Barack Hussein Obama: Yankee & Cavalier

By Razib Khan | March 9, 2012 12:46 pm

I’ve mentioned before that though Barack H. Obama’s most salient ethnic identity is that of a black American, in many ways he far more resembles his “Yankee” maternal family (who raised him). By Yankee, I mean that I presumed that they were from the Yankee component of the Kansas population, with names like Emerson in the family lineage. Later the family settled in parts of Greater New England, the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. Religiously they seem to have veered into conventional New England liberal denominations such as Unitarianism. And interestingly as an adult Barack H. Obama chose a black nationalist church which had an explicit connection with a liberal Protestant denomination with dominant roots in New England, the United Church of Christ. All this is not to say that there is a “Yankee conspiracy” on Obama’s maternal side. Rather, people have “folkways,” and are often unconsciously attracted to cultural forms and locales which have an air of familiarity.

But interestingly a regularly correspondent has uncovered that Obama’s maternal lineage, or more specifically his maternal grandfather’s paternal lineage, is more Yankee in cultural identity than genetics:

I don’t want the basis of Obama’s Yankee heritage misconstrued here. I found no one who had dug out all of his “Cavalier” ancestors and compiled them in one place, so within reasonable effort, I did so. Here is a map of all that.

Stanley Ann Dunham’s genome is in fact only one percent New England Puritan. That cohort is due to a dozen or so American-born colonial immigrant kids from Puritan England and Holland. This one clade (Samuel Dunham b. 1742) is Stanley Ann’s direct patriline. Four or five from this group migrated to New Jersey fairly early, and intermarried apparently based on their Yankee-ness there. That Stanley Ann’s grandfather is Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham suggests that the Yankee regard is stronger than the genetic fraction. Choosing sides in the Civil War might be what bolstered that loyalty.

The Pennsylvania & Maryland immigrants are German, Swiss, French etc. Then the Virginia immigrants are from England and Wales, much as Fischer suggests. The north-south immigrants’ landfalls map well onto the patriline-matriline axis of the ancestral tree.

In terms of how to replicate:

The data are from here:

Anyone who uses this huge wiki-like resource knows that it’s unwieldy and not totally reliable. But making a map abstracts things to where isolated data errors or ambiguities aren’t going to change the big picture.

MORE ABOUT: Barack Obama
  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    I’d suggest that Obama’s maternal grandmother’s family was culturally most dominant upon the President, while his maternal grandfather Stanley Dunham was kind of from the wrong side of the tracks. His grandmother was born a Payne and her mother was born a McCurry. The Paynes were Methodists, Mr. Payne had a managerial job in the oil business, and the family subscribed to U. of Chicago president Robert Hutchinson’s Great Books series.. For example, that’s where the family’s connection to the U. of Chicago begins: his grandmothers brother was the #2 executive at the U of C’s big library. Also his grandmother had a sister who was a professor of statistics at a North Carolina college.

  • paperpushermj

    Interesting no mention of a sense of abandonment he must have felt from first his Father that the young Berry meet I think once. Only then to be abandoned by his Mother to at last the loving arms of his grandparents.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    Obama says he chose to run with the Marxists on campus because he saw them as cool. That along with some other statements has suggested to me that his ties to religious organizations is based in total on political expediency tempered by his socialist/Marxist anti-religous tendencies.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    Rev. Wright was the best educated (U. of Chicago master’s in divinity) and most intellectual of the popular black preachers on the South Side, so he was affiliated with the high-toned Congregationalist Church of Christ and was a natural for the young Obama, who was looking for a mentor in how to act black.

  • Charles Nydorf

    The first great survey of the dialects of US English was undertaken by Hans Kurath. He divided the country into Northern, Southern and Midland dialect areas. The Dunham ancestors fit very well into the Midland region.

  • Roger Bigod

    Not a classic Yankee migration pattern. Nothing in western MA, upstate NY or the upper tier of the midwestern states. The highest concentration of the surname is north of London, close enough to East Anglia that that could have influenced the choice of MA (1742 is very late for classic Yankee as well). But they quickly moved to NJ and the migration pattern from there is Middle Atlantic. There may be a little cultural continuity in the emphasis on education and communal values.

    I don’t see where “Cavalier” comes from. The “distressed Cavaliers” were gentry who reverses of fortune during the English Civil War and moved to Virginia. If you look at the Fischer’s canonical list of gentry, there about 50 names and only about half arrived before 1660. And many weren’t gentry in England. Cavalier also implies military accomplishment and the settlers in the Northern Neck of VA are famous for that (Washington, Lee). There’s no suggestion of a military tradition in the account of Obama’s American ancestors. A less fussy definition would just mean VA gentry. About the only cultural tradition I can see is involvement in politics, but there’s no mention of previous political office in the discussion here. (Aside: 2 descendants of the Randolphs of VA were mayors of Chicago.)

    Most of the immigrants to colonial VA were non-gentry from southern England. The standard migration pattern later was to the Lower South, but many moved to the Midwest.

  • Stephen

    @Roger Bigod — Thanks for the distinction regarding “Cavaliers” vs. Virginia gentry more generally. Fischer’s model is widely used to frame the major folkways, and those labels doubtless get applied too broadly to a more complex reality. Regarding the original “Puritan clade” in the Dunham tree: Samuel Dunham b. 1742 was born in New Jersey and he merely identifies the Yankee clade who are entirely his ancestors. It looks like all of these immigrants were “Puritan Great Migration,” at least as the term is casually used. None were on the Mayflower, but several were born in Leiden of English stock and they all appear to have come on the following ships over the next decade or two. I’ve seen articles remarking that Obama has a “Pilgrim” ancestor or two — none point out that there are more than a dozen surnames in the early 1600’s Massachusetts part of his tree. ~The “Regular Correspondent”

  • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    Not been fully up on English history but “Cavalier” is also a term often given to the Royalist side during the English Civil war. The winners of course been the Parliamentarians (who contained a strong Puritan element). In later times of course they became known as the Tories, ironic name as it was a derogatory named applied to them initially — Tory from Irish word: “tóraí” (pursued man — which was name of highwaymen/resistance fighters)

  • Roger Bigod

    I checked one of the big lists for Obama’s ancestors, and there’s no VA gentry, much less Cavaliers, if you want to make that distinction. There’s a Tarleton (title in the family) but in MD. A Fitzrandolph. The “fitz” prefix is Anglo-Norman, but the Randolphs of VA didn’t have it in the family for at least the last 3 generations in England, and the example is in NJ. There’s a Lewis of Albemarle Co VA. They were highly successful from the mid-18th Cent, but don’t show up in the early period. Michael Lewis the writer could be a cousin. At one remove, there’s a Corbin who married into the Lee family. It’s the one name on Fischer’s list.

    But there’s no sense of a group of people living in the same area and moving together. It’s all fairly random.

    It’s an interesting question how much cultural influence the VA gentry had and for how long. Of Fisher’s 4 groups, the Borderlands has been the sturdiest. The gentry model depended on the economic bonanza of tobacco culture and strong ties with England. I’m inclined to think that very little remains. We could use a group of rich, disinterested students of politics to update the founding documents, but they’re not going to be found in the country clubs of the Deep South.

  • Justin Loe

    Another analysis is to generate a measure of occupations for ancestors going back 4 generations.

    There used to be an adage:, “It takes three generations to make a nobleman.”


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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