WASHINGTON — For genealogists, President Barack Obama’s family tree is the gift that keeps on giving.
There was Dick Cheney, Warren Buffett and Sarah Palin. On Monday, genealogists added another notable figure to Obama’s unlikely list of relatives: John Punch, a Virginia slave that some historians consider the first African enslaved in the colonies.
The connection to Punch, an indentured servant condemned to slavery in 1640, comes from Obama’s mother’s side of the family, said Joseph Shumway, a genealogist with Ancestry.com, the website that has been researching the president’s family tree for years.
Obama’s mother, a white woman from Kansas, was known to have deep roots reaching to colonial Virginia, but her family’s African ancestry had not been previously unearthed. The discovery gives Obama — who identifies as African American based on his father’s Kenya heritage — a tie to the slave trade.
“Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related,” Shumway said. “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.”
Punch was an indentured servant in Virginia who escaped to Maryland with two white servants. When captured, the white servants were punished with imprisonment and lashing, but Punch was sentenced to slavery for life. The case has been cited by historians as evidence that racism was part of the slave trade in Virginia from its inception.
Punch is sometimes described as the “first African slave,” a label that touches on an ongoing debate among historians who study the origins of the slave trade in the colonies.
Punch lived before laws dictating slavery were codified in Virginia and during a period of sketchy historical documents, said S. Max Edelson, a professor of history at the University of Virginia.
Some historians say many Africans in the colonies at the time were considered indentured servants, while others argue that those Africans were likely presumed to be slaves. Without a clear legal record, “we can’t know for certain either way,” Edelson said.
Obama’s connection to Punch is similarly inconclusive, Shumway said. Researchers were able to use DNA evidence to track Obama’s lineage to a group of white landowners in Virginia. Historians know Punch fathered children with a white woman who passed on her free status. Those children grew up to become landowners in Virginia.
The findings were reviewed by Elizabeth Shown Mills, an expert in Southern culture and genealogy, who vouched for the research.
“A careful consideration of the evidence convinces me that the Y-DNA evidence of African origin is indisputable, and the surviving paper trail points solely to John Punch as the logical candidate,” Mills said in a statement. “Genealogical research on individuals who lived hundreds of years ago can never definitively prove that one man fathered another, but this research meets the highest standards and can be offered with confidence.”