Days Gone By - stories from the past

Sand Mountain Melungeon Families – some believe Elvis Presley was one

(Transcribed by Donna R. Causey)








Sand Mountain is a flat-topped extension of the Cumberland Plateau stretching over a hundred miles along the Tennessee River in the states of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Its twin, Lookout Mountain, lies across the valley, where Interstate 59 runs from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Fort Payne and Boaz, Alabama, near Blountsville. In ancient times, a mixture of Cherokee, Yuchi, Koasati, Creek and other Indian tribes inhabited the area, and the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto visited its towns in 1539/1540.sand mountain


Jackson County had 70 persons

In the census of 1950, Jackson County (which constituted the first white county formed in Alabama from the Cherokee Cession of 1816) had 70 persons identified as Melungeon, making it a notable location for this ethnic group. This article will survey the genealogies and ancestry of some of these families, based on the author’s own family tree, and incorporating research about to be published in a recent book titled When Scotland Was Jewish. Surnames include Adkins, Beam(er), Black, Blevins, Brown, Bunch, Bundren, Burke, Burns, Cooper, Davis, Fields, Gist, Gunter, Keys, Lackey, Lowrey, Redwine, Riley, Shankles, and Sizemore. Sand Mountain extends from South Pittsburg in Tennessee to Boaz, Alabama.

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What a minute, you’re going to say. I didn’t know Scotland was ever Jewish. Scottish history can’t boast of having too many prominent Jews, right? Well, not until now. When Scotland Was Jewish was begun by Professor Elizabeth C. Hirschman of Rutgers University and joined by me as a co-investigator in 2001.

DNA testing and clues

Both of us are of Melungeon ancestry. Using the tools of modern DNA testing and clues ranging from medieval burgess lists to synagogue records, we researched a large community of Jewish and Moorish merchants and court officials who were active in the nation-building phase of early Scottish history, 1000-1300.

Our book discusses, among other subjects, the Judaic origins of the Royal House of Stewart, the identity of Aberdeen’s St. Machar, and the possible role of secret Jewish religious practices in the formation of Presbyterianism. Over 150 illustrations and 15 detailed genealogies document not only the Judaic character of Scotland’s political, economic and religious history, but also an important tie-in to the Melungeons of the southern Appalachians, including those on Sand Mountain. Chapters on DNA analysis, clan genealogies, the Knights Templar, the Cabala, and the religions of Scotland conclude with an essay on Sir Walter Scott’s heroine Rebecca in Ivanhoe, bringing the story of a previously unsuspected Judaic presence in the British Isles down to the present day. In many ways, this study is the sequel to Hirschman’s Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America (Mercer University Press, 2005). Jews among the Indians, a work in progress, is also co-authored by Yates and Hirschman

Isaac Cooper, a Choctaw-Cherokee gave a deposition

My own interest in the Melungeons of Sand Mountain began in 1997, when in the course of pursuing some genealogy work on my mother’s Coopers, I encountered a very strange court record on USGenWeb. It named one of our ancestors, Isaac Cooper, rumored to have been a mixed blood Choctaw-Cherokee who married a daughter of Cherokee principal chief Black Fox (Enola, Inali, died 1811).

The record presented Isaac Cooper giving a deposition in the home of James Cooper in newly-formed Jackson County, Alabama. It concerned the Great Salt Works of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in Wayne County, Kentucky. What in the world was going on? From a legal expert investigating the history of this case, I learned:The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River empties into the Cumberland River in Pulaski Co. East of Burnside.

Salt Water along the Big South Fork

Today, the River is mostly in McCreary Co. KY, and then crosses the border into Scott and Fentress Co’s.TN. Years ago, before McCreary Co. was formed, the West/North bank of the River was Wayne Co. KY, and Fentress Co. TN. The East/South bank (the River runs mostly North to South, with a large bend near Bear Creek that turns the flow East to west for a few miles, then it turns South once more), was Pulaski and Whitley Co. KY, and Campbell and then later on Scott Co. TN. In the 1900’s, this was a coal mining area, and today, it is a National Park. It is stunningly beautiful place, with large bluffs along the River canyon.

