Barack Obama’s “Slave” Ancestor and the Politics of Genealogy

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2013-06-23 01:08Z by Steven

Barack Obama’s “Slave” Ancestor and the Politics of Genealogy

George Mason University’s History News Network

Honor Sachs, Assistant Professor of History
Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina

On July 30, the New York Times broke a story about the Obama family’s ties to slavery. Not Michelle Obama. Her family connection to slavery has been extensively covered by the Times and documented in Rachel Swarn’s American Tapestry. Rather, the story revealed the history of Barack Obama’s ties to slavery through his mother’s side. The article announced that genealogists have traced the family history of Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, to seventeenth-century Virginia, where they claim it is possible she may have descended from an African servant named John Punch. Using ancestral databases and DNA evidence, researchers have linked Dunham’s history to the “mixed-race Bunch line,” a family who became wealthy colonial landholders and were racially considered white despite their ties to Africans like John Punch.

The story of John Punch occupies an important place in the history of slavery in North America. When the English imported Punch to the Virginia colony in the mid-seventeenth century, he became an indentured servant. The primary source of labor in the Virginia colony for the better part of the seventeenth century was servitude. The colony imported workers from Europe to work in tobacco fields. They had little interest in utilizing African slaves. African imports were comparatively expensive next to the cheap imports they could scoop off the streets or out of the jails of London. At the time John Punch arrived in the English colony, he was one of a relatively small population of Africans.

But something happened to John Punch in 1640 that signaled a transition in the way colonial officials thought about race and slavery. In 1640, Punch ran away from his Virginia employer with two white servants, one a Scot and the other a Dutchman. They escaped to Maryland where they were apprehended and returned home for punishment. All three runaways were whipped. The two white servants were punished with extended terms of service, but Punch received a far harsher sentence: he was made a servant “for the term of his natural life.” It was the closest thing to a slave the colony had yet known. Virginians would not fully embrace a system of slave labor for at least another four decades, but the willingness of colonial officials to distinguish a lifetime of servitude for Punch and not for his European counterparts suggests the beginnings of racial thinking that would ultimately equate slavery with people of African descent…

Read the entire article here.

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Obama is a Descendant of Nefertiti & Confucius Too

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Barack Obama, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2012-08-01 22:11Z by Steven

Obama is a Descendant of Nefertiti & Confucius Too

Dominion of New York

Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology
Columbia University

There was breaking news yesterday in the lively world of presidential genealogy. Barack Obama–who is regarded as an inauthentic African-American by some because his late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham, was a white woman and his father’s ancestry traced to Kenya rather than Kentucky or the Carolinas–was suggested to be descended on his maternal side from John Punch, a black man.

Researchers at, the online root-seeking company, derived Obama’s relationship to Punch using a combination of standard genealogical research and Y-chromosome genetic analysis. (Y-DNA is passed essentially unchanged from fathers to sons to grandsons to great-grandsons, etc.) The timing of this announcement could not be better for the Provo, Utah company that just reported booming fourth quarter profits and is rumored to be seeking a buyer.

An indentured servant in 17th century Virginia, Punch would earn the lamentable designation of “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history” when he was reduced to chattel as punishment for his attempt to escape servitude. Punch, like Obama the elder, was an African; tragically, what makes Punch “African-American” is his slave status. With rebellious, freedom-loving roots firmly planted in the New World, our nation’s first president of African descent —Punch’s 11th great grandson–may just be “black enough” after all…

…We have a high threshold for political gossip and, in the digital age, genealogy is a fast fad that shows no sign of passing out of vogue. But the primary reason these ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation. Take, for example, the minor controversy over Rachel L. Swarns recently published American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multicultural Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Megan Smolenyak, the prominent genealogist who conducted the research for Swarns’ widely-read 2007 co-authored article that revealed Michelle Obama’s white slavery-era ancestors, critiqued it in the Huffington Post. Smolenyak was stunned that:

the maternal half of the first lady’s family tree — her mother Marian (Shields) Robinson’s side [was] overlooked. Though Michelle Obama has classic Great Migration roots winding their way back to at least eleven states, southern Virginia — and especially Henry and Pittsylvania counties — can claim more of her heritage than any other location. Fully a quarter of her ancestry traces to this area on the North Carolina border, but inexplicably, it’s this portion of her family tree that’s given short-shrift.

