Sunday, July 08, 2001

'Melungeons' turn to DNA on heritage

Appalachian residents look into mixed past

By Chris Kahn
The Associated Press

        VARDY, Tenn. — The hundreds who came here in search of their past listened with rapt attention, responding with knowing nods as Brent Kennedy told a tale that has become all too familiar in these hills.

        “I was always told we were Scotch-Irish,” he said, holding up a yellowed photo of his mother: an olive-skinned woman with wavy, jet-black hair and deep brown eyes. “Now does she look white to you?”

        For 14 years, Mr. Kennedy has been trying to convince scientists and historians and anyone else who would listen that Appalachian families are much more exotic — that they're the children of lost Indian tribes, or Spanish conquistadors, or most tantalizing of all, Mediterranean immigrants who fled their Anglo neighbors during colonial times.

        It's a claim that DNA evidence only now is beginning to substantiate. Genetic testing conducted this summer affirms that the people who settled here are not as white as they had thought — or wished.

        Along with American Indian and European DNA, researchers are finding traces of a Middle Eastern blood line, centuries old in the Appalachian Mountains.

        “I had always known there was something different about us,” said the 50-year-old Mr. Kennedy, who now proudly describes himself with an old Appalachian pejorative: Melungeon.

Name started fights

               Nobody really knows what the word means. “Melungeon” was what some called the darkest kids in school, the ones with questionable upbringing. Just saying it was sure to start fights.

        Rick Goins, 47, of Kingsport, Tenn., remembers conversations about it with his parents. “My family never wanted to be "one of them.' Back in the day, it wasn't good to be a person of color.”

        So Mr. Goins left it alone.

        Likewise, Mr. Kennedy didn't really pay attention to the M-word. But in his mid-20s, Mr. Kennedy's bones began to ache. His legs became swollen. He could barely breathe. Doctors told him he was suffering from sarcoidosis and familial Mediterranean fever — ailments more common in the Mediterranean.

        Was it possible for a white boy from Wise, Va., to have Mediterranean blood? “It dawned on me that I really needed to know who I was,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Spanish, Turkish roots
               So he started asking around. Mr. Kennedy questioned his par ents about their past. He searched out old photographs and dug into genealogies.

        He read about Spanish and Portuguese soldiers who were abandoned in what is now Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. He read about Sir Francis Drake, an Englishman who dropped off about 1,500 Turkish and Mediterranean captives on Roanoke Island in the late 1500s.

        “Clearly, there is a potential for some of these people to have survived, married Indians and perhaps became a source for the Melungeons,” said Chester DePratter, an expert on Spanish colonial archaeology at the University of South Carolina.

        The Appalachian Mountains, Mr. Kennedy became convinced, were one of America's first melting pots.

        After centuries in the mountains, Mr. Kennedy thinks the community of outcasts formed a culture of their own, like the Basques in Europe. They became a mixed race that today is believed to number in the thousands, with a heritage that's still evident in the twang of bluegrass music.

Unusual disease
               If Melungeons were a unique group, it might explain the diseases that Mr. Kennedy and others like him were getting.

        Dr. Christopher Morris, a Kingsport rheumatologist, first guessed that Mr. Kennedy suffered from FMF, a malady that is rare in whites.

        The National Institutes of Health later confirmed the diagnosis. Dr. Morris has since diagnosed 13 other people in the area with FMF.

        Dr. Morris said that many of his patients were previously misdiagnosed as suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome or other maladies more common in the West. But as soon as they began taking Colchicine, a drug given to FMF patients, their symptoms started going away almost immediately, Dr. Morris said.

Academics skeptical
               Still, the academic world would have none of it. Secondhand stories and spotty historical records were hardly a way to build a case for a new culture.

        “They're increasing their own self-esteem by claiming some exotic heritage,” said David Henige, an expert in oral tradition at the University of Wisconsin. “Which is fine, but it's based on bad history. Really, it's meaningless.”

        Mr. Henige believes that Appalachian people got their darker traits as whites, blacks and American Indians interbred along Appalachia's ridges during the 18th century. Any Mediterranean or Turkish or Spanish settlers would have been absorbed into American culture fairly quickly, he said.

        “A lot of people told me, to prove this, you need DNA evidence,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Well, now we're doing that.”


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