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History is a trickster (again).

In all of the excitement over the "revelation" that President Obama is apparently a descendant from John Punch, the first African-American slave in the colonies, many glossed over the following bit of important information.

From ABC News:

The enslaved, black Punch had children with a free white woman. Because their mother was free, Punch's mixed-race kids were born free and went on to become "prominent" land owners in Virginia, Harman said.
Who are these people? What connection did they have to the growing slaveocracy and slave regime?

There were quite a few free blacks and mulattoes who owned African-Americans as human property. Slaves (and their labor) was the number one capital good in the United States up until the Civil War. To be landed and wealthy--or to have aspirations for such social mobility--meant that a white person would likely own slaves.

These arrangements varied. Sometimes free blacks "owned" their children, relatives, or spouse in order to protect them from slave catchers. Other times the relationships were the same as those between white slave owners and their human property--slaves were an investment, owned as property, and treated as such by their free black masters.

It would seem that some basic research suggests that John Punch's descendants were slave owning mulattoes whose descendants likely "passed" over from black to white. This data set listing the "Free Africans Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware" offers support for this hypothesis. As also noted by's release of the genealogy research on Obama's family, "John Punch" was the father of "John Bunch":

The Bunch family probably descended from John Bunch, born say 1630, who received a patent for 450 acres in New Kent County on 18 March 1662 [Patents 5:152]. He may have been the ancestor of several mixed-race members of the family:
1        i. Paul1, born say 1675.
2        ii. John1. born say 1684.
3        iii. Henry1, born say 1690.

1. Paul Bunch, born perhaps 1675, received a patent for 265 acres in North Carolina on the south side of the Roanoke River joining Quankey Pocosin and Gideon Gibson on 1 January 1725, and he bought a further 300 acres joining this land [Halifax DB 8:283]. He may have been the same Paul Bunch who was listed in the King William County, Virginia Rent Roll in 1704.

His Chowan County will was written on 16 November 1726 and probated on 10 March 1726/7 [SS 876, 3:138-9]. He left his land and eight slaves to his son John and to Fortune Holdbee and her daughters Keziah and Jemima. Elizabeth Bunch (no relationship stated) and his daughter Russell received only one shilling each.(1) He did not mention a wife nor did he mention his relationship to Fortune Holdbee. She may have been his common-law wife since he gave her one slave as long as she remained single.

The May 1734 Bertie court minutes referred to Keziah as "an orphan Child Entitled to a considerable Estate ... (by the will of Paul Bunch) bound to Capt. Thos. Bryant till the age of Thirty one contrary to law," and the August 1735 Bertie County court Minutes referred to the estate of "a Mulatto woman, Keziah Holdebee, and three children [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, I:135, 154]...

Henry Bunch Sr., probably born about 1690, was a resident of Chowan County on 18 December 1727 when he purchased 200 acres in Bertie County on Reedy Branch. On 30 May 1729 he purchased 640 acres in Bertie on Conaritsat Swamp from Thomas Pollock [DB C:21, 266]. He was taxed on himself and two slaves in the 1750 Bertie County summary tax list and was a "Free Mulatto" taxable with two slaves in John Hill's 1763 Bertie tax list. Henry made a will in Bertie on 21 April 1775, proved in August 1775. He had already deeded 840 acres of land on Conaritsat and Mulberry to his grandson Jeremiah, Jr., in 1765, and in his will left most of the remainder of his land to his grandson Cader Bass [WB B:34-7].

I wonder about the human experience that lies behind a ledger entry as property to be bequeathed with the horses, furniture, and land, passed from one person to the next upon the death of a family scion or patriarch.

What were their stories?

The race making business was and is messy, dirty, confusing, and complicated stuff. In the United States, the complexities and contradictions of the color line, and the struggles to unmake it, are perfectly present in the literal body of President Barack Obama. He is the descendant of the country's first black bondsman, the latter's ancestors would then go on to own other African-Americans as chattel, and their line would come full circle with Barack Obama as President of the United States.

I do not know if such a story is a tragedy or a triumph. Nevertheless, the human drama is both bizarre and fascinating.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Should I worry that (3+ / 0-)

    and its affiliated sites are Mormon?

