Thomas Collins, Lost Melungeon Roots

Alicia M Prater, PhD
GenTales
4 min readSep 3, 2020

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Tennessee melungeon family
The Goins’, a Melungeon family in Graysville, Tennessee, in the 1920s. Source

Thomas Collins was born about 1785, presumably in Ashe, North Carolina. He was a Melungeon and noted as “Free Colored Person” (FCP) on the 1820 and 1830 U.S. censuses. Thomas married Nancy Williams, who was also denoted as a FCP, around 1800. They moved with their grown children to Perry Co., Kentucky, from Ashe, North Carolina, about 1835. Thomas was then denoted as “Free White Person” on the 1840 census, and the family has been White ever since.

Melungeons: The “free colored people” of Appalachia

The word “Melungeon” started as a racial slur but came to denote the insular communities of darker skinned Baptists, Portuguese, African, Native American, and possibly Romani or Jewish settlers in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina before the Revolutionary War. Today, it is considered to refer to a tri-racial isolate from the Southeastern United States.

One theory of the population’s mixed origins is that they were the Roanoke Lost Colony survivors, saved by the native tribes and seagoing folk, who they then intermarried with and settled along the coast. Collins is one surname in the Lumbee, who have an oral history of being descended from the lost colonists. Another theory is that they were Turkish Moors or Middle Eastern settlers from the 16th century who were displaced by the Scotch-Irish. The Saponi tribe is the most likely candidate for intermarriage in my Collins line based on proximity. There is also a great probability of French traders having married in, or very early Italian and Mediterranean settlers. Regardless, there are likely multiple ethnic backgrounds in any Melungeon family, and they likely differ from the backgrounds of other lines with Melungeon ancestors.

Collins is considered one of the core Melungeon families, migrating to the Granville and Ashe areas of North Carolina from Louisa Co., Virginia, in 1750–1780.

Hiding their roots

After the slave rebellion of 1831, North Carolina stripped the rights of non-whites. This is likely why the Collins’ moved their families en masse to Kentucky in the 1830s. They and others migrated westward, relieving themselves of their “colored” status. At the time, free, white mothers legally resulted in free…

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Alicia M Prater, PhD
GenTales

Scientific editor with Medical Science PhD, former researcher and lecturer, long-time writer and genealogist