The Speak Family – 3 Continents and a Dash of Luck

Recently someone on one of the DNA lists asked about success stories outside of the US.  In the Speak(e)(s) family, we hit the proverbial gold mine – and it took people on three continents and a bit of luck.  The surname is spelled a variety of ways, so I’m going to use Speak for consistency.

Most of the Speak descendants in the US today descend from Thomas Speak, the original immigrant, who was in St. Mary’s County, Maryland by 1661 when he was summoned to court.  We know that he was born in England, but beyond that, we have little other information.  One important hint was that Maryland was at that time a Catholic enclave and England was very anti-Catholic.  Thomas’s son, Bowling, was definitely Catholic, so we suspected we were looking for a Catholic family in Protestant England.

We have identified through DNA testing that most of the original Speak(e)(s) family lines came from Thomas Speak’s two sons, John, known as John the Innkeeper, and Bowling.  Thomas Speak had married Elizabeth Bowling.

However, we still didn’t know where in England our Speak line was from.  Our “cousin” John David Speake who lives in Cambridge, England had DNA tested and proven that his line was not our line.  That was a disappointing day.

John has been an avid researcher for the Speak family, accessing records in England that we simply don’t have access to in the US.  John made contact with a man with the Speak surname from New Zealand and encouraged him to DNA test.  The New Zealand gentleman’s ancestor hailed from Gisburn(e), Lancashire, England – one John Speak who was born in Gisburn, Lancashire, about 1700.  The New Zealand descendant of that John Speak matched our Speak family DNA, that of Thomas, the immigrant.

Bingo – with this DNA match, we now had identified the family location and could focus our research efforts.  And yes, Gisburn was heavily Catholic.

We now know that our Speak family indeed is from the Gisburn area, a region long suspected by John David Speake.  In fact, John long ago had found a Thomas Speak there, born in 1734, but unfortunately, he also later found his burial record.

The Gisburn Catholic Church, St. Mary’s, was established in the 1100s and has miraculously survived intact.

Their burial records begin in the early 1600s, and it’s obvious from translating those records (from Latin) that they served a number of other locations, villages and farms, in the area.  We find the earliest Speak burials beginning with Anna, daughter of William, in 1602.  Not all burial records give the location of the deceased, but those that do are all Gisburne through 1653 when a series of other locations are given.  Of course, these locations may not be new, they may simply have been among those without a location given earlier.

Locations include:  Gisburne, Howgill, Rimington, Paythorn, Twiston, Miley, Horton, Varleyfield, Pasture House, Waitley, Todber, Watthouse, Yarside, Bracewell, Martintop and Newby.  This list takes us through 1828, when the Speak burials cease until in the mid 1900s.  The records may not be complete.

On the map below, you can see that all of these locations that have corresponding locations today are within 2 or 3 miles of Gisburn(e).  Those locations that do not exist on the map today may well have been farm or manor names that disappeared instead of becoming hamlets.  The location just below Gisburn with no name is Todber.  A caravan park is located there today, but otherwise, it has disappeared.

Many, many unmarked burials exist in this ancient churchyard that entirely surrounds the church.

The dashes on the cemetery map above are unmarked graves.  Fifty-one Speak burials exist in the records, and most of them are quite early.  I spent some time “reassembling” families and many family units are evident, although there is a pronounced repetition of names.

A bit of English history may be somewhat enlightening.  John feels that this group of Speaks families was not landowning.  In other words, they were not royalty, were not wealthy, did not have coats of arms, etc.  In medieval England, if you were not a land owner, then you were a tenant farmer, either free or bond.  Bond did not mean slavery, but it did mean you had little freedom to leave.  However, the freedmen had little opportunity to leave either, required the manor owner’s permission, and there was no place within the British Isles to go anyway.

Given that we are now back to the end of written records, and that is within 300 years or so of when all families took surnames, and that is within 200 years of when the first families took surnames – we may be to a time period when we will not be able to find any specific records of our Thomas or his family.  John now tells us that he has found a Speak family record in Downham, about 5 miles away, dating to 1305.  The Speak family is indeed ancient in that region and it would be a wonderful experience to walk where they trod, where our DNA still exists today, and from whence we sprang.

