Barack Obama's slave ancestry - not what you'd expect
- J Brooks Spector
- 06 Aug 2012 (South Africa)
Genealogical researchers working with DNA evidence, folklore and historical evidence have concluded American President Barack Obama actually is connected deeply to America’s complex racial history and heritage. Surprisingly, through, this is a connection to slave ancestors from his mother’s side – and not through his father’s indisputable East African lineage. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
This fascinating bit of research comes from a recently released report issued by Ancestors.com, a company that provides genealogical data for clients around the world. Ancestry.com is the world’s largest online family history resource and has around 2-million paying subscribers. More than 10-billion records have been included in the company’s Web-based resources in the past decade and a half.
When the results were released, one member of Ancestors.com’s team, Joseph Shumway, told the media, “We were surprised and excited to make that connection.” That must certainly have been putting it mildly. As virtually everyone knows, Barack Obama’s father hailed from Kenya and his mother from Kansas. The two met and were married while still students at the University of Hawaii. Initially, when Obama first threw his hat into the presidential candidacy ring, some African-Americans seemed to have felt that while he had enthusiastically embraced their racial circumstances, his ancestry was too, well, exotic, to be perceived automatically as being at one with them.
Until this study had been carried out, it had been generally assumed the president had no American slave ancestors because researchers couldn’t find any through the lineage of his father—something clearly more than a little unlikely given the lack of any connection to America until his father was a scholarship student in Hawaii. But, until this research project was carried out no one had thought to undertake exhaustive research into his mother’s lineage. It turns out that she has a mixed-race family history—albeit one that reaches all the way back to the very beginnings of American history and settlement.
The company found that Obama is likely to be the 11th great-grandson of one John Punch, an African slave who lived in colonial Virginia. He, in turn, is believed to have had children with a white woman, starting a family line that led many generations later to Obama’s mother. In saying this, the company is also making an important, often overlooked, point about the circumstances of racial mixing in the very early days of colonial Virginia. In 17th century American colonies free, generally white, settlers, included indentured servants from England and Ireland who served for defined time limits in exchange for passage. They, along with native Americans, African slaves and African indentured servants and some manumitted slaves all contributed to the colony’s eventual gene pool.
The Ancestry.com team drew on a range of tools that included DNA analysis as well as marriage and property records to trace Obama’s maternal ancestry. It said it took two years to research the Obama maternal line, and it has added a cautionary note to its findings: It cannot—yet—make a definitive link to Punch because of a gap in family history. This gap includes a missing record that would definitively connect Punch to his presumed biological son, a free man who by his early 20s already owned 450 acres and grew tobacco in early Virginia.
The records do pick up when one of Punch’s grandsons petitioned a court to marry a white woman—and was turned down, presumably because the grandson appeared of mixed-raced heritage, explained Elizabeth Shown Mills, a former president of the American Society of Genealogists.
This extraordinary saga begins with John Punch. He is understood to have arrived in Virginia around 1640 from the west coast of Africa, initially as an indentured servant obligated to work for years to pay for his passage, rather than a lifetime slave. But, Mills explained Punch then “jumped the gun and took off”—something, not surprisingly, that happened repeatedly throughout American history, from the fictional but eminently realistic life of Jim in “Huckleberry Finn” to the decidedly un-mythical young Frederick Douglass when he fled a life of slavery in Maryland.
When Punch was recaptured, he was made a slave for life instead of merely being returned to his earlier indentured status, thus receiving a punishment clearly much harsher than one given any white servants caught after they had absconded from their indentures. This case has led historians to refer to Punch as the first African actually enslaved in Virginia—years before the colony officially created slavery as a specific legal condition.
Reporting on this announcement, The New York Times added, “Historians say there was a trade in human labor, of both whites and blacks, during this period in American history. There were also some free African-Americans. Beginning around 1617, indentured servants were bought and sold, as were debtors, in the Chesapeake Bay region, said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland professor and expert in the history of slavery. But while those people were in an ‘unfree condition,’ he said, historians cannot pinpoint a date for the beginning of the slave trade. ‘What makes the John Punch case interesting is here is a guy who is definitely a slave,’ said Professor Berlin.”
