The Black Dutch, German Gypsies or Chicanere and their relation to the Melungeon
by Linda Griggs
Revision of 4 April 2000
Melungeon are an olive complected, dark eyed, dark skinned people living in Appalachia. Their claim of Portuguese descent was largely ignored and they have been historically dismissed as "tri-racial isolates", part African, Indian and White. Ironically, for a people accused of miscegenation, they marry only within their community. Some physical characteristics claimed by those of Melungeon descent are an Anatolian bump, a donut shaped protuberance on the back of the skull; shovel teeth, which are curved across the back rather than straight and end in a ridge at the gum line (also common to Amer-Indians); and Familial Mediterranean Fever, an inherited rheumatic disease ethnically restricted to non-Ashkenzi Jews, Armenians, Arabs and Turks. As racial tensions hardened around the Civil War their status as mulattos deprived them of basic rights such as property ownership and education. N. Brent Kennedy’s, "The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People—An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America" documents the denial and loss of their history and culture.
Investigations into the origin of the Melungeon have turned up many significant theories and clues. One of these theories, that they are part Gypsy, was put forward as early as the October 1889 issue of American Anthropologist by Swan Burnett, M.D. and as recently as 1999 by Henry Robert Burke, African American Historian. One of the clues is the large number of Melungeon who explain away their dark skin by claiming a Black Dutch ancestor.
In her comprehensive and objective article, "In Search of the Black Dutch", Myra Vanderpool Gormley, C.G. relates that, "The so-called 'Black Dutch1 have long been an enigma in American genealogy. Their descendants are widely reported, yet no authoritative definition exists for this intriguing term."1.
Currently speculations on the meaning of Black Dutch range from American Indian to Sephardic Jew.
But rarely does German Gypsy enter the list of possibilities. Curiously, American German Gypsies living today have always called themselves Black Dutch, have never heard of it meaning anything but German Gypsy, and are surprised to hear it could mean anything else.
Origin of Terms
In the 1800s German Gypsies were called Chicanere, the low German or Pennsylvania Dutch transposition for Ziguener. This high German word may have been derived from the expression, "go away, thief" or from Atsinganoi, the name of a religious group who like the Gypsies, did not like to be touched by outsiders. It is interesting to note that although the words "gypped" and "Gypsy" are related (and obviously hurtful and offensive to law abiding Gypsies) the name Chicanere has nothing to do with the word chicanery, a word which has it's origins in 14th century France. But this unfortunate linguistic coincidence coupled with the oppression and stereotypes that Gypsies have always faced make it impossible for even present day Gypsies to be open about their ethnicity. The term Black Dutch, a corruption of Deutch for German, must have come into favor fairly quickly after their arrival in America as an obfuscating way of explaining dark features. In any case the term begins to show up in print and I1ve excerpted those germane to this article from The Dictionary of American Regional English, "black Dutch n. also black Dutchman, esp. common Sth, S Midl. A dark-complexioned people of uncertain origin: see quotations. 1854 (1932) Bell "Log TX-CA Trail" 35.224, Along down the center of my breast is a brown stripe like the stripe on a black Dutchmans[sic] back.
1930 Shoemaker "1300 Words" cPA Mts (as of c1900), Black Dutch Ð Dark Pennsylvania Mountain people, probably of Near Eastern or Aboriginal stock.
