John Punch (slave)

John Punch (fl. 1630s, living 1640) was an enslaved African who lived in the colony of Virginia.[3][4] Thought to have been an indentured servant, Punch attempted to escape to Maryland and was sentenced in July 1640 by the Virginia Governor's Council to serve as a slave for the remainder of his life. Two European men who ran away with him received a lighter sentence of extended indentured servitude. For this reason, some historians consider John Punch the "first official slave in the English colonies,"[5] and his case as the "first legal sanctioning of lifelong slavery in the Chesapeake."[3] Some historians also consider this to be one of the first legal distinctions between Europeans and Africans made in the colony,[6] and a key milestone in the development of the institution of slavery in the United States.[7]

John Punch
Bornfl. 1630s, living 1640
Unknown, but possibly Cameroon, Gabon or Ivory Coast[1]
Known forFirst official slave in the Thirteen Colonies[2]

In July 2012, published a paper suggesting that John Punch was a twelfth-generation grandfather of President Barack Obama on his mother's side, on the basis of historic and genealogical research and Y-DNA analysis.[8][9][10] Punch's descendants were known by the Bunch or Bunche surname. Punch is also believed to be one of the paternal ancestors of the 20th-century American diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.[11]


Africans were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. However, their status as slaves or indentured servants remains unclear. Philip S. Foner pointed out the differing perceptions held by historians, saying:

Some historians believe that slavery may have existed from the very first arrival of the Negro in 1619, but others are of the opinion that the institution did not develop until the 1660s and that the status of the Negro until then was that of an indentured servant. Still others believe that the evidence is too sketchy to permit any definite conclusion either way.[12]

Historian Alden T. Vaughan also recognizes differing opinions over when the institution of slavery started, but he says that most scholars agree that both free black people and enslaved black people were found in the Virginia colony by 1640. He notes, "On the first point--the status of blacks before the passage of the slave laws--the issue is not whether some were free or some were slave. Almost everyone acknowledges the existence of both categories by the 1640s, if not from the beginning."[13]


John Punch was a servant of Virginia planter Hugh Gwyn, a wealthy landowner, justice, and member of the House of Burgesses, representing Charles River County (which became York County in 1642).[14]

In 1640, Punch ran away to Maryland accompanied by two of Gwyn's European indentured servants. All three were caught and returned to Virginia. On July 9, the Virginia Governor's Council, which served as the colony's highest court, sentenced both Europeans to have their terms of indenture extended by another four years each. However, they sentenced Punch to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere."[15] In addition, the council sentenced the three men to thirty lashes each.[1]

Sentenced to life

The General Court of The Governor's Council provided this verdict on July 9, 1640.[16][17][18]

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.

Three sources are cited in a 2012 article written by Jeffrey B. Perry, in which he quotes, stating "'only one surviving [written] account ... certainly pertains to John Punch's life ... ' a paragraph from the Journal of the Executive Council of Colonial Virginia, dated July 9, 1640:"[19][20]

John H. Russell defined slavery in his book The Free Negro In Virginia, 1619–1865:

The difference between a servant and a slave is elementary and fundamental. The loss of liberty to the servant was temporary; the bondage of the slave was perpetual. It is the distinction made by Beverly in 1705 when he wrote, "They are call'd Slaves in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life." Wherever, according to the customs and laws of the colony, negroes were regarded and held as servants without a future right to freedom, there we should find the beginning of slavery in that colony.[21]

Three matters decided by the Virginia Governor's Council from June 4, 1640, through July 9, 1640

Historians have noted that John Punch ceased to be an indentured servant and was condemned to slavery, as he was sentenced to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life."[22] Edgar Toppin states that "Punch, in effect, became a slave under this ruling."[23] A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. said, "Thus, although he committed the same crime as the Dutchman and the Scotsman, John Punch, a black man, was sentenced to lifetime slavery."[24] Winthrop Jordan also described this court ruling as "the first definite indication of outright enslavement appears in Virginia ... 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."[25]

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 Christian Europeans, and possibly hopeful of replicating the lifetime indentures of African slaves held in the Caribbean and South American colonies.[26]


In his A Biographical History of Blacks in America since 1528 (1971), Toppin 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.[27] It was significant because it was documented.[27]

The National Park Service, in a history of Jamestown, notes that while it was a "customary practice to hold some Negroes in a form of life service," Punch was the "first documented slave for life."[28]

Other historians have also emphasized the importance of this court decision as being one to establish a legal acceptance for slavery. John Donoghue said, "This can be interpreted as the first legal sanctioning of lifelong slavery in the Chesapeake."[29] 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.[22][30] Tom Costa in his article, "Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia" says, "Scholars have argued that this decision represents the first legal distinction between Europeans and Africans to be made by Virginia courts."[31]