Little or nothing is known about Punch’s presumed relationship with that anonymous white woman, but his landowner son is presumed to be John Bunch, either because the mixed-raced family changed its name or because records transcribed it incorrectly, according to Shumway. With that information in hand, researchers were then able to make a definitive connection between the Bunch family line and Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995.
Regardless of the presumed gap, researchers now believe John Bunch was John Punch’s son. “He’s in the right place at the right time, and he’s the right age,” Shumway explained. Moreover, many Bunch family members who have what are generally defined as white features still share the DNA profile of West Africans.
The task of the researchers who were examining Obama’s mother’s ancestors was made more complicated in the 372 years since America’s settlement saga began, many important records have been lost—a common problem for early Virginia records. Floods and fires, as well as the Civil War, have destroyed many of the commonwealth’s older records. While this clearly challenged the project, the genealogists at Ancestry.com said they ultimately forged the connection, starting with Obama’s family tree.
Mills said she was not particularly surprised by the slavery link that has appeared in the lineage of Obama’s white mother. As she explained, “There are many Americans discovering they have African ancestry. It’s something that is whispered, not something families want the world to know. This is what is so fascinating about American history. You see how people felt in the past, and how we think about it today.”
And as for Stanley Dunham, Obama’s mother, there is no sense she had any idea she might have had an African-American forebear, says Janny Scott, her biographer. In fact, according to a 2007 article published in the Chicago Sun-Times, one of her Bunch ancestors had a son who had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Mills added that, “In reviewing Ancestry.com’s conclusions, 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.”
One contributing factor to Ancestry.com’s conclusion is that the extended Bunch family has maintained its online database tracing their own family tree. DNA testing demonstrating that the men in the Bunch family have genetic markers consistent with sub-Saharan African descent has supplemented this. The Ancestry.com paper said the Bunches’ specific DNA profile was particularly common in Cameroon. Or as Mark Bunch, the family member who actually administers the project says, “I consider myself Caucasian, but I find that my mixed-race roots go way back.”
Ancestry.com’s Shumway also told the media, “Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related. 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.”
With all this, Donald Trump—the current exponent of the so-called “birther controversy”, the evidence-free assertion Barack Obama was born in Kenya, Indonesia, Moscow or on the dark side of the Moon and then surreptitiously inserted into America so as to become a “Manchurian candidate” four decades later—has not yet made any comment on this link between Barack Obama and one of America’s earliest settlers.
There is a modest ironic element to this story, of course – something especially relevant in this presidential election year. It is Utah-based genealogists at Ancestors.com who have tied Barack Obama firmly into the complex and intriguing racial tapestry that is American history, reaching right back the days of America’s first settlement. Ancestors.com is based in Provo, one of the spiritual homes of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or, as they are more popularly known, the Mormons.
Over the years, many Mormons have used Ancestors.com’s unrivalled genealogical research capabilities (although the company asserts there is no direct connection between it and the church) to identify progenitors so as to permit believers to baptize them retrospectively into their faith. This is something Mitt Romney—Obama’s opposition in this election—has also acknowledged doing in his own life.
Despite the fact such retrospective baptisms are an article of faith for Mormons, they remain controversial for other people around the world, especially when famous adherents from other faiths, such as has happened with the young Holocaust victim, Anne Frank, have been claimed as retrospective converts by Mormons. DM
- Obama could be descended from African slave at the AP
- Ancestry.com Discovers President Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America, a media release
- The Ancestry.com homepage
- Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not by His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests at the New York Times
- Slavery and the Making of America, a website on the documentary at the Public Broadcasting System
- John Punch at the PBS documentary
Photo: US President Barack Obama (R) is seen with his sister Maya Soetoro and his mother Ann Dunham (C) in an undated family snapshot released by his then presidential campaign, February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Obama For America