RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 7, 2007
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A new book that will be of interest to genealogical and historical researchers alike is CHILDREN OF PERDITION: MELUNGEONS AND THE STRUGGLE OF MIXED AMERICA by Tim Hashaw. Published in 2006 as a volume in Mercer University's series on the Melungeons, this fascinating work answers many of the questions surrounding the "mysterious" tri-racial groups in the United States. Through extensive research, Hashaw demonstrates how mixed communities, such as the Melungeons, used myths about their origins to respond to ethnic persecution due to the stigma of their having African blood. Using his interpretation of folk tales and information about the clashes over land, voting, and schooling that mixed societies faced from the 1600s to the 1940s, the author provides a history of how Americans have viewed persons with interracial ancestry. These views have affected where and how tri-racial people lived and the records--or lack of records--pertaining to them.
Although his publication is not a general history of the Melungeons, Hashaw furnishes much material about their early background, including the origin of their name. Recent DNA testing shows their lineage is predominantly European with an admixture of African-American and, to a lesser extent, of Indian ancestry. DNA test results also confirm the rumor that the earliest American ancestors of the Melungeons were usually free black men and white women, many of whom were indentured servants.
Genealogists will be particularly interested in Chapter 2, which concerns the first mixed generation in the British American colonies. The interracial marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas is well-known in American history and their descendants take pride in their Indian heritage. Yet Melungeon descendants, whose ancestors arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619--a year before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts--were and still sometimes are shunned by both blacks and whites. When the first blacks came to America, the English did not look down upon them so many marriages between the two races occurred in the American colonies. With the growth of slavery and the increasing fear of slave uprisings, this attitude changed and a ban on interracial marriages was put in place. As a result, mixed couples could only become married through common law. Since the marriages were not blessed by the church, their offspring were referred to as "children of perdition." Descendants were often classified as "mulatto" on censuses.
As discrimination against them began to appear, interracial families moved into isolated frontier regions in Appalachia. Existence of these communities were often unknown until white settlers began moving into those areas and began confronting these enigmatic peoples. To hide their mixed lineage, the Melungeons claimed, at various times, their ancestors were Portuguese, Phoenicians, Welsh, Black Dutch, or Black Irish. Hashaw proves the story about Portuguese ancestry, like many family traditions, has a grain of truth. The country of origin of the blacks brought to America in 1619 was Angola, which was controlled by Portugal at the time.
As conflict over land between mixed societies and new white settlers became heated, some Melungeons continued to move westward. In the early 1800s members of the South Carolina ASHWORTH family moved to Texas and became prominent ranchers. According to Hashaw, Melungeons--not the Spanish--inaugurated such innovations as cattle drives on horseback and steer wrestling, invented the bullwhip, and introduced the Angolan-based words "corral" and "buckaroo" into the language. Although the Ashworths became wealthy and married into white families, racial discrimination and armed conflict later forced them to move to Louisiana where a number of Melungeons, known as "Red Bones," had settled in the Neutral Strip.
Often overlooked, Melungeons appear in many interesting aspects of American history. Jordan GIBSON, for instance, was a friend of Daniel Boone and accompanied him on several expeditions. Among the first to pass through the Cumberland Gap, Melungeons claimed the first available land in the area. One of Abraham Lincoln's clients, whom he defended in court, was William DUNGEY, a Melungeon.
Like many other Americans, Melungeons participated in major wars. During the American Revolution, for instance, Brutus JOHNSON was a soldier at Valley Forge and Drury GOING fought with Gen. Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." Prior to the Civil War, John Anthony COPELAND, Jr., and Lewis Sheridan LEARY were with John Brown when he seized the armory at Harper's Ferry. For his service in the Civil War, Harrison COLLINS received a Medal of Honor, the country's highest award.
Bringing the story of the Melungeons into the twentieth century, Hashaw examines the development of eugenics and Virginia's Racial Integrity Act. The state of Virginia, for example, began profiling Melungeons, which led to forced sterilization and back-to-Africa schemes. Readers, especially genealogists, will be further shocked and dismayed to learn how profiling caused changes in the state's recording of race on vital statistics documents. The alterations also affected Virginia's Indian tribes.
Throughout the narrative, genealogists will find details about many specific Melungeon families and individuals. Hashaw also provides lists of surnames usually associated with Melungeons. Since GOWEN (variant spellings include GOINGS and GOINS) is the most common surname in mixed communities, the author traces the line back to John GOWEN and Margaret CORNISH, who were among the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619. Margaret also had children by a white man, ROBERT SWEET (sometimes SWEAT), the son of a member of the House of Burgesses.
A drawback to genealogists is the lack of a complete index. Names of interracial couples such as Tamar SMITH (white) and Maj. HITCHENS (black), who lived in Northampton County, Virginia, in 1720 are not listed. Neither are all the names of Melungeon Revolutionary soldiers. As a result, the book is not as useful as it could be for family research. Perhaps the omissions will be included in the next edition.
Well-written and engrossing to read, the scholarly volume contains copious footnotes. If a printed source has an online version, Hashaw provides documentation for both editions. Covering an often neglected aspect of American history and genealogy, CHILDREN OF PERDITION is highly recommended for anyone interested in the Melungeons and related mixed communities in the United States.
Containing 182 pages, the book has a publisher's note, a preface, a selected bibliography, and an index. Priced at $35 for hardback and $19 for paperback, it may be purchased from Mercer University Press, 1400 Coleman Ave., Macon, GA 31207 (phone 478-301-2880; fax 478-301-2585).
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