This week, genealogists have come out with a shocking claim — that President Barack Obama is likely a descendant of John Punch, the first documented American slave. According to Ancestry.com, the nation’s first black president is potentially Punch’s 11th great-grandson.
As NPR notes, this first informational tidbit is shocking enough in itself, but the story doesn’t end there. To add to the intrigue, Obama’s connection to America’s first slave comes through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who was caucasian. The New York Times has more about Punch’s past history:
In 1640, Mr. Punch, then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial. His punishment — servitude for life — was harsher than what the white servants received, and it has led some historians to regard him as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted laws allowing slavery.
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.
Interestingly, Obama’s status and Punch’s past historical context create a fascinating picture, especially if the connection is legitimate.
“Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related,” Ancestry.com genealogist Joseph Shumway said in a statement. “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 genealogists told The New York Times that the study is accurate, it can’t be determined with full-proof certainty that Obama is Punch’s relative, because the paper trail doesn’t reach back far enough. Still, DNA evidence seems to corroborate the connection. Based on the attained information, Obama’s mother was tied to African ancestors. Then, to further advance the connection, experts looked at marriage and property records to the time and place where Punch resided, NPR reports.
A press release from Ancestry.com provides more information about the research:
The discovery is the result of years of research by Ancestry.com 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, Ancestry.com genealogists were able to make the connection, starting with Obama’s family tree.