Archival documents reveal links to my Melungeon ancestry...

I recently carved out some spare time in my busy schedule to delve into a "posterity project" very close to me -- my family history. In my ongoing research into my family genealogy, I've been fascinated by my paternal ancestors and their link to the Melungeons. With inspiration from author and novelist Lisa Alther, and some help from genealogist Joanne Pezzullo, I recently began looking into this mysterious branch on my family tree, and discovered some very interesting finds in the archives.

According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:

"Since the late 1700s observers have pondered the who, what, why, and where of the people in Tennessee they called Melungeons. In earlier American eras that focused on racial pedigrees, any group that did not fit into easy identification as white, African, or American Indian was often called mulatto, mestizo, or mustee, depending on the perceived racial mix. These words, as does the French-derived "melungeon," share their root in the Latin verb miscere, "to mix." The theories on the origins of the families termed Melungeon have changed through the years. As one scholar has noted, the history of the Melungeons may ultimately be the individual histories of many families, rather than of one people."

Confusion over the racial origins of the Melungeons extended to the Census records, where in 1900 my great-great-grandfather, William Volney Goins, and his family, were labeled as "Indian" for documentation purposes...

In this 1900 U.S. Census document, the names of my great-great-grandfather's family are listed near the bottom. All of them were documented with the classification "IN" indicating that the Census taker believed them to be of "Indian" or Native-American descent.

I also located other Census documents from various years which list my Goins family as "Mullato" and as "White." It is not likely that this racial information was volunteered by the family, but more likely it was surmised by the Census taker. However, six years after the 1900 Census was taken, William Volney Goins publicly claimed his assigned "Indian" heritage.

On December 21, 1906, William Volney Goins was among over 45,000 individuals who filled out an Eastern Cherokee Application following an act of Congress in that year which set aside several million dollars with which to compensate the descendants of Cherokee who lost their land under the 1835 Treaty of New Echota just prior to the Trail of Tears.

The U.S. Government appointed Guion Miller to compile a roll of Eastern and Western Cherokees eligible for compensation. To collect, applicants had to document their lineage back to an Eastern Cherokee living in the 1830s and prove that they had not affiliated with any other tribe. The applications required each claimant to state full English and Indian names, residence, age, place of birth, name of husband or wife, name of tribe, and names of children. It also required information on the claimant's parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts.

My great-great-grandfather's application provides a wealth of genealogical information that has proven quite valuable to me in my search for my Melungeon ancestry. There are some interesting things I have learned about my father's side of the family from this application. William Volney Goins claimed that his Indian name was "Has Heard of Blue Liquid." Fitting, as William Volney Goins and his family were in the ferry business on the Tennessee River.

I also learned the names of my great-great-grandfather's parents, "Nathan and Marillia Goins," as well as the names of his grandfathers, "John Goins" and "Laborn Goins," which has taken me two more generations back into my family's past. There are many other interesting bits of information contained in this document, most of which lead to more questions than answers. But that is the fun and challenge of genealogy. Sometimes, the questions raised are far more intriguing than any possible answer that you might find.

I am very grateful to genealogist Joanne Pezzullo for sharing this information with me. For anyone interested in learning more about the Melungeon people, I would encourage you to visit her website at where you'll find a wealth of additional information on the subject.

Eventually, I plan to write a bit more about my Melungeon ancestors as I climb further up the branches of my family tree. In the meantime, here are a few links to some additional resources about Native American records and Melungeons which may help you trace your own ancestry...

The "Goins" surname is among the most well-documented surnames for Melungeon ancestry. Pictured in this photograph from my family album are from left to right: Arthur Goins, William Paul Goins (my great-grandfather), William Volney Goins (my great-great-grandfather), Sarah Martha Goins (my great-great-grandmother), Addie Goins, "Lank" Goins, and a friend (name unknown).


Native Americans:


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.