The Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves went into effect in 1865 in America, but it was already well-known in the South that there had been a groups of free “people of color” for a few hundred years. Under the holdover British doctrine defining who is/isn’t a slave, the partus sequitur venrem, it was common practice that children were given the social status of their mother at birth. Meaning, if the father was black or Indian but the mother was white, the child was considered ‘white’ socially.
As you can imagine, there were many groups of people with mixed origin, but none more fabled and romanticized than the dark skinned, blue eyed Melungeons of the Appalachian region. Legends were that they were survivors from the lost colony of Roanoke, or one of the lost Tribes of Israel. They were also speculated to be of Cherokee, gypsy, Turkish, Spanish, Phoenecian, etc. decent. The legend also is that Elvis Presley descended from the melungeons.
The following is taken from “The Melungeons: The Resurrection of A Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America,”by Dr. N. Brent Kennedy (p. 140)
Yes, Elvis Presley had North Carolina roots; his mother’s family left western North Carolina in the early 1800s, taking with them their legend of a Cherokee and Jewish heritage. His maternal great-great-great grandmother was supposedly “a full blooded Cherokee” from Tennessee named Morning Dove White. However, White is a far more common Lumbee, Melungeon, and Powhatan than Cherokee surname, and Morning Dove is an uncommon Cherokee given name. Also, the man she married, William Mansell, had been something of a renowned Indian fighter, making his choice of a “full-bloodied Cherokee” questionable. Mansell’s family was also native South Carolinian since the 1700s, placing them more in Lumbee than Cherokee territory. In any event, William Mansell and Morning Dove White settled in Alabama around 1820, and had several children, including John Mansell, Elvis’s great-great grandfather. John later abandoned his family to run off with a younger woman named Mandy Bennett (another Lumbee surname).
In 1870, John’s son White Mansell married a woman named Martha Tackett from Tennessee. Martha also possessed a common Melungeon surname and, even more appropriately, claimed to be Jewish. Elaine Dundy’s excellent biography of Elvis provides fascinating genealogical background and unintentionally paints a rather convincing Melungeon heritage for the “King of Rock and Roll.
There is really almost too much to say about the myth of the melungeons; however, in 1969 Eloy Gallegos conducted a study where 177 DNA samples were taken from people in the Newman’s ridge area of East Tennessee (The Melungeons: The Pioneers of the Interior Southeastern United States, 1526-1997). He discovered that the closest matches came from Libya, Cyrpus, Malta, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with very little occurrence of Cherokee DNA (p. 80).
In 2012, melungeon DNA was collected again to settle the origin dispute once and for all. In an article published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, scientists proved that melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.
No gypsy or Indian magic, no lost tribes or civilizations; just people with DNA pretty common to everyone else in the Tennessee/North Carolina/Virginia area.