Genealogist unearths first lady’s family tree back to 1850

October 8, 2009

A genealogist working with The New York Times has traced Michelle Obama’s family tree back five generations to a 6-year-old slave girl named Melvinia who was valued at $475.

The White House said first lady Michelle Obama had not known many of the details of her family history and enjoyed reading it. She had declined to comment on the story for The New York Times because of the personal nature of the subject.

OBAMA/“I don’t believe she knew or had known all of this, but enjoyed reading about her family history,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The slave girl Melvinia initially appears in the documentary record in 1850, the property of South Carolina landowner David Patterson, who owned 21 slaves.

After Patterson died in 1852, Melvinia was sent to a smaller 200-acre farm in Georgia, the home of Patterson’s daughter and son-in-law, Christianne and Henry Shields. She was one of only three slaves on the farm near Atlanta.

Sometime when she was a teenager, possibly as young as 15, Melvinia became pregnant by a white male. The father is unknown, possibly Henry Shields, then in his 40s, or one of his four sons, aged 19 to 24.

Melvinia gave birth around 1859 to a boy, Dolphus. She and the father of her first-born son are Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandparents, genealogist Megan Smolenyak says.

Three of Melvinia’s four children are listed on the 1870 census as mulatto. One was born four years after emancipation, raising the possibility that the relationship with the original father continued even after the Civil War.

After being freed, she worked on a farm adjacent to that of Charles Shields, one of Henry Shields’ sons.

In her 30s or 40s, Melvinia reconnected with former slaves she had known as a child on the Patterson estate. She moved with the couple — Mariah and Bolus Easley — to a spot near the border with Alabama.

Dolphus married one of the Easleys’ daughters, Alice. The couple are Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandparents.

Melvinia, who took Shields as her last name, died in 1938 in her 90s.

Dolphus and Alice moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he was a co-founder of First Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Trinity Baptist Church.

Dolphus, a carpenter, thrived in Birmingham, but he split up with Alice. She moved around, working as a seamstress and a maid.

Their son, Robert Lee Shields, married Annie Lawson in 1906 and worked as a laborer and railroad porter. Robert Lee disappeared from the public record when he was about 32 years old.

He was Michelle Obama’s great-grandfather.

Robert Lee’s son, Purnell Shields, was the first lady’s grandfather, her mother Marian Robinson’s father. He moved to Chicago as part of the great migration north and worked as a painter.

For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit:Reuters/Larry Downing (Obama family, including Michelle Obama’s mother Marian Robinson, on White House balcony April 13.)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Gee, that’s great. Now how about a genealogy report on the President himself. I’m sure that will be even more interesting.

Posted by Pistolera | Report as abusive

That’s nothing.

I have it on good authority that MY genealogy goes all the way back to 980000 BC.

In fact, some reckon it actually goes back to 2498000 BC.

A couple of people think it only goes back to 3700 BC. But they also believe in little invisible men.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

What an interesting story – but then every family history is! I will look forward to hearing about Obama’s ancestry too.

Posted by Ros Bott | Report as abusive

Only in America. If someone had told Melvinia as a young woman that someday her descendant would be the wife of the President of the USA what would her reaction have been?

Posted by Eddie | Report as abusive

The resources available online without cost these days is amazing! I’ve researched my father back to 1850 and my mother back to the 1500s. There are many places to start your search, but I’ve found that putting a grandparents name in quotes on Google is sometimes the best way to find where someone else has already done the research for you and they are willing to share.

Posted by Dave S | Report as abusive

[…] the 1910s to be raised by an aunt and uncle. Next up was maternal grandfather Purnell Shields who came from Birmingham, Alabama with his mother, sister and step-father in the 1920s. His mother Annie was the […]

Posted by – Allt om Kändisar, Blogg och Mode Megan Smolenyak: Michelle Obama’s Ancestors: The Great Mixing | | Report as abusive