1939 "Hall Coll." eTN, wNC, Black Dutch. . .a local type of people of Germanic(?) extraction. The Foxes are known as "Black Dutch." Pennsylvania is as far back as we can trace them. They are low, not tall, small and have black features.2
The second citation is taken from Henry W. Shoemaker, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, who wrote and lectured about the Chicanere in the 1920s and 1930s. He remains the best authority and this paper is primarily based on his writings. In a 1924 address he stated that "At least until the 1850s "the men were of medium size, very slim and erect, with good features and large dark eyes. They wore their hair long; very little hair grew on their faces, but they tried to cultivate small side-burns." In a March 31, 1930 Altoona Tribune article he described "diverse Shekener girls and women...of astounding loveliness and their kinship to the so-called Pennsylvania German people, where strange, dark types predominate, was apparent. In fact the Pennsylvania German is but a more cosmopolitan scion of the She-kener...and all spring from the same Central and near Eastern polyglot that swarmed into Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth century of diverse origins." The Chicenere ranks decimated whenever a chance to settle down came in view; by these judicious marriages their blood is in the veins of almost every "Pennsylvania Dutchman." And the Pennsylvania Dutch boys and girls with their glorious dark eyes, wax-like complexions, wavy dark hair and features of Araby, show the undying presence of forgotten Romany (Gypsy) forbears"
Shoemaker describes their intermarriage as "giving an added dark strain to the already swarthy Pennsylvania German type, fused as it has been from South German, Huguenot, Esopus Spaniard, Hebrew, Swiss, Waldensian, Greek and Indian, the type of the true Pennsylvanian, Tauranian..." 13 14 deleted
Reasons for Immigration
There have been Gypsies in America since 1640 when entire families of English Gypsies called Romanichals were, for the crime of being Gypsy, enslaved or "indentured for life" alongside Africans on the Virginia plantations. German Gypsies arrived under similar duress. German Gypsies, who had "inhabited the Palatinate or Rhine County, for many centuries, wandering the entire distance between Schaffhausen and Middelburg on their migrations."4 arrived in the late 1720s with the Huguenots, Swiss Moravians, Alsatians, Jews and Waldensians searching for freedom from oppression and an escape from the poverty and chaos caused by the Thirty Years War (1618-48). * But Gypsies had been given additional reason to emigrate. Since 1577 anti-Gypsy legislation had forbidden them to do business or settle. By 1710 flogging, branding, separation from kin and exile became the standard punishment for Gypsy men and women with no criminal charges against them. The punishment for returning was execution. Those deemed fit for work faced "life confinement with forced labor". In 1734 Gypsy hunts became an established and profitable sport, with a reward of "six Reichstaler for every live Gypsy brought in and three for a dead Gypsy, as well as keeping their belongings" 5 "In 1826, Freiherr von Lenchen displayed his trophies publicly: the severed heads of a Gypsy woman and her child.
In 1835, a Rheinish aristocrat entered into his list of kills "A Gypsy woman and her suckling babe."6
Henry W. Shoemaker in a 1924 address related that although the Gypsies were "Proscribed, hated and despised, there were strict regulations against these Nomads being embarked in a body as if, though they were not wanted at home, they were not allowed to go elsewhere! On a number of occasions Gipsy bands endeavored to charter whole ships at Rotterdam, but as they were watched with the same argus-eyed authority as are bootleggers today, their efforts were always at the last minute frustrated. It is related that one ship, the "Stein-Awdler," giving it the "Pennsylvania Dutch" pronunciation, got away under cover of darkness, but during an unfavorable tide, it still lay in the harbor at daybreak, when the papers were scrutinized and declared invalid by the port authorities.
Several boat-loads of port wardens went in pursuit, but the boats were not to carry the unfortunate Chi-kener back to dry land, but order them off the ship. They were driven overboard, men, women and children, like a plague of rats, and had to jump out in the mud up to their waists, and get ashore as best they could, leaving their possessions behind, which were seized as a fine levied against them as a body. On shore the mud-saturated refugees were attacked by a mob armed with boat-hooks and soundly beaten, and probably quite a few died of their wounds and exposure afterwards."7
Method of Immigration - Ports of entry
Forbidden to come to America as a free people, Gypsy individuals "sold themselves to redemptioners for the price of their fare to America.
