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Saturday, July 3, 1999 Published at 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK

World: Americas

Lost people of Appalachia

Melungeons lived for generations in isolated ramshackle cabins

By BBC Correspondent Richard Lister in Appalachia

In the heart of Appalachia in the southern United States, an isolated, dark skinned people known as the Melungeons, are challenging the accepted version of modern America's earliest history.

Richard Lister on the trail of a lost people
For centuries, they remained almost invisible to the American mainstream. They live hidden away on inaccessible mountain ridges, and a racially segregated society wrote them off as a mixture of white, black and American Indian.

Now, evidence is emerging which suggests that the Melungeons may have been among America's very first settlers, arriving in Appalachia long before the Northern Europeans.

Off the beaten track

I went to Newman's ridge in Tennessee, on the trail of the Melungeons, but first I had to find the town of Sneedville.

[ image: Sneedville: A one-street town]
Sneedville: A one-street town
An enterprising television station in Tennessee once did a piece on Sneedville called "You Can't Get There from Here".

It is so far off the beaten track, that after several hours bouncing along narrow roads trying to avoid the tortoises which were enjoying the rain on the tarmac, I began to think that probably you could not get to Sneedville. After all, not many people do.

It is a town with a main street, two traffic lights and a single payphone. It has an eight-room motel over a furniture storeroom and a Wild West jail that looked to have been lifted straight from the 19th century frontier.

Rewriting history

But what makes Sneedville more interesting than much of small town America is its people.

Walking around the town, you are struck by how many of them would not look out of place on the Turkish coast with their dark olive skin and straight black hair.

[ image: Kennedy: Believes Turkish ancestors settled Appalachia]
Kennedy: Believes Turkish ancestors settled Appalachia
The conventional wisdom, suggests that Appalachia was settled predominantly by English, Scots and Irish people. But to many, like Dr Brent Kennedy, that did not appear to be the whole story.

I met him at his office in Wise College Virginia, where he is vice chancellor.

He is a striking looking man with his dark hair, Mediterranean complexion and blue eyes.

On the back of his head there is a small bump which is common among Melungeon people, and his hands bear small white scars where surgeons removed the two extra fingers he was born with.

Polydactyly is another Melungeon trait and one found in parts of the Middle East.

First settlers?

[ image: Melungeons have similarities to Mediterranean peoples]
Melungeons have similarities to Mediterranean peoples
When he began to research his ancestry, Dr Kennedy found evidence that first people to arrive in Appalachia, were not northern Europeans, but may have been Ottoman Turks.

Portuguese settlers brought Turkish servants with them in the 16th Century.

Sir Francis Drake unloaded hundreds of other Turks after he liberated them from the Spanish in 1587. Blood typing has confirmed close similarities between present day Melungeons and people of the Mediterranean region.

What has now become known as the Kennedy theory is that these people pushed inland and settled down with American Indian women, to begin life as farmers.

With his team of researchers, Dr Kennedy has found hundreds of words in local Indian dialects that have almost the same meaning in Turkish or Arabic.

The Cherokee word for mother for example, is Ana Ta. In Turkish, the word for mother is also Ana-Ta.

Dr Kennedy says the word Melungeon is derived from the Arabic "Melun-Jinn" meaning one who has been abandoned by god - a cursed soul.

A shunned people

[ image: Melungeons live in isolation]
Melungeons live in isolation
His theory is that when white settlers arrived in the region and saw that these dark skinned people had already taken the best land in the valleys, they pushed them out and into the high mountain ridges where Melungeons live to this day.

I spoke to Claud Collins a jolly man in his 70s whom, with his seven brothers and sisters, was brought up on Newman's Ridge overlooking Sneedville.

He told me with a wistful look in his eyes about how his family grew all the vegetables they needed, raised hogs and cattle, and wanted for little. He did not realise he was poor, he said, until he left the ridge and somebody told him.

At that time, the word Melungeon was considered a racial epithet, and the spectre of the dark people of the mountains was used by Appalachian mothers to scare their children into good behaviour.

[ image: Virginia official Walter Plecker classified Melungeons as black]
Virginia official Walter Plecker classified Melungeons as black
In the segregated South, local bureaucrats described Melungeons as mongrels and half -breeds, and they were classified black and denied education or the right to vote.

Connie Clark from Wise, Virginia, told me how her Grandmother had hidden her when the census man came by in the 1960s, so that he couldn't record her identity as black.

Others moved away in the hope of escaping the racism of the South. Those who stayed kept to themselves.

Brighter future

Climbing the steep tracks up Newman's Ridge, home to many Melungeons, the poverty is still obvious.

Hancock County is the sixth poorest in America. Many people still live in flimsy wooden houses scratching an income from tobacco, or occasionally as one man told me, Marijuana plants, half a dozen of which are worth about an acre of the legal weed.

[ image: Mountains cabins are being replaced by modern buildings]
Mountains cabins are being replaced by modern buildings
But life is changing. The roads are paved, for the most part, and new houses are replacing the rotting wooden cabins of old.

Melungeons have filtered into all aspects of American society. Researchers claim that Elvis Presley and Ava Gardner may both have had a Melungeon heritage.

But the question of racial identity is of course highly charged in America.

Brent Kennedy has received death threats from those who feel he is slurring their name by denying their Scots-Irish heritage.

Other historians have said he is simply trying to find an alternative to the traditional classification of Melungeons as a mixture of black, white and Native American.

But for many younger Melungeons, the idea that they may be linked to some of the very first settlers in the new world 400 years ago, has given them a stronger sense of identity, in a country which has forced them to hide it for centuries.

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