Part IX Sephardic Jews and the LDS Connection: The Great Melungeon Migration

After my article DNA Mormons? published in Sunstone, I was introduced to Marylee Mitcham thru Dan Wotherspoon. Marylee brought me back to the Melungeons,  I had investigated several years earlier. She told me of recent updates in Melungeon studies. Researchers had expanded the definition of Melungeon  to include tri-isolate groups in  Northern Georgia. Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Upstate and Long Island New York.   Now the possibility of our Melungeon-type ancestry seemed quite plausible.

I read up on the latest information and easily digested the new theories. After all, I had several years of getting comfortable with the idea of our ancestors as an European/Amerindian/African mix. We had ancestors who came to America in the 1600’s; so it was likely our DNA was a mixture  of European, Amerindian and African. We were mystified about the additional Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian DNA.

Later Marylee called to tell me she had  even more exciting news that my possible Melungeons were also Sephardic Jews.  I had never heard of Sephardic Jews, and was only vaguely aware of the Spanish Inquisition.  Dear Marylee persisted; so to placate her I conducted the “Uncle Carmi Test”.

Rhoda Benson daughter of Carmi Benson

Rhoda Benson daughter of Uncle Carmi Benson

The theory is Crypto or Converso Sephardic Jews in America gave their children unique Jewish names. I had encountered some odd names while looking at our New England family groups. One particular name stood out; Uncle Carmi BENSON who lived in the late 1700’s in Upstate New York. At the time, I wondered what kind of New English(ish) sort of name was “Carmi”. It sounded Italian, not Puritan.   I checked the census during his life, and there were a small handful of other Carmis.  I could not make sense of it, so Uncle Carmi went on a shelf.

With a new direction on where to go to look for the origin of “Carmi”;  I checked on the Sephardic Jewish name lists.  Lo and behold, there was Carmi, an North African Sephardic Jewish name.  I then read Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America by DrElizabeth C. Hirschman, a Melungeon descendant,  and  professor at Rutgers University.

I learned that the Sephardic Jewish descendants in America, who were either Converso or Crypto, often mixed with the Moors/Moriscoes of Spain, left naming clues for us to find.  Fortunately for me, as a descendant of Mormon pioneers, my relatives had faithfully done their genealogy and consequently I had large files of names I could access from my home computer.

Winkler, Wayne

Wayne Winkler, a Melungeon descendant, and  the author of Walking Toward Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia,  details the evidence of early immigration of Turks, Gypsies and free Africans; all of whom earned their freedom after indentured servitude.  During the 1600’s some of these free persons of color gained status and wealth then married white women from the servant class. Elizabeth C. Hirschman puts forth evidence that some of the Sephardic Jews mingled with the Mestizo families of Europeans, Amerindians, Gypsies, and Africans.

As the 1700’s approached, British immigrants living in the English Colonies since the beginning, increased in numbers and power. The Mestizo/Sephardic people, later called Melungeons, were pushed out of  the colonies by the newcomers in the English population. These Melungeon/Sephardic old settlers became many of the early pioneers in the new Western frontier.  Along with the Melungeons moving out of the colonies into the frontier,  the “more European” Sephardic descendants also pioneered the American frontier. It is generally thought the Mestizo/Melungeon mixed families settled in East Tennessee. The Amerindian-European mixed families went to Northern Georgia and Kentucky.  Whatever the ethnicity of the groups, it was watered down Converso/Crypto Sephardic heritage which kept them connected as a community.

In the Great Melungeon Migration of the late 1700’s-early 1800’s, recognized Sephardic explorers such as Daniel Boone, John Sevier and others explored and purchased Kentucky and East Tennessee from the Native American tribes for the settlement of the Sephardic Jews. SIMMONS and  BRADFORD ancestors settled in Kentucky. My HOOD, CARTER, and HILL lines came from North Carolina to settle in Northern Georgia and later migrated to Kentucky. Mike’s BYEES migrated from Virginia to North Carolina and East Tennessee and later some went to Kentucky.     