"This species of servitude, and the selling of emigrants for their passage had not a few of the features about it, of involuntary chattel slavery, and it was characterized at the time as the 'German slave trade" according to Ian Hancock's, "The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution"8
But Shoemaker notes that "while it meant breaking up of the families, the Gypsies deliberately sold themselves into servitude as individuals and bravely faced the great adventure, hoping to re-assemble and re-unite in Philadelphia or Lancaster...No doubt the exact numbers could be ascertained and identified through a careful perusal of I. Daniel Rupp's "Thirty Thousand Names of German Emigrants." 9
There were those who "posed as being as poor as the most poverty-stricken Palatines, but on arriving at their final destinations in inland Pennsylvania sometimes bought out their employer's farm, buildings, livestock and implements and all to the surprise of those worthy Pietists. 10 Others "were canny enough to know that they would never work out their passage money. They would either marry the sons or daughters of the Huguenot, Swiss and Palatine farmers they were bound out to, or else they would run away."12
As runaways it would seem that the German Gypsy had an advantage over the English Gypsy.
English Gypsies would have had dark oriental eyes, dark skin and hair in contrast to the fair complected English making them and more easily singled out and controlled." Most of the Chi-kener families were broken up by this Redemptioner method of emigration, as some were dumped on the inhospitable New England cost, others in New Jersey, and still others in the far South instead of at the ports along the Delaware. 11 Warren B. Smith's "White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina" reports that "The largest group represented outside of the British Isles were the Germans. Many of these Germans came as redemptioners."11 He goes on to quote Robert L. Meriwether's, "The Expansion of South Carolina" which states, "The largest bodies of the Germans and Scotch-Irish who settled the piedmont and mountainous regions from Maryland to Georgia came to America through the ports of Philadelphia and Newcastle, Delaware, and finding lands occupied in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were gradually pushed toward the south, till they were met by a smaller stream of the same people who came through the port of Charleston to South Carolina and thence to the frontier.11b
Common Names of the Black Dutch
As if the genealogy and origins of the Black Dutch were not complex enough, it is important to note that Gypsies often have two names, one that is private and for family use and one that is public for official records and conducting business. Imagine the brick wall you would encounter if your Granny Palmer was listed on public documents as a Smith. The public name that is chosen is very often the most common name in the area in which they have settled. This creates the kind of research problem Brent Kennedy faced when he found his Melungeon ancestors had "some sort of secret pact to give their children the same names." with "five Andrew Jackson Mullinses living at the same time."17a Interestingly, a variant of the name Mullens, Mullen, may have been a Gypsy name as it appears alongside Chicanere and Romanichal names in an August 30th, 1862 article in The Rock Island Argus . The article describes a caravan of Gypsies arriving in town to deal horses. The men, Constant Smith , Frank Schwartz, John Boswell and Cornelius Mullen, approached the press to offer references and assurances of their honesty. The press encouraged the town to make the Gypsies unwelcome. The name Kaiser is also common to both Gypsies and Melungeons. In the "The Pariah Syndrome", Ian Hancock mentions the Kaiser name when he quotes an article from the National Gazette, May 19th, 1834 which "tells of the indiscriminate flogging of Gypsies, called "Yancers", in New York State, apparently as a means of sport for whoever could afford it." He quotes the paper as saying, "There is yet another tribe, at or near Schenectady, called Yansers, although their patriarchal name is Kaiser. A gentleman appointed some years ago to some town office there, states that he found a charge of four pounds, ten shillings for whipping Yansers, the amount, being small was allowed. A similar charge being brought the next year, he asked what in the name of goodness it meant?
