Tales of Melungeons are packed with mystery and meaning in the Appalachian region.
Campfire stories about the dark-skinned mountaineers have long swirled through the hills and hollers, largely depicting the Melungeons as secretive, lawless, and even threatening to outsiders.
A conference in Swannanoa this week may help unravel the mystery of the Melungeons, including DNA results that show that their dark hair and European features likely came from Arabic and Jewish immigrants centuries ago.
Melungeon Heritage Association President S.J. Arthur says the three-day conference draws people who want to learn more about Appalachia's multiethnic heritage.
Seminar topics for the 15th Union include Jewish, Muslim and Gypsy ancestry; the Civil War experiences of mixed-ancestry families; and "The Invisible Line," a book by Daniel Sharfstein exploring the fates of three families that switched racial identity after the Civil War.
"The Melungeons have taught us that life in the mountains was much more diverse than outsiders could ever imagine," Sharfstein said.
Melungeons have been traced back more than four centuries in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, but their unusual appearance and familial closeness often kept them apart from many of their white neighbors.
Phyllis Starnes of Fort Blackmore, Va., said she began to probe her Melungeon ancestry a decade ago after she was treated for a bout of stomach and chest pain.
Born and reared in the mountains, Starnes was shocked to hear her doctor diagnose familial Mediterranean fever, a rare hereditary disease passed down by Arabs and Jews.
"My family has been in Appalachia for hundreds of years, so I thought, 'This doesn't make sense,' " Starnes said.
A definite 'amalgam'
Following her own heritage trail led Starnes to the Melungeons, a group that had often been stereotyped as less intelligent and lazier than their lighter-skinned neighbors. " 'Melungeon' ever so long was a dirty word," she said. "Nobody wanted to be Melungeon."
But with new research and a renewed interest in ancestry and family backgrounds, the affiliation is taking a much more positive spin. "Seems like everybody wants to be Melungeon now," said Starnes, 59.
Autosomal DNA testing, which measures mixed geographic heritage, offers a profile of Melungeons that includes Jewish, Middle Eastern, Egyptian and sometimes Gypsy ancestry. African and Native American heritage also appears.
"We're definitely an amalgam," Starnes said.
The origin of the term "Melungeon" is unknown. It first appeared in written form in 1813 church records from Stoney Creek, Va., where someone accused a church member of harboring "them Melungeons."
Some say the term was derived from the French term mélange, meaning mixture.
Links to Inquisition
Melungeon historian Brent Kennedy links the arrival of the Melungeons in Appalachia to the Spanish Inquisition, when half a million Jews and Muslims were exiled from Spain and Portugal in the 16th century.
Kennedy writes that the exiled people became renowned for their seagoing exploits, and sometimes wound up on ships headed for America - either as slaves or galley hands.
An early American historical account says British explorers in the 1600s encountered a settlement in the Tennessee Valley, where people spoke in a foreign language they called "Portyghee."
UNC-Chapel Hill genetics professor J.P. Evans said combining DNA research with stories such as the one the British told in the 1600s can be useful.
"The Portuguese were the first Europeans in the Age of Discovery to start crossing the Atlantic," Evans said. "It would not surprise me at all if some wound up in the mountains of North Carolina or Tennessee."
Evans said the Melungeons' story helps prove that people around the world are not as different as they sometimes might seem.
"You don't have to go far back in the human family tree to find that all our families' ancestry came out of a fairly small region of sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "To me, the warm and fuzzy and very valid conclusion from DNA ancestral studies is that we really are all related."