Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lumbees, Melungeons, and the Mystery of the 'White Indians'

The History Channel recently aired one of their new 2-hour documentaries that speculated who all comprised the precursors of Columbus. Everything from Vikings and Chinese to Polynesians and Israelites are examined for evidence to bolster the various hypotheses proffered by a wide range of researchers. One group of stories in particular caught my eye. In a confluence of recurring themes, I have been stumbling upon frequent references lately to the so-called "White Indians" of North America.

In the History Channel documentary, the Judaic origins of the Central Band of Cherokees, an officially unrecognized group of Native Americans who are possessed of strikingly European features, are examined both historically and scientifically. The Central Band are located in Tennessee and seem to have been for some time. Among their own traditions, this tribe believes they are partially (if not wholly) descended from ancient Israelites who practiced Judaism. The Central Band points to many similarities in their culture to that of those near-eastern people.

So confident are the tribe members that they were willing to undergo DNA testing. Unfortunately, the results concluded there was less than 3% of the genetic markers common to those peoples found in the region of present-day Israel. The tests also excluded a significant portion of Native American DNA, which means they aren't very much related to the Cherokee either. So who are they?

Despite a heavy identity crisis, it is likely that the Central Band of Cherokees are, as are many Americans, a mélange of races. Let us discuss the mysterious and controversial origins of both the Melungeons and the Lumbees - who may, in fact, be one in the same. And also, let us take a glance at Welsh Prince Madoc and the legend of the White Indians.


When, in the 18th Century, European explorers and settlers pushed further into the wilds along the Lumber River of North Carolina, they were surprised to encounter a band of English-speaking natives who dressed more like white frontiersman than local Native Americans. While many were of dark complexion, a large number were fairer and some even had blond hair and blue eyes. A few could read, claiming "white gods" had taught their ancestors how to "talk in books". They were also familiar with whiskey and many of the drinking customs common to the English.

These "Lumbees," as they came to be known, are thought by some to be descended from Sir Walter Raleigh's failed colony of Roanoke, which disappeared without a trace in 1589. It is thought they either joined up with the friendly Hatteras tribe or were overtaken by a marauding or cannibalistic tribe like the Croatans. The confusion comes from the fact that the only hint of where the colonists might have gone to came from a sign posted in the ransacked village. Upon the placard was one word: Croatan. This could have referred either to the dangerous tribe of warlike Indians or to a nearby island of the same name, upon which dwelled the friendly Hatteras people.

The Lumbees themselves believe they are descended from the intermingling of Roanoke survivors and local tribes. Perhaps in proof, it should be noted that of the 95 surnames found among the colonists, nearly half are found among the Lumbees. Furthermore, the Hatteras people began migrating from the islands offshore to the mainland in 1650, settling in the Lumber River Valley.


High in the misty hills of the southern Appalachian Mountains, along the border between Tennessee and Virginia there can be found a group known as the Melungeons. These people have a noticeable mélange (from the French, meaning "mix") of features: reddish-brown skin, straight and fair hair, thin lips, and narrow faces. Standing out from both the native Americans and the Europeans who people the region, the Melungeons are thought to be a mix of different ethnicities. Some feel they represent the descendents of shipwrecked Spanish or Portuguese explorers who then interbred among natives and perhaps even slaves. Wilder theories claim them to be descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. If you ask them, however, you will likely hear a similar story: the Melungeons are descended from the survivors of Roanoke colony.


While those of European origin advanced on the new American frontier, time and again tales of "White Indians" would arise. So compelling were the tales that no less than Andrew Jackson himself requested that Lewis and Clark keep an eye out for any tribes that seemed to match this description.

Their reality would, it seem, validate legends of other Europeans having arrived on the shores of North America before Columbus. Such a hypothesis would later be realized as truth, but at the time of Jackson, these may have been less than whispers of legends.

Such a legend concerned the mystery of Welsh-speaking Indians and a legendary Prince Madoc.

According to legend, Prince Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd of Wales led a group of settlers to North America in 1170, perhaps to flee a bloody civil war. Weighing anchor in Mobile Bay, Alabama, Madoc's party of 120 trudged through the unknown lands that now comprise the southeastern United States. Some of these accounts are written in Humphrey Lhoyd's 1584 text Historie of Cambria, wherein he describes Madoc's multiple journey's to the New World. However, recent oceanographic modeling indicates such a journey would have taken Madoc in excess of 1.5 years - each way.

