Meet my Melungeon ancestor...

In addition to promoting Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, and planning for the Society of Tennessee Archivists Annual Meeting, I've been very busy researching my family history, and thanks to some collective detective work by my friends at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and by genealogist Joanne Pezzullo, I've discovered something very interesting about my ancestry.

Meet my Great Grand Uncle, Charles Arthur Goins (as published in the February 10, 1941 edition of The Chattanooga Times)...



February 10, 1941

Arthur Goins Isn’t Sure About Traditions of Origin of Race

He had heard his father use the word “Melungeons.” His father had come from old “James county,” now a part of Hamilton–they were from Rhea county orginally, or perhaps McMinn. The tradition was that the Goins family had come to Tennessee from Virginia–but of that he was not sure.
So says Arthur Goins, of the Hale’s Bar settlement, as he pilots the ferry over the Tennessee river just below the toll bridge on the Cummings highway to Nashville. He is a “riverman,” small of stature–his eyes are bright, his movements quick–more than all else, in distinguishing characteristics, his face is slightly dark in coloring–a faintly foreign look–he might be a sailor from some distant port– he might be a fisherman or a navigator. Now he pilots a ferry and he swings the little motorboat around with expert ease.

Charles Arthur Goins - Chattanooga Times photo
Shown here at the helm of his ferry boat near the Marion County bridge is Arthur Goins, of Hales Bar, a descendant of the Melungeons, a distinctive group known to have been in this section when John Sevier founded the state of Franklin. The late Judge Lewis Shepherd once argued that the Melungeons came to American from Phoenicia when Carthage fell to the Romans. The Goins family are “Melungeons” so say all the old residents–one has to be an old resident even to know the queer word–its meaning is lost in modern parlance–even Arthur Goins recalls only that he had heard his father use it. And yet, to look backward in Tennessee history and perhaps far backward beyond the state’s original settlement, the word was once widely used. Perhaps the small, swarthy man has the right to appear as a navigator–perhaps the proud race from which he sprang came to this country even prior to Columbus.

Looking backward in the archives there is this notation by Will Allen Dromgoole, formerly of the Nashville Banner, as quoted in John Trotwood Moore’s History of Tennessee for a clue to the Melungeons’ origin. “When John Sevier organized the state of Franklin there was living in East Tennessee, a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent. The constitutional convention of 1834 isolated these “Melungeons” and gave them no voting privileges. They went into the hills of Tennessee -- they are also found in Rhea county.

Found By Sevier

The “Melungeons’ were here, according to this source when John Sevier came into Tennessee-these same reddish-brown, slightly swarthy people, as pro-genitors of the Goins family have an old background. In an effort to trace their history, one must search in another direction, far prior to the time of John Sevier.

In his book, “The Dawn of the Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History,” Judge Samuel Cole Williams writes of the probable existence in this valley of a race of white men who antedated Columbus. The Cherokees spoke of these people as white people with “moon eyes.” Williams, in his history, pins this legend down with fact. In Woods account of the journey of Needham and Arthur [1624-1628] into this then -- unexplored country, this paragraph appears: “Eight days” journey down the Tennessee river live a white people which has long beard and whiskers and which wears clothing.” That, in itself, might be tradition. This quotation is backed up by this statement: “The Indians said that these white people had a bell which they rang before they ate their meals and that they had a strange habit of bowing their heads and saying something in a low voice before they ate.” Judge Williams writes that these people; were probably Welsh–that they came to America A. D. 1170 under the leadership of Prince Madocan Owen Guyneth and that they were the ones whom the Cherokees called “mooneyed.”

An utterly different idea of Melungeon origin was advanced many years ago by Judge Lewis Shepherd, lawyer-extraordinary, and the father of the “Shepherd Boys” of Chattanooga. Judge Shepherd had a lawsuit involving a Melungeon girl, Betsy Barton, who through inheritance owned much of the land in Moccasin bend. In those days all people of this area knew about the Melungeons as a race of people set apart but of whom nothing much was known. Betsy’s case was doubtful. Bravely Judge Shepherd advanced his hypothesis in court. “Othello was a Melungeon.” These people are Phoenicians who after the fall of Carthage settled in Portugal. It is proven by their traditons that the Melungeons are Moors— the great navigators of the world. They settled in South Carolina.

Judge Shepherd comments, as early as seventy-five years ago, that the Moorish coloring of the Melungeons in non-eradicable. “There is never a mixture—a Melungeon woman, married to an East Tennessean, if she had twins, will find that one of the babies will be fair and one dark of skin–the Moorish coloring is non-eradicable. Melungeons do not blend.”

So there you are with two theories concerning Arthur Goins’ ancestry. How the Carthegians got to the shores of America, Judge Shepherd does not attempt to explain. He does say that there were many Melungeons in South Carolina prior to the revolution—a lonely people whom no one understood and they were persecuted on account of their swarthy skins. So, even in John Sevier’s time, as he states, they had moved into the mountains of Hancock county, Tennessee and in Rhea county, where they could live their own lives.

Phoenicians, Portuguese or Welsh, the Melungeons are yet part of Tennessee’s interesting history. The older generations of Tennesseans knew them well, talked of them much. Now they are almost forgotten. Yet even Arthur Goins’ name may be derived from the last syllable of the word “Melungeons.” Perhaps his ancestors came from Phoenicia–perhaps they were the great navigators of the world who sailed to the far corners of the earth in their frail barks. They of all the great explorers, before written history, knew how to sail by their chart of the fixed stars. One word of the Phoenician language survives in English–the name by which they called the North star–the Cynosure.” It is a word which Arthur Goins, of Hales Bar, would not recognize, but according to Judge Shepherd the “Cynosure” is the word which at the time of Scipio guided Arthur Goins’ ancestors over the stormy seas to America.

Charles Arthur Goins' final resting place in the Goins family cemetery.
So does Arthur Goins, a "Melungeon” of Tennessee guide his motor boat across the waters of the Tennessee river. His “cynosure” is the toll bridge, but there is a look about him as if he might be a descendant of the early navigators. The Phoenicians were the first who dared to go beyond the straits of Gibraltar into the north Atlantic. It is not altogether out of the realm of probability that a colony of them did come to America long before Columbus. So, at least, ran the brief of Judge Lewis Shepherd. They have been in Tennessee at any rate since prior to the revolution. Where the swarthy, lost people came from nobody knows definitely. They have been a race set apart, “Melungeons.” Even John Sevier did not know their origin. Perhaps they were the “moon eyed” people of Cherokee legend who once held sway in the valley of the Tennessee. At any rate the talk about them now grows less and less–the word is no longer used except by the old residents and there is the slight Moorish coloring which still lingers and sets the Melungeon apart. He is an “Othello of East Tennessee.”

The more that I discover about my Melungeon heritage, the more fascinated I become about the culture and origins of this distinctive people. I'm looking forward to what I may learn in the future. In the meantime, for more information about my newly-discovered lineage, here are a few links that may be of interest to readers of The Posterity Project:


Further reading from


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.