Obama Related To The First Slave?

The people at Ancestry.com say that they’ve traced Barack Obama’s family tree back eleven generations and found a link to the first documented slave in the American colonies:

The narrative of President Obama’s family embedded in the American psyche 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 America called remarkable, was found 400 years back in the lineage of Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. It was discovered by a team of four genealogists from Ancestry.com who worked for two years on the findings 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 as Obama’s ancestor, said Joseph Shumway, one of the genealogists who worked on the report.

Because his father immigrated from Kenya and his mother was born in Kansas, Obama was thought to have no direct links to American slavery.

“His tree is one of the most dynamic that we’ve seen as far as diversity,” said Shumway, whose company also helped uncover the president’s Irish ancestry and that Obama is a distant cousin of Warren Buffett. “There are so many ways that we’ve been able to find interesting stories and connection points.”

The link between Obama and Punch was first reported by the New York Times from an early copy of Ancestry’s report. Punch is a significant historical figure, who has long been a subject of research. In 1640, he and two European American indentured servants were arrested for running away from their masters in Colonial Virginia. The two white men, a Dutchman and a Scot, received four additional years of servitude, but the black man, Punch, was to “serve his said master … for the time of his natural life,” said Peter H. Wood, a professor emeritus of history at Duke University who has written about Africans in Colonial America. Punch is thought of as the first black slave in Virginia.

I’ve always been interested in genealogy, especially since we’ve had very little luck tracing my family back any further than when my Great-Grandparents arrived from Eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. Being from a part of the world that was the site of two World Wars and two occupations over the course of a century kind of means that records get lost or destroyed and people go missing. So, it’s kind of cool that they can trace the Dunham family line back 400 years.

How did they do it?:

They first traced Obama’s mother’s heritage through her maternal grandmother to the Bunch family, who at one time lived in Virginia and “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 the family’s heritage, had already conducted DNA testing that found that the family had an ancestor from Africa, and posted that information on a family Web site. Shumway and his colleagues set out to find that black ancestor.

The records eventually led them to Punch, who was one of only 150 Africans living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, and fathered a free child by a white woman.

Pretty amazing, really.

FILED UNDER: Africa, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    The Wikipedia entry on John Punch is interesting as well:

    In 1640 Punch was an indentured servant of Virginia planter Hugh Gwyn. He escaped to Maryland, but was subsequently caught and sentenced to life servitude. As this punishment was much more severe than that given to two white servants who escaped with him, this has led some historians to regard Punch as the first documented African to be legally sanctioned as a slave bound-for-life.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    This really is amazing. Hell, people often pay attorneys $500-plus per hour to figure out who holds title to real property, in the here and now, much less 200-400 years ago, and often it’s not entirely clear. You also can ask two licensed surveyors where a lot line falls at present and get two different answers. As we speak there are class action lawsuits pending in various places around the country because we can’t figure out who owns various mortgages. But sure enough, using “property and tax records,” we now have a report showing a link between Obama and the “first black slave in Virginia.” And sure enough that bastion of journalistic excellence, The Gray Lady, using an “early copy” of that report, was first to report it to the unwashed masses. Uh, huh. Back over to you, Katie von Spacey.

  3. Markey says:

    Freak out birthers!

    WooT LoL

  4. DRS says:

    Jealous, TN?

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Shit…I thought the Obama folks were genius because they managed to hatch a conspiracy 40 something years ago in Hawaii…but this is flat out amazing. A conspiracy, to elect a Muslim Socialist to the Presidency of the United States, that started 400 years ago? Brilliant!!!

  6. James Joyner says:

    @C. Clavin: While I’ve never taken the Birther claims seriously, don’t think Obama is a Muslim (or religious at all), and don’t think he’s any more socialist than most Americans, I’m not sure that this factoid—if true—sheds any light on any of that. There’s never been any question that Ann Dunbar is his mother or that she was a US citizen.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: Except for the Birfers who think Obama is from Rigel or Mars.

    You’d be amazed what you find if you start poking around on the Birfer sites. We’re talking about individuals who are convinced they’re getting messages from the CIA through the snap, crack, pop of their breakfast cereal.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    More background here:

    African-American colonists arrived in Virginia in August of 1619. Most came as indentured servants (or slaves; the two labor systems had not yet diverged). They were under no initial implication of “racial” inferiority. The endogamous color line had not yet been invented. They soon permeated all three socio-economic classes. “They accumulated land, voted, testified in court, and mingled with whites on a basis of equality.” Some remained slaves (or indentured servants). Forced laborers both Afro- and Euro-American, ran away together, attempted servile insurrections together, and jointly complained about both the greed of the bourgeois and the cruelty of the aristocracy.

