John Punch (slave)

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John Punch
BornUnknown, but probably Cameroon, Gabon, or Ivory Coast[1]
DiedYork County, Colony of Virginia
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John Punch
BornUnknown, but probably Cameroon, Gabon, or Ivory Coast[1]
DiedYork County, Colony of Virginia

John Punch (fl. 1630s, living 1640) was an African indentured servant who lived in the Colony of Virginia during the seventeenth century. In July 1640, the Virginia Governor's Council sentenced him to remain a servant for the rest of his life as punishment for running away to Maryland. For this reason, historians consider Punch the first documented lifetime slave in the colony, and his case a key milestone in the development of slavery in the United States.[2][3][4]

In July 2012, published a paper suggesting that Punch was an eleventh-generation maternal grandfather of Barack Obama, on the basis of historic and genealogical research and Y-DNA analysis.[5][6][7] Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, is a descendant of the Bunch family, free people of color in colonial Virginia, who were probably descendants of Punch himself. Most of her ancestors were European.[5] Punch is also believed to be one of the ancestors of the 20th-century American diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.[8]


Africans were first brought to Jamestown and Virginia in 1619 and often had the same status as indentured servants as did most white laborers in those years. Laborers were indentured for a lengthy period in order to pay off the cost of their passage by sea to the colony and of their board and other costs.


Punch was a servant of the Virginia planter Hugh Gwyn.

While genealogical research cannot definitively prove that John Punch was the father of John Bunch I (as he is called by genealogists), he is the only known African man of that time and place who is a possible progenitor. This research indicates that some time in the 1630s, Punch married a white woman. By 1637 he had fathered a son called John Bunch. Punch and his wife are known as the first black and white couple in the colonies who left traceable descendants.[1]

In 1640, Punch ran away to Maryland with two European indentured servants. The three men were returned to Virginia and on 9 July, the Virginia Governor's Council, which served as the colony's highest court, sentenced the two Europeans to have their terms of indenture extended by four years each, but they sentenced Punch to a life of servitude. In addition, the council sentenced the three men to thirty lashes each.[1]

The record of the court's ruling is the only surviving documentation regarding Punch’s life:

Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and have thirty stripes apiece. One called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is expired by their said indentures in recompense of his loss sustained by their absence, and after that service to their said master is expired, to serve the colony for three whole years apiece. And that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.[9]

Historians consider this difference in penalties to mark the case as one of the first to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.[10][11]

Historians have noted that John Punch ceased being an indentured servant and became a slave, as he was sentenced to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life."[10] Edgar Toppin states that "Punch, in effect, became a slave under this ruling."[12] In his A Biographical History of Blacks in America since 1528 he explains the importance of Punch's case in the legal history of Virginia:

"Thus, the black man, John Punch, became a slave unlike the two white indentured servants who merely had to serve a longer term. This was the first known case in Virginia involving slavery."[13] It was significant because it was documented.[13]

The National Park Service, in a history of Jamestown, notes that while it was a "customary practice" by the 1630s for some negroes to have lifetime indentures, Punch was the "first documented slave for life."[14]

In his 1913 study of free negroes in Virginia, John Henderson Russell points out that the court decision was ambiguous. If Punch was not a servant with future prospects of freedom, his sentencing was less harsh than his white accomplices. If Punch was a servant, then his punishment was much more severe than that of his white accomplices. But Russell states that the "most reasonable explanation" was that the Dutchman and the Scot, being white, were given only four additional years on top of their remaining terms of indenture, while Punch, "being a negro, was reduced from his former condition of servitude for a limited time to a condition of slavery for life."[15] Russell noted that the court did not refer to an indentured contract related to Punch, but notes that he was a "servant" and it was most reasonable that he was a limited-term servant (of some sort) before he was sentenced to "slavery for life".[15] Theodore W. Allen notes that the court's "being a negro" justification made no explicit reference to precedent in English or Virginia common law, and suggests that the court members may have been aware of common law that held a Christian could not enslave a Christian (with Punch being presumed to be a non-Christian, unlike his accomplices), wary of the diplomatic friction that would come of enslaving non-English Europeans, and/or hopeful of replicating the lifetime indentures of African slaves held in Caribbean and South American colonies.[16]

In an article in 2012, Jeffrey B. Perry says that the court ruling specifically refers to the indentured contracts of Viktor and James Gregory and extends them, while the court decision refers to John Punch only as a servant. Perry adds, "What is likely is that" Punch "was previously subjected to limited-term chattel bond-servitude" and says "that in Virginia chattelization was imposed on free laborers, tenants, and bond-servants increasingly after 1622, that it was imposed on both European and African descended laborers, that it was a qualitative break from English labor law, and that the chattelization of plantation labor constituted an essential precondition of the emergence of the subsequent lifetime chattel bond-servitude imposed on African American laborers in continental Anglo-America under the system of racial slavery and racial oppression."[17]


Drawing on a combination of historical documents and Y-DNA analysis, stated in July 2012 that it is a strong likelihood that United States President Barack Obama is an eleventh great-grandson of Punch through his mother Stanley Ann Dunham.[5][18]

Punch is believed to have fathered children with a white woman, probably also an indentured servant. Such relationships were common among the working class in the early colonial years.[8] Their mixed-race children inherited their mother's free status as an English subject.

