William Goyens, Black Pioneer of Early Texas

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William Goyens Centennial Marker, Photo Courtesy Sarah Reveley, July 2008

William Goyens was a free black who managed to become a success. Though almost illiterate, he was a businessman and advisor to Sam Houston.

William Goyens was a settler in early Texas, a man who successfully ran a blacksmith shop and numerous real estate deals. He also was an Indian trader, and performed valuable services as interpreter and negotiator with the Cherokee and Comanche tribes. Goyens was a friend of Sam Houston, and generally respected in his community. The unusual thing was that William Goyens was, or was perceived to be, African-American.

William Goyens’s Early Life

William Goyens was born in Moore County, North Carolina in 1794. He was said to be the son of a free mulatto man named Goings and a white woman. There are no known photos of Goyens, and artistic renderings are not contemporary, and therefore suspect. Given the racism of that time, we may assume he looked like a white man. He later married a white woman, and her family seems to have welcomed him with open arms. That would not have been the case had his black features been pronounced.

Goyens moved to Texas in 1820, setting up a smithy and wagon making shop in Nacogdoches. He lived there the rest of his life. In 1821 Texas became part of Mexico, and the Mexican government offered free blacks equal citizenship rights with whites. The influx of Anglo-American settlers under Stephen Austin did little to change the favorable status blacks enjoyed, at least at first.

Free Blacks in Texas Society

In the early years free people of color seem to have been accepted by white Texans. Goyens dabbled in real estate, and also had a freight business that hauled goods from Louisiana to Texas. In 1832 he married a Mary Pate Sibley, a white woman from Georgia, and was accepted by all her family. Goyens apparently had dealings with the Cherokee, and new evidence seems to indicate some Cherokee blood. His fluency in Spanish, Cherokee, and other Indian tongues made him a valuable treaty negotiator

The Texas Revolution

Goyens prospered, and like most free blacks sided with the Anglo-American “Texicans” during the Texas Revolution of 1835-1836. He was well trusted by Sam Houston, and given the vital task of keeping the Cherokee neutral during that time. Once the Texas Republic was established, Goyens built a two-story house, sawmill, and gristmill at what later was called “Goyens Hill”

Slavery and the Texas Republic

By the 1840s racial attitudes hardened. Slavery was well entrenched, and when Texas entered the Union it became a slave state. Goyens seems to have had few qualms about slavery as an institution. At one point he owned nine slaves himself. Yet as a black man, or at least a “mulatto” (mixed blood) he risked being enslaved himself if he was not careful. Once, he was threatened with slavery if he could not pay a 1,000 peso debt. Strapped for cash, he bought a “Negress” (black female slave) in exchange for a $500 note, payable in land. He gave the slave to his creditor in partial payment, then tried to float a real estate deal for the rest of the money.

Was William Goyens White?

In 2008, Cyndie Goings Hoelscher, fifth generation niece of William Goyens, presented DNA evidence that he was white, not black. The family DNA showed no evidence of Negroid or African blood, but a goodly amount of Native American (Cherokee) ancestry. Maybe Goyens had more of a connection to the Cherokee than was once thought. While Goyens was probably white, and possibly looked white, the fact remains he and the people around him thought he was black. It is a tribute to him that he could prosper in spite of all the handicaps put on free blacks of that time.

Sources:

  1. Donna McCallum, “DNA sets history straight about Nacogdoches Historical Figure” KTRE East Texas News, November 12, 2008
  2. T.R. Fehrenbach. Lone Star: History of Texas and the Texans (1968, revised 2000)