Behold, it was for chastising Gypsies whenever occasion presented, which was done with impunity and for some profit..." 18 p.87 Brent Kennedy's, "The Melungeons: Resurrection of a Proud People" also lists the names Kiser, Kayser and Colley. "Regardless of how these darker genes may have slipped in, by the early 1800s both the Kisers and the Colleys were a dark-complexioned, black and curly-haired people alternately claiming an Indian or "Black Dutch" heritage."19 p.85 Other names of Chicanere reported by Shoemaker were Hemperley, Rau, Reinhold, Einsich, Dapp, Grosmere, Ingraham, Stanley, May, Nesselrode, Lovell, Shaw and Wharton" 16 Additional Black Dutch/Chicanere names are Smith, Schwartz, Womeldorf. Stanley, Smith, Ingram and Lovell are actually English Gypsy or Romanichal names. This confusion may have arisen when Chicanere began traveling with Romanichals.17 The members of the second German Gypsy migration of 1850-70 also traveled with Romanichals and were absorbed into their culture. 17a
Loss of Culture or Romnipen
It seems almost certain that any Melungeon/Black Dutch ancestry that can be linked to the Chi-kener must be descended from those German Gypsies who were never able to be reunited with their clan or families, married non-Gypsies or Gadje and lost their cultural heritage. I say this because in reading about the Melungeon I can find no evidence of the ritual cleanliness regulations that the Gypsies brought with them when they migrated out of India 1000 years ago and continue to practice today in varying degrees as a key component of their cultural identity.
Some of these cleanliness regulations may seem as severe and obscure to us as the Indian caste system. Things that come into contact with the upper body must not come into contact with the lower body. A menstruating woman is unclean and even her shadow must not fall on a man or he may be contaminated (although feminist anthropologists might interpret this as a male respect for the power of life giving blood). Great care is taken to avoid allowing unclean things to enter the body. Food improperly cooked or dishes and utensils improperly cleaned must not be taken into the mouth. Even amongst themselves contemporary Roma in Eastern Europe will share a pipe but will wrap their hand around the pipe stem and draw smoke through the fist. The cat is an especially unpopular animal because it licks itself, taking dirt from the outside to the inside. Bad luck can also contaminate.
Trouble with the authorities, for example, can bring Gadje scrutiny to the entire clan. Other regulations seem so commonplace we take them for granted. Men's and women's clothing and upper and lower body clothing are washed separately. Pets are dirty animals and are never allowed to live in the house. They must certainly never be allowed to eat out the dishes that people use.
Another important component of Romnipen is fellowship. Being with other Roma keeps the spirit healthy, being away from Roma depletes it.
Observing these customs has not only provided cultural cohesion but has been a survival tactic in the face of 1000 years of persecution and life threatening disease. It must have also brought about a sense of order and control in a hostile, uncontrollable world where murder was a daily threat and genocide a real possibility.
Because Gadje don't follow all of these rules they are unclean, can contaminate and must be kept at a careful distance (although there are exceptions in which all Roma including Chicanere adopted vagabonds). As a result, contamination, or Marhime, brings with it the very real threat of exile from the clan.
Since many of the regulations involve menstruation, childbirth, cleaning and cooking it falls to the women to maintain them. As long as the family and the clan can stay together they can retain their customs and heritage or "Romnipen" which loosely translates to Gypsy-hood. But when the individual is separated from his family and clan his culture is not inclined to survive intact.
Fate in America
But, "Only a small percentage of the hundreds of continental Gypsies who came to Pennsylvania as redemptioners in the last half of the Eighteenth Century ever rescued themselves from this new environment."12 Chicanere "who reached Philadelphia were ultimately reunited into family groups, and as soon as this was done their instinct took them to the road."15 "Lancaster for some reason was the first headquarters of the Gypsies in Pennsylvania, that is outside of Philadelphia. In 1763 there were enough of them there to attempt to form themselves into a band, and live in the open in the groves of giant white oaks along the Conestoga and Mill Creek.14 Other "favorite harboring spots for a century or more;
Philadelphia, Lebanon, (called by the Gypsies Stitestown,) Lancaster, Reading and York. 15 and , up until 1930, "Most of the traveling She-kener wintering in little narrow alleys adjacent to the railroad tracks at York.."15a or "at Pittsburg15b...
