John Punch (slave)
|Died||York County, Colony of Virginia|
|Occupation||Indentured servant, slave|
John Punch was an African indentured servant who lived in seventeenth century, colonial York County, Virginia. In 1640, he was bound as a servant for life as punishment for having tried to escape from his indenture. Some genealogists and historians describe Punch as "the first African documented to be enslaved for life in what would eventually become the United States."
In July 2012, Ancestry.com published a paper documenting the combination of historic research and Y-DNA analysis that supports the conclusion that Punch was an eleventh-generation maternal grandfather of President Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. Punch was an ancestor through the Bunch family, free people of color in colonial Virginia, who were ancestors of Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Her ancestors were primarily of European-American ethnicity. Her line of Bunch ancestors had largely intermarried with whites, and likely appeared white by 1720. Children born to white women were free because of the status of the mother. DNA testing of the male Bunch descendants has revealed that John Punch was likely from present-day Cameroon, in West Africa.
In 1640, Punch was an indentured servant of the Virginia planter Hugh Gwyn. He escaped to Maryland with two other indentured servants, a Dutchman and a Scot. All three men were caught and sentenced to whippings. In addition, the European men were sentenced to have their terms of indenture extended by four years each, but Punch was sentenced to a life of servitude. Historians consider this difference in penalties to mark this case as one of the first to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.
It is documented that John Casor was the first legally sanctioned slave in Virginia, through a court case of 1654. While some genealogists and historians describe Punch as the first slave, he was technically still an indentured servant, as he was sentenced to serve the remainder of his life in servitude as punishment for escaping. Casor, by contrast, was found to have been a slave since his arrival in Virginia.
Drawing on a combination of historical documents and Y-DNA analysis, Ancestry.com stated in July 2012 that it is a strong likelihood that Punch is an eleventh great-grandfather of United States President Barack Obama through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
Punch is believed to have fathered children with a white woman, likely also an indentured servant. Such relationships were common among the working class in the early colonial years. Their mixed-race children inherited their mother's free status as an English subject. Informal then, the principle of partus sequitur ventrem was incorporated into slave law in 1662 by the Virginia colony. Generally, this law held that children of slave mothers were born into slavery, regardless of whether their fathers were free and English/European; it thus made slavery a racial caste associated with people of African descent. It overturned the common law applicable to the children of two English subjects, in which the father's status determined that of the child.
Punch's male descendants became known by the surname Bunch, which is very rare among colonial families. Before 1640, there were fewer than 100 African men in Virginia, and John Punch was the only one with a surname similar to it. The Bunch descendants were free people of color who became successful landowners in Virginia and eventually assimilated as white, according to generations of marrying white.
A man referred to by researchers as John Bunch III, in September 1705 petitioned the General Court of Virginia for permission to publish banns for his marriage to Sarah Slayden, a white woman. Their minister had refused to do so. (There had been a ban on marriages between Negroes and whites, but Bunch posed a challenge, as he was apparently the son of a white woman, with only a degree of African ancestry. At the time, mulatto meant a person of half Negro and half white ancestry.) John Bunch III appealed the denial to the General Court of Virginia. The decision of the Court is unknown. However, in October 1705 the General Court of Virginia issued a statute defining as "mulatto" someone who was a "child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of a black or Native American." Persons of less than one-eighth African or Native American ancestry were considered legally white, a looser definition than the later, twentieth-century "one-drop rule" incorporated into Virginia law in 1924.
Records do not show who John Bunch III married, but the mother of one of his children was later noted as Rebecca. He had moved to Louisa County, as part of the westward migration to the frontier of Virginia. Through continued intermarriage with whites in Virginia, Obama's maternal Bunch ancestors gradually assimilated and likely appeared as and identified as white as early as 1720. This line eventually migrated into Tennessee and ultimately to Kansas, where descendants included Obama's maternal grandmother and 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 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. This is believed to be John Punch the African, likely from present-day Cameroon in West Africa, where his particular type of DNA is concentrated.
See also 
- Anastasia Harman, Natalie D. Cottrill, Paul C. Reed, and Joseph Shumway, "Documenting President Barack Obama’s Maternal African-American Ancestry: Tracing His Mother’s Bunch Ancestry to the First Slave in America", Ancestry.com, 16 July 2012, p. 19.
- "Ancestry.com Discovers President Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America", Ancestry.com. July 30, 2012.
- Stolberg, Sheryl Gay "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not by His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests", The New York Times. July 30, 2012.
- Plante, Bill "Surprising link found in Obama's family tree", CBS News. July 30, 2012.
- Heinegg, Paul (2010). "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina,South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware". Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Slavery and Indentured Servants Law Library of Congress
- William J. Wood, "The Illegal Beginning of American Slavery", ABA Journal, 1970, American Bar Association, accessed 2 May 2011.
- Darrell J. Kozlowski; Jennifer L. Weber (2010). Colonialism. Infobase Publishing. pp. 78–. ISBN 978-1-4381-2890-0. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Hennessey, Kathleen "Obama related to legendary Virginia slave, genealogists say", Los Angeles Times. July 30, 2012.
- Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 1995-2000
- Paul C. Reed, Natalie D. Cottrill, Joseph B. Shumway, and Anastasia Harman, "Descent of the Bunch Family in Virginia and the Carolinas", 15 July 2012, Ancestry.com, accessed 14 November 2012
- "Obama descends from first African enslaved for life in America". Ancestry.com. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
- "The Bunch y-DNA Project", hosted by World Families.net
- "President Obama descends from the first African enslaved for life in America", press release, July 2012, Ancestry.com
- "Responses to Enslavement: John Punch", SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, 2004, American Experience, PBS-WNET