John Punch (fl. 1630s, living 1640) was an African slave who lived in the Colony of Virginia during the seventeenth century. In July 1640, the Virginia Governor's Council sentenced him to serve for the remainder of his life as punishment for running away to Maryland; in contrast, two European men who also ran away with him were sentenced to longer indentures but not total loss of future prospects for freedom. For this reason, historians consider John Punch the "first official slave in the English colonies," and his case as the "ﬁrst legal sanctioning of lifelong slavery in the Chesapeake." Historians also consider this to be one of the first legal distinctions between Europeans and Africans made in the colony, and his case a key milestone in the development of the institution of slavery in the United States.
In July 2012, Ancestry.com 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. Punch's descendants were known by the Bunch or Bunche surname. Punch is 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.
Africans were first brought to Jamestown and Virginia in 1619; however, their status as slaves or indentured servants remains unclear. Philip S. Foner pointed out 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.
Historian Alden T. Vaughan recognizes differing opinions as to when the institution of slavery started but says that most scholars agree that there existed both free blacks and enslaved blacks by 1640. He says "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."
Punch was a servant of the Virginia planter Hugh Gwyn, a wealthy landowner, a justice and one of the few members of the House of Burgesses, representing Charles River County (which would become York County in 1642).
In 1640, Punch ran away to Maryland with two European indentured servants of Gwyn. 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.
Sentenced to 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."
Three different sources are cited in a 2012 article written by Jeffrey B. Perry, in which he quotes Ancestry.com, 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:" 
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.
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." Edgar Toppin states that "Punch, in effect, became a slave under this ruling." Leon A. Higginbotham said, "Thus, although he committed the same crime as the Dutchman and the Scotsman, John Punch, a black man, was sentenced to lifetime slavery." 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 else where."
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.
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." It was significant because it was documented.
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."
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."
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. 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."
Some historians have 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." 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".
In the same 2012 article referenced above, 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."
Drawing on a combination of historical documents and Y-DNA analysis, Ancestry.com 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.
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 I (as he is called by genealogists). While researchers cannot definitively prove that John Punch was the father of John Bunch I, 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.
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.
At the same time, use of this principle meant that mixed-race 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 people of color in the 1790-1810 US censuses could be traced to unions between white women and African 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. 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. 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.) 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."
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 citizen obligations. 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. 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.
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 ethnicities, including European. The Bunch (also sometimes spelled 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.
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 time of the 1900 and 1910 censuses, as a result of moving in the Great Migration. Researcher Paul Heinegg, known for his genealogy work on free African Americans of the colonial period and early federal period, 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, later served as US Minister to the United Nations and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Y-DNA testing of direct male descendants of the Bunch family lines has revealed common ancestry going back to a single male ancestor of sub-Saharan African ethnicity. 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.
- 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", Ancestry.com, 16 July 2012.
- John Donoghue (2010). "'Out of the Land of Bondage': The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition". The American Historical Review 115 (4).
- Paul Finkelman (1985). "Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases". Library of Congress.
- Coates (2003). "Law and the Cultural Production of Race and Racialized Systems of Oppression". American Behavioral Scientist 47 (3).
- Tom Costa (2011). "Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia". Encyclopedia Virginia.
- Paul Finkelman (1985). Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases (Library of Congress). p. 3
- "Ancestry.com Discovers Ph Suggests", The New York Times. July 30, 2012.
- Plante, Bill 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, Researc-in-obamas-family-tree/ "Surprising link found in Obama's family tree", CBS News. July 30, 2012.
- 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 people of color 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 1 March 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 7 August 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."
- Foner, Philip S. (1980). "History of Black Americans: From Africa to the emergence of the cotton kingdom". Oxford University Press.
- Vaughan, Alden T. (1989). "The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.
- Descent of the Bunch Family in Virginia and the Carolinas, Ancestry.com, July 15, 2012
- 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.
- 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
- John Henderson Russell. The Free Negro In Virginia, 1619-1865, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1913, pp. 29-30, scanned text online
- Tunnicliff Catterall, Helen (1926/reprint 1968). Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Volumes 1 - 5. Reprint: Octagon Books. p. 93. Check date values in:
- Toppin, Edgar (2010). The Black American in United States History
- Higginbotham, A. Leon (1975). In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Greenwood Press.
- Jordan, Winthrop (1968). White Over Black: American attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press.
- Theodore W. Allen, "Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race", Cultural Logic
- 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
- "African Americans at Jamestown", Jamestown: History and Culture, National Park Service
- Donoghue, John (2010). Out of the Land of Bondage": The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition. The American Historical Review.
- "Slavery and Indentured Servants", Law Library of Congress
- Costa, Tom (2011). Runaway Slaves and Servants In Colonial Virginia. Encyclopedia Virginia.
- 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
- Hennessey, Kathleen. "Obama related to legendary Virginia slave, genealogists say", Los Angeles Times. July 30, 2012.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- "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."
- "Obama descends from first African enslaved for life in America". Ancestry.com. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
- 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).