, been closet Melungeons.

For nearly a decade I read history, visited sites, and interviewed people related to this quest. In school I’d learned that what is now the southeastern United States was an empty wilderness before the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. But my research taught me that it was instead filled with millions of Native Americans. It was also crawling with Spaniards, Portuguese, Frenchmen, Africans, Jews, Moors, Turks, Croatians, and British, among others—all roaming the Southeast for a variety of reasons.

In their wanderings these (mostly) men sired children with willing or unwilling Native Americans. Although an estimated 80 to 90 percent of Native Americans eventually succumbed to European diseases, some of their ethnically mixed children survived because of immunities inherited from their European and African fathers. They, in turn, had descendants, some of whom found ways to coexist with the encroaching European settlers.

I assembled plenty of clues about Melungeon origins, but DNA testing finally gave me some answers—and also explained why a sense of belonging has always eluded me. After a series of tests, I learned that I’d been walking around for six decades in a body constructed by DNA originating in Central Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. This in addition to the contributions from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Germany, and Native America, which I already knew about through conventional genealogical methods.

For weeks after receiving these results, I wandered around in a daze, humming “We Are the World.” A lifelong suspicion that I fit nowhere turned out not to be just idle paranoia. But once the reality of my panglobal identity sank in, I realized that I’d finally found my long-sought group. It consists of mongrels like myself who know that we belong nowhere—and everywhere. This book chronicles my six-decade evolution from bemused Appalachian misfit to equally bemused citizen of the world…

Tags: , ,