In 1930 Shoemaker wrote that "They were expert horsemen, and created the first interest in horse-breeding and horse-racing in rural Pennsylvania. In other words, they stood for better horses. They were expert potters, making better pots, jugs and flasks than the Indians, or the potters of Huguenot, Spanish or Moravian antecedents. They were expert coppersmiths, and turned out finer work than any other foreign element in Pennsylvania. They were clever ironworkers and artistic tile makers. Everything they executed was distinctive and of artistic merit, and yet they did not try half so hard as the plodding gentiles they out-created and out-sold. They knew how to make glass, and the famous Baron Stiegel whom Pennsylvania is so tardy in honoring, used every inducement to secure their staying with him at Manheim, his chief glass-maker’s name was Stanley, a German speaking, Gipsy, whose descendants are today part prosperous and sedentary and part wanderers and impecunious. They were famous musicians, and as dancers excelled for their grace. The She-kener were the vanguard of the artistic impetus which the so-called "Dutch" gave to Pennsylvania, the colonial houses, furniture, stoves, firebacks, glassware, tiles, illuminated manuscripts, sconces, urns, pottery and bells, as well as ballads and music that have caused antiquarians to remark that the Pennsylvania Germans alone of all the colonial elements left behind them artistic remains."20 Because no people are ever all good or all bad, they also had the reputation of being able "to put a "disturber" on a person, a spell that may last indefinitely. Pennsylvania witchcraft, the black art the "hechs," is theirs.." and "In telling "fortunes" the She-kener girls and women never impart anything that is pleasant, for example, they will tell a married man that his wife is false," etc. 21 The Pennsylvania Dutch people, although pious, were also superstitious which brings us to the famous Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs that decorate the barns of Lancaster County. By all accounts the symbols are purely decorative but I find it hard to imagine that the Pennsylvania Dutch, believing it possible to be hexed would just coincidentally call their barn decorations "hex signs".
Their superstition also made the "Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious Arts and Remedies for Men As Well As Animals" by Johann Georg Hohman, the second most popular book after the Bible and it has remained in continuous print to this day. The book’s introduction claims the information was collected from a Gypsy. I have not been able to find any evidence that there is overlap between traditional Gypsy folk medicine and those remedies in "The Long Lost Friend" however further research is needed. This book influenced not only the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch but that of African-Americans in the South who purchased the book from Jewish peddlers and used it in the development of Voodoo.
Costume - early
The Chikener brought vivacity to their dress as well as their arts. The men "usually wore a red sash under their coats into which were sewed leathern scabbards or sheaths, where they carried long knives with rapier like handles"33 The sashes and "handsome cashmere shawls formed leading elements of their costumes 34 The girls were of marked beauty, the same dark coloring as the Pennsylvania mountain girls of today, the hair worn long and in two braids, tied with red ribbons, and sometimes bound upon their heads, and into which silver half-moons and stars were woven. The skirts were worn short, and striped patterns predominated. They wore long, bright colored stockings or tights, and low shoes of soft leather. A scarlet scarf was draped about the neck, over which were many stings of bright colored beads of glass or metal. Bobbed hair was only worn by girls who had had a love affair with a white man and failed to win him into the tribe." 35 Gypsy youth never wore hats and often ornamented their dark hair with vulture feathers. 36 Many people erroneously thought that Gypsies darkened their skin deliberately and Shoemaker was misinformed on this point. He wrote, "The darkness of the Chi-kener complexions was heightened, so Dr. Stephen tells us, by the use of various greases or "schmeres," which recalls William Penn’s famous letter of 1683 to the Free Traders, at London, in which he says: The Pennsylvania Indians are of complexion black, but by design, as the Gypsies in England." Some Pennsylvania Germans called the Gypsies "Smutsers," and "Dutch" mothers whose babies had dirty faces called them "regular smutsers." 37 This last custom is now being questioned. It seems the English Gypsies had skin dark enough that the English assumed erroneously that they had deliberately darkened their complexions. Among English Gypsies there is no such tradition or history of such a tradition.
