Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Great-Great-Great-Grandfather of a President?

Barack Obama’s American Roots Are Traced to the Lower Scioto Valley

Just days before the announcement that US Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Party Presidential Nominee, would be campaigning in Portsmouth, Ohio, news began circulating of Obama’s ancestral roots leading back to the Scioto River Valley. On October 5th, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published the fullest account yet. They quote another Scioto Valley notable, current Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, as saying: "Ohio's supposed to be the mother of presidents. Wouldn't it be interesting if we were the great-great-great-grandfather of a president?"

Obama’s earliest direct ancestor in Ohio is a man named Joseph Kearney, who immigrated from Moneygall, Ireland to Ross County in 1849. Members of the Kearney family, however, had been in Ross County as early as 1805, when Joseph’s uncle, Thomas Kearney and his young family had moved from Baltimore, Maryland. Thomas Kearney had earlier left Ireland, sometime in the late 1780s, and had established himself as a master carpenter in his new American hometown. He married a Virginian from nearby Fairfax County in 1791 in a Baltimore Methodist Church.

Exactly how is not yet clear, but by 1805, if not before, Thomas Kearney had come into possession of lands in Ohio’s Virginia Military District. Kearney accompanied a flood of migrants who settled in the valley during the first decade of the nineteenth century. The rapidly growing Ross county town of Chillicothe was not only the seat of the county, it was the seat of the newly created state government of Ohio. Before Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland came to overshadow Chillicothe, this town was the locus of wealth, power, and land speculation in Ohio. Chillicothe to the north and Portsmouth to the south were the axis upon which the region spun and in the early 1800s the valley experienced rapid economic development.

Details of Thomas Kearney’s life in the Scioto Valley are meager, but he appears to have thrived and his success encouraged his brothers and nephews to leave Ireland in a chain of migration that lasted over fifty-years. Thomas would be followed by his brothers and their children in the 1830s and 1840s. One of those nephews, Joseph would have a son named Fulmoth Kearney, and it is through him that a direct link extends to Barack Obama’s mother.

What led Joseph Kearney to immigrate directly to the Scioto Valley in 1849? It was the death of his brother, Francis, in early February 1848. Francis, another nephew of Thomas Kearney, had died in Pickaway County, on his property near the Ross County line. In his Last Will and Testament, Francis gave his Ross County lands on the North Fork of Paint Creek to his brother Joseph and his sons. Joseph appears to have left Ireland nearly as soon as he had received word of his inheritance. Joseph arrived in Ross County in 1849 and his son, Fulmoth, followed a year later in March of 1850.

Fulmoth married Charlotte Holloway, a native of Ross County, whose family had also been among the earliest settlers in the Valley. Fulmoth and Charlotte would later move to Indiana, where Fulmoth died in 1878. Their daughter, Mary Ann Kearney married Jacob W. Dunham, the great-grand-father of Ann Dunham, who it turns out was the mother of Barack Obama.

Roger Kearney, the self-appointed Kearney family genealogist in Ohio, first discovered the Obama connection after reading a sketch of Obama’s genealogy in a newspaper article. The article mentioned that Obama’s mother’s ancestry in America went back to a man named Fulmoth Kearney. It turned out that Roger Kearney recognized the name Fulmoth, as one he had in his database. Working with, Roger was able to firmly establish the link to Obama and trace it all the way back to Ireland, where the genealogical research continues.

That Barack Obama’s American roots are to be found in the Lower Scioto Valley is a testament to the region’s significance in the history of our nation. In a region with a rich history associated with the heroic undertakings of the Underground Railroad, it seems only appropriate that America’s first African-American (or African-Irish-American) presidential nominee would have ancestors who came to this valley in pursuit of their happiness and their very own American dreams.

This Thursday, October 9th, at 5:30 PM, Shawnee State University will host Senator Obama, where, on the Alumni Green, he will give a speech to a crowd of students, faculty, staff, and members of the surrounding community. The following day, he will campaign in Chillicothe, in Ross County, the original destination of his Irish ancestors who came here in the early 1800s. Welcome home, Senator Obama. Welcome to the Lower Scioto Valley.


  1. What an interesting topic! It's always fascinating to see how our ancestry criss-crosses with famous people.

  2. Obviously all the really cool people make their way to or through the Scioto River Valley area! It's great to know Barack Obama has seen fit to bring his campaign here.Smart man! This lower portion of the state went heavily democratic in 2004 and it will again! His presence here makes that reality all the more possible.People love to get close to the candidates and are more likely to talk about their candidacy to others if they get fired up in a rally. Go OBAMA! Enjoy the Scioto River Vally, it's people and it's natural beauty!

  3. I encourage you to share this information about Obama's ties to the Scioto Valley with the Portsmouth Daily Times. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I am trying to establish the connection to Charlotte Holloway. My husbands Holloway ancestors settled in Ohio, in Deerfield Township, from Md and Va., following the Methodist movement. I have quite a bit of info, but not on Charlotte Holloway. Would like to bridge the gap between "our" ancestor and Charlotte.

  5. My ancestor Horatio Bailey owned land in Pickaway County, 1818, that bordered the land of Thomas Kearney. The land lay on the waters of Hay Run. In west central Indiana, ca. 1830 there was an itinerent preacher, surname,Dunham.