Smolenyak further complained that “the ‘revelation’ of the white ancestor via DNA testing” wasn’t unexpected; “the only true surprise in the book” she concluded, was “the absence of over a third of Mrs. Obama’s known ancestors.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Obama’s purported link to early American slave is latest twist in family tree

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, History, Media Archive, United States, Virginia on 2012-07-31 18:35Z by Steven

Obama’s purported link to early American slave is latest twist in family tree

The Washington Post

Krissah Thompson

President Obama’s extraordinary family story gained a new layer this week as a team of genealogists found evidence that he is most likely a descendant of one of the first documented African slaves in this country.

The link to slavery, which scholars of genealogy and race in the United States called remarkable, was found to have existed approximately 400 years back in the lineage of Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. It was discovered by a team of four genealogists from whose findings from two years of work were released in a report Monday.

Using property and tax records, the team uncovered “a lot of context and circumstantial evidence” that points to an enslaved black man named John Punch being Obama’s ancestor, said Joseph Shumway, one of the genealogists who worked on the report…

…Interest in the family trees of Obama and his wife has served to upend assumptions, said Sheryll Cashin, a Georgetown University law professor who documented her research into her own family history in the book “The Agitator’s Daughter.”

“It’s absolutely poetic,” Cashin said of the discovery. “Race mixing was here from the beginning.”

The discovery comes at a time when Americans of all backgrounds have been digging deeper into their family trees. It was such familial research that led the team at Ancestry to make the connection between Punch and Obama’s family line.

They first traced Obama’s mother’s heritage through her maternal grandmother to the Bunch family, who at one time lived in Virginia, where they “passed for white” and “intermarried with local white families,” according to the report. Members of the modern Bunch family, who had already begun to dig into their heritage, conducted DNA testing that found that the family had an ancestor from Africa, and they posted that information on a family Web site. Shumway and his colleagues set out to find that black ancestor…

Read the entire article here.

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Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, History, New Media, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2012-07-31 02:19Z by Steven Discovers President Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America
Provo, Utah

Research Connects First African-American President to First African Slave in the American Colonies

PROVO, UTAH – July 30, 2012 – A research team from (NASDAQ:ACOM), the world’s largest online family history resource, has concluded that President Barack Obama is the 11th great-grandson of John Punch, the first documented African enslaved for life in American history. Remarkably, the connection was made through President Obama’s Caucasian mother’s side of the family.

The discovery is the result of years of research by genealogists who, through early Virginia records and DNA analysis, linked Obama to John Punch. An indentured servant in Colonial Virginia, Punch was punished for trying to escape his servitude in 1640 by being enslaved for life. This marked the first actual documented case of slavery for life in the colonies, occurring decades before initial slavery laws were enacted in Virginia.

In the 372 years since, many significant records have been lost—a common problem for early Virginia (and the South in general)—destroyed over time by floods, fires and war. While this reality greatly challenged the research project, genealogists were able to make the connection, starting with Obama’s family tree.

President Obama is traditionally viewed as an African-American because of his father’s heritage in Kenya. However, while researching his Caucasian mother, Stanley Ann Dunham’s lineage, genealogists found her to have African heritage as well, which piqued the researchers’ interest and inspired further digging into Obama’s African-American roots. In tracing the family back from Obama’s mother, used DNA analysis to learn that her ancestors, known as white landowners in Colonial Virginia, actually descended from an African man. Existing records suggest that this man, John Punch, had children with a white woman who then passed her free status on to their offspring. Punch’s descendants went on to be free, successful land owners in a Virginia entrenched in slavery…

…More details and supporting information on this discovery and additional research on President Obama’s family lineage can be found at

Read the entire press release here.

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