February 27, 2014

By Jennifer Bihm


John Punch is the first known slave in the United States and he is believed to be the ancestor of President Barack Obama. He arrived in the Virginia colony in the 17th century, one  of a handful of indentured servants belonging to Virginia planter, Hugh Gwyn. In 1640 he attempted to escape Gwyn, along with two European indentured servants but was caught and sent back.

Punishment for the two Europeans was four years longer of servitude. But a judge ordered Punch to serve out the rest of his natural life to Gwyn. This incident is believed to have set the precedence for the institution of slavery in America.

It’s also the first documented case of differences in treatment based on race in America. According to historians, Punch had children with a white woman most likely an indentured servant (which was a common occurrence during the time).The children inherited the mother’s free status, causing legislators at the time to reconsider the slavery laws (children usually held the status of the father).

Most likely, said historians drawing from documents, and Y-DNA analysis, Punch’s descendants were called Bunch.

“Before 1640, there were fewer than 100 African men in Virginia, and John Punch was the only one with a surname similar to it,” they said.

“The Bunch descendants were free people of color who became successful landowners in Virginia. Some lines eventually assimilated as white, after generations of marrying whites.”

In the early 1700s, a man called John Bunch III, a mulatto, asked the court to publish proclamation of marriage to a white woman called Sara Slayden, causing  another rule change, mulattos were now considered black, no matter what percentage of white DNA they had. Bunch didn’t marry Slayden, however, historical records show him fathering children with another white woman called Rebecca.

“He had moved to Louisa County as part of the westward migration of colonists to the frontier of Virginia.,” said historians from Ancestry.com.

“Through continued intermarriage with whites in Virginia, the line of Obama’s maternal Bunch ancestors probably appeared as and identified as white as early as 1720. Members of this line eventually migrated into Tennessee and ultimately to Kansas, where descendants included Obama’s maternal grandmother and his mother Stanley Ann Dunham.

“Another branch of the Bunch family migrated to North Carolina, where they were classified in some records as mulatto. They intermarried with people of a variety of ethnicities, including European. The Bunch or Bunche family was established as free before the American Revolution. The Bunch surname lines also became associated with core mixed-race families later known as Melungeon in Tennessee.

“Y-DNA testing of descendants of the Bunch family lines has revealed common ancestry going back to a single male ancestor of sub-Saharan African ethnicity. Gene­alogists believe this male ancestor to be John Punch the African. He was probably born in present-day Cameroon in West Africa, where his particular type of DNA is most common…”

In July 2012, Ancestry.com officials determined that President Barack Obama is an eleventh great grandson of Punch.

Category: News