The people left behind -- Moors or Melungeons?

Washington Daily News, Washington, NC, May 31, 2002
Written by Lawrence Keech, Staff Writer
Part 3 of a 4-part Series

    EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles about the Roanoke Voyages of the late 1500s, their place in history and the legends, facts and theories about the plight of more that 600 missing people. While commonly referred to at "The Lost Colony," the term "lost colony" is a modern term and pertains only to one group of settlers. Note that in the writings of John White, the English used the letter "u" for the current "v."

Sir Walter Raleigh

    In "A Summary of the True Discourse of Sir Francis Drake's West Indian Voyage," published by Master Thomas Cates, it is written that Drake in 1585 and parts of 1586 began attacking Spanish colonies in the Atlantic -- most notably the areas of Santiago, Santo Domingo and Carthagena. From those places, he launched attacks on Spanish Florida and the town of St. Augustine.

    Drake left England with 25 ships and 2,300 men. During his raids, he captured gold, slaves, chests and other furniture. The purposes of those attacks are believed to have been twofold: first, to wreak havoc on the Spanish fleets and towns; second, to supply Sir Walter Raleigh's colony at Roanoke with additional supplies and people. It is believed that Drake had planned to offer to the slaves he captured a release at Roanoke in return for their helping the colony as indentured servants; in the colony, they were led to think, they might earn their freedom.

    "Drake's sorties actually led to a series of events that add to the mystery of the Roanoke Voyages.

    In September, 1585, Ralph Lane had settled Roanoke Island with 106 men of military and construction backgrounds. After nearly 10 months in the "New World," Lane's men met the king of the Chowanoac Indian tribe, Menatonon, and took him prisoner, reportedly for three days, before releasing him.

    Not long afterwards, members of Lane's group, possibly he himself, killed another Indian, Wingina, according to historical documentation, as the colonists believed Wingina was plotting to destroy the white men. Feeling pressure of retaliation, Lane asked Drake for a ship in which he might return to England. Reports say that by June 1, 1586, the colonists "were at open war with the Indians."

The intervention of a hurricane

    Drake was willing to offer enough supplies and ships for the colonists to last another month to prepare for their return to England. Ten days after Drake's arrival and shortly after Lane accepted Drake's offer, Lane wrote, "There arose such an unwonted storm ... this storm having continued from the 13 to the 16 of the month, and thus my bark put away as aforesaid, the general coming ashore made a new proffer unto me; which was a ship of 170 tons." Records show the ship was the bark Bonner.

Diego Map

    The next entry in English records pertaining to the colony records the return to England by Drake and Lane, but later writings, Spanish records and a Spanish spy's paper in Seville, Spain, provide a more in-depth account of the final days.

    Giles Milton writes in his book "Big Chief Elizabeth," published in 2000, "In a post hurricane rush ... Drakes' ships were extremely crowded. In addition to Lane's colonists, he was still carrying 500 African and Indian slaves that had been picked up in the Caribbean." Later reports indicate there were 300 South American Indians, 200 Guinea Coast Africans and 200 Moors, who were made "a sort of gift to the English colonists on Roanoke."

    To compound the problems of the crowded conditions on board, Drake also lost several of this ships during the storm and by his own accounts released all but 100 of his captured slaves. N. Brent Kennedy, a noted scholar on Indian history, writes, "Drake liberated some 400 Portuguese and Spanish held prisoners including an estimated 300 Moorish and Turkish galley slaves."

    While English records state there were a good number of slaves on board Drake's vessels, only 100 are reported to have returned to England.

What became of the slaves?

   A large group of Indians spanning from central North Carolina into Virginia, West Virgina, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee claim to be the descendants of these people.

    Wayne Winkler, president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, has given the Daily News permission to reprint a brief history of the Melungeons:

    "While the term 'Melungeon' is most commonly applied to those group members living in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee and southern West Virginia, related mixed-ancestry populations also include the Carmel Indians of southern Ohio, the Brown People of Kentucky, the Guineas of West Virginia, the We-Sorts of Maryland, the Nanticok-Moors of Delaware, the Cubans and Portuguese of North Carolina, the Turks and Bass Ankles of South Carolina, and the Creoles and Redbones of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana."

    Winkler's release says Native American kinship among the various groups includes "the Algonquin tribes of eastern and central Virginia, as well as the Lumbees, Monacans, Saponi, Catawba, Cherokee and Muskogee/Creek tribes of the deeper south."

    The release calls these "sub-groups" and suggests "historical and cultural evidence" points to a "probable common origin."

    Melungeons themselves and other groups consider this group of people as being "mixed" -- with ancestors among both Native Americans and people of other countries.

    Winkler writes, "Oral tradition, cultural evidence, linguistics and physical phenotypes point toward a strong Mediterranean and Middle Eastern component among most of the Melungeon related populations."

    The release goes on to cite words used in the Melungeon language, which are similar to those from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, most notably the word "Melun jinn" or "Melun can," which means "cursed soul." "This term," Winkler writes, "was in common usage among 16th-century (nations) and is still understood by modern Arabs and Turks as a self-deprecating term by a Muslim who feels abandoned by God."

    The Melungeons even go so far as to say they may be the descendants of those slaves left by Drake. They also note two colonies in South Carolina dating to a period before the introduction of English people in the "New World."

    "Evidence is also strong that in 1586 Sir Fransis Drake deposited several hundred Turkish and Moorish sailors, liberated from the Spanish in present-day Central America, on the coast of North Carolina at Roanoke Island," Winkler writes. "No trace was found of these people when later English vessels dropped anchor for resupplying. It is possible, if not likely, that many of them survived and were absorbed into the surrounding Native American tribes."

    The late David Beers Quinn, considered the leader of all Roanoke Voyages research, strongly believes the same.

    Winkler's release concludes, "By the time the first U.S. census was conducted, the admixing and cultural fusion had been underway for 200 years, ensuring that the story would remain buried and certainly never be told via standard census records."

    Like researcher Fred Willard of Elizabeth City State University, the Melungeons believe DNA testing can unlock the truth.

    "A 1990 gene frequency study (Guthire, Tennessee anthropologist, Spring 1990) utilizing 177 Melungeon blood samples showed not significant differences between east Tennessee and southwestern Virginian Melungeons and populations in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Iran and Iraq and the Levant (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon)," Winkler writes.

Englishmen left behind

    In addition to the 400 to 500 slaves left on Roanoke Island, Ralph Lane wrote that three of his men were left. Lane and his crew had been awaiting supplies from England, which were more than three months overdue. The supplies, carried by ship's captain Richard Grenville, arrived, but Grenville and his crew found none of Lane's men or the slaves. Grenville -- or Greenville in some references -- left 15 men and "enough supplies for two years" on Roanoke Island.

    In one of his narratives about the 1587 colony, John White wrote that two of the 15 were killed and the others never seen again. Ironically, as many as 116 of White's 1587 colony would disappear after his departure in the same year.

    In all, some 500 to 600 people remain the "lost colonists" of Roanoke. However, the 116 men, women and children of White's colony garnered the term "The Lost Colony" and are generally the only ones referred to in history books that mention the Roanoke Island settlement. Part of the reason the others never were referred to in most historical records was their status as slaves, historians say. English documents state, "Because they were slaves, these records would not have been kept."

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