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.

17 Comments on “Who are the Melungeons, and where did they come from?”

  1. 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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. This first novel in the Tufa series is so full of stereotypes and denegration of the Melungeon community that I’ve been privileged to work with for 30 years that I can in no way recommend it. Melungeons and Melungeon researchers have been fighting this kind of stereotyping of Melungeons and mountaineer for decades and hoped we had made some progress. Appears not.

    1. I’m sorry you feel that way, Kathy, but I hasten to point out that the Tufa are NOT the Melungeons. They were inspired by the stories I heard about them, true, but they are my own creation, with my own origins that, quite frankly, place them firmly in the tradition of fantasy. No insult or aspersions were or are meant to be cast on any real people.

  6. I wonder whether the term “melungeon” is a corruption of the Italian word “melanzana” – literally “eggplant,” but often used as a pejorative term for dark-skinned people. Possible, no? Especially if the Melungeons have Italian or Sicilian roots, which would explain their relative swarthiness compared to their Scots-Irish neighbors.

    That aside, I’ve just finished The Hum and the Shiver and am now two-thirds of the way through Wisp of a Thing. You’ve created a fascinating world in these novels, a world populated with real people who nevertheless live lives touched by fantasy. Negotiating the borders of those two planes of existence provides so many rich storytelling opportunities, and you have taken great advantage of them.

  7. The “Hum and Shiver” is a great novel filled with so many elements that are a reflection of my own childhood that have a permanent place in my memory treasure box. I grew up in the Appalachia mountain region, where music was as much part of who you were as the mountains themselves. Tradition and respect for what and who came before us was there also, passed on to each generation. There are still many stories of groups of people in those mountains told through local folk lore, and song. As for the woman who thought you were insulting the Melungeon people, perhaps she should approach you to do an article or a biographical history on them. Knowledge is power.

  8. My mama’s folks are from East Tennessee (Carter and Johnson Counties). What I found wonderful about your book is the powerful women. This spoke to my heart in such a way as to remind me of my own family’s women. With resoursefulness, integrity, intelligence, sisterhood, occasional irreverence, and faith mixed with a bit o’ granny magic they kept everything running! Thanks for the reminder!

  9. I have just started your second Tufa novel . You write so realistically that you made me Google “Tufa”. LOL

  10. I just finished the Long Black Curl……I could not put it down, I loved it!!!! Just ordered the Hum and Shiver and Wisp of a Thing….I know it is fantasy but I really enjoyed it…..

  11. Just finished Gather Her Round and loved it, I have now read all your books about the Tufa. Once I begin I can’t stop. I am almost 70 and find your stories so entertaining . Keep them coming…..

  12. I discovered your books through the circuitous route of a posting about Tuatha Dea on Facebook. I’ve just begun reading The Hum and The Shiver, so far, I am hooked. Will keep you posted! I have Scot-Irish-Welsh-Saxon blood, but also have many Shamanic ties. I love your writing style, not to mention the attraction of the intricacies of local bloodlines and their lore. By the way, I am overwhelmed by Tuatha Dea, hoping to see them in person one of these days, and perhaps you, too!

  13. My mother had to go into a nursing facility recently and while going through her things I found a photo of my great-aunt Betsy. She and my uncle lived way back in the middle of nowhere in the Virginian Appalachian mountains. I believe that she was Melungeon now that I see her picture as a young girl!

  14. What a stunning couple of books you have written about the totally credible Tufas! How did you do that? It’s almost Tufaesque that you have taken a musing and with the right path, created something absolutely transporting. Congratulations on getting Mr Rudniki as narrator. Could not have been more perfect. Kind regards.

    1. Thank you, Tania! I really appreciate the kind words. And I totally agree with you on Stephan’s narration.

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