Way Back Wednesday: Could My Ancestor Have Been One of the Mysterious Melungeons? –
Until two weeks ago the Melungeons were so mysterious to me I didn’t even know they existed. I had encountered Mulattos in census records. I had come across Mestizos in history textbooks. However, Melungeon was a completely foreign word to me until very recently.
Last week I shared a picture of my great-great-grandfather Ozro Bales asking the question I had been asking myself for a while. What ethnicity was Ozro Bales? He certainly didn’t have the standard English and Irish look I would expect to see based on the extensively documented ancestry I have for him.
I do not believe there was any sort of secret parentage or adoption at play in this case. You can go back to the original post to see the pictures of other relatives that make me believe this is just a case of certain genes from an ancestor somewhere along the line showing strongly in his appearance.
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Diversity Recognition Software and Applications
As I mentioned in our last episode of Way Back Wednesday, I posted a photo of Ozro Bales in a very large Facebook group asking for input and guesses on his ethnicity. Several comments suggested I try running it through an app that analyzes photos for ethnicity.
I was able to find a free app. I have no clue how accurate it may or may not be, but it is certainly fun to try various photos in the app. You can try the diversity recognition app yourself on the Kairos website. I’ve tried it on myself and all my kids. It was interesting to see the variations in percentages just between my four children. I noticed if we were smiling at all, it significantly increased the percentage of Asian listed for the subject. Without smiling, it considered us all around 85%-90% white, but the rest of the mixture for each of us was not as consistent.
I ran several different pictures of Ozro at various ages through the Kairos app. The only conclusion I could make from the results was that the app also considered Ozro to look significantly less white than other relatives I tried.
I tried the Kairos app on some of the other relatives who had a similar look to Ozro.
I wasn’t really satisfied that my results were giving me the specific answers I was seeking even though they were interesting.
The over 700 comments I received when I posted the photo of Ozro in that large Facebook group suggested any number of possibilities. Practically every country and every continent, except Antarctica, were mentioned as potential locations of origin. Several people mentioned Melungeon, and I didn’t think much about it, since I didn’t even know the meaning of the term. I thought it might be a long-forgotten country that existed in the past.
Then one lady commented saying she lives near Hancock County in Eastern Tennessee and that she believed his appearance was Melungeon. She told me the Melungeons have a very distinctive look that he had, and she wanted to know if he was tall. That got my attention because Ozro was very tall for men in that day. His father and grandfather were also very tall for men in that time period. Some of the men in this Bales line were about 6’4″ in a day and age when a man over 6-foot tall was practically a giant. I also knew Ozro’s grandfather was born in Tennessee.
There’s extensive research on this Bales line presented in Miriam Halbert Bales’ book We Pass the Words Along.
What is a Melungeon?
At that point, the Melungeon possibility had my attention enough to start my research into this mysterious culture. The Melungeon Heritage Association states:
Melungeons were considered by outsiders to have a mixture of European, Native American, and African ancestry. Researchers have referred to Melungeons and similar groups as “tri-racial isolates,” and Melungeons have faced discrimination, both legal and social, because they did not fit into America’s accepted racial categories.
Where did the Melungeons originate?
No one seems to have a clear answer for the origins of the Melungeon people. There’s a lot of speculation on their beginnings. Some claim they began with shipwrecked Portuguese sailors who intermarried with Native Americans. Some believe they are descendants of the Lost Colony of Roanoake. Some think they may be one of the lost tribes of Isreal. Some consider their ancestors to be those who came on Spanish expeditions and later lived among native tribes. Others believe they are the children of intermarriage between free-blacks and whites who were forced to deny their own heritage due to discrimination.
There are as many theories as there are shades of skin in the melting pot we call America. All may be true to some degree. Regardless of origin, the Melungeons are a multiracial subset of the population. The Melungeon Heritage Association notes:
Genetic studies have shown that Melungeons share genetic traits with populations in the Mediterranean, South Asia, and Middle East, as well as with northern Europeans, Native Americans, and African-Americans.
There are specific disease patterns that show up frequently in the isolated Melungeon population which are all more common in Meditteranean and Middle Eastern cultures. The Multiracial Activist has further information on these specific diseases in their post Melungeon Health Issues. According to DNA Consultants:
If You Have a [Melungeon] Match You Probably Also Have: Jewish and Native American ancestry and, possibly, also Sub-Saharan African and Gypsy. You may also be prone to Jewish and Melungeon genetic disorders, including anemias and familial Mediterranean fever.
The Jewish Connection
The Jewish connection is interesting to me because one time many years when I first became interested in genealogy I had searched for the meaning of the name Ozro. It’s an uncommon name, so I thought it must surely be significant. The only information I could find on it at that time was information suggesting Ozro was of Hebrew origin meaning “ox” or “strong like an ox.”
