obama lineage

Barack Obama in a swirl of distant cousins, (from top left) Dick Cheney, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Ruby Dee
Graphic: Daily Yonder

A Kentucky genealogist has traced Sen. Barack Obama’s heritage to one of the founding families of the nation, a Revolutionary War patriot named James Lewis Hickman.

Obama’s shared ancestry with American colonists may be a surprise to those who have been focusing on Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., Obama’s Kenyan father. But historical records prove that Obama has as much in common with the Kentucky frontier of Daniel Boone as he does with East Africa.

Eric James discovered the connection when he was researching his own family tree, which sprouted such notables as the notorious James gang. While investigating some New England ancestors, he noted that Barack Obama was related to George Bush. Research shows that Obama and Bush are linked through a 17th century Massachusetts couple named Samuel Hinckley and Sarah Soole.

“Hum,” James said. “When I saw that, I thought, well, I’m kin to Bush too. I just wonder if there could be a connection.”

It wasn’t long before he discovered a colonial relation. It turns out that Obama’s 7th great-grandfather is Col. James Lewis Hickman. Hickman was born March 3, 1724 in Culpepper County, Virginia. Col. Hickman was awarded a land grant in rural Clark County, Kentucky. Hickman’s wife, Hannah Lewis, was the daughter of Maj. Davis Lewis, who also served in the American Revolution.

James thought this information would be useful to the Obama campaign and attempted to make contact to offer them his research. No one from the campaign ever answered him, though.

James speculates that the campaign may have been squeamish about family history information after last fall, when it became public that Vice President Dick Cheney is an eighth cousin of Obama. A spokesman for the Obama campaign made a joke out of this relationship, describing Cheney as the black sheep of Obama’s family.

Kathy Stein, a Lexington, Kentucky, legislator and Obama supporter, said it has been maddening to deal with rumors about Obama’s heritage. Talk radio in Lexington continues to spread the rumor that Obama is not an American, or is a Muslim, or both.

“I’m hopeful that this information about him can be shared, to dispel some of these rumors,” Stein said.

To some Obama supporters, the focus on Africa seems to be more than just idle curiosity about Obama’s family history.

“I’m struck by the desire for a pedigree by those who live in a country founded of the freedom to marry, worship and associate, fall in love and get married to whomever you choose,” said Kelly Flood, a Unitarian minister, and supporter of Obama. “The notion of pedigree, purity — It’s a ruse.”

“Obama’s story is the quintessential American story. His life story is rooted in the most American phenomenon: the melting pot,” she said. Flood notes that through his mother lineage, Obama’s ancestry goes back to the American colonies, and through his father’s line, “to Africa, where so many American citizens are from.”

But in the thorny thicket that is family history, Obama is actually connected to Africa through his white mother’s side, too. He’s a fifth cousin, seven times removed, of black entertainer Ruby Dee.

The web site Ancestry.com contains a feature called “Find Famous Relatives.” According to this feature, Obama’s political pedigree is beyond interesting or notable. It’s downright astonishing.

For example, Obama is closely related to at least six individuals who have resided in the White House: Jane Means Appleton Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce; Ronald Reagan; Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Wallace Truman, wife of President Harry Truman; President Jimmy Carter and Angelica Van Buren, daughter-in-law of President Martin Van Buren who took over White House as hostess following the death of Van Buren’s wife.

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly revealed that during the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton was advised to attack Obama’s heritage, but she declined.

Maybe it’s because she wanted to take the moral high road. Or maybe it’s because she is Obama’s cousin. Obama’s shares a 10th great grandmother, Ann Sutton (1589-1654) with Clinton.

declaration of independence

Genealogists have found that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is related to four signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Pennsylvanian Robert Morris (shown here in John Trumbull’s painting, seated at left and encircled in red.)

Obama’s political bona fides started with the Declaration of Independence. Francis Lightfoot Lee of Virginia, Caesar Rodney of Delaware, Pennsylvanian Robert Morris and Georgia’s Button Gwinnett were all signatories to the declaration and are all ancestors of Obama’s. He is related to at least three men who came to America on the Mayflower.

There is also a high probability that he is related to Queen Elizabeth of England, since they both descend from Dorothy Ann Tracy (1563-1612).

Interest in African American genealogy has piqued in recent years, led by Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor who has co-produced two PBS series, African American Lives and African American Lives 2, in which he traces the family history of black notables, including Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg and T.D. Jakes.

Much of Gates’ research shows the consistent contribution made by courageous blacks fighting for independence alongside their white neighbors.

In 2006, Gates was inducted into the Louisville-based Sons of the American Revolution showing that he descended from John Redman, a black freedman. Gates has teamed with the Daughter of the American Revolution to help discover black patriots, and so far he has identified more than 3,000 blacks who served. Gates has urged African Americans to follow his example and apply for membership to lineage organizations.

“What interested me,” James said, “was that whether it is Obama, Cheney or Bush, many of those who govern our nation have a long historical pattern of community building and an interest in public life.

“And it’s interesting that ethnicity or race or color has no meaning, really,” he said. “It’s your genes that determines your genealogy and that determines who you really are.”

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