    "I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe." Loren Eiseley

    by cadejo4 on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 11:52:00 AM PDT

  •  chauncey - why does it matter? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hoosier Al, mariachi mama, LaEscapee

    Why does it matter if Obama, or anyone else's relatives, owned slaves? There is no one alive who has legally owned slaves in the US. No one ever has any control over who your ancestors were.

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 11:55:16 AM PDT

    •  and with perfect timing (3+ / 0-)

      the slavery deniers arrive. white privilege 101, do the work yourself.

      •  chauncey - there were slaves in the US (0+ / 0-)

        that is a fact. I don't ever deny facts.

        "let's talk about that"

        by VClib on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 12:30:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  as I said your comment stinks of white privilege (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          AoT, Tonedevil, Larsstephens

          do your own work and reflect on that shortcoming.

          Funny, no one ever tells our Jewish brothers and sisters to get over the Holocaust. Then again many of the slavery get over it denying club also do not want to talk about the genocide of our First Nations brothers and sisters either.

          if you want to do some reading there are whole volumes about the relationship between chattel slavery and disparities in income, health, wealth, opportunity structures, political power and the like in 21st century America.

          The past isn't even past or yesterday to flip a phrase.

          The luxury of denying the recent past (hell black folks have only been full citizens on paper in this country for about four decades) is a great privilege.

          Slavery was so recent in this country that if you are in your 30s or 40s and a black American whose history goes back to the Middle Passage, your grandmother's grandmother was likely born a slave. If you don't understand the power of that history in the present and how recent it is I do not know what to tell you.

          Perhaps the color line truly is a boundary on one's capacity to empathize, respect, and understand the Other? Whiteness is after all prefaced on such denials.

          Re: reparations (which is where many of these "dialogues" go) the corporate entities which benefited from the murder of many millions of black folks through the slave trade still exist. The question becomes what to do about litigation. Folks smarter than me are still hashing that one out.

    •  It matters because history matters (7+ / 0-)

      It matters because knowledge matters. I don't view this diary as condemning Obama or his ancestry but rather stemming from curiosity and a fascination with America's past.

    •  It matters because slavery is part of how we (4+ / 0-)

      got to where we are.  You or I may never have owned slaves but that doesn't mean the practice of slavery doesn't impact us.  We can look at the history of slavery, in our family even, and look at how it impacts us today, specifically that the descendants of slave owners are better off economically, without translating that into a moral judgement.

      Many people still alive also are harmed by the legacy of slavery.  The economic inequity we see between blacks and whites is in part because of the history of slavery.

      There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

      by AoT on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 12:46:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  AoT - at some level I understnd that (0+ / 0-)

        but why does it matter that specifically Obama's family owned slaves?

        "let's talk about that"

        by VClib on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 01:01:36 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Because it shows how complicated (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          VClib, Tonedevil, Larsstephens, WB Reeves

          race and the history of race in our country are.  It matters because we need to look at these sorts of things to gain an understanding of that complexity.  If you read the whole diary through you'll see that chauncy says this, chauncy explains right there at the end why it's important and why he wrote the diary.

          There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

          by AoT on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 01:15:27 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  bizarre and fascinating (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MsGrin, Larsstephens

    is right, black to white and back to black again in seven or eight generations and called "furriner" by Scotch Irish hillbillies who've been here only slightly  longer that it takes their likker to age.

    Did Bunch own slaves?

    Does it matter?

    "Fascism is attracting the dregs of humanity- people with a slovenly biography - sadists, mental freaks, traitors." - ILYA EHRENBURG

    by durrati on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 11:56:04 AM PDT

  •  I don't see the triumph or tragedy... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    durrati, Lost and Found

    I think just further reveals our complex history.

    The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing online commenters that they have anything to say.-- B.F.

    by lcj98 on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 11:57:16 AM PDT

  •  I have a "family tree" too . . . (5+ / 0-)

    one that goes back to before the Mayflower, although of those on it I knew none from before my grandparents.

    And for the actions of none of them do I take any credit, or any blame . . .

