First Lady Michelle Obama’s Distant Cousins

Editors note: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the name of Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great grandfather. The correct name is Henry Wells Shields.

A story in Sunday’s New York Times about first lady Michelle Obama’s distant white relatives echoes some of what we’ve seen more and more of at 23andMe – Americans, both black and white, using DNA to uncover unknown histories through their ancestry.

Much like what Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. did in his most recent PBS series, Finding Your Roots, the Times was able to use DNA samples, paper records and family stories to piece together Mrs. Obama’s complicated family tree. The report found that Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great-grandfather was the slave owner Henry Wells Shields.

While most African Americans know that they have some European ancestry because slave owners often forced themselves onto their slaves and fathered children by them, finding connections to living distant white relatives who are the descendants of those slave masters can be complicated. The Times notes that the widespread use of DNA testing has made some of these discoveries that much more common.

We’ve had several posts that touch on these issues. Take a look if you haven’t already seen them.


Customers can look at the breakdown of their ancestry with 23andMe’s Ancestry Painting tool here.Not yet a customer? Visit our store or learn more.
  • Ruchira S. Datta

    According to the article, Dolphus T. Shields was not himself a slave owner, but the son of Charles Marion Shields, whose father Henry Wells Shields owned Dolphus’s mother, Melvinia Shields.

  • Ksun

    I don’t believe the article identified Dolphus T. Shields as a ” slave owner”; but rather the child of Michelle’s enslaved female ancestor and the son of the slave owner. The slave owner was named Henry Wells Shields; and his son Charles Marion Shields was the suspected father of Dolphus T. Shields with Henry’s slave Melvinia.

  • Karen Fox

    “The report found that Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great-grandfather was the slave owner Dolphus T. Shields.”

    Yes, Dolphus T. Shields was her maternal great-great-grandfather.

    BUT he was NOT a slave owner.

    Go back to the NYT article at

    Truth: Dolphus T. Shields was the son of Melvina, a slave belonging to white master Henry Wells Shields. Dolphus’s likely father was Henry Shields’ son, Charles Marion Shields.

    • ScottH

      Thank you Karen for pointing this out. I will make that correction.

  • Scott23H


    There are no definitive ways to tell for certain if you have Jewish ancestry based on your DNA. However there are a few ways you can determine whether the possibility exists.

    First, you may have evidence of Ashkenazi ancestry in your Ancestry Composition results. DNA shows clearly the connections among those who consider themselves to be Ashkenazi Jewish: two Ashkenazi Jewish people are very likely to be “genetic cousins,” sharing long stretches of identical DNA. This sharing reflects the close knit nature of this population.

    Another source is your haplogroup. There have been several well-supported studies chronicling the genetic ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews, which we do report in the Maternal Line summaries. The maternal haplogroups associated with Ashkenazi ancestry are N1b, K1a1b1a, K1a9, and K2a2a. If you fall into one of these haplogroups, it is still possible that you are not Jewish, but it is probable that you are.

    The final way to determine whether you may have Jewish ancestry is through the Countries of Ancestry tool. You can get there by selecting “Ancestry Tools” from the My Results menu. In this feature we combine information from your DNA Relatives (regardless of whether you have made contact or revealed your identities to one another) and those matches’ answers to the Where Are You From? ancestry survey. The survey allows for people to self-identify as having Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

    Using the feature’s advanced controls, you can check a box indicating segments declared to be of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. In this way, you can see whether or not and to what degree you have DNA Relatives who consider themselves Ashkenazi Jewish. From this you can infer whether or not and to what degree you may have Jewish ancestry.

    • Dan Sveaver

      This is fascinating stuff!