Thanks to DNA testing, if we never find any more information at all, we know the area and the family line that our Speak family is from.  That indeed, is a wonderful gift, and one that our ancestors gave us through their DNA.

So what comes next?  A trip to Gisburn of course!  Indeed, in 2013, several members of the Speak(e)(s) Family Association will hold our annual convention in Gisburn.  Indeed, we are going to walk in the cemetery and stand inside the church that our ancestors assuredly visited.  What would Thomas think?  His descendants, nearly 400 years after his birth, come home to find his family and the land he left.

This would not have been possible without the combined research efforts of several people in the US documenting the life of Thomas Speak, without John David Speake in England and his blood-hound research, without the Speak family members in the US who have DNA tested, or without our New Zealand cousin.  He was the lynchpin, the missing puzzle piece, the keystone.  We hope that he can join us in England in 2013 for a homecoming in the beautiful village of Gisburn.

If you’re a Speak family member, of any spelling or any line, click here to order a DNA test and join the Speak project.



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25 thoughts on “The Speak Family – 3 Continents and a Dash of Luck

  1. This is wonderful! Congrats! I would have guessed this county as it is well known for having enclaves of Catholics of the lower classes. There were also Catholics in the county of Durham but not to the degree as Lancashire.

  2. Could someone tell me how to access the archives of this site? Our family found a DNA match to a different surname and need advice about what to do now.

    R. Bromley

  3. Thank you so much for posting this story – It gives me hope, and also an idea of what might be involved in researching our ancestor in England/Scotland.

  4. Roberta, thanks so much for this information today! Reading it reminded me that I had never finalized the research of my 4th great-grandfather, James B. Speake born 1766 in Maryland (part of the Catholic migration to Kentucky). His daughter, Elizabeth, married 1st to James Molohan and their daughter, Margaret, married Francis Xavier Elder, my 2nd great-grandparents. Francis was the son of William W. Elder & Elizabeth Mattingly. Elizabeth died about 1832 and William Elder married Elizabeth Speake Molohan in 1818. As such, they are both my direct lines.

    After your newsletter arrived this morning about the immigrant Thomas Speake (or Speak), and his sons, John & Bowling, I immediately started my hunt again for James B. Speake’s ancestors. How excited I was to find the documented direct lineage back to Bowling Speake, son of Thomas Speake & Elizabeth Bowling. And with that, I am now going back to all my FamilyFinder matches who have Bowling in their lineage but I could never make a connection to them. Now, thanks to you, I have probably found that connection.

    Thanks again and just love reading all of your newsletters as soon as they arrive in my mailbox!

    Sharon Henderson Noyes

    • Sharon,

      I have just started researching my family history. My great-great-grandfather was William Speaks, born in Kentucky in 1811. He moved his family to Cape Girardeau, MO, where my father was from. I believe that William was the son of James B. Speaks, which would make him Elizabeth’s brother. But, I haven’t been able to make the connection definitively. Has your research shown James to have a son named William? I appreciate any help you can give.

      Thank you,
      Michael Speak

  5. Some time ago you had an article in the Cumberland Gap group about Sarah Faires.  At abt the same time I got a notice from that a cousin had added her to our tree. I forwarded the article to the cousin and it was the same person.  I can’t find any tree that goes back beyond Nicholas Speak (1782- 1852) who was Sarahs husband.  Do you have an on line tree?

  6. Hi Roberta,

    Thanks for the family history and am looking forward to going to England for that family get together. You really are doing a fine job with the family history.

    Margaret Speaks Waters

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  12. I have just read this, Roberta, and it does indeed give hope to all of those trying to trace lines across the Pond. But you still have to assemble all those pedigrees over here!

    But this is an excellent example of what can be done these days.

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  14. Well this is weird…. My dad’s also called John Speake which is Weirder. Literally just randomly self searched myself as we all do and this came up. Anyone still active on this page?

  15. Hello, i am a Speake and i have a cousin that researched the first Speake, Henry Speake, who came on the Mayflower. I have seen his name in a book about the MayFlower. She even researched the ancient name ,which is Germanic, Aspec (spelling may be off).

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