I dismissed that information at the time because I could find no evidence whatsoever of any Jewish connection in any of the documented lines. The Bales line itself was a predominantly Quaker line with extensive documentation, but there could always be Jewish influence coming from a maternal line.
You can see Ozro standing here behind his grandmother Nancy McMullen Bales.
Melungeon Geography and Surnames
The Melungeon culture has typically been associated with the Appalachian region. These people were originally found in a strip of the country running from North Carolina, through Tennessee, and up into bordering areas of Virginia. There may also be concentrations in the Cumberland region of Kentucky.
Although other surnames may also be included due to marriages and so on, DNA Consultants lists the established Melungeon surnames as:
Adkins, Bean, Bell, Berry, Bolen, Bolling, Carrico, Carter, Casteel, Chavis, Collins, Cooper, Counts, Cox, Curry, Davis, Fields, Gibson, Goin, LeBon, Mozingo, Mullins, Ramey, Reaves, Robertson, Short, Sizemore, Starnes, White, Williams, Wyatt
I find it especially interesting that the name Mullins is included, since Ozro’s grandmother was Nancy McMullens. This may not be a fact of significance, but it could be note-worthy. It was not uncommon for different branches of a family to drop certain parts of a surname like the Mc or Mac to use a name that was more “American,” and spelling variations were extremely common in early history.
There weren’t always standard spellings like there are today. Before Social Security, birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other legal documents, no one cared if you spelled your name a different way every day of the week. In populations where literacy was not universal, individuals might be forced to rely on others (like the person taking the census) to determine the spelling of a name, so branches of the same family may be listed under multiple spellings.
Ozro’s grandmother’s surname of McMullen may be a clue. She was also born in Virginia. I don’t know exactly where in Virginia. However, she married a man who grew up in Northeastern Tennessee. Transportation was not easy in those days, so it’s very likely, she was from the region of Virginia bordering Tennessee which is the part of the state associated with the Melungeons.
Racial Discrimination and the Melungeons
Melungeon descendants apparently faced racial discrimination in the mountainous regions of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. This sadly caused many of these multiracial families to isolate themselves to Hancock and Hawkins Counties in Tennessee where they intermarried predominantly with other Melungeons. Individuals from these lines who migrated elsewhere generally married white people and are now indistinguishable from the general Caucasian population.
I find it interesting that I don’t think Ozro or any of the other relatives who had the darker skin and other features faced discrimination here in Randolph County, Indiana. My grandpa knew his grandfather Ozro. My grandpa never mentioned his father (who was also extremely dark-skinned) or his grandfather facing poor treatment. The photos I have show Ozro and his wife and children interacting freely among all types of people in Randolph County. I have no reason to believe he faced discrimination of any kind here.
Randolph County, Indiana Led the Nation in Equality and Integration
I don’t think many realize Randolph County and neighboring Wayne County have such a rich history in the fight for equality. Besides being a hotbed for abolitionist activities and participation in the Underground Railroad, Randolph County also had one of the first integrated schools in the nation – the Union Literary Institute established in 1846. It would be two more decades before public schools in Indiana admitted people of color. (Indiana Historical Bureau – Union Literary Institute)
Hiram Revels, the first black U.S. Senator, was a student at the Union Literary Institute. The first African-American elected to the Indiana House of Representatives, James S. Hinton, was also a student at the Union Literary Institute. The Union Literary Institute was also one of the first colleges to accept women.
Randolph County had the highest percentage of free-black settlers of any county in Indiana in the 1860 census. The free-black settlement in Greensfork Township surrounding the Union Literary Institute as well as free-black settlements at Cabin Creek (north of Modoc) and Snow Hill (north of Bloomingport) made three total. Although I cannot find a citation for it now, I remember reading at some point that there were only six free-black settlements in Indiana at that time, so it was notable that Randolph County housed half of that total.
You can also read my post Levi Coffin House: Hoosier History of Racial Harmony for further exploration of some of these topics.
So was Ozro Bales a Melungeon?
Was my great-great-grandfather a Melungeon? I can’t be sure. Even DNA testing would likely be fruitless. It would show percentages of various ethnicities, but there would be no way to conclusively link him to the Melungeon heritage because the genetic pool is so mixed.
I have suspicions that his grandmother or great-grandmother may have been linked to the Melungeon people. His grandfather’s birth in Tennessee and grandmother’s birth in Virginia offer us clues. His tall stature and dark skin and straight, black hair offer us clues. His name of possible Hebrew origin also offers a clue. But as is often the case in both genealogy and family lore, clues may be all we ever have.
If I am descended from the mysterious Melungeons, I would proudly embrace that. If I descend from some other random mixture of bloodlines, I would gladly embrace that as well. The genes of your ancestors are a part of you. The bloodlines of those who came before you are a part of you. Whatever your genes may be, wear them proudly!
So what’s the verdict of public opinion? Do you think my great-great-grandfather, Ozro Bales, could be a Melungeon?
Other posts on Ozro Bales: