Obama’s History: America’s First Black President Is Descended from America’s First Black Slave

President Obama may be directly descended from the first black slave in the American colonies -- through his white mother's family line

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David Gould / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

By tracing the history of President Obama’s mother’s family, Ancestry.com has found evidence supporting that the President is descended from a man believed to be the first African slave in America.

The story of the Obama’s parents is well-known: the President’s father, Barack Obama, Sr. was an economist from Kenya, and his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an anthropologist born in Kansas. But looking through the records, genealogists believe that Dunham is descended from John Punch, an African man who became the first slave in America.

John Punch worked as an indentured servant for a Va. planter until 1640, when Punch and two other servants escaped. When they were caught and put on trial, the other two men (who were both white Europeans) were sentenced to an additional four years of servitude. Punch was sentenced to servitude for life.

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Indentured servants and debtors lived in temporary servitude as early as 1617, but the Virginia colony’s legal code did not acknowledge slavery until decades later. Historians believe that Punch was the first person enslaved for life in the American colonies.

Using DNA analysis, along with marriage and property records, genealogists working for Ancestry.com have traced the President’s mother’s heritage back to a particularly well-documented family who lived in the same time and place when Punch lived.

Researchers believe that Punch, while a slave, likely fathered the children of a white woman. Those children became known as the Bunches.

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One bunch of the Bunches moved to North Carolina and were known as “mulatto” for their mixed heritage. The other Bunch bunch stayed in Va. and lived as free white landowners, then migrated to Tennessee a few generations later, then Kansas, where the President’s mother was born.

If John Punch is indeed the patriarch of the Bunch family, then he is the President’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-(whew, that makes 11) grandfather.

Researchers cannot offer definitive proof that John Punch, the colonies’ first African slave, was the patriarch of the Bunch family. But they have hard evidence:

DNA from the living Bunches demonstrates that the family has sub-Saharan heritage (most likely from Cameroon)

and circumstantial evidence:

1) John Punch lived in the exact same time and place that his supposed wife lived

2) their last names are strikingly similar (Punch/Bunch could easily have been mistakenly recorded differently)

3) there were very, very few Africans living in the colonies in the mid 17th-century

Two independent genealogists told The New York Times that while not verifiable, the research and educated guesses by Ancestry.com were “sound.” The living Bunches have maintained meticulous family records.

“The P and the B are virtually meaningless in historical context. What matters is the historical evidence that can be mustered to place the same people in the same area,”  Elizabeth Shown Mills, a former president of the American Society of Genealogists, told the Times.

Ancestry.com also features reports documenting the President’s Irish roots, German roots, relation to billionaire investor Warren Buffett, and relation to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

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