Tracing Your Roots: Were My Ancestors Melungeon?

Arch Goins and family of Tennessee, circa 1920, among those of Melungeon identity (Wikimedia Commons)
Arch Goins and family of Tennessee, circa 1920, among those of Melungeon identity (Wikimedia Commons)

A find in the 1860 census catches a reader by surprise, and points to a possible heritage that is subject to debate.


Dear Professor Gates:

I have been asked many times, “What are you?” My response was always, “My mother’s family is from the mountains near Chattanooga in Tennessee, so probably a little bit of everything.” A few years ago I started researching possible Native American roots, and I found my great-great-grandmother Sarah Isabella Goins, at age 2, listed on the 1860 census in Hamilton County, Tenn. She was listed with her mother, Julia Ann Goins, and grandmother Diana Goins. To my surprise, they were all listed as mulatto.

I know Diana is the daughter of Harman Helton, born in 1787 in Tennessee. His father was Abraham (born in Halifax, Va., in 1743) and [mother was] Katie Owl Helton (Cherokee, N.C.). The Helton line has been said to be Cherokee. I have reason to believe that Abraham may have been Catawba.

The Heltons and Goinses seemed to be familiar with each other starting way back in the 1700s. The families married one another a lot. My four-times great-grandmother Diana Helton married Tilman Goins (born about 1804 in North Carolina). I think but haven’t been able to prove that his father and mother were Shadrack (born in Virginia in 1725) and Hannah (born in Virginia in 1725). 

According to FamilySearch, Shadrack’s father may have been John Goins/Goween from Fairfax Parish, colony of Virginia. I have seen Goins names come up in research about Melungeons and also about very early African-American indentured servants who were later freed. Do you have any insight into this line of Goinses? —Dionnia Martin

As we noted in a previous column with Eileen Pironti, “Did My White Ancestor Become Black?” there is some controversy about the origins of the Melungeons, a group of people historically found in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Some who self-identify as Melungeon claim Portuguese and Native American roots. Legal historian Arielle Gross’ 2007 essay in Law and History Review, “‘Of Portuguese Origin’: Litigating Identity and Citizenship Among the Little Races in Nineteenth-Century America” (registration required), places such claims in the context of attempts by people known as “Melungeon” or “Goins” to be recognized under the law as white, with the rights that that identity imparted.


However, a 2011 DNA study published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy pegs many self-identified Melungeons as the offspring of people from sub-Saharan Africa and Northern or Central Europe. As the study’s authors—Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson and Janet Lewis Crain—note:

At one time isolated geographically … and socially due to their dark countenance, they were known to their neighbors as Melungeons, a term applied as an epithet or in a pejorative manner.

As the stigma of a mixed racial heritage dimmed in the late 20th century and was replaced by a sense of pride, interest in the genealogy and history of the Melungeon people was born. With the advent of the Internet and popular press, the story of these people has become larger than life, with their ancestors being attributed to a myriad of exotic sources: Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony, Ottoman Turks, The Lost Tribes of Israel, Jews, Gypsies, descendants of Prince Madoc of Wales, Indians, escaped slaves, Portuguese, Sir Francis Drake’s rescued Caribbean Indians and Moorish slaves, Juan Pardo’s expedition, De Soto’s expedition, abandoned pirates and Black Dutch, among others. Melungeon families themselves claimed to be Indian, white and Portuguese.


The study points out that the family line of “John Going,” of Hanover County, Va., who had a son named Shadrack, was determined to have sub-Saharan African DNA after Shadrack’s descendant or descendants took Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal DNA tests. It also contains numerous contemporaneous 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century quotes about people with the surname Goins, referring to mixed-blood and mulatto or black ancestry.

The discovery that your own ancestors were recorded as mulatto on the 1860 U.S. census, by itself, could mean a number of things. Race in census records was often recorded based on the perceptions of the census taker, as discussed in another previous column, with Anna Todd: “My Ancestor’s Name and Race Changed in Census Records. Why?” However, putting that designation together with their place of residence and the surname Goins can lead one to reasonably suspect a Melungeon connection.


The DNA study’s authors are also administrators of the Melungeon Core Y-DNA Project at Family Tree DNA, and we suggest that you reach out to them about being tested.

Tracing Your Goins Line Back in Time 

You noted that you have been unable to locate evidence that the parents of Diana (Helton) Goins’ husband, Tilman Goins, were Shadrack Goins (born in Virginia about 1725) and Hannah (born in Virginia around 1725). We located Tilman and Diana residing in Hamilton County, Hamilton, Tenn., in 1850 (note that FamilySearch has transcribed their names as Gilmore and Dines Gains, but the same record in is transcribed as Tilmon and Siner Goins). Your Juliann Goins was included in the household, along with a number of other individuals who are likely her siblings. It is always good to note siblings, since records for them may help you locate more information about your own ancestors. Although you have heard that the Helton line was Native American, this record identifies everyone in the household as mulatto.


You may have noticed while searching the 1860 census record for your ancestors that one of their neighbors was a Granville Goins, born about 1809, whose entire household was also recorded as mulatto. It is a strong possibility that your Goins family is connected to this one.

There were also several Gowins recorded in Hamilton County, Tenn., living directly next to one another in 1840, all recorded as being households of free people of color. In 1830, a Sandford Gowen was residing in a household of all free people of color very close to a number of other Gowen families, namely those of Laban Gowen, Dodson Gowen and Roland Gowen. All had free people of color as the heads of household, though they also had free white females in the recorded. It seems very likely that your family connects to these Gowens in Hamilton County and points to a history of the family being recorded as people of color.


You may want to compare what you know about your ancestors with the research by Paul Heinegg in Free African Americans that has an article about the Going/Gowen family. His research includes a Shadrock Goin, born about 1737, who was the son of Edward Goin. According to Heinegg’s research, this Shadrock had a son, Shadrock, born in Virginia about 1776 who was recorded as the head of household on an 1810 tax list in Grainger County, Tenn. Examining a county map of Tennessee demonstrates that Grainger County and Hamilton County are not adjacent, but it is possible that the 1810 record demonstrates a migration path of the family as they moved deeper into Tennessee.

A number of blogs and articles make claims that the Goins men migrated from Virginia to Grainger County to Claiborne County, Tenn., and onward to Hamilton County. One article notes the men we located in the 1830 U.S. federal census—Sandford, Roland, Laban, Dodson and John—as brothers who intermarried with Native American women. Your Tilman Goin is even mentioned, along with his children.


Your next step will be to confirm these articles’ claims. Track down the original records they cite and see if you can locate any additional records in each of the counties where the family lived to see if you can learn more about your family’s mixed-race origins.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.