Redbones and Melungeons

Published 17 Feb 2017

The Redbones is the collective term for the group of people who have a multitude of mixed ancestry, living in the south eastern areas of the United States. One of the famous groups of these Redbones is the ones called Melungeons, or the people who are living mostly in the west of Virginia, as well as the eastern part of Tennessee. There are other groups of the same characteristics, including the Brass Ankles, Turks of Southern Carolina, Kentucky’s Brown People, Ohio’s Camel Indians, and the West Virginia’s Guineas. These Redbones however, were known to originate from South Carolina, and were able to acquire fame as an identity in the Southwest of Louisiana.

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Both the Melungeons and Louisiana’s Redbones’ origins were full of controversy because of several factors. These groups of people usually have copper colored skin, and both has dark eyes and hair. However, these groups were found to be fluent with the English language, as well as having English names. Their first encounter with the European settlers has really surprised the latter, since they look like natives yet they are speaking in their language. These people were discovered in the Carolinas as well as Virginia (Sultzman 2000).

There are speculations that the Melungeons are allegedly being tri-racial. But according to the Melungeons themselves, they are called Portygee, or Portuguese. According to some Melungeon researchers, these people were the mixture of different cultures, especially of the tribes from the Eastern Indian settlements. When these Indian people were devastated by the diseases being caused by the European settlers, they were forced to move westwards. Those who moved were able to find a suitable leaving area in a matter of days.

These people are characterized as having three different races, and this characterization is because of the 2 different factors. One of this is that the Melungeons married both the people from Europe and the Africans in the later times ( 2002). This has lead to African Americans possessing certain North American branches as indicated in their family trees. There are also a lot of white-skinned people from the south who have various claims over their ancestors, like being Cherokee, or a black Irish or a black Dutch. These terms were usually the ones to refer about mixed cultures. These euphemisms greatly show how these native ancestries have truly an odd ancestry.

Another factor to consider was the hardening or strengthening of the racial attitudes that is present in the south during the 17th century, around 1830’s because of the abolitionist movement’s rise to fame. Many states in the United States has agreed to screen their people and pass on racial purity laws. It would depend on whether or not the person could get the full rights as a citizen. The issue then became a concern for the Indians and other “different” groups such as these Melungeons and Redbones who don’t seem to fit in any specific group. Because of this, they were soon branded as the “free people of color,” much like as free slaves even if they are not. They were out in the “colored” classification just like the “black” Africans (Osiyo 2000). There are still some times when these Indians are regarded as blacks by other people.

Indians being confused with Africans did not only happen in the South. It also happened in New England. There were even instances that the North eastern Indians were thought to be extinct even though they did not disappear because of being mistaken to another tribe or group of people.

Defining Melungeons

Melungeons, just like the red bones, have no definite ethnic linguistic, cultural, and geographic origin, as there is still a wide disagreement among the secondary sources regarding this concern. It is not determined whether the Melungeons should be classified as a separate race or that they should be considered only as a mixture of various races. It is safer to say that these people are actually loose groups of families who have diverse roots who have migrated from one place to another, eventually marrying and intermarrying with one another ( 2002).

Despite being related to having a racially mixed ancestry, these Melungeons doesn’t have any single specific racial characteristics that would define who they are. There are those who have Caucasian appearances and features, but posses dark hair and eyes, as well as a swarthy complexion, making them fall into the Melungeon category. This includes being a “middle eastern,” a Native American, or even a light colored black African American (Lister 1999). The borders that people placed in order to define these people through their characteristics is often too vague and overlapping making it hard to do so.

One important concern when it comes to these Melungeons is their real origin. There are some people who believe that these Melungeons were the indigenous groups of people coming from Appalachia. However, there were evidences like tax, court, census and other records pointing out that these Melungeons also have the same migration paths just like the English and German neighbors at the time.
Talking about or telling about someone being a Melungeon is often considered as an insult, because of labeling someone because of their appearance or reputation as a group of people who have several indefinite racial ancestries. It is not clear whether they are black or white. At around 1960’s, the term Melungeon began to loose the negative connotation being associated with it, thus it becomes an actual designation of ethnicity for these people.

People coming from mixed Mediterranean and Indian origins opted to form or contribute to other mixed groups of people. These include the Brass Ankles, the Red Bones, and the South Carolina’s Turks, claiming to have an ancestry as far as the Mediterranean regions. These other mixed groups of people have joined the growing number of Melungeons, incorporating other part Mediterranean people in areas like the eastern Virginia and its North Carolina border.

There are several groups of Indian tribes which are definite contributors to the Melungeons. These include the Siouans from Virginia and North Carolina, the Algonquians hailing from the coasts of these states. Other lesser tribes were the Appalachian tribes, the people from the Southern Iroquoian tribes, and the Yuchi tribes (Lister 1999). The Indian tribes coming from the coastal regions as well as those from piedmont have become mixed groups because of the original mixed groups being added to those who look up and still identify themselves as Indians.

Despite the difference in color, feature, and even physical appearance, these people should not be treated any differently. They are people just like any of us, and all of us deserve to be treated as such. Their ethnicity contributes to a better, much diverse society for us to live in.


Lister, Richard. World: Americas lost people of appalachia. (accessed November 30, 2007.)
Osiyo. The melungeons.
Sultzman, Lee. Redbones and melungeons.

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