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone

John Sevier

John Sevier (Xavier)


Abraham Lincoln

In the 1700’s there were also smaller communities of Melungeons and Sephardic Jews who gathered for a time in Upstate and Long Island New York before they moved further out on the frontier. Our BENSON, MESSENGER, VAIL, BARNEY, and BARBER lines were among these people. Our MESSENGER-BENSON family with a group of others including VAILS and BLANCHARDS in the early 1800’s, moved to the banks of the Ohio River on the Indiana side bordering Kentucky. Abraham Lincoln, a recognized Sephardic Melungeon,  his grandparents  settled in a Melungeon community in Kentucky, the same community as our BYBEE and  SIMMONS ancestors.


Once the Sephardic descendants were out on the frontier, they were free to do as they pleased. There are documented cases by  Hirschman of American Crypto Jews who revert back to an open practice of their Jewish faith, including relatives of Abraham Lincoln.  Isaac SINGER, the inventor of the sewing machine, a distant cousin on the MESSENGER/MESSINGER side of the family, was a Jew.  Eventually most descendants  choose to forget their Jewish Moorish religious practices and their descendants are now unaware of their ancestor’s religion because their Jewish faith was so dissembled by conversion to  Christianity.


Isaac Singer

Some of these Sephardic Jews became the founders and early converts of the Campbellite and Primitive Baptist Movements. Others, vaguely aware of their Hebrew ethnicity, felt the Israelite tug of being God’s Chosen people, but were caught between both worlds, belonging to neither. These people are described as unchurched, and reading their Bible at home.

Now it is if I  have a magic decoder ring; I can recognize Converso/Crypto-Sephardic Jewish ancestors  like my MESSENGERS who worshipped and married at home. If they belonged to a church,  similar to our BENSONS, they are usually Primitive Baptist or Campbellite.  Like my ALLENS, VAILS and BENSONS, they were secretive and clannish and married their cousins like my SIMMONS ancestors.

Levan Simmons

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About JA Benson

Joanna entered the world as a BYU baby. Continuing family tradition, she graduated BYU with a degree in Elementary Education and taught for several years. Growing up in Salt Lake County, her favorite childhood hobbies were visiting cemeteries and eavesdropping on adult conversations. Her ancestral DNA is multi-ethnic and she is Mormon pioneer stock on every familial line. Joanna resides in the Southeastern USA with her five children ranging in age from 8 to 24. Her husband passed away in 2009. She is an avid reader and a student of history. Her current intellectual obsession is Sephardic Jewish history, influence and genealogy. She served as a board member for her local chapter of Families with Children from China. She is the author of “DNA Mormons?” Summer Sunstone 2007 and “Becoming Hong Mei`s Mother” in the Winter Sunstone 2009

12 thoughts on “Part IX Sephardic Jews and the LDS Connection: The Great Melungeon Migration

  1. How did I know we would be learning that Melungeons had Jewish connections? Perhaps it was the title. 🙂

    So are the Melungeons from the tribe of Judah? Did some of them accept the gospel, and do we have any of their patriarchal blessings?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  2. Yeah Geoff, kinda obvious. You sure are a smart one 🙂

    Probably all/most Melungeons (meaning those in the identified communities) are Jewish/Moorish. Not all Converso/Crypto Sephardic Jews in America are Melungeons. Plenty of Iberian Jews melted into the Western European population in America. The Sephardim are a blend of Judah and Benjamin. These were the two tribes Solomon sent out to colonize Iberia. One way to tell if you are from the Tribe of Benjamin is to look for a black dog or wolf on your family’s crest. Provided it is legitimate of course. Judah’s symbol is the lion.

    As for the rest of your question we will get to it, but yes and yes. I am sure we are all/most assigned to Ephraim. Joseph Fielding Smith said we are ALL a mix of more than one tribe. It does not matter we (Ephraimites) get to be the busy bees of this dispensation. Makes me tired to be a busy bee, but endure to the end.

  3. Coffinberry- Thanks for stopping by to read. If your classmates are Melungeon and proud of it, they already know. This is cutting edge historical research.