Due to some challenges by mixed-race children of Englishmen to being enslaved, in 1662 the Virginia colony incorporated the principle of partus sequitur ventrem into slave law. 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 English common law applicable to the children of two English subjects, in which the father's social status determined that of the child.[19]

Punch's male descendants probably became known by the surname Bunch, a very rare name among colonial families.[1] Before 1640, there were fewer than 100 African men in Virginia, and John Punch was the only one with a surname similar to it.[20] 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 September 1705 a man referred to by researchers as John Bunch III 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 publish the banns. (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.)[20] This John Bunch appealed the denial to the General Court of Virginia. The decision of the Court on that occasion is unknown; but in October 1705 the General Court of Virginia issued a statute expanding the use of the term "mulatto." The court said that a mulatto was someone who was a "child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of a black or Native American."[20]

In the early 19th century, mixed-race persons of less than one-eighth African or Native American ancestry (equivalent to one great-grandparent) were considered legally white. Many mixed-race people lived as white in frontier areas, where they were treated in accordance with their community and fulfillment of obligations.[8][21] This was a looser definition than that established in 1924, when Virginia adopted the "one-drop rule" under its Racial Integrity Act, which defined as black anyone with any known black ancestry, no matter how limited.

Records do not show a marriage for John Bunch III, but the mother of one of his children was later noted as being named Rebecca. He had moved to Louisa County as part of the westward migration of colonists to the frontier of Virginia.[20] 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.[1]

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.[1] 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.[8]

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.[1][6][22] 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.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Anastasia Harman, Natalie D. Cottrill, Paul C. Reed, and Joseph Shumway (2012). "Documenting President Barack Obama’s maternal African-American ancestry: tracing his mother’s Bunch ancestry to the first slave in America",, 16 July 2012.
  2. ^ John Donoghue (2010). "'Out of the Land of Bondage': The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition". The American Historical Review 115 (4). 
  3. ^ Tom Costa (2011). "Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia". Encyclopedia Virginia. 
  4. ^ Paul Finkelman (1985). Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases (Library of Congress). p. 3
  5. ^ a b c " Discovers President Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America", July 30, 2012.
  6. ^ a b Stolberg, Sheryl Gay "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not by His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests", The New York Times. July 30, 2012.
  7. ^ Plante, Bill "Surprising link found in Obama's family tree", CBS News. July 30, 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 1995-2000
  9. ^ H. R. McIlwaine, ed. (1924). Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia: 1622–1632, 1670–1676. Richmond: Virginia State Library. p. 466.  Punctuation and spelling modernized.
  10. ^ a b Tunnicliff Catterall, Helen (1926/reprint 1968). Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Volumes 1 - 5. Reprint: Octagon Books. p. 93. 
  11. ^ "Slavery and Indentured Servants", Law Library of Congress
  12. ^ Toppin, Edgar (2010). The Black American in United States History
  13. ^ a b Edgar A. Toppin, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1971. ISBN 978-0-679-30014-4, p. 37
  14. ^ "African Americans at Jamestown, Jamestown: History and Culture, National Park Service
  15. ^ a b John Henderson Russell. The Free Negro In Virginia, 1619-1865, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1913, pp. 29-30, scanned text online
  16. ^ Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen
  17. ^ Jeffrey B. Perry, "There's No Basis for the Claims that John Punch was 'Indentured' -- Or That His Fellow Escapees Were 'White'", History News Network, August 6, 2012
  18. ^ Hennessey, Kathleen. "Obama related to legendary Virginia slave, genealogists say", Los Angeles Times. July 30, 2012.
  19. ^ Taunya Lovell Banks, "Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key's Freedom Suit - Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia", 41 Akron Law Review 799 (2008), Digital Commons Law, University of Maryland Law School, accessed 21 Apr 2009
  20. ^ a b c d 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,, accessed 14 November 2012
  21. ^ Ariela Gross, "Of Portuguese Origin": Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the 'Little Races' in Nineteenth-Century America", Law and History Review, Vol.25 (3), The History Cooperative. Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  22. ^ "Obama descends from first African enslaved for life in America". Retrieved 30 July 2012. 

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