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Utah genealogy firm digs up Obama's German roots

Published June 5, 2009 4:37 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As President Barack Obama meets with German leaders today in Dresden, he may be walking among distant relatives.

Provo-based Ancestry.com has found that Obama's lineage -- on his mother's side -- can be traced to Germany.

Using online sources and microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, genealogists hunted down a document that went as far back as Obama's eighth great-grandfather.

"One of the things that I love about this find is it really illustrates what you can find out about your family history," said Anastasia Tyler, lead genealogist on the project. "World history is our history. It's a personal thing. The decisions of your ancestors shape who you are and where you are."

Obama's mother was a white woman born in Kansas, and his father was Kenyan. Ancestry.com has pursued the president's lineage through his mother's side and previously found Irish ancestry, but decided to look into his German roots in time for his visit to the European nation.

Both civil and military service show up in Obama's blood. His eighth great-grandfather, Conrad Wolflin, served as a mayor in Orsingen, Germany, for 30 years. His son, Johann Martin Wolflin, was an Army medic for years and fought in the Austro-Turkish War in 1716-17 and was involved in the famous siege of Temesvar. In that raid, Habs -burg Imperial armies led by Prince Eugene of Savoy took the last important Ottoman-Turk stronghold in Hungary, which today is the Romanian city of Timisoara. During the siege, the document notes, Wolflin was injured by an arrow shot from the fortress. It also states he was captured at some point in his military career by the French for a period of time.

His son, Obama's sixth great-grandfather, was born Johann Conrad Wolflin on Jan. 29, 1729 in Besigheim, Wuerttemberg, Germany (present-day Baden-Württemberg). In 1750, he boarded the ship Patience and resettled in Pennsylvania with fellow German immigrants. It was there his last name changed to Wolfley. He married and had children, including Ludwig Lewis Wolfley, the first U.S.-born relative in that branch of his family tree.

The breakthrough came when researchers exhausted their online resources and sifted through microfilmed records at the Family History Library, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There, researchers found a document called a "Seelenregister" -- Registry of Souls -- that had the name of Johann Conrad Wolfley, and information about his father and his grandfather.

"We had searched for a birth record," Tyler said, "but this was better because it had information about other relatives."

Besigheim Deputy Mayor Klaus Schremps told the Associated Press Television Network (APTN) he was "very surprised" that Obama could have a connection to his city. But he tracked down a copy of the parish Seelenregister himself and located Wolflin's name.

"If this turns out really to be the case," Schremps said, "we will extend an invitation to Mr. Obama and if he would come and visit at some stage, it would be a great joy for the city and for the people."

The quaint city dates back to at least 1153 and today has 11,400 residents. Rivers surround the town on three sides, and two medieval towers and a late-Gothic church give it a picturesque silhouette.

At the time of Johann Conrad Wolflin's birth, it was part of the duchy of Württemberg.

Bernhard Kober, who runs the Cafe zum Hirsch in the old city center, said he always thought Besigheim was "something very special."

"I took it for granted that some great person came from Besigheim," the 47-year-old told APTN. "That it is Barack? That is great for us."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.