By 1875 "they gradually adopted more modern styles of apparel. The Chi-kener girls dipped snuff, smoked sumac leaves in long-stemmed pipes, bobbed their hair, and wore short skirts...They were cleanly in their habits, great bathers, and always on the move looking for fresh water.
They were fond of a wild dance, perhaps the ancestor of the present "Charleston," 38 their favorite musical instrument was much like a banjo, and they often sang a song or dirge about their ancestors having been dumped into Rotterdam harbor. 39
Customs and Superstitions
Apart from having "their long tresses publicly bobbed...Chi-kener were kind to their children, never resorting to corporal punishment, and were always respectful to the older members of the tribe...."When on the march the men and boys rode the horses and ponies, the women walked" or "occasionally rode ponies astride, but never used a saddle" ..."In those days tents were set at night, but later when vans or wagons were adopted, they slept in these vehicles.40
Historically all Roma have believed in the supernatural and are superstitious. The Chikener "believed in dreams and ghosts", "familiar spirits followed the caravans, annoyed the picketed horses at night by pulling their tales, or tapped on the windows of the wagons, if ill-fortune was at hand." When the wind moaned at night, it was the spirit of long dead Chikener longing to return to the Gipsy trail." 41
Chikener also brought with them a "symbolism of good and bad trees. They classed as good trees first the beech, widely known as the "Gypsy tree," after that the ash, and the rowan or mountain ash, the white oak, the birch, the linden and the maple. Pines and aspens were evil, and the Chi-kener’s prejudice became a prime cause for early settlers cutting down all pine trees near their dwellings." 28 As well, the giant stag-horn sumac was called the "devil tree." 29 The Chicanere also used trees medicinally. For example, in newly cleared pastures rattle snakes and copperheads killed many cattle. As a remedy the head of a newly killed reptile was inserted into a hole bored into a young "snake ash" and plugged up. The following year switches were cut from the suckers of the tree and gently used on the bitten area.
"As they were naturally an extremely reticent people, the Pennsylvania German Gypsies developed a tree language which in time was their chief defensive weapon against the constant persecutions of the white people."29a Pictographs were carved into trees. "A circle quartered on a beech, ash or linden indicated...a safe and pleasant place to camp." A half or quarter circle meant danger, ranging from loss of money to death, the severity being indicated by which quadrant the quarter was taken from and the type of tree on which it was carved. Likewise, "a diamond, cut on a beech, bisected, translated to mean that "must leave for reasons (best known to self). Will be within two days journey." The bisecting line when extending on both sides beyond the diamond, "four days journey." 30 On one side only a "three days journey." Also carved on a beech tree a heart and a cross were "symbols of Gypsy lovers."
Shoemaker also describes "the white man’s warning against the Chi-kener:
a white star and black hand" 32" While still In the Rhine when a Gypsy came to a house looking for work and found their was no money to be made he painted a discrete white star was on the doorjamb as notice for the next Gypsy traveling through. 32a It is uncertain who added the black hand and when but the black hand and white star appear in a Gypsy Holocaust Memorial in Salzburg leading me to believe that this image originated in the Rhine and traveled to Pennsylvania, a clear visual indicator that the intolerance they had hoped to escape in the New World had followed them.
Language of the Chicanere
Because the language of older kin is a clue to origins, I’ve included some notes on Chicanere language for those researching their Black Dutch heritage.
Of their own Chicanere words, those collected by Shoemaker 26 and confirmed by John Sampson of the Gypsy Lore Society 27 are: "Schater" -tent; "schaw"-herb; "ruh" or "ru" - wolf; "schokel" - dog; "daddie" - father; "mami" grandmother; and "schetra" - fiddle. Also used by the Chicanere were Pennsylvania Dutch words which have a German base: "fluent"-gun; "haws"-rabbit; "kots"-cat; "baum"- tree;
"blech" - pewter; "schmere" - grease; "schifwoga" - conestoga wagon;
"goul" - horse; "gow" - gelding; "Goo" cow; "sal" - soul or spirit;
"shar"- scissors; "lewa" - love; "schlong"- snake; "shmardsa"- pain;
"dame" or "dama"- mother; "jagger" or "yagger" - hunter, woodsman;
"rawba"- raven; "schwatza" -blackbird; "boocha"- beech tree; "bilda" - candle mold; "barrich" - mountain or hill; "werdhaus"- inn or tavern;
"wektora"- pigeon; and "wekawdler" - vulture lit. eagle.
