Redbones and Melungeons

The Mixed Peoples

The Redbones are one of a group of people of unknow mixed ancestry who lived in the Southeastern United States. The best known and researched of these groups are the Melungeons who lived in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Other similar groups include the Brass Ankles and Turks of South Carolina, the Brown People of Kentucky, the Carmel Indians of Ohio, and Guineas of West Virginia. The Redbones, sometimes called the "Louisiana Melungeions," originated in South Carolina and established the Redbone identity in Southwest Louisiana.

A recent book entitled "The Farfarers" by Farley Mowatt tells of a present-day people in Newfoundland called Jakatars having a history reminiscent of the Melungeons and Redbones of the Southeast United States. Mowatt cites interesting but controversial archaelogical and historical records that indicate that a people he calls Albans traveled as far a Newfoundland before the Vikings. They originally settled Scotland before the Celts arrived and drove them out. The Vikings then drove them west to Iceland, Greenland and then mainland North America. He says they were small, dark-skinned, dark-haired people who were much in appearance like the present day Kurds or Basques. He thinks that the Jakatars, who were discovered by the British when they arrived in Newfoundland, are their descendants. He speculates that the term "Jakatars" derives from a Basque word "Jakue" meaning "God" and "tar" meaining "related to". So he thinks it was a way of describing early Christians in North America.


The origins and racial makeup of the Melungeons and their Louisiana equivalent "Redbones" is very controversial. They are copper-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired, but they have English names and were speaking English at the time they were first encountered by European settlers in the Carolinas and Virginia. Some claim that the Melungeons are tri-racial, but the Melungeons themselves have always claimed to be "Portygee," that is, Portuguese. Dr. Brent Kennedy, the leading Melungeon researcher, believes that the Melungeons are a mix of remnants of the Eastern Indian tribes that were devastated by European diseases and forced westward by European settlement, remnants of a pre-Jamestown Spanish colony in South Carolina, and Portuguese / Turkish peoples who were rescued from slavery in South America and put ashore on Roanoke Island by Francis Drake in the late 1500's.

The tri-racial characterization grows out of two factors. First, Melungeons (and Indians) married both Europeans and Africans in the modern era. Indeed many, if not most, African Americans have Native American branches in their family trees. The same is true for a large percentage of white Southerners, many of whom claim to have "Cherokee" ancestors or who claim to be "black Irish" or "black Dutch," all of which are likely to be euphemisms for part Indian ancestry that at one time was considered shameful.

The second factor was the hardening of racial attitudes in the South in the 1830's due to the rise of the abolition movement. Southern states passed racial purity laws that required classification to gain full rights of citizenship, and the Census Bureau also attempted racial classification. The only problem was what to do with Indians and peculiar groups such as Melungeons which did not fit into any group. The solution was to classify them them as "free people of color, or FPC," the same as freed slaves. They were also termed "mulatto" and "colored". There are instances in the census records in which entire Indian tribes were classified as "Negro".

The confusion of Indians with Africans did not occur only in the South. It happended in New England as well. The New England Indians web pages explains that Northeastern Indians did not disappear despite being declared extinct:

"This is the story of a conquered people, told by those who conquered them. It has a definite beginning, but the ending is yet to be written. Just before the Civil War, the powers-that-be decided to write that ending, simply by declaring the Indians dead. That worked surprisingly well, and many people even today still believe that to be true. Some of the lighter skinned Indians began to pass as whites, and the darker skinned were called "colored" or Negro in the records."

The web page Browns in Rhode Island tells of persons of confused racial heritage and quotes the Supreme Court of Massachusetts as follows: ""Indians had been often designated as Black, Negro, colored since long before the Revolution".

We must therefore be careful not to assume that the modern meanings of terms such as "mulatto" and "free persons of color" have the same meanings as when they were recorded. Before the Civil War there were essential two racial classfications, "white" and everyone else. The latter were termed "colored," which included persons of African ancestry but was not limited to them. It is interesting to note that even the term "negro" merely means black and in the Middle Ages was used to refer to a whole range of colors from copper to dark black.

Earlier, Indians had had the same rights as Europeans, and Europeans who wanted to take their land found that they could do so by simply reclassifying them racially. They simply asserted that the Indians had African blood, a group that had no comparable rights. The Indians could never rebut the charge due to a lack of records, and the Europeans could in fact point to some Indian-African marriages for support. Melungeons, Lumbees, and Redbones were treated similarly, and they kept moving to the frontier to escape persecution.

Early English settlers freely married Powhatan, Pamunkey, Nansemond and other Indians. Indeed the most famous English/Powhatan marriage was that of Princess Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Through their marriage the early aristocrats of Virginia were part Indian, and those genes have been passed along to Americans such as former President George Bush.

None of this is conclusive whether the Melungeons had some African ancestry. It is indeed possible that they do, but Dr. Kennedy believes that it is not a modern phenomenon. After some of the Melungeons "went white" by marrying whites and others "went black" by marrying African-Americans, there has not been any significant mixing beyond what would normally happen in any modern population. Genetic studies of some Melungeons commissioned by Dr. Kennedy bear this out and show a similarity to residents of Portugal and no similarity to residents of Africa.

For more information on Melungeons, Redbones, and related peoples, see the following web sites:

The "Redbones" of Louisiana

It it difficult to even define the Redbones. In some areas of Louisiana, some say the term refers to those of African ancestry. However, the following is what is written at the Louisiana Folklife Center web page:

Farther south around Beauregard Parish, a group emerged in the mid nineteenth century when a Native American community absorbed British American settlers and other populations. These people became known as Redbones, from the West Indian term red ibo which meant any racial mixture (Kniffen, Gregory & Stokes 1987).

The apparent generic nature of the term "Redbones" may explain the confusion about whether they were of primarily a white or black group. A similar fate has befalled the word "mulatto", which was originally generic but now is used almost exclusively to refer to mixed races containing some African blood.

For publications and more information on Redbones and Melungeons, visit the Dogwood Press web site.

MLM: July 10, 2000

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