Thomas Speake of Zachia (c1700-1755): Life and Death in Zachia Swamp – 52 Ancestors #382

Thomas Speake of Zachia was born about 1700, the son of Bowling Speake and Mary Benson. He was named after his grandfather, Thomas the Immigrant.

To understand Thomas’s life, we need to tell his story, at least partly, in reverse.

Thomas’s father, Bowling wrote his will on October 20, 1750, but he didn’t pass away for another five years.

Bowling left a life estate to his wife, Mary, but after her death, his plantation was to descend to Edward, Thomas’s son, along with another tract of land. Edward was also to receive first choice of enslaved persons owned by Bowling, and first choice of beds and furniture.

Bowling’s will was quite unusual, given that Bowling’s son, Thomas of Zachia (Edward’s father,) was living, as was Bowling’s other son, William.

Why was Bowling’s grandson Edward his primary heir and not sons Thomas or William? Why not Bowling’s other grandchildren?

Was there friction within the family?

Was Edward living with Bowling, helping his grandparents, perhaps? Bowling would have been 75 or 76. Was Edward a favorite grandchild?

Was Thomas ill? And what about William?

At that time, it was typical for men to marry about age 25, so if Edward was Thomas’s eldest son and was approximately 25 in 1750, and Thomas was 25 when he was born, that puts Thomas’s birth around 1700, or possibly before. Thomas could have been born as late as 1708 if Edward was 21 in 1750, and Thomas was 21 when he was born.

Thomas of Zachia

Bowling’s son, Thomas Speake is called Thomas of Zachia to differentiate him from other men by the same name, including his first cousin. He was listed by that name on the St. Mary’s County, Maryland 1750 rent rolls and that’s also how he refers to himself in his will.

To fully understand what was transpiring, we need to step back a generation.

Bowling Speake’s brother, John had inherited land from Thomas the Immigrant in Port Tobacco that included an inn, giving him the name of John the InnKeeper or InnHolder.

Bowling, on the other hand, not inheriting as the eldest son, had to fend for himself. He purchased, leased, and otherwise farmed various parcels further out, in the Manor of Zachia. These lands were swampy and much less productive than land near and in Port Tobacco. Sacaya, later Zachia was reported to have meant “dense thicket” in the Algonquian-Fox dialect of the Native people who hunted and camped there before white settlers arrived.

In an article about the Alvin family, we discover some interesting information about the lands of Zachia Manor, which would certainly include the Speak lands that abutted those lands.

“The lease was relatively cheap—Zachia Manor had the poorest soil of any of Lord Baltimore’s manors. And Lord Baltimore’s leases were on better terms than private landlords could afford to offer.”

Therefore tenants in Zachia Manor, also known as the Jourden Tract, tended to be relatively poor, and the land comparatively inexpensive.

Added to that, within a few years, the nutrients in the land would be depleted by continuous tobacco growth, requiring more land to produce as much tobacco. With multiple sons inheriting, productivity dropping, and less land available, the next frontier was quite inviting. Maryland was no longer a place of opportunity by the 1770s. There just wasn’t enough land to go around.

Thomas of Zachia was caught up in that transition generation.

Early Years

We know almost nothing of Thomas of Zachia’s early years, other than through his father, Bowling Speake.

We know the family was Catholic, so Thomas would have been baptized by a traveling priest, probably in his own father’s home.

We also know that Thomas inherited some of his father, Bowling’s, land.

Bowling’s Land – It’s Complicated

Over his lifetime, Bowling owned various tracts of land, and had one resurveyed, both losing part of the acreage and gaining adjacent acreage.

I told you it was complicated.

You can read about the Maryland land in detail, here and here. This article only deals with that land that involved Thomas of Zachia.

  • In 1718, Bowling bought 220 acres from Luke Gardiner in Charles County called Mistake, located on the northern boundary of Zachia Manor, for 5000 pounds of tobacco.

Thomas would have been 18 or 20 years old, or maybe older when his dad bought that land. Perhaps Bowling bought Mistake with the idea that his son, Thomas would work it. In Bowling’s will, 32 years later, he still lived on his land at Boarman’s Reserve at his death, so there’s no reason to think he ever lived on Mistake.

Part of me can just hear that original landowner, after maybe claiming that land, then having it surveyed and realizing just what he had, saying, “Wow, what a mistake.” And his wife, “Yep, that’s what we’ll call it, the mistake. Maybe you can sell it.”

  • In 1735, a resurvey of Mistake increased the size to 572 acres, more than doubling the total, although Bowling lost part of the original tract. Surveying was difficult in swampland.

The St. Peter’s Church 300th Anniversary book tells us that the land now occupied by St Peter’s Church includes 37 acres of Mistake where the church and school stand and another few acres between St. Peter’s Church Road and Poplar Hill Road where the present-day cemetery is located, pictured below.

  • In 1738, Bowling acquired Speaks Meadow which added another 17 acres.
  • The 1742 rent roll shows Bowling with a total of 869 acres, of which Mistake was 572 acres.
  • In March of 1744, Bowling sold 250 acres of Mistake where he’s described as a planter.

In this drawing contributed years ago by Jerry Draney, the original Mistake is in green, the resurveyed Mistake is in burgundy, and the St. Peter’s Church land is in yellow.

  • In February of 1754, Bowling sold 60 acres of Mistake to Philip Edelin and in December, 100 acres of Mistake to James Montgomery which are today still undeveloped swamp.
  • On July 23, 1755, Bowling deeded his son, Thomas Speake of Zachia, 125 acres of land that included the home where Thomas was living. Both men were clearly alive at this time.

However, the deed was not recorded until September 20, 1755, a week after Bowling’s will was probated on September 13, 1755. His will left:

  • Tract 1 – to Thomas of Zachia, 121 acres (parcels E and F on the map, below, also contributed by Jerry Draney)
  • Tract 2 – to William Speake, 202 acres (probably should have been 102), with his dwelling place (parcels C and D on the map)

Unfortunately, this map conflicts with the map, above, and the contributor is deceased. Using the St. Charles County GIS system, I can’t resolve these boundary lines. Typically I can see at least some of the original survey lines, but not this time.

These maps and some other information are from the comprehensive book, The Speak/e/s Family of Southern Maryland, which I highly recommend for any Speak researcher, published by the Speak Family Association, John Morris, Editor. While it doesn’t answer every question, the book provides a HUGE amount of wonderfully organized information.

So, does Thomas of Zachia have a total of 125+121 acres, or does he just have 121 (or 125) acres? Did Bowling simply deed Thomas the land he was going to inherit, or does Thomas actually own two parcels totaling 246 acres?

Thomas of Zachia’s Will

On August 2, 1755, just ten days after that deed was conveyed, Thomas wrote his own will.

Thomas willed his portion of his father’s land, as follows:

  • Tract 1 – to Thomas Bowling Speak and John Speak, 120 (sic) acres in Mistake to be divided equally between them the crossways and not the length unless they should so agree. Thomas Bowling was to have first choice. Parcels E and F on the map.
  • Tract 2 – to Charles Beckworth Speake and Nicholas Speaks, all the remaining part of that track called Speak’s Enlargement and the remaining part of Mistake containing together 90 acres after the decease of his wife, Jane. That land to be equally divided by a line drawn from Jordon’s Swamp to the opposite line, with Charles having first choice. There is no record of the disposition of this land.

This is clearly more land than Thomas had received in his father’s will. But it’s not equal to what was deeded to him plus what was willed to him. This only totals 210 acres, not 246.

Ironically, both Bowling and Thomas’s wills were probated on the same day, September 13, 1755, so they had died within days, or maybe even hours of each other. It’s likely that both of their deaths occurred after the prior court session, a month earlier.

My assumption was that Bowling deeded his son the land that he wllled to him, but now I don’t think that was the case.

There is no record of Thomas purchasing any land. Bowling deeded Thomas 125 acres and then willed him 121 acres, although Bowling wrote his will in 1750, before he deeded the land to Thomas. That totals 246 acres.

However, a month later, Thomas leaves a total of 210 acres to his heirs.

Something, someplace, is missing. Like 36 acres.

However, this wasn’t Thomas’s first confusing land transaction. Nor Bowling’s.


We know that Thomas was married before August 28, 1734, when he and his wife, Jane, conveyed two tracts of land in St. Mary’s County to George Plater. One was called Pope’s and contained 200 acres, and the other was Mount Clipsaw, containing 68 acres and adjoined the first parcel.

Thomas Speake and Jane to George Plater. Liber P.L. #8 p.284-286. Indenture 28 Aug 1724 / recorded 28 Apr 1724 between Thomas Speake of Charles County, planter and Jane his wife to George Plater, Esq. of St. Mary’s Co for 18 lbs 15 shillings current money, tract called Pope’s whereon John Pope formerly dwelt near Potomac River at the mouth of a creek called Baker’s Creek in CC. 200 acres. Also land called Mount Clipsaw, 68 acres which land was conveyed by Thomas George Plater to a certain Barton Smoot of Charles County.

We have no idea where Thomas and Jane obtained this land, but it was located near the Potomac River at the mouth of Baker’s Creek. John Pope had previously lived on Pope’s and, according to the rent rolls, Plater had owned both tracts before that and conveyed them to Barton Smoot in April 1724.

This probably accounts for the persistent rumors that Jane was a Smoot, but to date, there is no evidence to support that. There is no Jane listed in either Barton Smooth’s will, nor that of his father.

You may be noticing a persistent theme that the St. Charles County early property records are incomplete.

The Catholic Church

Thomas and Jane were probably married by a visiting priest in the fledgling mission church on Upper Zacchia Swamp that was founded in 1700. That “church” may very well have been in his own father’s home.

Jesuit Priests from St. Ignatius Church at St. Thomas Manor, 20 miles distant, visited the area occasionally on horseback to minister to the needs of the faithful and would ring a bell that they carried in their saddlebag to announce to everyone within earshot that a priest had arrived, and services would be held.

In 1692, Maryland barred Catholics from all civil rights, establishing the Church of England as the official religion. However, the Upper Zachia Parish was established in 1700, located near the headwaters of Upper Zachia Swamp. In 1704, it became illegal to practice Catholicism openly, so churches were officially closed. Priests then disguised themselves as peddlers, and of course, there was no more bell-ringing to announce services, although chalices disguised as bells were hung from the sides of their horses. Catholics worshiped in small, private chapels or private homes. Religious freedom would not be secured again until 1775.

This chalice, housed at St. Ignatius Church was carried by the priest and would have been used for communion. Bowling and Thomas both would have taken communion from this very cup.

Additionally, the priest from St. Ignatius carried a “relic of the true cross” in a silver and glass case which he wore around his neck. This relic was a piece of wood that is supposed to be part of the cross upon which Christ was crucified that was brought back from the Holy Land during the Crusades.

In the photo, above, I’m holding both, knowing that very likely four generations of my ancestors took communion and drank from this chalice and marveled at this relic.

Church services were held either in a log cabin, or after 1704, in the home of fellow Catholics, such as Bowling.

The original St. Peter’s cemetery is found on Bowling’s land. Many unmarked graves are located in the open, grassy space.

The name of St. Peter’s was conferred after the Revolutionary War when Catholicism could once again be practiced openly.

The land once owned by Bowling, then by his sons, was donated to the Catholic church by Thomas Reeves in 1825, and a church building was built in 1860 where the current St. Peter’s Church stands. However,  Reeve’s Chapel stood across the road from the old cemetery. In 1941, the current St. Peter’s Church was built in the current location, a couple of miles away. The old church, Reeves Chapel, shown in a painting, above, was demolished in 1972.

Thomas Reeves (1753-1825) and his wife, Elizabeth Edelen (1755-1840) are buried in the St. Peter’s Cemetery across the road.

Elizabeth’s parents were Philip Edelen and Jane Gardiner. Bowling sold his Boarman Manor land to Philip Edelen, and Thomas of Zachia’s son, Edward sold the land he inherited from his grandfather to Edelen as well.

It’s worth noting that Bowling purchased his land in Boarman Manor in 1718 from Mary Gardiner, and Mistake on Zachia Swamp in 1718 from Luke Gardiner whose wife was Mary Boarman. This may or may not be significant genealogically. These families were connected one way or another – perhaps only through these purchases, or perhaps more.

It’s certainly possible that the lands of Upper Zachia Swamp, six or seven miles on north of where Bowling lived, was the next location of available, unsettled land.

Zachia, now Zekiah Swamp is the dominant feature of this landscape, and the lives of the people who lived here.

It remains the largest and densest hardwood swamp in Maryland, meandering some 21 miles through Charles and Prince George’s counties.

This very remote area even has its own urban legend – the Goat Man, a strange hairy man-creature with horns who has been “spied” off and on for decades and maybe centuries. He is reported to hack his victims to death while bellowing like Satan.

Clearly, Bowling hadn’t heard that tale before he purchased!

Zachia Manor

In December of 1749, Thomas leased Lot 69 of Zachia Manor, owned by the Lord Proprietor.

According to an old map, this was likely at the northern end, probably close to the land that Bowling purchased, near or even abutting the blue stars.

Lot 69 is not shown on the map, but probably beside or close to Ignatius Baggett.



Zachia Swamp also known as Jourdan’s Swamp or Jordan’s Run, marked with red arrows on this topo map, runs from the St. Peter’s Church at the top, where Bowling, then Thomas owned land, to the Wicomico River at the bottom of the map which then feeds into the Potomac.

Zachia Manor ran right along that swamp. Bourman’s Manor where Thomas may have been born, and where Bowling lived is marked with a red star, and the Zachia Manor/Zachia Swamp land, with blue stars.

Thomas’s three-life lease for Lot 69 meant it was in effect until as long as any of the three people named were alive. In this case, that would be, presumably Thomas, Jane, and John. In 1768, the proprietor conducted a survey of the Manor and indicated that two of the three were still living, Jane, age 54, and John, age 35. Clearly, Jane would have had to have been a decade older to have been married before 1724.

On the 1750 and 1753 rent rolls, Thomas of Zachia is noted with 100 acres, plus 20 acres, of Mistake. In 1754, the parcels were combined.

In 1755, Bowling conveyed 125 acres of Mistake to Thomas where he lived, presumably the land Thomas was already paying taxes on.

Bowling Speake to Thomas Speake. Liber A #1 ½, p.388. 23 Jul 1755 / 20 Sep 1755. Bowling Speake of CC, planter. For the love and affection for my son, Thomas Speake, 125 acres of land being part of a tract of land called Mistake, where said Thomas Speake’s dwelling place now is and at that end of Mistake next to Speake’s Enlargment, lying in CC. Signed Bowling Speake. Wit: Smith Middleton and John Pigion Vincent.

Thomas also received 121 acres of Mistake in his father’s will.

I’ve drawn the approximate location of Thomas’s land based on Jerry’s earlier map. The 121 acres accounted for in Thomas’s will is shown in the red triangle, with Thomas of Zachia’s dwelling place in the top 60 acres chosen by his son, Thomas Bowling Speake.

The bottom 60 acres was inherited by Thomas of Zachia’s son, John.

However, there’s another 90 acres that are included somehow in Mistake and Speak’s Enlargement that I can’t account for. Basil’s original land isn’t entirely accounted for either, so I just don’t know.

I created this spreadsheet to track Basil and Thomas of Zachia’s land, but some transactions are clearly missing. Suffice it to say that Thomas owned another 90 acres of land adjacent the portion of Mistake that he willed to his sons.

