William Goyens, (1794 – 1856)

Successful businessman, peacekeeper

William Goyens, the son of a slave rewarded with freedom and a pension for exemplary service during
Texas Revolution, was born in North Carolina in 1794. Goyens’ ancestry included Cherokee, which
may have contributed to the success he would enjoy as a mediator and arbiter between the Republic of
Texas and its Indian inhabitants. Though the exact date of Goyens' arrival in Texas is unknown, it is
commonly accepted that he made his way to
Nacogdoches in the early 1820s.

Like many enterprising settlers of his time, Goyens pushed west determined to pursue the American
dream. Goyens capitalized on his business acumen to integrate into Texas society and become a
respected citizen and a man of considerable wealth, despite his second-class citizenship as an African-

In 1832, Goyens married his common law wife Mary, a white widower from Georgia, and adopted her
son, Henry. Those closest to the family remarked that they were a happy couple. A light complexion
afforded Goyens social mobility in Texas and allowed easier assimilation. Under Mexican rule, Texas
society was more accepting of interracial marriages, allowing Goyens the freedom to rise above a life of
mediocrity and marginalization on the fringes of society and attain a social status and prestige
commensurate with notable Anglo-Texans.

A blacksmith by trade, an occupation he would continue until his death, Goyens set up a successful and
profitable shop in Nacogdoches but quickly set his eye on other pursuits. These business interests
included land deals, land speculation, money lending, freight hauling, wagon manufacturing and
repairing, Indian trading, sawmill and gristmill operations, “amateur detective work, raising horses, and
litigation in connection with his variegated business and social activities.”

To protect his business interests, Goyens employed several attorneys to plead his cases in local courts
and was a party to several dozen suits as a witness, a plaintiff, an arbiter, and on one occasion as an
attorney. On one occasion he even successfully sued in the state Supreme Court against the Board of
Land Commissioners for title. Such a decision was a watershed in Texas history because the courts
raised no objection to a free Negro filing suit in Texas, implicitly confirming Goyens’ status as a free
citizen. Land signifies wealth, prestige, status, and, as historian George Woolfolk contends, is a true
mark of citizenship. Indeed, this singular event may explain the courts decision to uphold Goyens’
grievance because of his position as a land magnate.  

Goyens was involved in a variety of business transactions. Some were simple, such as buying and
selling slaves at a small profit, while others were more sophisticated and complex. For example, Goyens
negotiated a land deal with Nacogdoches resident Henry Raguet replete with conditions and waivers to
safeguard his $7,000 investment. Successful real estate transactions increased Goyens’ wealth
exponentially and, according to an 1841 census, Goyens had amassed a small fortune. His assets
included the following: 4,160 acres of improved land, valued at $20,600, two town lots, fifty head of
cattle and two work horses, in addition to other property for which he was assessed $128.50 in taxes.
Missing from this census are two items indicative of true wealth at the time – a silver watch and a clock.

Without moral reservation, Goyens actively participated in the slave trade, pursuing relationships with
Mexican and Spanish contacts along the periphery of Texas. Furthermore, Goyens owned as many as
nine slaves. Goyens probably viewed the slave trade as a pecuniary interest, an economic necessity or
viable business alternative that proved immensely profitable. Though a willing participant to the slave
trade, Goyens was not immune to the threat it posed to his own well-being. There are two known
incidents where Goyens had to negotiate his own ransom with his captors while on business in

Goyens is best remembered for his peacekeeping missions to the Indians of Northwest Texas. Goyens’
Cherokee heritage made him an indispensable asset to the early Republic of Texas. The pacification of
the Indians was treated as a priority and needed a uniquely qualified individual to act as “Indian Agent.”
Samuel Houston selected Goyens as his interpreter to communicate a message of goodwill to
the Indians. Goyens possessed an innate understanding of Indian culture, language, and custom, making
him an ideal choice. As Indian Agent, Goyens led several missions to the Indians and brokered treaties
beneficial to both sides. Victor Treat contends Houston and Goyens developed a lasting friendship
during his time as Indian agent.

Goyens’ achieved remarkable success as a free Negro in early Texas history. An industrious work ethic,
a facility for Indian languages, and a penchant for diplomacy created possibilities that transformed
Goyens’ life. He experienced a compass of life that few could imagine, counting some of Texas’
greatest figures as his friends, including Sam Houston, Thomas J. Ross,
Charles S. Taylor, Adolphus
Sterne, Erasmo Seguin, and Henry Raguet.

Goyens died on June 20, 1856 and was buried alongside his wife in a small cemetery at the base of
Goyens Hill near Moral Creek, west of Nacogdoches. In celebration of the Texas Centennial, the state
placed on his grave a granite monument commemorating his unique contributions to the state, and,
according to historian Victor H. Treat, "the only Negro so honored."

Goyens’ legacy lingers in Texas, prompting one historian to conclude, he “made a strong imprint on
Texas history."

Contributed by Chris Berg, Sam Houston State University


  • Kenneth W. Porter, "Negroes and Indians on the Texas Frontier, 1831-1876." The Journal of Negro History, 41
    (Jul., 1956).
  • Harold Schoen, “The Free Negro in the Republic of Texas." The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 41 (Jul., 1937).
  • Victor H. Treat, a review of A Monument to a Black Man: the Biography of William Goyens, by Daniel J. Kubiak,
    The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 77 (Oct., 1973).
  • Victor H. Treat, "William Goyens: Free Black Entrepreneur," Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times, eds. Alwyn
    Barr and Robert A. Calvert, (Texas State Historical Association: 1981).
  • George R. Woolfolk, “Turner's Safety-Valve and Free Negro Westward Migration." The Journal of Negro History,
    50 (Jul., 1965).
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