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.
But 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.
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 Ive learned in doing this research is that there are a lot more Jews than weve thought since the Holocaust. After such a huge loss, were 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.