The Jews of Appalachia

Do any of you remember the Lost Colony of Roanoke from elementary school? American history— as it was taught in public school in a red state— was never my bag, but the tale of an early settlement whose population vanished without a trace save one creepy word carved into a pole has stuck with me since third grade. The accompanying illustration to the lesson was particularly spooky: a group of frightened Puritan settlers dressed like Thanksgiving pilgrims before they were presumably kidnapped by the savages of the New World and forced to breed non-white, wild children.

melungeonBut what if those lost souls weren’t Mayflower WASPy-types bent on settling the New World in the name of Her Majesty, but a band of “religious castaways” who figured facing a wilderness and attacks by the natives was way better than pogroms and “ethnic cleansing” going on across the Atlantic?

Yep. The first American settlers were Jews.

At least according to Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman, author of Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America. She claims the Roanoke colony and others that settled along the southeastern coast brought Sephardic foods and customs with them, and were among Muslims and other “conversos” seeking to escape religious persecution in Spain and Portugal. These people moved far into the Appalachian mountains after the Spanish recaptured Florida and reignited fears of The Inquisitions’s evils, and stayed there, becoming more isolated from the growing “white” population. These mountain people intermarried with certain Native American tribes and were called “melungeons,” which may be a deriviation of the French word mélange (mixture) or an Aramaic term that means “abandoned or cursed.” They were considered “free persons of color,” which meant they couldn’t own land or vote, and they kept so quiet about their origins their descendants aren’t really sure what the true story is.

Supported by DNA evidence, geneological research and the Melungeon community (whose families practiced mysterious customs like attending church on Saturdays and burying food in the backyard,) Hirschman has begun peeling back the layers of history.

Those of Melungeon descent include Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone and Elvis(!). There’s lots more about the Melungeons here, here and here.

Hirshman, who has since joined a synagogue and had a bat mitzvah since discovering her Jewish roots, nails the impact of this on the Jewish community in New Jersey Jewish News:

“One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in doing this research is that there are a lot more Jews than we’ve thought since the Holocaust. After such a huge loss, we’re gaining, or regaining, members. A big chunk of the population in South and Central America, as well as the Melungeons, is of Jewish background. People are rediscovering their heritage, which is a very beautiful thing.”

You know we agree, sister.

26 thoughts on “The Jews of Appalachia

  1. Elvis??? Wasn’t he the gentile kid who flipped light switches for an orthodox family? He’s got Jewish ancestors? Lets hope of these folks learn their true heritage, convert, and help the cause. Our temple needs donations! (lol)

    • IF YOU ARE ASHKENAZI YOU WILL NOT SEE US, THE SEPHARDI. I HAVE MANY ASHKENAZI IN MY LINEAGE BUT BY MARRIAGE, OSID PROVED ME AS A NATAL SEPHARDI FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS. HISTORY IS UNRAVELLING NOW THROUGH THE TRUTH OF WHO CAME FIRST AND WHERE, WE ‘IBERIANS’ WERE WELSH AND IRISH BEFORE WE MIGRATED TO IBERIA.

    • ELVIS’S MOTHER’s line does track back to Charleston Jewish girl, they knew that as his mother’s original tombstone had a star of David & Elvis worn a “Chai” pendant

  2. I’ve been researching Melungeon heritage since 1984. I must admit that I had no clue of Jewish heritage until I read “The Melungeons” by Brent Kennedy.

    I know many Melungeons who have reclaimed their lost Jewish heritage.

    I am most interested in our Ottoman and Portuguese heritage too. You have a wonderful site, I’m will be sure to bookmark it.

    Anyone interested in Jewish Indians, Melungeons and genealogy visit:

    http//www.melungeons.com

  3. I am a desendant of people from east Tennessee, and the Carolina’s. Long story short, through DNA research my family has discovered our true surname (Mannis) and our possible Melungeon roots. We have come to believe the possibility of not only a Jewish herritage, but a Jewish-Christian herritage. My Grandfather was a Southern Baptist Deacon in South Carolina, but he wore a Chai and Star of David around his neck, and had a license plate on the front of his car of the Israli Flag.

  4. I wonder if Melungeons are connected to Mary Magdalen and the christians that fled to Scotland? A very wild card, but it’s interesting.

  5. im from the mountians of north carolina and as a kid my gramma said that we was melungeon jews her maiden name was ruth is that a melungeon name

  6. I am of melungeon extraction, and I have read a lot on this subject–marranos/conversos living in Spain in the 14th & 15the centuries had it very difficult, and one of those difficulties was being forced to go to the new world with the conquistadores. Johnson, in his “History of the jews” describes Columbus as a possible converted Jew, and his cartographer/navigator was definitely jewish. http://www.amazon.com/History-Jews-Paul-M-Johnson/dp/0060915331

  7. I am mixed with Native American, black and Irish from North Carolina. I am looking into the melungeon heritage for my family on both sides. My maiden name is Clark on my father’s side and I am a Chavis on my mother’s side. I would like to know more about the members of the Lost Colony at Roanoke because I great grandfather is of Cheraw Indian descent–these were the Indians who lived in that region

  8. Wow, this is the first I have heard of the melungeons. I am from Charleston, South Carolina and I have been researching my Indian and Jewish heritage for a while. Surnames in my family are Green, Altman , Jacobs, Scott, Gould, Stone, Thompson, Freeman and the list goes on…Oral history states that we are Waccamaw Indians originally from Cape Fear and possibly have Jewish heritage. I find this very interesting!