Indentured status

One historian has speculated that Punch may never have been an indentured servant. 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."[21] 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".[21]

In the same 2012 article referenced above, Perry says that the court ruling specifically refers to the indentured contracts of Victor 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 common law labor laws, 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."[32]


Drawing on a combination of historical documents and autosomal DNA analysis, stated in July 2012 that it is a strong likelihood that 44th United States President Barack Obama is an eleventh-great-grandson of Punch through his mother Stanley Ann Dunham.[8][33]

Genealogical research indicates that some time in the 1630s, Punch married a white woman, likely also an indentured servant. By 1637 he had fathered a son called John Bunch (labelled by genealogists as "John Bunch I"). While researchers cannot definitively prove that Punch was the father of Bunch, he is the only known African man of that time and place who is a possible progenitor. Punch and his wife are known as the first black and white couple in the colonies who left traceable descendants.[1] It remains possible that the father of Bunch was another African, of whom there is no record, but the similarity of the names would still need to be explained.

Due to some challenges by racially mixed 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 in the colonies were born into the status of their mothers; therefore, children of slave mothers were born into slavery, regardless of whether their fathers were free and European. In this way, slavery was made a racial caste associated with people of African ancestry. The law overturned the English common law applicable to the children of two English subjects in England, in which the father's social status determined that of the child.[34]

At the same time, this law meant that racially mixed children of white women were born into their mother's free status. Paul Heinegg, in his Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware found that most families of free black people in the 1790–1810 U.S. censuses could be traced to children of white women and black men, whether free, indentured servant, or slave, in colonial Virginia. Their children were born free and the families were established as free before the Revolution.

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 Bunch.[35] The Bunch descendants were free black people who became successful land-owners in Virginia. Some lines eventually assimilated as white, after generations of marrying white.

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, but their minister had refused to publish the banns.[35]:28 (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.[35]:29 The petition argued that mulatto meant a person of half Negro and half white ancestry.[35]:29) This John Bunch appealed the denial to the General Court of Virginia.[35]:28 The Court's decision is unknown, but the following month the government of Virginia responded by issuing a statute expanding the use of the term mulatto.[35]:29 It held that anyone who was a child, grandchild or great-grandchild of an African or Native American was a mulatto.[35]:29

In the early nineteenth century, racially mixed people of less than one-eighth African or Native American ancestry (equivalent to one great-grandparent) were considered legally white. Many racially mixed people lived as white in frontier areas, where they were treated in accordance with their community and fulfillment of citizen obligations.[11][36] 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 colonial westward migration to the frontiers of Virginia.[35] Through continued intermarriage with white families in Virginia, the line of Obama's maternal Bunch ancestors probably were identified as white as early as 1720.[1] 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 line 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 ethnic origins, including European.[1] The Bunch (sometimes spelled Bunche) family was established as free before the American Revolution. The Bunch surname lines also became associated with the core racially mixed families later known as Melungeon in Tennessee.[11]

Bunch family members also lived in South Carolina by the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Several members of the Bunch family from South Carolina were living in Detroit, Michigan, by the 1900 and 1910 censuses,[11] as a result of moving in the Great Migration. Researcher Paul Heinegg, known for his genealogy work on free African Americans of the colonial and early federal periods,[37] believes that Fred Bunche was among those Bunch descendants from South Carolina, as people often migrated in related groups. His son Ralph Bunche, born in Detroit, earned a doctorate in political science and taught at the university level. He helped plan the United Nations, mediated in Israel, and later served as U.S. Minister to the United Nations, eventually being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[11]

Y-DNA testing of direct male descendants of the Bunch family lines has revealed a common ancestry going back to a single male ancestor of African ethnicity.[1][10][38] 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


