A Melungeon’s Story – A Descendant of America’s Original Melting Pot ©
I had never heard the word Melungeon until after I published my first novel The Peacemaker in 2009. I was attending my college reunion in Louisville, Kentucky just after publishing the book and was on a cross country tour promoting the book while stopping in Louisville to visit family and attend the reunion. I was discussing the characters in my book with a friend and had explained that the characters, although fictional, were based upon characters from family stories from my own ancestry. I told him of my belief that I was of mixed heritage and had spent most of my adult life trying to uncover family secrets that prevented me from understanding who I was and what my place in American society was. My friend then asked me whether I knew about the Melungeons. I confessed I had never heard the word, but when he told me about this group of people, I realized that I was, indeed, a Melungeon.
The origin of the word Melungeon is as mixed as the group of people it represents. Some scholars say the word comes from the French word, mélange, meaning mixture. Other possibilities include: Afro-Portuguese melungo (shipmate), Greek melan (black), Turkish melon (cursed soul), Italian word for eggplant melongena (referring to black skin), and the Old English term malengina (guile or deceit). No matter the origin, Melungeons have historically resented the word which they considered a racial slur. In recent years, however, as closed doors are opened, Melungeons such as me are beginning to view the word with a sense of pride because we are, indeed, the original melting pot of this country and the hope to finally eradicate separation based on race.
The Lakota word for black is Sapa. Using Saponi as a name may have actually been the Lakota reference to the Eastern Seaboard Blackfeet. In Lakota the word is Si-Sapa. In the oral histories of the Dhegihan Sioux (Osage, Omaha, Ponce, Quapau, and Kew) the Si-Sapa migrated from Ohio to Virginia chasing out the rival nation they called the Doeg – the Algonquin tribes of Pow Hantan or Nanticoke. Powhantan was the father of the Indian Princess Pocahontas. These stories say the Blackfeet lost their land to the Tuscarora in the first of the Indian Wars of the early 17th Century and then started moving north and west in search of land.
The Saponi were probably the same as the tribe inhabiting the land around the Potomac River in 1608 near the colony of Jamestown and present day Charlottesville, Virginia mentioned by Captain John Smith in his reports to King James. Decimated by disease and constant warfare, the Saponi and Tutelo moved to settlements outside Ft. Christiana in Virginia in 1711 under the protection of Virginia Governor Spotswood. After Ft. Christiana was abandoned and the Saponi lost this protection, the Saponi and Tutelo migrated to the western edges of Virginia and Carolina colonies in what is today Tennessee and Kentucky. There they lived with the Catawba Indians that inhabited the land on the Catawba River in what eventually became Rock Hill, South Carolina. In 1753 a group of 14 men and women left the Catawba Nation to migrate to western Pennsylvania to become part of the Cayuga tribe, one of the six nations of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. By the end of the 18th Century the Saponi disappeared from history and was considered extinct. In the 20th Century remnants of the tribe in North Carolina have tried to assert cultural identity but none have recognition as a tribe with any rights to benefits.
Uncovering this history of the Saponi or Blackfeet corresponds to a family story told by my father that his great grandmother was a “full blooded Indian squaw” of the Blackfeet Nation. I have identified this great grandmother and am sure she is the Native American connection in the family. There are a lot of unexplained gaps in her ancestry.
Louisa Jane Wilkerson was born in 1844 in Hart County Kentucky and died in 1931. Louisa was listed in the 1930 census as Jannie Puckett aged 88 living with Andrew Jackson Criswell and Annie Puckett Criswell in their home in Leitchfield, Kentucky. These are my paternal grandparents. My father was born in 1914 so he was old enough to remember his grandmother and her stories about her ancestry. My father was proud of this heritage along with his Scotch Irish ancestry and continually repeated those stories around our family dinner table when I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the fifties and sixties. .
Family records indicate a lot of migration to northern Kentucky into the Appalachian area of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky by the Criswell branch (as well as Tomes) of my family tree. The male members of the Criswell and Puckett lines trace their ancestry back to England, Scotland and Ireland. It is my belief that these men were of Scotch- Irish descent and came to the New World in the second migration from Europe as indentured servants who eventually gained their freedom.
My research indicates many of those in the Criswell line were probably Ulster Protestants of Ireland who received land grants in the Northwest Territory from King James I to fight with Britain in the Indian Wars of the 18th Century and later to support Britain in the American Revolution. The area of Ulster in Ireland is what today Northern Ireland. King James the First of England had been King James VI of Scotland when Queen Elizabeth died without an heir to the throne. When James became King of England, Ireland and Scotland, he ceded a lot of land in Northern Ireland to Anglican Scots to take a hold of land in Ireland for the Anglican Church.