It may also be worth noting that Mudd Road is nearby, just west of this land, and was owned by the Mudd Family in the mid-1800s. Dr. Samuel Mudd conspired with John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin who became lost in Zachia Swamp after attempting to escape through the Swamp after being treated by Mudd.

If you crossed the swamp behind the Mudd home, you would have been on the land that had belonged to Bowling, then Thomas of Zachia and his brother, John. 

You can view a YouTube video of Zachia Swamp behind the Mudd farm, here.

Bowling bought land from the Mudd family in the early 1700s. These families are all found down by Bourman Manor, and then a few miles further north in Zachia.

Poplar Hill Road, running east to west, Gardiner Road running south, then Piney Church Road running west, then angling north, traverses Bowling’s land and probably Thomas’s. Piney Church Road is now the Gardiner Mine Site and is inaccessible from either end.

This area is still extremely dense and unpopulated, and I really don’t know how Thomas or either of his sons would have been able to eek a living out of this triangle of land. It’s evident from the aerial that some has been cleared and is being farmed today, but not much.

Historical documents indicate that plantations were set out in three-to-ten-acre plots for growing tobacco, the major source of revenue and currency in colonial Maryland. Access to the bay was essential to be able to transport and sell one’s produce.

Perhaps this is why this parcel was named Mistake, although if Thomas enslaved two people, plus a poor pregnant convict, clearly he was engaged in some type of farming that required labor. It’s also evident from his estate inventory that they were living at a subsistence level.

It’s possible that the map reconstruction is incorrect and this portion of Mistake is closer to St. Peter’s Church. Jerry, the individual who did the original map work is deceased now, and his two maps conflict somewhat with one another.

Regardless, we know positively that we are very close.

The Original St. Peter’s Cemetery

One big hint is the location of the original St. Peter’s Cemetery at the intersection of Poplar Hill Road and Gardiner Road.

One thing is for sure – Thomas is assuredly buried here. His father, Bowling probably is as well. Catholics would have wanted to be buried in consecrated ground.

The family would have buried two men within days. Thomas’s mother lost her husband and her son. Thomas’s children, their father, and grandfather. It would have been a time of great sorrow.

The earliest stones here date from the 1820s and the most recent burial was in 2017.

The Original St. Peter’s Cemetery is at the intersection of Gardner Road and Poplar Hill Road, on Bowling’s land.

Thomas’s portion of his father’s land was south on Gardiner Road. Just turn right at this corner.

This was definitely Bowling’s land, but we may not be able to see far enough to view Thomas’s land.

That’s likely Thomas’s land in the distance. I’d love to know where his homestead was located.

Unfortunately, the Google Street View vehicle didn’t drive down those side roads.

Thomas’s Death

It’s unclear whether Bowling or his son, Thomas died first. Their wills were probated the same day. Thomas’s was filed first, which may not mean anything.

We know for sure they were both living in July.

  • July 23, 1755 – Bowling deeded land to Thomas
  • August 2, 1755 – Thomas of Zachia wrote his will

Thomas was clearly unwell by August 2nd, just days later. I hope they didn’t infect one another on July 23rd.

  • September 13, 1755 – Wills of both Bowling and Thomas were probated

In the Name of God Amen, I Thomas Speake of Zachia of Charles County in the province of Maryland being weak in body but of perfect sense and memory thanks be to almighty God for it do make & ordain this my last will and testament in Manner & form following:

FIRST my soul unto the hands of God who gave it & my body to the Dirt from whence it was taken to be buried at the Discretion of my Executer herein after named;

Also I give & bequeath to my loving wife Jane Speake my Dwelling plantation on whereon I now live during her natural life together with all that tract or parcel of land called Speakes Enlargement during her natural life also all my personal Estate as negroes crattles & cattle household furniture and plantation utensils of all sorts whatsoever except one Dun Mare;

Also I give & bequeath to my son Edward Speake five English Shillings;