    Fake Left, Drive Right . . . not my idea of a Democrat . . .

    by Deward Hastings on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 11:58:14 AM PDT

  •  my illustrious ancestors (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Andrew F Cockburn, WB Reeves
    In August 1692, just 3 months before a son was born to George and Susanna Scroggin, Susanna and John Bradley were tried before twelve jurors for stealing 125 watermelons, several cucumbers and other goods.. as well as "incontinent living together and several other misdemeanors by them committed." For these offences, Susanna and John were sentenced to 12 lashes each at the whipping post. There is no record that the sentence was carried out.
    But we were here early!!

    This Rover crossed over.. Willie Nelson, written by Dorothy Fields

    by Karl Rover on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 12:43:00 PM PDT

  •  It amazes me how quickly people pop up (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lost and Found, Larsstephens

    to say how not responsible they are for slavery.   Absolutely absurd.

    There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

    by AoT on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 12:47:19 PM PDT

  •  Many black and white people other than (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Recent arrivals have black and white ancestors. There was a massive amount of slave owners and their family raping slave women. As far as punch, punch the indentured servant mating with a white woman while they were both still indentured servants. She did her time and stopped being one at or around 21. Punch can no longer be with or be seen with her. She moves into the white world with all it's privileges. What she did with the off springs if they weren't light enough to pass, is your guess. Maybe, only one was light enough. The others would be in bondage for the rest of their lives, if she didn't figure out how to save them.

     I suspect sometime during the second or third generation, the were light enough to pass as white like so many others, at sometime owned slaves. In fact, i know that to be true. But by that time, they probably didn't even know they had black ancestry. It's a long story to explain why they wouldn't. Just one example. Punch child is mulatto slave, works in the slave owner's house. The slave owner or his family member, mates (raped because she's a slave and had no say so) and the baby is much lighter. At sometime that child or her grand child can pass without suspicion. Her mother is either sold off, or made to not tell the child she's her mother. Sometimes, the mother worked in the same house and addressed her own child as master. That child is willed slaves and land. Happened on a massive scale.

  •  Once again, a hit-and-run HR from racism (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    denier Saint Jimmy, who is too much of a coward to explain his rating.

    Jimmy, you're a loser. Why don't you go troll some other site.

    •  This is confusing (0+ / 0-)

      I would hardly expect that a racist would hide rate this diary. More likely they'd attempt to use the fact that the President's ancestors owned slaves to argue a false equivalence between Black and White folks in terms of the historical responsibility for slavery. They never tire of pointing to the complicity of some African peoples for this purpose.

      That said, the hide rate makes no sense any way you look at it, since the diary is completely legitimate and useful.

      Nothing human is alien to me.

      by WB Reeves on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 01:07:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Things are probably more complex than that (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sapere aude, Andrew F Cockburn

    on the American side of his family. That is if his family was anything like mine.

    Among my ancestry were Europeans, Native Americans and African Americans. Both sides of nearly every internecine conflict in the history of the United States is represented. Slave holders, poor white trash, mullatos, free people of color and slaves. Both US Army soldiers and Native American's who hid and/or passed to avoid Andrew Jacksons genocide. Both Yankee and Rebel (mostly rebels).

    That is a pretty typical racial mix for anyone with a long family history from the east coast, more particularly the southeast.

    I'm my own cousin, for God's sake! The population just wasn't that dense.

    What am I going to do? Pay reparations to myself? How do I divvy myself up? How much of my DNA comes from the persecutors vs. the persecuted? No telling. I know a lot, but so much is lost from that time. Court houses and churches burned and were flooded, from war and natural causes.

    The Mormon Church, whatever their motives, have done the best job imaginable compiling much of that information and making it all available to the general public. Kudos to them for that. Mormonism is not my cup of tea personally, skeeves me out. But they have as much of a right to practice their religin as my Salzburger Ancesters did when George III dumped them in a south Georgia swamp.

    All there is to do is to move forward as Americans. I think most Americans have, and will continue to do so.

  •  Thanks for this Chauncey (0+ / 0-)

    As you say this underlines the complexity of our history on this continent.

    There's an impulse to try and view US history as a morality tale, even if there is wide disagreement as to what the moral to be drawn is. In the end though,US history isn't a single narrative but a multiplicity of narratives. The stories of countless individuals and families caught up in systems and circumstances they neither created nor controlled.

    These stories don't easily lend themselves to the national mythmaking traditionally favored by historians, whether the myths be positive or negative ones.  


    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 12:22:58 PM PDT

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