Barack Obama’s biography always embodied a quintessentially American story.
Now we learn his narrative reaches back to the very beginning of settlement in the English colonies.
Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource, has found that President Obama is “the 11th great-grandson of John Punch, the first documented African enslaved for life in American history.” In a press release, the genealogical organization notes that the president’s connection to slavery comes through his “Caucasian mother’s side of the family” and not through his father’s African heritage. (Ancestry.com’s research can be explored further at Documenting President Barack Obama’s Maternal African-American Ancestry.)
The discovery results from years of research by the online site’s genealogists who poured through early Virginia records and analyzed DNA to link Mr. Obama with slavery. Ancestry.com learned that Stanley Ann Dunham, the president’s mother, had African roots and further research revealed that her ancestors, white landowners in Colonial Virginia, descended from an African man.
The first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. The infant colony, founded only a dozen years earlier, already suffered a labor shortage, and the settlers quickly placed the Africans in the same status as white indentured servants, who sold their labor for a set period, often seven years, in return for passage to the New World.
John Punch occupied that status at first. In 1640 he escaped from Virginia to Maryland. Upon capture he was placed on trial, suffering a harsher punishment — servitude for life — than the white escapees received, leading some historians to regard Punch as the first legally sanctioned slave.
By the time of Punch’s trial Virginia’s laws had begun to differentiate between the races, though it would be another two decades before the colony passed laws acknowledging the institution of slavery. In the 1660s Virginia enacted statutes fixing the status of African servants as bondsmen for life and insuring that the children of slave women inherited the mother’s status. Slavery had come to the English colonies.
The case of Re John Punch demonstrates that the status of slavery preceded statutory recognition of the institution. Because of his race, Punch was treated differently from other indentured servants. But the documentary record also shows that Punch had children with a white woman who passed her free status on to them. Punch’s descendants became white land owners in slave-based Colonial Virginia. President Obama, on his mother’s side, descends from those white land owners.
The new research fixes Barack Obama firmly in American history. His story is an American story.
It’s a story to celebrate, but curiously many question whether Mr. Obama is truly “American.” From the birthers, who claim the president was born outside the United States, to politicians like John Sununu, who ought to know better but still wishes “this president would learn how to be an American,” conservatives are quick to demonize the president as “the other,” a man not entitled to the office he holds.
It’s odd, given that the president’s biography contains so many threads of the American narrative: Descendant of slaves, a child of an immigrant, the kid from humble beginnings who makes good.
Quite a story, the ultimate American Dream: The 11th great-grandson of the first slave in the American colonies becomes the 44th president of the United States!