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Genealogists: Obama Descendant of First American Slave

Genealogists: Obama Descendant of First American Slave

 

In a reminder of the complexity of racial identity, genealogists Monday announced that President Barack Obama is probably a descendant of the first American slave — on his mother’s side.

Prior to the discovery, it was believed Obama’s African heritage came exclusively from his father, Barack Obama, Sr. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was white.

Obama, America’s first African American president, is likely the 11th-great grandson of John Punch, an African indentured servant who lived in Virginia in the 1640s. After attempting to escape, Punch was sentenced to remain enslaved for life. Some historians consider Punch to be the first American slave, and there is no question his case helped pave the way for slavery.

Punch married a white woman, who passed her free status to their children. The family’s surname changed to Bunch, and over time, the family became prominent landowners in Virginia. The marriage was not unusual; interracial marriage was not frowned upon until the late 17th century, and did not become illegal until the 18th century. By that point, the Bunch family was passing as white.

“Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related,” said Joseph Shumway, a genealogist for ancestry.com, who conducted the research. “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.”

While Obama’s exact lineage from Punch cannot be determined due to the scarcity of records, both Shumway and Elizabeth Shown Mills, an expert on genealogy, said the records and DNA analysis strongly indicate that Punch is Obama’s ancestor.

“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,” Mills said.

Aside from the remarkable tie between the nation’s first slave and first African American president, the discovery is a reminder of just how arbitrary racial groupings are to begin with. It is estimated that a third of white Americans have some recent African ancestry, and a majority of African Americans have some white ancestry. That doesn’t even begin to address the complexity that comes once we start adding Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and other “racial” groups.

Most scientists also believe that all humans can trace their heritage back to Africa, and that all of us are descended from about 15,000 people who survived the Toba supereruption. Whatever some may claim about the sharp divide between racial groups, the truth is that these dividing lines are very fuzzy, and very meaningless.

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Image Credit: Dunham Family

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108 comments

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4:04AM PST on Jan 15, 2013

We are all decedents from Africa. Read the bible about Adam and Eve the first man and woman in African Paradise. We are all equal regardless of our skin color. We love, hate and suffer the same way.

4:14AM PST on Jan 14, 2013

Interesting. Thank you. History is amazing.

9:49PM PDT on Sep 8, 2012

The end is the best: "these dividing lines are very fuzzy and very meaningless." Interesting genealogy for the Obama family if true, but it doesn't mean anything to us as citizens, trying to elect the best man for the job. All that matters is what kind of character does he have, how intelligent, what ideas does he have for the country, what ideals does he live by -- then we can make a choice.

7:49AM PDT on Aug 18, 2012

Of course his YDNA points to Africa. We get 100% of our YDNA from our father and his father was African. That proves nothing at all about his maternal ancestry. His mtDNA might be useful but how about a maternal uncle's (or cousin's) YDNA? Perhaps a look at the atDNA? How about a paper trail that's acceptable as a proof instead of simply introducing a genealogical question? Mr. Obama's YDNA can't point to Bunch/Punch unless we're saying his father was a descendant or relative in which case we've only found the African origin of Punch to be the same as that of Obama Sr.

Is there a huge piece of this story missing here and we didn't get the whole thing about exactly whose DNA was considered?

6:41PM PDT on Aug 3, 2012

Sorry Jen M. The birthers will never shut up. They don't have anything serious to go after President Obama on so they have to resort to lies...birther, death panels, Marxist, communist, and any other hate speak they can think of to bring our President down. We have to vote those tea party lunatics out before they bring the whole Country down.

10:43AM PDT on Aug 3, 2012

Wow. The leader of the free world descended from slavery. And from someone as important to US history as John Punch. How can some of you not think this is significant? I'm loving this whole idea. This is exactly how the universe balances itself. Yin and yang at work.

7:13PM PDT on Aug 2, 2012

Well good for you Georgia, you just proved the following statement.

"When dogma enters the brain, all intellectual activity ceases."

6:05PM PDT on Aug 2, 2012

Oh bullshit. I don't believe this any more than I believe he's not more Muslim than Christian.

6:10AM PDT on Aug 2, 2012

Yes Chris it is an interesting divisive practice. It's origins would be difficult to prove.

Not so long ago, white interpretations of the biblical reference to the mark of cain were taken to mean dark skinned, or other colored peoples. Which is humorous because it is also posited that the only humans available at the time of the fictional garden of eden were dark skinned which means that a more honest meaning for the mark of cain would mean that cain's descendants would be white. That's if we give any credence to fictional biblical references.

4:04AM PDT on Aug 2, 2012

I've always wondered why there is such a divide according to skin tone. It baffles me to think that there are so many ignorant people in this world who do not wish to know their histories. Associating slavery to skin color is recent and mainly American and Caribbean. The so called whites choose to ignore the great slave trade of Europe (where did the word slave come from ? Slav perhaps) between central and eastern Europe where slaves were harvested. Then there is the white slave trade run by the Barbary traders/pirates, who captured and traded northern European people as far as Zanzibar and into the Ottoman Empire.

I hate the segregation of our societies by skin color. To call it race is even more divisive.

If you need identity, then it could be by culture or education.

Shared values give rise to a united society. Empathy and understanding make the society secure with its own identity and we then create a positive generous forward thinking civilization.

All that being said, I can not forget the great debt that Europe and the free world owes to the USA and every individual soldier, sailor and airman who gave their lives without though of gain or profit, so that we can now have the freedom to think and express our beliefs, without fear or censure. So now it is important to discuss and address the divisions caused by the color of skin. Time to step out of the shadows.

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