Also I give & bequeath to my two sons Thomas Bowling Speake & John Speake one hundred and twenty acres of land to them & their heirs & assigns forever the said land to begin at the second course or line of a tract of land called Mistake & to run with the courses of the said land as they are laid out for me in the said tract of land called Mistake & at the end of the course next to Jordan Swamp take in part of a tract of land called Speakes Enlargement with one line & from the last end of that line to run with one straight line to their beginning and then to divide it equally between them the cross way & not the length way unless they should so agree & my son Thomas Bowling Speake to have the first choices provided that they nor either of them or any person or persons by or through their means may not disturb or molest my aforesaid wife Jane Speake from occupying and abiding on that part of the said land on which tract of my Dwelling plantation now is;

Also I give and bequeath to my two sons Charles Beckworth Speake & Nicholas Speake all the remaining part of that tract of land called Speakes Enlargement & my remaining tract of that tract called Mistake containing both together ninety acres to them & their heirs and assigns forever after the Decease of my wife Jane Speake to be equally divided between them by a line drawn from Jordan Swamp to the opposite line & my son Charles Beckworth Speake to have first choice;

Also I give to my daughter Elizabeth Ann Mary Smith the wife of Peter Smith that tenement whereon they now live for the space of five years & no longer provided they keep but one labouring hand (as we commonly call it, threon) at one time besides their two own slaves.

Also I give & bequeath all my personal estate aforementioned after the decease of my wife Jane Speake to be equally divided among my two sons Charles Beckworth Speake & Nicholas Speake and my three daughters Elizabeth Ann Mary Smith the wife of Peter Smith, Ann Speake & Eleanor Speake

I do ordain constitute & appoint my said loving wife Jane Speake to be the sole executrix of this my last will & testament. In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand & affixed my seal the second day of August in the Years of our Lord One Thousand seven hundred & fifty five.

Signed sealed published & declared by the said Thomas Speake to be his last will & testament in the presence of us.

Edwd X Miles
John Baggot
James Smith
Thomas X Speake seal

John Baggott witnessed his will, and Ignatius Baggett leased Lot 67 and 68 of Zachia Manor.

On the back of the foregoing will was endorsed the following probate

To wit: Maryland for 13th September 1755 Edward Miles John Baggot and James Smith the three subscribing witnesses to the within will who being duly and solemnly sworn on the holy Evangelists of almighty God does depose & say that they saw Thomas Speake the Testator sign & seal the within Will and heard him publish & declare the same to be his last will & testament and at the time his so doing was to the best of their appurtunicions of sound & disposing mind & memory and that the severally subscribed as witnesses to the said will in the presence of the Testator and at his Request which probate was taken in the presence of Edward Speakes heir at Law who did no object to the same.

7 1/2 Lides Sworn before Dan. Jenifer DC of Chas.Cty.

[Will Book 29, p. 544]

Thomas signed with an X, although he may have been too ill to sign his name.

It was startling to turn the page and see his father’s will, written into the book the same day.

Thomas only left Edward five shillings, but if you look as Bowling’s will, you’ll see why. Bowling left his grandson a substantial inheritance, and apparently, Thomas knew that. Edward already had his share, so his father remembered him in his will, but left the balance to his other children.

I hate to even ask, but what happened to Thomas’s daughters? Unfortunately, the St. Ignatius Catholic records burned in a church fire, and county marriage records don’t exist until the mid-1800s, so we may never know. The marriage records for Thomas of Zachia’s sons perished too.

Thomas’s Inventory

Fortunately, Thomas’s estate had an inventory, but for some reason, his father’s did not, or at least it wasn’t recorded.

