President Barack Obama’s biography — son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — has long suggested that unlike most African-Americans, his roots did not include slavery.
Now a team of genealogists is upending that thinking, saying that Obama’s white mother had, in addition to her European ancestors, at least one African forebear and that the president is most likely descended from one of the first documented African slaves in the US.
The findings are scheduled to be announced on Monday by Ancestry.com, a genealogy company. Its team said it had evidence that Obama’s family tree — on his mother’s side — stretches back nearly four centuries to a slave in colonial Virginia named John Punch.
In 1640, 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. 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 Obama’s maternal ancestry to the time and place where Punch lived.
The company said records suggested that 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. The Virginia branch of this family migrated westward, spawning Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
The researchers said that over time, as the Bunches continued to intermarry, they became prominent landowners in colonial Virginia and were known as white.
Because records have been destroyed, there is no definitive proof that Punch was a Bunch ancestor. Still, some factors led the researchers to a conclusion: the surnames were similar; there was DNA evidence showing the Bunches had sub-Saharan African heritage; and a very small number of Africans were living in Virginia in the mid-1600s.