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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

Physical Characteristics

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...

Copyright ©2000 Linda D. Griggs.  All rights reserved.

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Anyone with information on Gypsies in this area please contact me.

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.

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