  1. 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",, July 16, 2012.
  2. Coates (2003). "Law and the Cultural Production of Race and Racialized Systems of Oppression" (PDF). American Behavioral Scientist. 47 (3): 329–351. doi:10.1177/0002764203256190. S2CID 146357699.
  3. John Donoghue (2010). "'Out of the Land of Bondage': The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition". The American Historical Review. 115 (4). Archived from the original on September 1, 2016.
  4. Paul Finkelman (1985). Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases. Library of Congress. ISBN 9781886363489.
  5. Coates (2003). "Law and the Cultural Production of Race and Racialized Systems of Oppression" (PDF). American Behavioral Scientist. 47 (3): 329–351. doi:10.1177/0002764203256190. S2CID 146357699.
  6. Tom Costa (2011). "Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia". Encyclopedia Virginia.
  7. Paul Finkelman (1985). Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases (Library of Congress). p. 3
  8. " Discovers Ph Suggests" Archived April 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, The New York Times. July 30, 2012.
  9. Plante, Bill Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America", July 30, 2012.
  10. Stolberg, Sheryl Gay "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not by His Father but His Mother, Research-in-obamas-family-tree/ "Surprising link found in Obama's family tree", CBS News. July 30, 2012.
  11. Paul Heinegg, "Bunch Family", Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 1995-2000. Note: Heinegg believes that Bunche was descended from Bunch ancestors established as free blacks in Virginia before the American Revolution. There were men of the Bunch surname in South Carolina by the end of the 18th century. Quote: "Others [of Bunch Family] in South Carolina i. Lovet, head of a South Orangeburg District household of 8 "other free" in 1790 [SC:99]. He lived for a while in Robeson County, North Carolina, since "Lovec Bunches old field" was mentioned in the March 1, 1811, will of John Hammons [WB 1:125]. ii. Gib., a taxable "free negro" in the District between Broad and Catawba River, South Carolina, in 1784 [South Carolina Tax List 1783-1800, frame 37]. iii. Paul2, head of a Union District, South Carolina household of 6 "other free" in 1800 [SC:241]. iv. Henry4, head of a Newberry District, South Carolina household of 2 "other free" in 1800 [SC:66]. v. Ralph J., Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1950, probably descended from the South Carolina branch of the family, but this has not been proved. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904, son of Fred and Olive Bunche. The 1900 and 1910 census for Detroit lists several members of the Bunch family who were born in South Carolina, but Fred Bunch was not among them."
  12. Foner, Philip S. (1980). History of Black Americans: From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on October 14, 2013.
  13. Vaughan, Alden T. (1989). "The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 97 (3): 311–354. JSTOR 4249092.
  14. Descent of the Bunch Family in Virginia and the Carolinas,, July 15, 2012
  15., Virginia recognizes slavery 1661 - 1663
  16., General Court Responds to Runaway Servants and Slaves (1640)
  17. 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.
  18. McIlwaine, H. R. (Henry Read), 1864-1934 editor. Minutes of the Council and General court of colonial Virginia, 1622-1632, 1670-1676, with notes and excerpts from original Council and General court records, into 1683, now lost. Richmond, VA: The Colonial Press, Everett Waddey Company, 1924. Page 466. Original language. Internet Archive
  19. There's No Basis for the Claims that John Punch was 'Indentured' -- Or That His Fellow Escapees Were 'White, Jeffrey B. Perry, History News Network, August 6, 2012
  20. See also, "John Punch Wasn't the First Slave in America -- Just the First Slave in the English Colonies", Pearl Duncan, History News Network, August 6, 2012
  21. John Henderson Russell. The Free Negro In Virginia, 1619-1865, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1913, pp. 29-30, scanned text online
  22. Tunnicliff Catterall, Helen (1926). Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Volumes 1–5. Reprint (1968): Octagon Books. p. 93.
  23. Toppin, Edgar (2010). The Black American in United States History
  24. Higginbotham, A. Leon (1975). In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780195027457.
  25. Jordan, Winthrop (1968). White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0807871416.
  26. Theodore W. Allen, "Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race" Archived November 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Cultural Logic
  27. 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
  28. "African Americans at Jamestown", Jamestown: History and Culture, National Park Service
  29. Donoghue, John (2010). "Out of the Land of Bondage": The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition". The American Historical Review. 115 (4): 943–974. doi:10.1086/ahr.115.4.943.
  30. "Slavery and Indentured Servants", Law Library of Congress
  31. Costa, Tom (2011). Runaway Slaves and Servants In Colonial Virginia. Encyclopedia Virginia.
  32. 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
  33. Hennessey, Kathleen. "Obama related to legendary Virginia slave, genealogists say", Los Angeles Times. July 30, 2012.
  34. 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 April 21, 2009
  35. Paul C. Reed, Natalie D. Cottrill, Joseph B. Shumway, and Anastasia Harman, "Descent of the Bunch Family in Virginia and the Carolinas", July 15, 2012,, accessed November 14, 2012
  36. Ariela Gross, "Of Portuguese Origin": Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the 'Little Races' in Nineteenth-Century America", Archived July 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine Law and History Review, Vol.25 (3), The History Cooperative. Retrieved June 22, 2008.
  37. "Descent of the Bunch Family in Virginia and the Carolinas", p. 6. Quote: "Heinegg has done an extraordinary job constructing the genealogies of free blacks and should be one of the first sources people check for African-American ancestry in the colonial period."
  38. "Obama descends from first African enslaved for life in America". Retrieved July 30, 2012.

Further reading

  • Allen, Theodore W., The Invention of the White Race (2 volumes), The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, vol.2
  • Finkelman, Paul. Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases, Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1985/reprint 1998 (KF4545.S5 A123 1985).
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