Due to the scarcity of European women during the early years of colonization, male European settlers used African slave women as concubines, mistresses and, in some cases, wives. African women were valued not only for their labor but also their ability to produce more slaves. Most slaveholders had no qualms about the fact that the children slave women bore to be slaves in their turn were often the offspring of the white masters themselves.
When Europeans first arrived in America, many fraternized and cohabited with Native-American women and girls. Coupled with the immigrants' obsession for gold, this caused trouble between them and the Native-Americans. Soon it became profitable for the Europeans to have their cake and eat it too. After serving his term of indenture a European could save enough money to buy an African slave woman. Then he simply put her to work on the land that had been given him as a free white man, and at night he took his pleasure with her as well. What about the children that ensued? He passed laws that defined slavery like this: "A child born to a slave woman is a slave, and therefore the child is the property of the mother's owner."
When the European indentured servants who worked right beside slaves in the tobacco fields had the chance they, too, took an African woman as their mistress. After all, the master didn't much care who fathered his slave children; they would eventually be his productive slaves in any case. In fact, the fathers of most mulatto children were usually not the slaveholder himself, but more often one of his European indentured servants.
The result of such practices is that a large number of slaves born from the middle 1600s until the abolition of slavery were mulattos: a word of Spanish origin which means of mixed African and European ancestry. Technically speaking, almost every modern African-American person has some European genes in his genealogy.
Many famous Americans fathered mulatto children: men like Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and Richard M. Johnson. In the Mid-Ohio River Valley there are many families who look white yet have a small percentage of African ancestry which dates back to miscegenation in Virginia, including Mulattos descended from Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemming.
The term "Melungeon" may be derived from the word "melanin" (the dark skin pigment found in Africans) or perhaps from the French word "melange" (mixture). Due to variations in genetics, Melungeons have complexions ranging from “light” to sometimes very “dark.” Some Melungeons are indistinguishable from white people. When the African-connected ancestry of white-looking Melungeons was known in the vicinity where they were born and raised, this linked them to the African Diaspora and the negative social connotations that went with it. But when white-looking Melungeons left the locality where they were known they could and did pass for white. Simply put, these Melungeons were white people with the mind sets of African Americans.
Melungeons could travel anyplace in the United States without being suspected of having ties to the African Diaspora. But there is a genetic twist to this choice. When two Melungeons marry and have children, no matter how white the parents may look, they still carry some African genes. When a child is conceived these genes sometimes combine in a manner that produces children with some obvious African physical traits. This does not apply to children of a Melungeon and a white spouse.
Melungeons learned that when their spouses were also Melungeon some of their offspring could – and often would – show some African physical traits. This circumstance kept most Melungeons connected to the African Diaspora while allowing some individual Melungeons to pass as white and travel around in slave territory carrying information about the Underground Railroad.
Melungeons living north of the Mason-Dixon Line stayed in touch with their relatives who stayed in Virginia. Melungeons in Virginia provided a crucial service by passing critical information concerning the Underground Railroad to slaves on the plantations. They also helped fugitive slaves reach the Underground Railroad stations on the Ohio River.
Melungeons had no problem acquiring land in Southeastern Ohio. In Southeastern Ohio counties along the Ohio River Melungeons carried out their Underground Railroad activity and over time were joined by increasing numbers of free blacks and white abolitionists in Ohio. The Underground Railroad continued to gain momentum right up until the American Civil War began. To cap off their effort for freedom, many Melungeons joined the Union Forces and fought in the Civil War.During the early history of Washington County, OH, groups of dark-skinned people described as "free men of color" began to arrive. Since they were often darker than settlers of European descent, it has been widely assumed that all of them, or their ancestors, had been slaves.
Some recent genealogical research indicates a different picture. Some of these early dark-skinned settlers were neither Africans nor mulattos; their genes were primarily Native American and European respectively. Melungeons is what they called themselves.
There is some evidence that Melungeons may be descended from lost survivors of England's Roanoke Island settlement, founded off the coast of North Carolina in 1585. By 1590 all traces of these settlers had vanished except for one clue: the word "CROAT" was carved into a large tree. The word only added to the mystery. No survivors, remains or artifacts from the ill-fated colony have ever been found. It is considered a possibility, however, that the people of the lost colony may have become prisoners of coastal dwelling Indians and that the Melungeons are their mixed-race descendants. Melungeons are closely associated with the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina.
By being erroneously classified as black, Melungeons were disenfranchised from U.S. citizenship. Their land was seized and many Melungeons moved north and west during the early 1800s when the Northwest Territory was first being settled. Washington County was the gateway to the Northwest Territory from 1788 until about 1820. Word about the area's fertile land got around and many Melungeons settled here.
In the western part of the county, where there was an important branch of the Underground Railroad, Melungeons along with Quakers from Chesterhill helped fugitive slaves find their way north. Melungeons fought in the American War of Independence, they fought for the Union during the Civil War, and they've fought in every war in which the United States has been engaged since. Though their numbers have declined over the years, their descendants sill live in the hills of western Washington County. They are a fine group of people. They own businesses, work on construction or in industrial plants in the area, and teach school.