Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Obama’s great-grandfathers had deep roots in Louisa County, Virginia


By now, you’ve probably heard the news.

Monday’s New York Times ran the story, and it’s been picked up widely all over the place since then: radio, television, the blogosphere, the works.

It looks like President Barack Obama has slave ancestry, an idea that had been rejected until genealogists spent years pouring over the early Virginia records of his extended family and analyzing DNA.

The proof isn’t absolute, but appears solid to Elizabeth Shown Mills, a former president of both the Society of American Genealogists and the Board for Certification of Genealogists.

Of Obama’s ancestor, John Punch of Virginia, genealogist Joseph Shumway says he “was more than likely the genesis of legalized slavery in America.”

Amazing stuff.

As explained: “An indentured servant in Colonial Virginia, Punch was punished for trying to escape his servitude in 1640 by being enslaved for life.  This marked the first actual documented case of slavery for life in the colonies, occurring decades before initial slavery laws were enacted in Virginia.”

Further, said:

“Most people will be surprised to learn that U.S. President Barack Obama has African-American ancestry through his mother. His father’s Kenyan origins are well known, but most people do not realize Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, has ancestors among the first African-American settlers of Colonial Virginia. These early settlers were the Bunch family and theirs is a curious story.

“Some members of this Bunch family passed for white and stayed in Virginia—they are President Obama’s ancestors. This Virginia branch intermarried with local white families and, for all intents and purposes, was eventually perceived to be white. They initially resided in Virginia’s York and New Kent counties, moved to what became Hanover County, and then relocated further upstream to Louisa County, Virginia. President Obama’s Bunch ancestors eventually migrated to Tennessee. Even in contemporary generations, there was some awareness about mixed race in the maternal branch of Obama’s family.”

The company’s report cites Obama’s book Dreams From My Father: Obama related the belief that his maternal grandmother, Leona McCurry, had a “distant ancestor [who] had been a full-blooded Cherokee,” but the “lineage was a source of considerable shame” to Leona, who “blanched whenever someone mentioned the subject and hoped to carry the secret to her grave.”

Obama’s African ancestor, said, fathered children with a white woman who passed her free status on to their offspring.

But it was the mention of Louisa County, not far from Fredericksburg, that really got my attention, as it did that of an alert colleague on Monday night. 

And the more I’ve read (not that I had much time tonight), the more interesting it gets.

The president’s fifth through eighth great-grandfathers all lived in Louisa, reports in its descendancy report, here.

His eight great-grandfather, John Bunch III, had settled on Taylor’s Creek in Louisa by 172-22, the report says. By 1725, he’d bought three adjoining tracts there, on the border between Louisa and Hanover counties.

When a minister wouldn’t sanction his marrying a white neighbor’s daughter, Sarah Slayden, he filed suit in the General Court of Virginia.

Apparently, said, John Bunch III was the son of a white woman and a man with some African ancestry. The court couldn’t puzzle out what to do, but the following month the government issued a statute defining his racial status and the people the law called “mulatto” for the next two centuries.

“As a direct result of John Bunch’s petition, a mulatto was defined as someone who was child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of a black or Native American,” reported.

And yet, in our own time, John Punch’s 11th great-grandson emerged to become the leader of the free world.

For more on this new research, see


  • Tarin Rose Edge

    It’s funny how this comes out now in the wake of the election … coincidence? Most definitely!!