  9. Not much evidence but this theory fits with my own after all of the horror perpetrated on the Jews during the “dark ages”. I have no doubt that many found their way here to protect their own families. The fact that our heritage is a near secret makes sense with people still afraid of the European people landing on these shores.

  10. After all, would you want the Europeans landing to find out you were Jewish after everything your family endured in Europe. Perhaps they even thought that they were there after them. Entire groups of Jews were burned alive in their places of worship. Keeping who they were a secret was a matter of life and death in their minds.

  11. There is quite some time between these comments but I feel less alone in my research! If anyone reading this has family from Eastern Kentucky…Wolfe, Breathitt, Morgan, etc I would love to exchange stories. My main family lines are Rose, Whisman, Chambers, and Swango. My family is a mix of Native and Jewish. Most belonged to churches (Baptists) but practiced Judaism at home. I would love to exchange information and stories with others from that area. sm76cook (at) yahoo (dot) com

    • Hello! My name is Christie Whisman and my grandfather (Charles Whisman) and grandmother (Nannie Mae Woods Whisman) were both from Wolfe County. I have long wondered about Jewish roots. I would love any information that you have. Thanks much

  12. I like this artical, BUT i have a huge problem with the authur calling the Natives “Savages.” Since we really don’t know what happened to the early settlers, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that they were murdered or eaten or whatever.

    Since we Jews have a long sorted history of being persecuted, killed and routed out of different lands and coutries…you think we would have, and show a little more compassion for the natives in america…the original americans.

  13. I’ve also heard the term “Black Dutch” used for Melungeons as well. My Great Grandmother on my mom’s side is European “Black Dutch” from Germany, and her maiden name was Stewart. I’ve learned that many people in Europe, in order to hide their true liniage, especially after the Inquisition, would call themselves “Black Dutch” and settle in areas far away from Spain in areas that were more open to religious diversity, such as the Netherlands or Germany, which was rather diverse up until WWII.

    With a name like Stewart, and her being of European-based “Black Dutch” origin, it makes me wonder if there is some Jewish ancestry in there.

    My family has some interesting practices. We deticate our firstborn to the Almighty and then redeem them. Also, male circumcision is a big thing in our family as well. When a male is born in our family, he absolutely must be circumcised on the 8th day after his birth.

    • Those are definitely Jewish practices. “Suddenly Jewish” by Barbara Kessel is another great book about discovering hidden Jewish heritage. Your story sounds a lot like the stories of Latinx crypto-Jews I read in that book.

  14. I think that persecuted Jewish people also came to South Africa in the 17th century and called themselves Dutch, German and French . they intermarried with the local Koisan people and later called themselves Afrikaaners but many years later became total racists.Thank The Lord that is all over now.

  15. Can anyone confirm that Afrikaaners have Jewish ancestors.All my life I have been amazed at the courage of Jewish people and I would love to know that I do have some Jewish roots.

    • many Iberian Jews & Marranos fled to Holland. They were there & in America called Svartz (black) Dutch as then black just mean dark, as swarthy in English. So yes likely the Dutch migrants to South Africa .would more like be marranos. Look at the history of Recife in SA. DNA is the clue.

  16. I am from the Elam and Caldwell lines of Melungeon DNA. My dad’s side is Elam and my mother’s Caldwell. Are there any germane web sites any one could list for me to search deeper into this history? My grandfather Elam was descended from Sephardim Persian Jews from England and his line is associated with the Allen (Allin) and Snelling Melungeon lines of Kentucky & Tennessee. The early Elam’s were merchants in the shipping business. Some became Quakers. But, they all left Thurnscoe, Yorkshire, England in the late1500’s and wound up in the Virginia Hundred Colony……Henrico County. From there, they went to Kentucky and eventually Indian Territory and Texas.

    My mother’s Caldwell line was from Alabama and then to Tennessee….Indian Territory/Oklahoma and Texas. Caldwell was once “Calderon”….a Sephardic Jewish surname. Richard P. Dozier is my 2d great grandfather from the Caldwell line. He wore braids, was dark and looked Indian but was guarded about his background. On the U.S. census for Navarro; Brazos, TX and then in Calvin, Hughes counties he is listed as white and head of household. We cannot find evidence of his parents or where he may be entered. I suspect he was Melungeon as well.

    • Hi! I am also descended from the Elam family. I have a question: is it specifically the ELAM line you’re saying was Sephardic Jewish? Or something else? I’m a little confused. Thanks!

  17. My mom was born in Madison County. I would look at her and her sisters and. Would notice they looked different than other people. When my 3rd son was born he took a trip with his class to an Asheville Jewish synagogue. One of the leaders came to him and asked if he was jewish? I thought that was strange until I had my dna test. It came back that I was jewish descent. The weird thing is its on my mom’s side and they have lived in Madison and Yancey counties since before 1800s.

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