In 1807, John Francis first reported the discovery of saltwater along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. This initial discovery was reported to be “near the mouth of Bear Creek, where Richard Slavey now lives”.(I believe that Richard Slavey and John Francis where in laws, as both married a woman named Mounts.)

sand mountain1


Bear Creek

Bear Creek

Saltwater wells

Francis and Slavey petitioned the State Legislature, and in 1811, received a Grant for 1000 acres, conditional upon their production of a 1000 bushels of salt. The time limit for this production was later increased, due to the War of 1812. By the time the 1000 bushels were produced (around 1818), several other items of interest occurred: John Francis received another Grant just South of the 1000 acres for the same purpose; Marcus Huling, working with Col. James Stone, sank another saltwater well, on the sight of Francis’s other Grant; Stephen F. Conn,Martin Beaty, and a host of other people became involved in these enterprises in several different ways. This activity started a series of Law Suits, lasting up into the 1830’s, as well as the accidental sinking of the world’s first oil well (Post:  HISTORY: Salt Works of the Big South Fork (BSF), Date: Thu, 15 Oct 1998 22:16:14 –0400, Submitter: Lanny R. Slavey).


Investigated  the origins of the Cooper name in Kentucky

This chance “hit” sent me on a long odyssey of exploration and self-discovery, one accompanied by not a little soul searching. I investigated the origins of the Cooper surname, the settlement of Daniel Boone’s Kentucky, and the seemingly interminable treaties and intrigues that followed the Cherokee’s defeat by the British in 1761. Both for me and for my (equally Melungeon and American Indian) wife, Teresa, a Ramey, it has led to cherished new friendships – with Brent Kennedy, with Nancy Morrison of the Melungeon Health Network, and with Dr. Arnold Mark Belzer of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. But I don’t mind saying that it has also brought some less-than-friendly challenges from others. Unaccountably, opponents emerged. We learned there were people who were either so hardened in academic orthodoxy or sunk in prejudice that they were unwilling to acknowledge what seemed an ever-growing mountain of evidence about the historical roots and composition of the Melungeons.

Where did all the money go?

After nearly 10 years of grappling with these issues, I am satisfied with the emerging consensus. I have only one remaining question. Where did all the money go? Seriously, I think this is a valid concern. How did our ancestors come to be dispossessed of such a splendid legacy? From a genealogical perspective, the following notes detail some of the land sales, mineral prospecting, manufacturing, trade activities, lobbying, and legal moves of these Melungeon families in an ever-shifting and increasingly complex social environment. The period ends about 1840, a time when the U.S. government (supposedly, on the strength of a one-vote margin in the Senate) removed the Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. But its background can be glimpsed in a centuries-old fight for religious freedom, self-reliance and democratic values. I am proud of this story, and I know the ancestors are proud of us to discover it at last.

This article is dedicated to Bessie Louise Cooper Yates, born on Sand Mountain in Jackson County, Langston, Alabama, October 22, 1917, the daughter of John Wesley Monroe Dolphus and Dovie Palestine Goble Cooper, both longtime Sand Mountain residents. An alumna of Berry College, Mount Berry, Ga., she lives in Northwest Florida and has 10 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.


Click to see report of  results of some of the Melungeon families DNA test

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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  1. Very Interesting!!!!!

  2. Thanks for covering this! Many still don’t know about Melungeon history. Hope you’ll cover the Italians in Bibb county too.:)

  3. I have inlaws that were from Sand Mt. I also believe that I am an ancestor of the Royal House of Stewart in Scotland. I have done geneology that far back.

  4. my mom’s family were from the Sand Mountain area until they migrated in the early 1900’s to Western Alabama….

  5. Which DNA test would give a female the best chance of determining if she is related to a Melungeon line? Because of my grandmother insisting she came from “Black Dutch,” I think it is possible I may have that ancestry. My grandmother was from Tennessee.
    Thanks for any help!

    1. I had a cookbook that spoke of “Dutch” cooking and it commented that a lot of what people call “Dutch” was really “”Duetch” ( like from the Pennsylvania “Dutch”), which means German. “Duetchland”.

    2. Mary Nesbitt I was told as a child we had black dutch in our family. I had a dna test done with DNA Consultants the test proved I have Melungeon in my family and found out I have 6 native american lines. Plus so much more.

  6. This is so interesting. About 10 years ago I attended a Melungeon Gathering at Big Stone Gap.VA. I’ve been in touch with a Gowen Melungeon Society in Lubbock, TX. I was always told that my Daddy’s heritage was Scots Irish. My college friend Grace Stafford who lives in Louisburg, NC told me I might be Melungeon after learning her husband has a Melungeon heritage in doing his geneology. The Jewish twist of Jews in early Scotland and beyond fascinates me. Thanks so much for this. Carrie Gowen
    P.S. My neighbors when we camped on the James River were Free Issues, and censuses in mid 1800’s said Gowen’s were Free People of Color. I haven’t been able to trace my Gowen line beyond great grandparents.

    1. Fascinating. Thanks so much for this book review. I think my Dad’s heritage is Melungeon.

  7. You guys might want to go on to Amazon and read reviews for “When Scotland was Jewish”. Read the one star reviews and you’ll find out how badly researched the book was.

