Saturday, December 20, 2014

James H. Nickens Reconsidered: The Indian Ancestry of Melungeons

From the author: James H. Nickens
Last night I reworked a lecture of mine in order to provide you and your kin who migrated to Indian Territory with a context for your history. Please share

The Indian Ancestry of Malungeon Town
A Rework and Correction of the Lecture Series Delivered Before the Melungeon Heritage Association 2000 – 2006 Regarding the
Indian Ancestry and Other Origins of the Middle Tennessee Melungeons
James H. Nickens
Sixth Union - June 8-10, 2006
Kingsport, Tennessee

My first encounter with the Melungeons was through a daily newspaper. The reference was to a mysterious people living in the Appalachian Mountains ofTennessee, a historic people of unknown origin. Until then I had never heard theword Melungeon. A trip to the Bull Run Library in Manassas, Virginia produced a copy of a book about Melungeons written by Brent Kennedy. To my astonishment I found the name Niccans (Nickens) listed by Kennedy as a Tennessee Melungeon

In late October of that same year I received a call originating from the Meherrin Tribal Pow Wow in Winton, North Carolina. Rose Powhatan, a cousin from the Pamunkey Tribe of my Gr-Gr Grandfather, had met a dancer there who was a Tennessee Indian Commissioner by the name of James Nickens. Rose was certain that James and I were related, and stated that “from the looks of you two, you have got to be cousins”.

That night I received a call from James, better known as Eddie, and the Tennessee connection was made. Later conversation with Eddie’s father, Thomas Nickens, revealed that his ancestors were of the Meherrin Tribe, who in Tennessee had called themselves “Portagee” since the time that Indian removal was threatened in the 1830’s. At that time, an ugly but popular component of American thought was that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.Thomas gave me the address of a Florida cousin, Dr. Carolyn Nickens , an anthropologist by training. In a letter of December 29, 1999, Dr. Nickens related an incident which had taken place about 15 years earlier, when she accompanied a
Collins descendant to Sneedville, Tennessee on a heritage quest. There they met “a very old man whose name was Bill Grohse”. To Carolyn’s surprise, Grohse stated “You do know that Nickens is a Melungeon name.”

Until that time, The Virginia Indian Heritage Association had devoted its efforts to the genealogical tracking of a close kinship group from the Jamestown era Rappahannock Indian Nation to the old Cuttatawomen Indian Town, and thence to the Nanzatico, Meherrin, Chowanoke, and Nansemond Tribes, with earlier links to the Lower Cherokee of South Carolina and the Shawnee of Winchester, and later links to the Catawba, Pamunkey, Patawomeke, Tuscarora, and the supposedly “extinct” Pocomoke, Gingaskin and Chiskiack people.

With the letter from Carolyn Nickens, our attentions took a sharp turn to the west into the great state of Tennessee, home of the Melungeons. Tennessee was a lay-over point in the migration of coastal Indian people to the western Indian Nations, where by perverse government-established regulations
they were classified as “White Intruders”.Following the Revolutionary War, migrants from east of the Appalachian Mountains pushed westward into contested Indian Lands. The new United States Government had erected "The Territory of the United States Southwest of the Ohio River". Revolutionary war veterans were encouraged to settle these territorial lands. Much of this territory today lies in the state of Tennessee. Thus by 1789 Meherrin/Nansemond migrants traveling by way of the Clinch River reached the Cumberland Settlements of West Tennessee territory, now Middle Tennessee.

Among the pioneers were specific Indian descendants of specific colonial era tribes of Virginia and the Carolinas. Many were patriots in the American Revolutionary cause. Others had good reason to see the colonials as their true enemy, and supported the King by default. It is no accident that the names Bass, Collins, Gibson, Hart, Minor, Riddle, and Sizemore are prominent among the Tories, Loyalist, and North Carolina Regulators.

