Who are the Melungeons, and where did they come from?

My upcoming novel The Hum and the Shiver posits a secret, isolated race of people living in the middle of modern-day Appalachia.  They have a distinctive physical look, very different from those around them.  They hide in plain sight, using the standard Southern tactics of politeness and misdirection to deflect queries about themselves.  I call them the Tufa.  They’re entirely, totally fictional.

But they’re inspired by a real story, a real mystery and a real group of people: the Melungeons.

The Goins family, circa 1928

There’s lots of information online about the Melungeons, so I won’t bore you with recapping it in detail; the Wikipedia entry lists many related articles that can answer most questions.  Instead I’ll share what drew me to them.  First it was the simple idea that there could be a group of ethnically distinct people living in modern-day East Tennessee.  I’m from Tennessee, and I’d never really heard of them until I was grown and had moved away.  A lot of that is due to the racial attitudes of the region: overwhelming settled by the Scotch-Irish, and therefore Caucasian, they viewed the dark-haired, swarthy Melungeons as something other than white, which meant they could not vote or own property, even though they were technically “free.”

Also, the legends say that when the first of those Scotch-Irish settlers arrived in Appalachia, the Melungeons were already there.  This has been challenged by scholars, but for me the power of the idea was secondary to its literal truth.  What if it was true?  And if it was, then it goes back to the crucial question about Melungeon ancestry: where did they come from?  Heck, for that matter, where did the word “Melungeon” come from?  There are various speculations, but no proof.

When I got ready to write my story, I knew immediately I wouldn’t try to tell the actual Melungeon story.  These are, after all, real people who deserve respect.  So I took the elements of their legends that spoke to me and invented my own group of people, the Tufa.  Like the Melungeons, they live in the mountains of East Tennessee, and were already there when the first European settlers arrived five hundred years earlier.  They have a particular physical appearance, and keep to themselves.  But because I invented them, I could also invent their origin, something the real Melungeons are still trying to discover.

And what is that origin?  Well, to find out, you’ll have to read The Hum and the Shiver.  You can preview chapter one by visiting here.

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized

5 Responses to Who are the Melungeons, and where did they come from?

  1. Chelsea

    It’s always interesting to learn what inspired a story – and I must say, the direction you went with this inspiration is so unexpected! As one of the lucky people who got to read an ARC, you did a beautiful job of making me believe that the Tufa are real, and do live in those Appalachian mountains. The story had a gritty realism to it, while having a surprisingly haunting effect that stuck with me weeks after I turned the last page. I loved the characters and the way the mystery of the Tufa is revealed. I am so eager to read the next installment!

  2. Pingback: Listening Report: February 2012 | The AudioBookaneers

  3. Linda

    I really enjoyed the book and was comparing the Tufa to the Melungeons before pulling up your website. That race has always intrigued me and I worked with a Melungeon lady once who was such a delight. Please continue with this set of characters, whom you have made so believable. Thanks for the entertainment.

  4. Tim

    Was almost late to work this morning, finishing the book. What a great setting, wonderful characters — shoot, I wanted to meet the Hiatts myself. Thanks for a great story.

  5. genty wright

    Iam 86 years old and as long as can remember,ihave had a large bump at the base of my scull on the back–my hold family has this bump,we have been told is a melungeons bump could this be true

Add a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>