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Monday, July 30, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Obama likely descended from slave, study suggests
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President 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 mother had, in addition to 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 United States.
The findings are scheduled to be announced on Monday by Ancestry.com, a genealogy company based in Provo, Utah. Its team, while lacking definitive proof, said it had evidence that "strongly suggests" 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, and it has led some historians to regard him as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave.
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 when and 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, which ultimately spawned Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
The findings come as more Americans are discovering their own mixed-race heritage. Elizabeth Shown Mills, a former president of the American Society of Genealogists, said the Internet, coupled with DNA testing and heightened interest among genealogists, was helping reveal racial intermingling over the centuries.
The Ancestry.com team spent two years examining Obama's mother's past, focusing on the mixed-race Bunch line. The researchers said that over time, as the Bunches continued to intermarry, they became prominent landowners in colonial Virginia and were known as white.
There is no evidence that Dunham had any inkling that she might have had African-American ancestry, said Janny Scott, her biographer. The Ancestry.com group traced two major Bunch family branches, one that lived as white and stayed in Virginia for generations and another that left for the Carolinas. In North Carolina, the Bunches were recorded as "mulatto" in early records, and their descendants are also the president's cousins.
Obama descends from the Virginia branch, which eventually migrated to Tennessee, where his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Anna Bunch, was born. Her daughter Frances Allred, who was born in 1834, moved to Kansas. Four generations later, in 1942, with the family still in Kansas, Obama's mother was born.
But the research left open a question: Was John Punch, the slave, a Bunch ancestor? Because records have been destroyed, there is no definitive proof.
Still, some factors led Harman and her group to a conclusion. The surnames were similar. There was DNA evidence showing that the Bunches had sub-Saharan African heritage. And a very small number of Africans were living in Virginia in the mid-1600s. All that convinced the team that the nation's first black president was descended from Punch.
The team shared its findings with The New York Times, which consulted two independent genealogists — Mills, who specializes in Southern genealogy, and Johni Cerny, who specializes in black ancestry — about the findings. Both said there was no way to be certain of the Punch-Bunch connection. But both also said the Ancestry.com team made a solid case.
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