President Obama’s Surprising Link to Slavery in America

by Sandie Angulo Chen

Famously the son of a Kenyan father, President Obama made history as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the East African country. His remarkable family background on his father’s side is well-known.

But what’s less known is his family’s surprising ties to slavery in America. His mother’s family were landowners, but through them is he in fact related to one of our country’s first slaves?

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Obama’s Kenyan Relatives

When Obama visited Kenya last summer, he took time out from his two-day visit to dine with more than 30 members of his extended family.

Family members he dined with included his half-sister, Auma Obama. Auma, who did not meet her half-brother until she was in her twenties, spent 16 years as a broadcast journalist in Germany before returning to Kenya, where she is now a social worker and youth advocate.

The president’s other Kenyan relatives range in occupation and fortune. His half-brother Malik, who was the best man at the president’s wedding, is a trained economist, like their father.

But another half-brother, George Hussein Obama, lives in a Nairobi shanty town and has publicly admitted that he has struggled with drugs and alcohol in the past.

Obama’s Surprising Link to Slavery in America

Transcript of John Punch's court record.
1827 transcript of the 1640 John Punch court record

Obama’s links to his East African clan are so recent, his father’s family doesn’t have the connection to slavery that marks the ancestry of so many African American families.

The family of his Caucasian mother, surprisingly, links Obama to slavery’s earliest days in America.

The ancestors of Obama’s Kansas-born mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, had been known to be white landowners in Colonial Virginia.

But according to research by Ancestry, they actually descended from an African man who was one of the first slaves in the United States.

That’s right. Research confirms Obama descended from one of America’s first slaves. 

That man, John Punch, was an indentured servant in Colonial Virginia who tried to run off in 1640. After he was caught, he was punished by enslavement for life.

Punch’s is the first documented case of slavery for life in the Colonies, occurring decades before Virginia even enacted its slavery laws.

Through a combination of genealogical records and DNA testing, family historians at Ancestry determined that he 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. Among these descendants were Dunham and her son, the president. Ancestry has even collected and displayed the key documents connecting Obama to Punch.

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Finding Your Own

If Obama’s genealogical connections seem staggering, you can discover equally compelling insights into your own family history through AncestryDNA.

Ancestry also has a wealth of resources to help Americans with African American ancestry research their family histories, both before and after Emancipation.

These resources are useful not only  for people who today identify as African American but also to a number of those who identify as Caucasian. Recent research shows that 4 percent of Caucasians have at least 1 percent African heritage.

In some places, the percentage is higher: in South Carolina at least 13 percent of self-identified Caucasians have 1 percent or more African ancestry, while in Louisiana the number is just over 12 percent.

What surprises are waiting in your family’s past? Try Ancestry or AncestryDNA and find out.

—Sandie Angulo Chen