Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Melungeon Mystery Solved A Scientific Researcher's View

By James S. Elder

Fact & Fiction

My interest in Melungeons was sparked years ago by newspaper articles in the Kingsport [Tennessee] Times - News about these mysterious people of the East Tennessee mountains. Every year or so I would read about these people from Hancock County, Tennessee who had dark skin, high cheek bones, lived on mountain ridges, and who somehow came from Portuguese genetic stock. Not until the past few years have I learned enough about Melungeons to know that much of the "information" about them is more flight-of-fancy than fact.
     Recent years have brought forward much useful information about the Melungeon "race" and a lot of questionable speculation which has unfortunately been taken as fact by many unwary readers. Wild speculation has always been part of the Melungeon "research" mix. They have been said to be Phoenicians, Moors, Portuguese, gypsies, members of DeSoto's expedition of 1560, members of Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony, colonists from the Santa Elena colony, Turks, Negroes, and Indians among other possibilities.
     So who am I to answer the question of the Melungeon ancestry mystery? I certainly had better spell out my credentials, especially since I am married to the premier Melungeon researcher, Pat Spurlock Elder.
     I'm the kid you remember from high school who had a 99.7% college entrance exam science score. I was allowed to do graduate level research as a university undergraduate and was also asked to critique the research techniques of a couple of professors and one department head. Incidentally, some of those research plans weren't particularly good and that is one reason for my jaundiced view whenever I hear someone quoting some off-the-wall "emanate academic authority" in an effort to prove some mindless supposition. I know how to do research and science is a lifelong passion.
     I met Pat years ago when we were subscribers (and later sysops) on the General Electric Network for Information Exchange (GEnie), which was essentially the AOL of its time. We both had an interest in history and genealogy and Pat had worked as a professional genealogist, while I can describe myself as an advanced amateur in that activity. Pat's interest in Melungeons went back to 1967 and I volunteered to distribute a Melungeon questionnaire for her. After she moved to the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee, we saw each other a lot, started dating and eventually we married in 1995.
     The more I learned of the voluminous amount of information - real information - Pat had about Melungeons, the more I pestered her to write a book on the subject. This eventually lead to publication in 1999 of her Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend. My part in the book was to act as her harshest critic. She asked me to tear apart any illogical statements and bad research techniques that might have crept into the work. I found little to criticize. Her research technique was flawless and her conclusions logically deduced. The research itself was exceptional. She started with what was known and traced Melungeon lineage backward from that point. No guesses - no suppositions. The result is unquestionably the best Melungeon research work yet published. Every statement is traceable to its source through the copious footnotes. Those footnotes were one of the few disagreements we had about the work. I find endnotes less intrusive to the narrative, but Pat considered her book a research work - which it is - and wanted the notes handy for researchers to examine as they read.
     Comments from bona fide researchers have been universally positive. A few pseudo-researchers have taken umbrage that her conclusions are different than their unsupported hunches and they have understandably assessed the work as less than wonderful. The main criticisms we have found about the book are from those who apparently either haven't read it carefully (at all?), prefer their own imagination to fact, or who project their own prejudices into statements that supposedly "Pat Elder said," but which aren't actually either in the book or in her thinking.
     Some writers on the subject seem to have collected followers who ignore their guru's illogic and strike out at anyone who doesn't see the "wisdom" of their leader's position. It's more like a cult following than a scientific inquiry. Pat seems to have escaped such groupies. Her supporters are those people more interested in fact than speculation. They include eminent ethnologists and genealogists, nationally known authors, and real Melungeons.
     Pat didn't care if Melungeons turned out to be Portuguese, Turks, Native Americans, African Americans, or Martians. She just did the research and that research lead to certain determinations. I find no fault with her carefully derived conclusions. Good research leads to valid deductions and, as Pat has pointed out on a few occasions, her conclusions are just that - conclusions. They aren't merely her "opinions".
     I am not a Melungeon researcher. I am a reviewer of other's Melungeon research and I am eminently competent to do that. Some of that research is as solid as steel but unfortunately much so-called research has more holes in its logic than Swiss cheese. My job is to sort out the steel from the cheese. Solid research-steel builds good bridges to knowledge. Swiss cheese doesn't.

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