Melungeon Indians
These citizen Indian migrants came in kinship groups, acquired land, established farms, and raised families. The citizens of this distinctive community came to be recognizable by their relatively darker skin tone and unexplained exotic physical features. Local whites noted the unique nature of this community and gave a name to the swarthy people – Melungeons .
One historian recalled the principal surnames of Malungeon Town in Wilson County, TN as Nickens, Collins, and Richardson. He described them as “an Indian like people of a reddish brown  complexion with straight black hair”.

The ethnic identity and origins of the Melungeon people have perplexed investigators of every stripe for more than a century. Imaginative theories have suggested Phoenician, Carthaginian, Portuguese, Turkish, and early Welsh origins. Others believed the Melungeons were a lost tribe of Israel or survivors of the Roanoke Colony. Speculation grew that Melungeons were descended from Spanish explorers, shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, or Turkish Pirates.

Court cases established Melungeon as a distinct yet problematic racial identity - that of a relatively darker people classified as white, then Free People of Color but later reclassified as white or “Portuguese”. By the end of the 19th century the entire population of the Bell’s Bend people had “White” stricken in the census and “Portuguese” inserted. Melungeons thus became the stuff of legend.

Many and varied physical descriptions have been recorded of the Melungeons. Among those recorded descriptions are “Indian “, “not as dark as the Indian “, “a race of light skinned Indians”, and an “Indian-like people”.
Nevertheless, the recurrent theme in Malungeon Town lore has been that of Indian ancestry. It is this aspect of the Melungeons which commands the attention of the Virginia Indian Heritage Association.

Cherokee ancestry has generally been
presumed by the Melungeon people, and may indeed be true for some, even if undocumented. Various investigators have stated that the Melungeons of east Tennessee were Saponi Indians, or were descendants of Powhatan tribes. This view cannot be sustained, as revealed by recent DNA studies. It is, however, the
Rappahannock, Meherrin, Nansemond and Catawba who supply recorded links to
the Malungeon Town community of the Cumberland River.

In addition to the usual DNA suspects, DNA studies of this group found matches to modern populations in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Morocco. It is here that DNA confirms genealogy, providing answers that have confounded and eluded historians who apparently saw no value in the pursuit of the clearly recorded genealogy of colonial Indian people. The systematic investigation of the Melungeons began by lumping the Melungeons with a variety of so-called mystery people, populations which fell outside of the white-black-mulatto racial construct popular among social scientists. The term Tri-Racial Isolates was adopted in reference to these aloof rogue elements of American society. The uninformed assumption was made that these populations were some ill-defined mixture of the three perceived races, presumably Indian, white and Negro.The conclusions of the Tri-Racial Isolate theorists are marred in four critical areas:

1. Lack of sufficient knowledge of Indian

2. Lack of familiarity with Indian genealogy

3. Failure to identify Indian people outside of a
historical tribal context

4. A paradigm driven bya pathological
facination with perceived racial constructs
rather than ethnicity.

In short – Insufficient Research layered upon a misguided and erroneous foundation
In fairness to Tri-racial isolate theorist, it should be noted that the research upon which their theories were based occurred in a time frame which predated the information age. The information disseminating power of the internet is not to be understated. Genealogical examination of colonial records has demonstrated that not one single group in the south, formerly termed a Tri-racial Isolate group, is composed of only Indian, white, and Negro components. Most, if not all, have been shown to  include the descendants of seventeenth century Gypsy ( Rom ) Virginians. These are not new findings discovered in some obscure archaic source. This information has been available to the Virginia public for more than two hundred years, ignored by scholars who apparently preferred an American history composed only of white, slave, and “Free African American“ components.
Such a “preferred history”ignores the diverse ethnic fabric of colonial America and disposes of Indian people in derisive racist terms, such as remnants, fringe, and mongrels - people who don’t fit into a simple race-driven black-and-white social construct.Given that those populations previously referred to as Tri-racial Isolates have been proven to be neither tri-racial nor isolated, it is the considered opinion of this investigator that Complex Ethnic Populations be coined as the more accurate and appropriate descriptor. It should be noted that each Complex Ethnic Population has an ancestry and a history unique to that group. This uniqueness is to be respected and cherished in the history of America’s peoples.

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