An inventory of Thomas’s estate was taken on February 2, 1756 and included:

  • One young negro man
  • One old negro man
  • One servant woman, a convict, bigg with child 3.25 years due
  • One feather bed and sorry? covering, bedstead and ?
  • 30 pounds of good feathers
  • 45 pounds of old feathers
  • One servant’s bed of hen feathers
  • One bedstead and some sorry bed covering
  • Two mares, four cowes and four yearlings
  • Seven yews and 1 yearling a ?
  • 12 shoats and 1 sow
  • 40 barrels of indian corn
  • 4 bushels of corne beens
  • 20 bushels of wheat
  • 23 pounds of old puter (Pewter)
  • 5 pounds of old broken puter
  • 1 old gun and hale part of a pair of shoot molor?
  • One pr pincher shoe hammer, 3 pegging aules and two lathes
  • One pair coopers compasses and small parcels of carpenter tools
  • Small parcel of old tin
  • Three horn bells, one old box iron and heaters
  • One small looking glass, one wore out ?, wore out sifter
  • One broken King sever? And a small parcel of stone ware
  • Six wore out cape books, some old books
  • 1 very small gilt trunk
  • Three sides of sole leather and a dog skin
  • 513 pounds of corn fed pork
  • 17 hogs gutt fatt
  • 6 old hundred gallon sider casks
  • 8 bushels of oates
  • One old frying pan and parcel of planters tooles
  • 2 iron wedges and 8 pounds old iron
  • The 8th part of a wore out saine and rope
  • 1 large old chest
  • Wearing apparel
  • A parcel of old lumber
  • 1 old tobaco box, three glass bottles,
  • 54 pounds pott?
  • 3 pounds of wrought iron
  • 1 small grind stone and a ? of old ? lanyards

Errors excepted James Keetch, ? Darnall

Some of this document is very difficult to read.

It’s worth noting that there is no Bible, which I found unusual.

The hundred-gallon “sider casks” tell us that Thomas had apple trees and of course, pressed cider. Maybe hard cider.

There’s no tobacco, which suggests his land was planted in corn, beans and wheat. This is very unusual for this region, but tobacco is back-breakingly labor intensive.

There are lots of old, worn-out, and broken items.

Someone was making shoes. Were some of those shoes made out of dog skin?

Cooper and carpentry tools are in evidence too, although it’s impossible to know if those items were for farmstead use or if Thomas and/or his enslaved people were providing these services for neighbors. They might have been making cider casks.

The highest value items are, in order:

  • Young negro man – 55 pounds
  • Old negro man – 45 pounds
  • 40 barrels of Indian Corn – 20 pounds
  • Two mares, 4 cowes and 4 yearlings – 14 pounds
  • The female servant with more than three years left to serve was only 4 pounds, the same as the feather bed, bedstead and covering or 20 bushels of wheat.

The fact that Thomas owned humans hurts my heart. I wish we knew their names, but they are effectively lost to history.

I’m curious how Thomas came to be the master of a female convict servant. Was she deported while pregnant, or did she become pregnant after arrival?

I hope, really, really hope that the servant’s bed of hen feathers was where this woman slept.

What happened to her and her child? Whose child was it? What was she convicted of, and where?

According to the Journal of American Studies in the article, Convict Runaways in Maryland, 1745-1775:

“The existence of convicts in Virginia and Maryland stemmed from the provisions of the Transportation Act passed by the British parliament in 1718. This stated that felons found guilty of non-capital crimes against property could be transported to America for seven years while the smaller number of criminals convicted on capital charges could have their death sentence commuted to banishment for either fourteen years or life. Between 1718 and 1775, when the traffic ended with the approach of war, more than 90 percent of the 50,000 convicts shipped across the Atlantic from the British Isles were sold by contractors to settlers in the Chesapeake, where there was a continuous demand for cheap, white, bonded labour. Though many convicts were people who had resorted to petty theft in hard times rather than habitual criminals, they were often viewed with jaundiced eyes in the Chesapeake as purveyors of crime, disease and corruption. They also had to endure, along with slaves and indentured servants, the everyday reality of lower-class life in colonial America: the exploitation of unfree labour. It is therefore not surprising that many convicts, like other dependent labourers, tried to free themselves from bondage by escaping from their owners.”

