New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns traced Michelle Obama’s ancestry in her book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Now Ancestry.com is giving her husband a turn, unearthing a surprising discovery about President Barack Obama’s family history.
President Obama is likely a descendent of John Punch, Ancestry.com says, the first documented American slave. Even more surprising is the connection between them: they are likely related not through his Kenyan father, Barack Obama, Sr., but through his Caucasian mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Though the Ancestry.com team lacks definitive proof, they say their evidence “strongly suggests” that President Obama is the 11th great-grandson of Punch, who lived in Virginia in the 1640s.
Punch, an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and relocated to Maryland, where he was captured along with two white servants and put on trial. His punishment was servitude for life, a significantly stronger sentence than the white servants received. That sentence has led some historians to regard Punch as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted official laws allowing slavery.
Punch married a white woman, who passed her free status to their children. That may seem like another surprising detail, but in fact interracial marriage was not unusual at that time. It was not until the 18th century that interracial marriage became illegal, and by that time the Punch family (now using the adopted surname “Bunch”) were prominent landowners in Virginia and passing as white.
“We sort of stumbled across it,” said Anastasia Harman, the lead researcher. “We were just doing general research into the president’s family tree, and as we started digging back in time, we realized that the Bunch family were African-American.”
Genealogical research into individuals who lived hundreds of years ago cannot prove ancestry definitively, as records are scare and DNA analysis cannot be exact, but Ancestry.com’s research has garnered approval from the community. “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,” said Elizabeth Shown Mills, an expert on genealogy.
"Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related," says Ancestry.com genealogist Joseph Shumway. "John Punch was more than likely the genesis of legalized slavery in America. But after centuries of suffering, the Civil War, and decades of civil rights efforts, his 11th great-grandson became the leader of the free world and the ultimate realization of the American Dream."
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