    Our pioneer names and DNA. THe rest of the posts explain how this happened:
    part 1-

    What happened in Spain
    part 2-

    Some went to Turkey
    part 3-

    Some went to Western Europe
    part 4-

    Sephardic Influences
    part 5-

    England and Spain were at war. The Western Europe Converso and Crypto Jews fled even farther west in fear of Spain
    part 6-
    part 7-

    Some Sephardic Jews were part of the tri-isolate communities in America
    part 8-

    Sephardic descendants preferred to be out on the wilderness
    part 9-

    Sephardim altered or adapted their surnames, but often kept a few Sephardic given names
    part 10-

    Sephardic Jews had unique illnesses:

    Evidence of Orson Hyde’s Jewish ancestry using the Hirschman model

    We are all gathered

  4. Hirschman’s research is nothing more than one more theory out there on the Melungeons. Kennedy says they were Turkish sailors, Hashaw says they were African slaves who stepped off the White Lion — everyone, it seems, has a theory or agenda, and all present ‘evidence’ that someone else thinks proves something.

    No one can even agree on who the Melungeons really were, where they came from or where they went, what their names were. The history of the people called Melungeons has yet to be written. One must be careful and do their own research.

  5. My mother’s sur name was BYBEE, her grandfather was PLEASANT BYBEE (one of many Bybee’s named Pleasant, I have found) and she always told us that he/we were part indian. Since her death I have tried to find a link to my Native-American heritage but cannot get past Pleasant and his wife Nancy (I believe her last name was White).
    They lived in Jackson County, Tennessee before moving to Stewart County, Tn in the mid 1800’s. His son (my granddad) wound up across the state line at Golden Pond (Trigg County) Kentucky where my mother was born in 1897. They moved to west Tennessee in 1913 and her dad, NEWTON COLUMBUS, died a few years later. Nancy is buried in the Bullock cemetery in Trigg county but we cannot locate Pleasant’s gravesite. One daughter, Louisiana, was married to Bullock (George Washington, I think).
    Some Bullocks I have been in touch with say they were also told that they were part indian. After reading a lot about the Melungeons I believe we are probably descended from them rather than the cherokee or some other tribe.
    I would appreciate any information that anyone might be willing to share with me. My e-mail is I now live near Nashville, Tn.

  6. I’ve had my mtDNA tested and am descended from Ashkenzi Jews from Russia and Poland. Am trying to find the connection between my Jewish ancestors and more recent female ancestors who were mixed race (freed slaves), then Mormon, then 7th Day Adventist. Do you have some references or resources I could access to gain more info? Could Melungeon also include Ashkenazi Jews as well as Sephardic? (First time I;ve heard or read of that term.)

  7. Hi Gladys- Sorry for the late response. If you had Sephardic DNA, it would not be as easy to detect as the Sephardim are historically diverse and migratory. I just noticed your comment. Melungeon families, could also include Ashkenazi, as Melungeons married others who were outcasts like themselves. Some of the Sephardic Jews migrated to Eastern Europe and mixed in with the Ashkenazi people. Likewise, some Ashkenazi migrated to the Turkish empire and were absorbed into the Sephardic populations. I do not know any resources about Melungeons and Ashkenazi. You could try Harry Stein and his Sephardic genealogy yahoo group see: or Jeffrey Malka at .
    Good luck.

  8. JA Benson,

    JA Benson,

    Please stop trying to stir up trouble by insinuating that members of LDS pioneer ancestry have Sephardic heritage. The plain truth is, that they are from a European mix as most white folks are in the US. That European mix may include a tiny bit of Jewish ancestry, but not much. To say that they are part Sephardic is ridiculous. You are just plain wrong about your speculations. My grandparents came here to the US from Rhodes, I am of Sephardic heritage. This whole conversation about people from the south are part Sephardic is complete nonsense and needs to stop. The whole word, “Melungeon” is made-up so the descendants of black people who had children with white people can “pass” as whites. Please leave the jews out of this far fetched conversation. My Sephardic ancestry is just as white looking as Casper the ghost. There are no olive skin people on all of my grandmother’s line, nor my grandfather’s line and they are 100% Sephardic from Rhodes just like their own ancestors who left Spain and Portugal in 1492. Your “Secret Decoder ring” is way off. I understand that people in the church want to feel special about their ancestry findings and feel good with boasting that they know something that others do not. This urban legend stuff goes too far and needs to stop.

    – Laura
    Active LDS member

    P.S. I’d like to add that this speculation of Abraham Lincoln being Jewish is only based on one person’s fictional writings. There are also writings out there that say that the shooter was Mary Todd. Trying to “out” people based on their ancestor’s religion sells books, and newspapers.

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