Who were and ARE the Melungeons? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. It is a topic about which there are many theories, many viewpoints, and many strong opinions, but no general consensus.
Most generally, I think it can be said that "Melungeon" refers to a mixed-race people living in the southern Appalachian Mountains. This area includes WV, eastern KY, TN, parts of NC and SC, and northern GA and AL.
They are related in many ways to other mixed race groups such as the Lumbees, Brass Ankles, Redbones, Jackson Whites. One of the most common descriptions of the Melungeons is a "tri-racial isolate," referring to a distinct group of people having white European, Native American, and African American blood in varying percentages.
Another popular belief is that the Melungeons are the descendants of Portuguese and Turkish sailors shipwrecked in the early years of the European "New World." This theory seems to have its basis in the account of white settlers in the seventeenth century who encountered groups of people with dark skin, but occasionally light hair and eyes who lived in the mountains of VA and spoke a broken Elizabethan English.
These people referred to themselves as "Portyghee," which has been taken to mean that they were Portuguese. Perhaps, however, this might be a misunderstanding of the word "Portyghee." If these people were speaking Elizabethan English, it is likely they would use the word in the same sense the English used it, which was to refer to something foreign or exotic, but not necessarily Portuguese.
Another theory has the Melungeons as the descendants of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, VA who survived through absorption into the native peoples. Perhaps this could explain the usage of Elizabethan English by the "Portyghees."
Much information has been put forward in...