    Intermarriage was common. Visitors reported that the colony “swarms with mulatto children, and these mulattoes, if but three generations removed from the black father or mother [are accepted as White].” Among prominent interracial marriages were those of European attorney William Greensted and his biracial wife Elizabeth Kay, African slaveowner Francis Payne and his European wife Amy, European Francis Skipper and his African wife Ann Cocore, African James Tate and his European wife Hester, and African Phillip Mognum and his European wife Mary Morris. Then attitudes began to change.

    The Invention of the Color Line: 1691

  9. Gulliver says:

    The left will treat the most blatantly obvious bullshit as manna when it seems to benefit one of their own. If you think anyone with half a brain is going to look at this as legitimate – rather than an obvious attempt to lend black “legitimacy” to Obama – I’ve got a couple of bridges I’d like to sell you.

    100 days before the election we suddenly “discover” that Dear Leader is related to the very first slave in the US ? Really? Seriously?

    The left is steadily turning itself into a caricature in the eyes of your average American. Even the article says there’s no clear direct link, but even so the media gives this legs. ‘Course, under today’s standards for the media, the fact that it is BS makes it more attractive to promote as truth.

  10. bandit says:

    don’t think he’s any more socialist than most Americans

    It’s quite a contest but this is possibly the dumbest thing you’ve written..so far!

  11. mattb says:

    What no one will, of course, discuss is how sketchy this type of DNA evidence is. Any good scientist would tell you that its all but impossible to do this sort of broad tracking back.

    Further, as other studies have demonstrated, when we get that many generations out, the fact is a lot of people turn out to be *distantly* related.

  12. John Chinn says:

    Read this story carefully. Reda it for what it says not for what it would like to be believed.

    It is filled with “could be”, “could be,” and “the company says it can’t establish a definitive link,”

    “because of gaps in family history.” then transitions to “”he is believed to” Folks a Belief is a Religion, not a fact.

    Then says “Nothing is known about Punch’s presumed relationship with a white woman ” So if nothing is know then how is it possible to even consider it existed.

    And consider this: At that time how long do you suppose a Black man would have lived had he beeen having sexual relations with a White Woman. Get real.

    Now. Consider this: Why was this done and who paid for it. If you try to get Ancestry to research your ancestors get out the bank account. To do what they claim they did, if it was a real research effort would require days if not months perhaps years starting with Lancaster County Virginia’s CourtHouse and other places in Virginia. And then tracing the Punch descendants to Kansas.

    Finally. Let’s end with this huge bit of truth. Hot that much definitive lineage is in existence in CourtHouses about Black People to begin with. Names were often first names only. Black people had little significance in those days , as did anyone Non White. The American Indians were not able to testify in Court because they were considerd Heathen and there fore could not swear an Oath on the Bible. Much of that Heritage was driven under ground and the American Indian had far more standing in the eyes of the Ne White Government than did Blacks. Which does not say much.

    And for those who believe this does something cinch Obama as being born or not born in America. It is not here for either . So far by inferences they have managed to make Obama an Irsis Man, kin to Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, Robert E. Lee and even to me.

    I have my Heritage in The American Indian and the early Settlers of Virginia. We are working with the College of William and Mary to attempt to solidify some well backed up suspicions but may never be able to nail down the Gods Honest Truth.

    If you read this story carefully, it is pathetic to think that it is even written. It is as ridiculous as my saying I am believed to be the first Martian to live on Earth.

    If this dubious adventure was done to make Obama look Blacker or more American it has failed. It has made him appear more ridiculous by the people who , apparently think they are doing him a favor.

    I leave you with some History. The first Slaves in North America were neither Black nor White. They were American Indians.

  13. Bo Sears says:

    The connection between John Punch and Barack Obama has been well known for at least five years.

    However, my question is why this article suppresses the fact that the landowner who brought the legal case against John Punch for fleeing his indentured servitude status was African American himself?

    The absence of this information is simply to heap more fuel on the anti-white narrative, and it is remarkably dishonest to have ignored that aspect of this matter.

  14. 11B40 says:


    Jeez, now I can’t help but wonder if President Obama is related to one of the first Mau-Maus.

  15. Heebie Jeebie says:

    Punch obviously didn’t run fast enough or fight hard enough. Keep looking…maybe Obama’s mom’s side of the family can be traced to the first sea captain to throw a sick slave overboard into the Atlantic.