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Ancestry.com researchers have linked the United States’ first black
president to the earliest documented African permanent slave in
Historical evidence indicates Barack Obama is the 11th great-grandson of African slave
John Punch. The connection is through the family of Obama’s Caucasian mother—which
isn’t surprising, as Obama’s father, who died in 1982, was from Kenya.
(Update: After reading comments to this post, I’d like to clarify my above
statement: Obama’s paternal line came from Kenya and its members were not enslaved
in the United States.)
What does surprise me is that the slave ancestor is male: Genealogists with African-American
roots have become accustomed to learning of male white slaveowners who fathered children
with enslaved women in their family trees, but not so much the other way around.
Ancestry.com researchers used DNA analysis and property and marriage records to find
an African indentured servant named John Punch, who attempted to escape his servitude
in 1640 in Maryland. His court-ordered punishment was a life sentence as a slave.
This is the first documented case of slavery for life in the American colonies, decades
before slavery laws were enacted in Virginia.
Punch eventually fathered children with a white woman, whose children inherited her
free status and became landowners in Virginia. Their son John Bunch is
You can learn details about the research documents and conclusions on Ancestry.com,
where you can download a 44-page report by
researchers Anastasia Harman, Natalie Cotrill and Joseph Shumway; a 51-page Bunch
family descendancy report; and a family
Ancestry.com was careful to back up its claims with an independent review from researcher Elizabeth
Shown Mills, an expert well-known in genealogical circles, who says, “I weighed
not only the actual findings but also Virginia’s laws and social attitudes when John
Punch was living. A careful consideration of the evidence convinces me that the Y-DNA
evidence of African origin is indisputable, and the surviving paper trail points solely
to John Punch as the logical candidate.
“Genealogical research on individuals who lived hundreds of years ago can never definitively
prove that one man fathered another, but this research meets the highest standards
and can be offered with confidence.”
Although the Obama research project has been underway for years, I imagine we’ll see
more on the 2012 presidential candidates’ family trees this year as genealogy companies
try to capitalize on election-related publicity opportunities.
Update: You also might want to read this
article from The Root, by two Boston University professors who dispute John punch’s
status as the first documented permanent African slave.
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