The first Criswell ancestor that I have identified in my lineage is a Robert Creswell who was christened in July 1602 at St. Michael Pater Noster Church in London. Marriage records and birth dates of his offspring are from Ireland and Robert Creswell died in Ireland. The American birth, marriage and death rates for the Criswell family locate the line in Maryland and Pennsylvania until David Criswell receives an inheritance of property in Owen County, Kentucky. Marriage and birth and death dates for many of their wives are nonexistent which me to believe these were common law marriages and the females of unknown heritage were quite possible of Native American or African American descent who disappeared into the western European culture of their husbands but physical characteristics were obvious so moving a lot in search of land and freedom was quite common.
Records indicate that these Melungeons eventually settled in the Cumberland Gap area of Southwestern Virginia, East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky. The Melungeons were continually moving west seeking opportunities denied to people of color. “You turned white when you moved west.” According to The Melungeon People – An Appalachian Mystery, “it is very likely that the native lines came through the female lines.” Family secrets, unexplained physical characteristics and gaps in ancestral lines are prime examples of a mixed heritage and all of these are part of my ancestry.
The most telling physical attribute that led me to pursue a connection to an African American heritage was my father’s jet black (what was left of it when I was born) wiry, curly hair. My father had a dark, olive complexion that one of my sisters inherited. Of all of my siblings, however, I believe I exemplify the physical characteristics of a mixed race. My hair was strawberry blonde when I was born but turned to red and then a deep chestnut color by the time I was a teenager. I had ringlets of curls like Shirley Temple and freckles. When I read James Michener’s The Covenant in the 1970’s I learned that one of the tests for African blood was the appearance of freckles. Had I been living in South Africa I would have been labeled “colored.” The skin that is not freckled turns a deep red when exposed to the sun; it never really tans and I have a condition known as vitiligo – a loss of pigmentation that leaves white spots on the skin.
Other evidence that I have found includes records of mulatto Criswells living in Pennsylvania during the ante bellum period preceding the Civil War. I have found what I believe to be a cousin. His name was David Criswell and he served in the 54th US Colored Infantry Regiment founded in 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. He was killed at the Battle of Charlottesville, VA in 1864.
As further evidence of my spotted ancestry, I have found English ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and took part in the Indian Wars during the War of 1812. One of my more colorful ancestors was a man named Davy Crockett Puckett. Ironically, my paternal grandfather’s name was Andrew Jackson Criswell. I have ancestors in the Puckett line of my ancestry who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War attesting to the fact that Kentucky was indeed divided and the term “brother against brother” is quite fitting for the Civil War in Kentucky.
Perhaps my father’s hesitancy to talk about any African American connection was due to the way he and his family was treated during his childhood. He was bullied and spit upon during his early education (he left school in the 6th grade to help support the family) as his peers constantly ridiculed his heritage with the racial slur “nigger in the woodpile” somewhere. I did not learn one family secret until after my father died and learning that helped explain a lot about his deep seated anger toward his mother.
Sometime in the 1920’s or 30’s either just before or after my grandfather died (he died in 1933 and was much older than my grandmother), my grandmother had an affair with a black man and bore a child. That child lived with the African American community in Leitchfield and my grandmother eventually went to live there after her husband died. In 1952, when I was six years old, my mother insisted that my father go to Leitchfield to bring his mother to live with us in Jefferson County. It was a difficult time for him and I am sure that is what led to his nervous breakdown shortly thereafter. My grandmother lived with us until she died in 1957 and although she lived with us, I never really knew her nor did I have the opportunity to hear any of her stories which I regret.
As I have grown older and started to uncover these stories, I have found a sense of pride in my heritage even if it led to being on the outskirts of the American Dream and living in the South with the labels of poor white trash, redneck, or hillbilly. The Melungeons were the first descendants of the American melting pot but have faced isolation and poverty denying them the American Dream they have pursued for centuries. Writing this story has been the culmination of my own journey to discover who I am, why my family was trapped in poverty and burdened with “dysfunction” for most of my life. Discovering my history and roots has finally led to a sense of pride in who I am as a descendant of the culture that not only defied the boundaries of race and disenfranchisement but also played a huge role in the settlement of this country and building the United States of America. In sharing my history I hope to make a stand for those people of mixed heritage who are the true Founding Fathers and Mothers of this country.