Barack Obama moves to Seattle in August or early September 1961.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 2/10/2009
  • Essay 8926
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Shortly after his birth on August 4, 1961, Barack Obama and his mother, 18-year-old Stanley Ann Dunham Obama, move to Seattle and rent an apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. She attends classes at the University of Washington during the 1961-1962 school year while simultaneously raising her infant son. They will remain in Seattle for about a year; later in 1962 they will return to Hawaii.

Life in Seattle

President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961, to Stanley Ann Dunham Obama (1942-1995) and Barack Obama (1936-1982).  Dunham had lived in Seattle and on Mercer Island from 1955 until 1960, and not long after young Barack was born, she and her son -- her husband remained behind in Hawaii -- moved to Seattle. It appears that they arrived around the end of August 1961, as two of her friends recall Dunham returning to Mercer Island and visiting her and the new baby about this time. The new arrivals soon moved into an apartment house on Capitol Hill known as the Villa Ria Apartments, located at 516 13th Avenue E in Seattle (the building was torn down in 1985). They rented Apartment No. 2 on the first floor, a small, roughly 500-square-foot apartment, located in the southwest corner of the building.  There were at least 10 apartments in the building, and most of its residents at the time were elderly and retired.  

By this time Dunham was using her middle name, Ann, and may have also gone by Anna during her stay in Seattle. The 1961-1962 Polk's Directory lists an “Anna Obama” at the Capitol Hill address, and one of her neighbors in the apartment building, Mary Toutonghi, also remembers her as Anna. Dunham wasted no time getting on with her life once she and Barack settled in to their new apartment. Records from the University of Washington confirm that she registered for the autumn 1961 quarter at the University of Washington, which began on September 25, 1961. She listed her major as history.

However, other details are sketchy about their stay in Seattle.  Most of Dunham’s friends saw her only briefly, if at all. But Maxine Box, Dunham’s closest friend in high school, describes a visit in the spring of 1962 with Dunham and Barack at the Capitol Hill apartment:  “She was very proud of her baby. She didn’t seem daunted at all in caring for a child, which was very surprising because she was one of the few out of our group [of high school friends] that didn’t babysit.  It was really surprising that it happened to her all at once, because she was the one person we would have thought would go to college and then start a family” (interview).   

Curious and Alert


Dunham also registered for classes at the University of Washington for both the winter and spring quarters of 1962. (She took extension courses, attending classes at night, during the autumn 1961 and winter 1962 quarters, but in the spring of 1962 switched to a more traditional schedule, attending classes during the day. Her grades were good: Of the seven classes she took that academic year, she had three As and three Bs; she audited the seventh course.)  Neighbor Toutonghi periodically babysat Barack for a couple of months while Dunham attended night classes during the early months of 1962. Years later Toutonghi recounted, “I remember his being very large and very curious and very alert ... . I don’t remember any undue fussing at all” (Neyman); maybe this was a harbinger of the future laid-back persona that the president would become known for decades later.

But what Dunham and her young son did in Seattle after the end of the 1962 spring quarter is mostly a mystery, though they stayed for at least part of the summer of 1962. High school classmate Barbara Rusk recalls visiting them at the Capitol Hill apartment during that summer, noting that Dunham was not in school or working at the time. Other friends have also suggested the two stayed through at least part if not all of the summer. But in December 1962 Dunham transferred her transcript to the University of Hawaii, and enrolled there in the spring quarter of 1963.  Given the demands that the young single mother faced raising her infant son alone in Seattle, they may have left shortly after Barack’s first birthday -- perhaps about the time the future president was taking his first steps.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Stanley Ann Dunham, mother of Barack Obama, graduates from Mercer Island High School in 1960” (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed February 8, 2009);  Charlotte LeFevre, “Barack Obama:  From Capitol Hill to Capitol Hill,”, January 9, 2009, website accessed January 10, 2009 (;  Jenny Neyman, “Obama Baby Sitter Awaits New Era -- Soldotna Woman Eager For Former Charge’s Reign,” The Redoubt Reporter, January 20, 2009, website accessed January 31, 2009 (;  Charlotte LeFevre and Philip Lipson, “Baby Sitting Barack Obama On Seattle’s Capitol Hill,” Seattle Museum of the Mysteries, January 28, 2009, website accessed February 2, 2009 (;  Stanley Ann Dunham Obama transcript, University of Washington Office of Public Records and Open Public Meetings, Seattle, Washington; Phil Dougherty interview of Maxine Box, February 5, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Phil Dougherty interview of Susan Blake, January 18, 2009, Seattle Washington;  Phil Dougherty interview of Tony Nugent, January 13, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Tony Nugent emails to Phil Dougherty, January 19, January 23, January 31, February 2, and February 7, 2009,  in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington.
Note: This essay was updated on March 21, 2009.

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