New research has found that U.S. President Barack Obama is related to the first documented black African enslaved for life in America, though the connection was made through the President's Caucasian mother's lineage.
The discovery is the result of years of research by genealogists at Ancestry.com who, through early Virginia records and DNA analysis, linked Obama to John Punch, American history's first enslaved black African and the 11th great-grandfather of Obama.
An indentured servant in Colonial Virginia, Punch was punished for trying to escape his servitude in 1640 by being enslaved for life, marking the first documented case of slavery for life in the colonies, which occurred decades before initial slavery laws were enacted in Virginia, Ancestry.com said in a statement.
In the 372 years since, many significant records have been lost - a common problem for early Virginia and the South in general - destroyed over time by floods, fires and war. Nonetheless, the researchers were able to make the connection, starting with Obama's family tree.
Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., was a Kenyan descendent while mother Stanley Ann Dunham had a Caucasian heritage. The researchers found Dunham to have the African heritage as well, which piqued the researchers' interest.
In tracing the family back from Obama's mother, Ancestry.com used DNA analysis to learn that her ancestors, known as white landowners in Colonial Virginia, actually descended from an African man. Existing records suggest that John Punch had children with a white woman who then passed her free status on to their offspring. Punch's descendants went on to be free, successful land owners in a Virginia entrenched in slavery.
An expert in Southern research and past president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, Elizabeth Shown Mills performed a third-party review of the research and documentation to verify the findings.
"In reviewing Ancestry.com's conclusions, I weighed not only the actual findings but also Virginia's laws and social attitudes when John Punch was living," said Mills.
"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. 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."
"Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related," said Ancestry.com genealogist Joseph Shumway. "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."