But does this discount that he and his party indeed made the journey?

In 1666, Morgan Jones, chaplain to the governor of Virginia, fled from a fearsome tribe of "British-speaking" Indians while exploring the Carolinas. Seemingly in hot water, Jones (of Welsh descent) was spared the tribe's wrath when it was realized they shared a common tongue. Over the years, Welsh-speaking tribes were reported throughout the southern central and southern colonies. Famed frontiersman Daniel Boone even claimed to have come across a tribe of blue-eyed Indians who seemed to be speaking Welsh, though he admitted to being no expert on the language.

And what are we to make of the long-standing Mesoamerican and South American legends of fair-skinned, bearded gods who visited the Aztec and such prior to Spanish arrival in those regions? These people told the Spanish that these predecessors came from "a little island in the north".

There are also mysterious physical traces of cultures that seem quite unlike Native Americans: mysterious stone chambers resembling ancient Irish temples found in Connecticut, the remains of what seems to be a castle in Tennessee and the list just continues...

While many of these legends lack verisimilitude, they seem plausible - especially as archaeology continually rewrites what we know about history. It's likely that many of these "White Indians" and such are of a more recent mixture (future DNA testing will tell us more) and that these various peoples are only misremembering, mixing facts, or simply wishing to be somehow unique. But, until we know more, we cannot discount that they may, in fact, be descended from Welsh princes, Viking explorers, or lost English colonists.


Validation Study for Autosomal DNA Ancestry Database Toward a Genetic Profile of Melungeons in Tennessee
[Paper scheduled for publication in Appalachian Journal, Fall 2010]
Donald N. Yates
DNA Consultants
ABSTRACT: The only previous attempt to validate the probabilistic prediction of ethnicity by an autosomal DNA database found a margin of error as large as 20% in identifying whether random samples were to be classified as "White" or "African American."

The authors took a more comprehensive approach based on case studies within a single mixed population. Using a convenience sample of 40 self-identifying Melungeons (a tri-racial isolate population in the southern Appalachian Mountains), the authors analyzed and compared their world database and ENFSI results. Several test subjects were part of an extended family, so it was possible to judge the consistency of results both latitudinally and longitudinally.

Among the findings: "One is left with a pattern of predominantly northeastern Scottish ancestry supplemented with Mediterranean elements and only minor contributions from adjacent northwestern European populations (England/Wales, Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark)."

In conclusion: "Although based on a limited sample, our results suggest that the Melungeons were not primarily drawn from ancestries in northwestern Europe, but rather represent an amalgam of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, North African, Sub-Saharan African and Native American ethnicities. It is possible that some founders carried South Asian and/or Gypsy/Roma ancestry, as well."

Discussed also are some of the little-understood aspects of population structure convergence -- for instance, that of Finns and individuals of predominantly northwestern European ancestry admixed with Native American.

[ch] The preceding, if correct, would diminish the likelihood of Prince Madoc and/or Roanoke claims, while bolstering those (perhaps) of the "Lost Tribes of Israel" or such, but I think we need more information from the DNA analysis. How far back to these various genetic strains go? The Appalachia region is well-known as the landing ground for many Scottish and Irish immigrants, so the presence of that DNA isn't at all surprising for people having lived in the region for so long. The question then becomes where these other genes come in, or more importantly, WHEN.


Cullan Hudson said...

As an sidenote, esp. concerning the Welsh issue. I find it interesting that Roanoke, which is a name of sketch origins, can be translated (if Anglicized) as having "seal" as the first part of the name in Irish Gaelic. Welsh is a Gaelic language. One wonders. Can't find what the 'oke' part of the name could mean. Perhaps someone knows better than I. Although, I think the "official" def. is from the Algonquin - something to do with shells as money. Looking for these similarities is a lot like those who say they find connections between the words of these so called "Welsh Indians" and the languages of the British Isles. It's easy to find connections if you want to.

croatanwoman said...
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Andrew Herbst said...
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red_delaine said...

I'm interested in the melungeons and lumber Indians of north Carolina