Ancestry.com researchers have linked the United States’ first black president to the earliest documented African permanent slave in America.
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 Obama’s ancestor.
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 tree.
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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