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Genealogists Say Obama Likely A Descendant Of First American Slave

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Washington Convention Center in April.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Washington Convention Center in April.

Genealogists at Ancestry.com have two surprises for us today: After years of studying President Obama's family tree, they have concluded that he was likely John Punch's 11th great-grandson. Punch is considered the first documented American slave.

The second surprise: The experts connected President Obama to Punch not through his African father, but through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who was white.

"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."

The New York Times, which has a wonderful story detailing the findings, explains who Punch was:

"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. ...

"The Ancestry.com team used DNA analysis to make the connection, and it also combed through marriage and property records to trace Mr. Obama's maternal ancestry to the time and place where Mr. Punch lived. The company said records suggested that Mr. Punch fathered children with a white woman, who passed her free status on to those children, giving rise to a family of a slightly different name, the Bunches, that ultimately spawned Mr. Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham."

Now, you may have noticed the caveat "likely," earlier in this post. The problem is that the paper trail is not perfect going back to colonial Virginia. But DNA analysis found the Y-DNA in Obama's maternal lineage. That is considered indisputable evidence that Dunham had African ancestors. Genealogists then matched marriage and property records to the time and place where Punch lived. Ancestry.com is making that leap and declaring that Obama is related to Punch.

The Times spoke to two independent genealogists who said the study was solid.

"I'm sure people will be tantalized and try to prove or disprove it," Elizabeth Shown Mills, who specializes in Southern genealogy told the Times. "But what they're saying is very safe and appropriate. I would be tempted myself to try to make that connection."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.