Words of uncertain origin used by Chicanere are: "aschpin"-whetstone;
"meilbahr" - milestone (bahr however, does mean stone in Romani26a); wek’nia" - hawk; "dada" - grandfather; "hausleira" - peddler; "shosich" - young girl, flapper; "schlor" - dagger; and "boga-man" - boogie-man, lit. "dark man with bow", Indian, enemy.
It is also worth noting that "native "Dutch" farmers, with whom the Chi-kener came into daily business intercourse, ...compelled them to adopt certain Indian words commonly used." 25 An example of this might be "pow wow" which in Pennsylvania Dutch Country refers to a "white magic" ceremonies often for healing.25a
"Some authorities have claimed that from 1845 to 1870 there were approximately three thousand of the She-kener following the roads in Pennsylvania." By the 1930’s, " three hundred would be a liberal estimate of their numbers. The World War drew many of them to Hog Island and other industrial plants, with the result that they settled down in cities, and will probably never take the roads again." The three thousand would not have included the second wave of German Gypsy migration in 1850-70. Those "Gypsies in large numbers...travel in handsome automobiles...on the Pennsylvania highways in the summer months. But beyond acknowledging a racial and lingual kinship the She-kener maintain no intercourse with them.".42
Black Dutch - Indian relations
Many people researching their Melungeon and Black Dutch heritage also claim Indian ancestry. In the same way that Melungeons marry within their community Gypsies traditionally marry only other Gypsies and usually within their clan or vitsa but far more men than women arrived in the colonies. Under those circumstances It is not unreasonable to think that German Gypsies would have married Indians. There was a community of Gypsy men married to Indian women in Paskagola, Louisiana documented in 1780. 21a Anyone familiar with the history of the treatment of the American Indian would find it hard to imagine that a dark skinned person would claim Indian ancestry in order to receive better treatment but while Indian may be synonymous with second class citizen, it is not synonymous with thief. An Indian is still allowed to conduct business. He is not considered a criminal by birth. Even today there is enough discrimination and stereotyping to compel Gypsies to "present themselves as American Indians, Hispanics, or southern Europeans, and they usually do this rather than identify themselves as Gypsies."21b* Unfortunately the only encounter between Indians and Gypsies described by Henry Shoemaker in his 1924 address was nightmarish. "About this time came the first contact between Gipsy and Indian, a romantic and historic fore gathering of oppressed peoples. In the market-cross at Lancaster these two groups of dark-skinned peoples met, the Indians to buy, the Chikener to sell their trinkets and wares. As one old man from the Little Sand Hills of Dauphin County said in describing it, "They hated one another" This did not augur well for journeys into Indian countries, but they went. It was in the fall of 1763 that they left Lancaster, following the Conestoga to its source, as they had the Rhine from Schaffhausen to Rotterdam and Middelburg. Evidently their journey was uneventful, as there are no records, but at length they came to an abandoned Indian camp with huts, stockades, good water, forage, which they calmly pre-empted. A wandering redman came upon them there, and in the name of the tribe ordered them off. they meekly went, and the Indian hurried back to his kindred to tell of the vile intruders, with the result that all of this particular group of Conestogas returned to their camp in Paxton Hollow, which became in a few days their Valhalla. Shrewd Ulster Scots noticing the Gipsy fires, the movement of Indians, and the untoward atmosphere of excitement opined some sort of an unfriendly gesture on the part of the hated Conestogas, and their fancied allies, and promptly spread the report along the Blue Mountains. The story of a Bolshevik plot against the Capitol at Washington could not have a more explosive effect on a legion Post today than this story of probable Indian reprisals to the self-constituted Regulators of the frontier, chafing for an outlet for pent-up patriotism. Mounting their horses they swooped down on the unsuspecting Indians, the Gypsies had vanished, where their chroniclers do not tell "they put on their invisible garments" to use their own phraseology, and the Indians were barbarously exterminated, down to the few remnants housed in Lancaster Gaol for safe-keeping, who were brained, scalped and mutilated by the same bloodthirsty Paxton boys.
