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Sunday 17 December 2017

Michelle Obama's ancestor 'was Irish slave owner'

Michelle Obama. Photo: Getty Images
Michelle Obama. Photo: Getty Images
President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama meet a young spectator in Dublin during their visit here last year
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

US First Lady Michelle Obama's ancestry can be traced to an Irish slave owner who emigrated to America in the 1700s.

A new book claims that Andrew Shields, who fought against the British in the American War of Independence, was Mrs Obama's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and his family were slave owners.

Her great-great-great-grandmother Melvinia was a slave who had children by Charles Shields, grandson of Andrew Shields. One of those children, Dolphus Shields, born in 1859, was Michelle Obama's direct ancestor.

The claims are made in 'American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama' by Rachel L Swarns, a writer with 'The New York Times'.

DNA technology was used to prove the link, and among the genealogists who helped trace Mrs Obama's roots was Megan Smolenyak, who discovered that President Obama's roots went back to Moneygall in Co Offaly.

While the book does not identify where the Shields came from, it was most likely Northern Ireland as the family was Protestant and there was considerable Scots-Irish emigration to the American South at the time.

It traces dozens of white relatives of Michelle Obama, none of whom knew of their connection through slavery to the first lady. Most were shocked to learn the connection and hoped that the Shields-Melvinia relationship was not one of rape, but love.

"You really don't like to face this kind of thing," said Joan Tribble, whose ancestors owned the first lady's great-great-great-grandmother.

"To me, it's an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then," another descendant, Aliene Shields, added, pointing to the fact that they had several children together.


Melvinia was just 15 when she gave birth to a child named Dolphus in 1859. She was an illiterate woman who was confined to work in the fields by the Shields family, who grew cotton, Indian corn and sweet potatoes.

She was once traded for $475 and became the property of Henry Shields in 1852 when she was eight.

Who had fathered Melvinia's biracial son Dolphus -- Ms Obama's great-great grandfather -- remained a mystery until Ms Smolenyak and Ms Swarns spent two years researching and carrying out DNA tests.

They are now confident that the father was Charles, a son of Henry Wells Shields, the farmer who owned Melvinia after inheriting her from his father-in-law in 1852.

Ms Smolenyak began the project just before Mr Obama was elected president and she said she hoped her discovery would please the first lady.

Mrs Obama could not be reached for comment yesterday, and the White House press office did not respond to calls. Mrs Obama also declined to comment on the claims in 'The 'New York Times'.

In 2007, Ms Smolenyak found out that President Obama's family came from Moneygall in Offaly after tracing his third great-grandfather on his mother's side, Falmouth Kearney.

Irish Independent

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