  8. Angie Womble Moody

  9. Why can’t the page load? Gah.

    1. Sorry about that. It should work now.

  10. It won’t load for me either

    1. I believe it is fixed now and should work. Thanks for letting us know.

  11. Click on the actual photo not the blue link above it.

  12. It won’t open…tapped the photo

  13. My mother’s ancestors are from Sand Mountain. Many relatives still live there.

  14. Happy to report the link worked for me . I recall reading an extensive series of articles on the Melungeons in serial editions of the magazine,Blue Ridge Country,back in the late 90s.One big question at that time was the origin of the Melungeons.Theories ranged at that time from these Melungeons being descendants of the explorer Modoc to their having descended from Turkish explorers.Has this DNA project established the definitive answer on the origin of the Melungeons?

  15. So what was his determination of DNA origins of the melungions? I’ve seen DNA evidence showing Portuguese, now Jewish and moorish (which the Iberian peninsula was moorish at one time) but the article leaves us with many questions.

    1. Moorish is an imprecise word that can mean African. See “Orthello”

  16. Gladis his mother was Jewish

  17. I opened it ok. I’m wondering about the DNA also!

  18. I would like to know more about this.

  19. Chief Blackfox is my Great Great Great Grandfather. How interesting

  20. Sherry Sherry Greene Harrison

  21. June Dennis interesting article

  22. Love Sand Mountain !!!!!

  23. Courtney Bennett 🙂

  24. My ggrandmother married a Bud Hicks. Her name was Sally or Sarah Davis. My grandmother Della Jane Hicks Griffith was of Native Indian (Choctaw) descent and always said she was born on Sand Mountain. My DNA showed traces of Jewish origin. Interesting read.

  25. I hope you don’t put too much stock in the research techniques of the authors.

  26. He was Jewish and Cherokee

  27. My great grandfather on my dad’s side was born in Sand Mountain, Dekalb county. his last name is Wells….not much more is known of his family from that area. On my mothers side her grandmother was a Bentley that traces all the way back to the royal house of Stewart through the Keith’s…..and I think some of the royal house of Stewart was of Jewish descent or so says of my lineage. If is right and I do understand there is human error but the King and Queen of Scotland would be my 23 times great grand parents….our ancestry and lineage is all very interesting…

  28. Hmmm. I find this interesting, I’m descended from Nancy Black fox and Isaac Cooper via their son Harmon S. Cooper.

  29. Elvis Pressley’s mother was Eastern European Jewish – her grave has the star of David on it and Elvis considered himself Jewish – If you look at his photos he has a star of david on his neck nearly every time

  30. The author is rather mistaken. South Pittsburg, Tn is well south of the northern end of Sand Mountain. Sand Mtn “officially” starts in Dade County, Georgia around I-24 and in the communities of Egypt Hollow and Murphy Hollow and Cole City.

  31. Did Morris family live in Sand mountain area, if so what were their names?

  32. Should this say “1850?”

    Jackson County had 70 persons
    In the census of 1950, Jackson County (which constituted the first white county formed in Alabama from the Cherokee Cession of 1816) had 70 persons identified as Melungeon, making it a notable location for this ethnic group. This article will survey

  33. Just some observations, since I am personally acquainted with NAIA and Sand Mountain. 1) “Jew” did not in the far past & should not now mean “Israelite”. 2) Most of the early dwellers of Sand Mountain were Creek & Cherokee who fled from the Federal troops and never went West. They hid their NAIA heritage and didn’t even tell their children in many cases. 3) Abe Lincoln and Elvis Presley’s mother were mixed-Race Melungeons.

  34. My mother’s family (Cryer/Cryar) has been on Sand Mountain since before 1830. My paternal grandmother (maiden name Milner) & her family always said they were Black Dutch. Elizabeth Shown Mills taught a genealogy class I attended at Samford University & told me another name for Black Dutch was Melungeon. I found out that it’s a mixture of native American (we’re Cherokee); African; Sephardic Jew; Scots-Irish; Turkish; & Romani (Gypsy). We all have dark hair & eyes, olive skin that tans well. Oh, yeah, our hair is course & thick as well as curly. My nickname was “Tiny Tim” when I grew up because I had hair like his. He’s Lebanese descent. I haven’t done a DNA test yet. Too expensive. I’m saving up, though. Thank you for a fascinating article about my home.

  35. Virginia Turnage Jones some genealogy resources mentioned in this article

  36. I share a Confederate Soilder Ancestor with Elvis Presley.

    1. John Michael Little in regards to what part of this do you object to? Just curious.

  37. Holly Garrett Whatley

    1. Don’t know if it has any validity, but it’s an interesting read

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