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Texas | People | Texas History

Melungeon Texans

by John Troesser
The Melungeons were a group of dark-skinned people with European features discovered already inhabiting parts of Virginia and North Carolina when the English and Scottish immigrants arrived. The name has been said to be a corruption of French for mixture - or melange, although archaic Mediterranean words nearly duplicate the modern English pronunciation. They farmed and spoke somewhat fractured English, but they weren't Native Americans and neither were they Black.

Their dark skin caused the white settlers to label them in legal terminology as "Free Persons of Color" thus depriving them of many rights - including the right to school their children or own land. With their straight black hair, blue eyes and high cheekbones - the simple explanation was a mixing of the races - not a popular concept at the time.
Osburn - Melungeons
The Osburn Family: John and Martha Osburn, Eva, Mary Ann "Polly" and James ("Jim") held by father
Photo courtesy Caroll Osburn Zerkle
"Discovered" as a separate group in the late 1800s, speculation of their origin ran from the "Lost Tribes of Israel" to Phoenician sailors or even (for the more imaginative) survivors from the Lost Continent of Atlantis.

The Melungeons were pushed across the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. They soon learned to keep quiet about themselves and many melted into the general populace, taking Anglo surnames along the way. A few pockets of "true" Melungeons remain in certain Tennessee and Virginia counties and this is the center of current Melungeon study and research.

Like the shipwrecked sailors of the Spanish Armada in England or the stranded Hessian mercenary troops of the American Revolution - they were men who (with no chance of getting "home") married local women. That they were originally sailors there is little doubt. Modern DNA testing has matched certain genetic markers with Turkish and Portuguese bloodlines.

When they were finally allowed to send their children to school; it was often a segregated experience. Melungeons who became household words in the 20th Century were (allegedly) Ava Gardner and Elvis Presley and it is said the Abraham Lincoln was Melungeon (on his maternal side).
The Osburn Family Saga tells the story of a single Melungeon family who left Tennessee and made their new home in (the current ghost town of) Wizard Wells, Texas. The children then scattered themselves across the state of Texas - from Lamesa (far West) to Ponder (North) to Yoakum (South Central).
The account was pieced together from genealogical research excavated by grand-daughter Carrol Osburn Zerkle who sent it to us to share with our readers.

There is a lot of research being done on Melungeons in general - but we haven't heard of any research in Texas. After the Civil War, the huge influx of settlers to Texas from Tennessee must certainly have included many Melungeon families. Going back further - to Davy Crockett's Tennesseans at the Alamo - it's entirely possible that Melungeons gave their lives for Texas Independence.


© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?" - February 1, 2005 column

More on Melungeon Texans:

  • The Osburn Family Saga
  • Is there a Melungeon in your Family Tree?

    Forum:

    Subject: Melungeons in Texas

    I have spent decades researching and writing and my novel, “The Drifters: A Christian Historical Novel About The Melungeon Shantyboat People” is about a Melungeon family with their lifestyle during the times of the Trail of Tears, Civil War in Arkansas and participation in the Texas cattle drives. It is basically a true story but must be called fiction due to connecting the dots of known facts. This book is in the Texas State Genealogical Archives. If anyone wants to know what it was like to be from this little known culture plus a part of a very little known shantyboat people, then this book will fill you in. It needs to be a movie. The Lawton Constitution’s genealogical columnist compared “The Drifters” to Alex Haley’s “Roots.” I am a published author, my 7 books can be seen on Amazon. - Tonya Holmes Shook, November 25, 2010


    To share information or stories concerning Melungeons in Texas, or Melungeons in general, please contact us.


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