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Suddenly Melungeon
A professor discovers her Jewish-Muslim ancestry

Archived article from Feb 20, 2006

By Dave Muha  




Twenty years ago, Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman contacted a prominent Park Avenue genealogist in Manhattan to help her secure membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. She had been raised to believe she was a descendant of Samuel Chase of Maryland, a signer of the Constitution and a Supreme Court justice.

During childhood summers, her family would gather at the Chase Family Reunion in Sullivan County, Tenn. She even had a small gray booklet, written by a relative in the 1880s and periodically updated, that traced the Chase family bloodline. Her name was in it.

So it came as a shock for Hirschman, professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick, to be told that there was no historical record tying one of her distant relatives to Chase. The revelation eventually resulted in a genealogical quest to find her true ancestry. What she learned has been published in “Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America” (Mercer University Press, 2005), a scholarly look at this country’s earliest settlers.

Hirschman is descended from Melungeons, a tribe of Sephardic Jewish-Muslim ancestry. The label is derived from the French word “mélange,” which means racial mixture, and the Arabic/Aramaic “melan jin,” meaning abandoned or cursed soul, because the group was hounded out of their Iberian homeland.

She describes her epiphany after picking up Brent Kennedy’s “The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People” in an airport and scouring its pages. “Like Brent, I had grown up unaware that I was Melungeon. By comparing his genealogies with my own and looking at photographs in his book, I discovered a large part of myself,” she writes. “Suddenly, my dark, olive skin, brown eyes, dark hair and Mediterranean ‘look’ made sense.” Kennedy edited Hirschman’s book.

Hirschman set out on a quest to learn more about these mysterious people and her own identity. Researching historical documents and family genealogies, she tracked down distant relatives and had 20 ancestral DNA lines tested. She found that she was primarily of Spanish Iberian descent, with an additional 20 percent Semitic ancestry and about 16 percent Native American.

Growing up in Kingport, Tenn., Hirschman recalls hearing tales of these “strange, exotic and frightening” people in her high school biology class. “I saw them as dark and brooding, with bony faces and lank, wild hair, living down winding dirt roads in desolate cabins,” she writes in her book.

Among the earliest successful settlers in North America, people of Jewish and Moorish heritage came to these shores from the mid-1500s through the 1700s to escape persecution in Spain and Portugal. Many made their way to Appalachia, intermarried and developed religious practices that combined elements of Baptist, Jewish and Islamic rituals.

The Melungeon people were reticent about their heritage and often hid their ethnic ancestry for fear of discrimination, one of the reasons the group became a “lost tribe,” even to themselves. Hirschman’s research has turned up genealogical and DNA evidence that suggests that such luminaries as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Sevier (Xavier), President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” were of this same ethnic ancestry. (Genetically linked illnesses, such as Nash’s schizophrenia, are the result of centuries of cousin-to-cousin marriages, a commonplace practice.)

She notes that commercial DNA testing, which can determine a person’s male and female ancestry, will likely reveal that many people have ancestry different from what they had been told. “The Melungeons of Appalachia are part of a much larger phenomenon called crypto-Judaism which has documented the presence of many persons, likely millions, of Sephardic Jewish descent living in New Mexico and California, Texas, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil,” Hirschman writes. She says a growing number of Melungeon descendants are becoming aware of their previously hidden ancestry; some are returning to Judaism.


Hirschman is among them. After being raised Presbyterian, she took a course in Judaism, had a bat mitzvah in February 2005 and now observes Passover and Hanukkah. She and her daughter Annie traveled to southern Spain and Morocco last summer, visiting Sephardic Jewish and Muslim Moor sites. Some Melungeons have had “return” and “conversion” ceremonies to Judaism, while others have chosen to become
practicing Muslims.

“That Melungeons have maintained a successful mixed-faith community for over 400 years can signal hope that current religious conflicts are not insurmountable,” Hirschman says.

Return to the Feb 20, 2006 issue


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Last Updated: May 30, 2006

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