His family tree has been linked to Brad Pitt, Sarah Palin and both Presidents Bush but now President Barack Obama may be related to the first documented African slave in revolutionary America.
Ancestry.com, which bills itself as the world’s largest online family history resource, on Monday released research and documents which it says shows the first indentured African American servant is an ancestor of President Obama’s mother.
“We have two of the most significant Africans in our country’s history being directly related to each other,” Joseph Shumway, an Ancestry.com genealogist, told CNN.
Shumway was part of a team of four genealogists who say they worked more than 500 hours to establish the connection between Obama’s family and that of John Punch, an indentured servant who was sentenced to a life of slavery after an unsuccessful escape attempt in revolutionary Virginia.
The Ancestry.com researchers found the new connection to the president’s African roots through an unlikely link, that of Obama’s Caucasian mother. President Obama’s African American roots had previously been tied to his father’s Kenyan birth. But as genealogists were pouring through documents tracing Stanley Ann Dunham’s ancestors, they found a connection to the Bunch family which had recently published DNA evidence that they had roots in sub-Saharan Africa. (see documents here)
This was the “spark” that piqued the team’s interest in tracing Obama’s roots in the revolutionary-era African American community.
Yet the greatest obstacle was the volume of records that had been lost or destroyed over the last three hundred plus years. The researchers had to use clues to cobble together some of the facts. For instance, when trying to determine the age of a particular descendent, a researcher might use land records together with the knowledge that in order to purchase land in revolutionary America a man must have been at least 21 years old. Through these deductions genealogists were able to trace the president’s lineage to a Caucasian family in revolutionary Virginia named Bunch.
But the question remained: were any sub-Saharan Africans also members of the Bunch family?
Shumway said the team “gleaned” every possible clue and came to the conclusion the Caucasian Bunch family was indeed related to African American John Punch.
“[A]ll of the surviving evidence we studied very strongly points to conclusion John Bunch is the son of John Punch,” said Shumway.
For instance, in 1640 population counts show there were only 150 Africans living in revolutionary Virginia. Shumway points to other clues such as the phonetic similarities between Bunch and John Punch’s name. He says that in colonial times spellings were not standardized and genealogists routinely find the same surname spelled quite differently. In addition Shumway found evidence that the family that owned the slave John Punch married and lived for generations with members of the Bunch family.
“[A] lot of pieces of circumstantial evidence pointed at John Punch as the only logical candidate who could fit as this African American ancestor,” of the Bunch family said Shumway.
Ancestry.com has been researching Obama’s genealogy since he became a candidate for president in 2008.
“We felt this was an incredibly significant discovery,” Shumway said.