Yet there are some who advocate a monument to the Paxton boys! The various tribes of Indians inherited a hatred of Gypsies, with the result that the Chi-kener never ventured into the Indian county until after it had been thoroughly pacified". 22
It’s hard to imagine that competition for limited resources wouldn’t have also been a cause for conflict as both the Indians and Chicanere needed good camp sites with fresh water at a time when European encroachment strained those resources.
But "old hates and feuds are buried with the flesh" as Chi-kener buried their dead "frequently in abandoned Indian graveyards." 23
I don’t envy the genealogist trying to untangle a story of a grandparent who claimed to be Indian but appears on no known Indian roles; talked about migrating to winter camp and made baskets; had dark skin and eyes and wore her hair in braids; who had a husband who’d worn feathers in his hair and was now buried in an Indian burial ground, especially if that person descended from a runaway indentured servant who chose to claim to be an Indian and therefore a Free Person of Color.
Reticence to share oral history
Henry W. Shoemaker wrote that "Gipsy history like Indian history is oral, it must be gotten from the Gypsies themselves."43 But because of discrimination most Gypsies are wary of strangers, reticent to even admit to their ethnicity, much less provide a history of their people. Their trepidation was justified. The only other significant research on German Gypsies was conducted by the Nazis who collected thousands of genealogies in preparation for a genocidal action against them." Between a half and one and a half million" 44 Gypsies were murdered.
I’m not saying that the all Melungeons and Black Dutch are simply Gypsies hiding under another name. There is no evidence that present day Gypsies have any of the genetic traits common to those of Melungeon descent such as the Anatolian bump, shovel teeth, sarcoidoses, Familial Mediterranean Fever, etc. But neither am I saying that I believe the Chicanere are the only Gypsy component of the Melungeon. There are too many intriguing clues. A strong sense of fatalism, of accepting your lot in life, is shared by both peoples. They are both historically superstitious. There seems to be a strong and ordered division of the sexes. Both are metalsmiths. Regarding the Melungeon nomadic lifestyle, Brent Kennedy says "Why did our ancestors migrate so readily and without apparent reason, often to and from the same general areas of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia?" English Ethnomusicologist, Peter Kennedy, finds a great deal of Gypsy influence in the music of Appalachia and Alan Lomax describes the singing style and gestures of the Appalachian Mining Union man and singer, Nimrod Workman, as appearing "Nowhere else but among the Gypsies of Scotland.48
Copyright ©2000 Linda D. Griggs. All rights reserved.
My thanks to:
Dr. Ian Hancock and the Romani Archives, Regina Marsh, H. T. Bryer, Henry Burke, Bob Foster, Brian Raywid, Lalla Weiss, Karla Shahan, Jane Pierce and the Librarians at the Hamilton Fish Branch Library of the New York Public Library, Dr. Brent Kennedy, all those at Romnet, the Melungeon List, Patrin and the Black Dutch list.
Requests for bibliographic information as well as questions, comments and criticism may be send to: [email protected] I would also welcome any family histories relevant to Gypsy history in the American South.
Copyright ©2000, Linda Griggs. Do not download or copy this document without explicit permission of the author. This document is copyrighted and may not be copied, duplicated, sold, nor given to others in any form or function.