If the woman was convicted for 7 years, she would have arrived in 1752 and become pregnant in Maryland. Indentured servants weren’t allowed to marry, so it’s unlikely that convicts were permitted to marry either. Furthermore, if an indentured servant had a child, years were generally added to their servitude for the “bother” to their master. I wrote about Enforced Bastardry in Colonial America, here.

Of course, this also begs the question of whose child she was carrying.

And did either of them survive?

What happened to those two enslaved men? How old was “old” in this context?

Death in the Chesapeake

I’m fascinated by the fact that Thomas died within days of his father. Is there a story here?

Life expectancy in the Chesapeake was a full decade shorter than in New England.


The Chesapeake region was swampy and the residents battled malaria, dysentery, and typhoid.

Average life expectancy from 1650-1700 was 41 years, and from 1700-1745 was 43 years.

Both dysentery and typhoid killed fairly quickly. Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease can torture its host for a long period before death, is almost always fatal if untreated, and thrives in the heat. Many people die of complications. Those who survive can become infected again. The cause of malaria wasn’t understood until 1897, having been attributed to “bad air” or miasma. The colonists had no idea why they got sick, nor how to protect themselves.

Of course, malaria is caused by bites of infected mosquitos, but so is yellow fever. The death rate from yellow fever is so high that those not-yet-infected often had to work day and night to bury the dead during an outbreak.

Due to the low water table creating stagnant water, risk of human waste contamination, the cause of both dysentery and typhoid, was significant.

Typhoid was more common in hot months and anyone unfortunate enough to get both typhoid and dysentery at the same time simply wasn’t going to survive. The hallmark of both was “bloody flux” accompanied by fever, often high fever, followed by severe dehydration and systemic organ shutdown.

Nearly half of the indentured servants in the Chesapeake died before finishing their contract. Colonists began to learn that the area was unhealthy, and their children moved toward the Piedmont.

Given that Bowling and Thomas lived six or seven miles apart, they wouldn’t have been sickened by the same contaminated water supply, unless they were visiting with each other. However, smallpox was a recurrent, contagious, epidemic that would affect many people within a region.

We haven’t even mentioned consumption, known as tuberculosis today, but it seems that many people would have died of something else before they had the opportunity to contract a disease that would kill them slowly.

So, what killed Basil at about age 81 years of age, and his son Thomas at about 55, within days of each other, but not the wife of either man?

Spouses share water supplies, so the women would have contracted dysentery or typhoid as well. Of course, they could have survived.

Spouses also shared close living quarters, not to mention drinking water from the same gourd dipper, for example. If one person had something contagious, every other person in the household could be expected to contract it.

My guess would be malaria, also known as ague or marsh fever due to its association with swamps, and because it’s not contagious from person to person.

After all, Bowling and Thomas both lived along the length of Zachia Swamp. They died in the summer. Mosquitos would have been rampant. And their wives didn’t die.

Zekiah Swamp Run is literally the name of the intertwined, braided stream system snaking through Thomas of Zachia’s land.

It’s ironic that his own nickname may hold the clue to his demise.

All things considered, Bowling was exceptionally lucky to live double the local life expectancy of 41 or 43 years, and Thomas outlived that by a decade or so as well.

Such was life in 1755 in Zachia Manor, aka Zachia Swamp.


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2 thoughts on “Thomas Speake of Zachia (c1700-1755): Life and Death in Zachia Swamp – 52 Ancestors #382

  1. Very interesting essay once again! Not the most eventful life, but you still manage to put some flesh on these rare bones. I never realized the region was this deadly and disease prone.

    It’s indeed unfortunate they didn’t bother to write down the names of neither of the 3 humans. 1756, over a century before Emancipation, it will be hard to link the men to any family from the 1870s. Even for the woman and her child… The odds are not zero, but not much higher either… But that would be a task for someone working with the entire community at that period and link the odd hints from about every families.

    About the absence of bible, it isn’t weird for Catholics at the time. Every family doing bible reading at home is the hallmark of Luther’s Reformation; for Catholics, it is enough to let the priest study the bible and share he’s wisdom weekly, while the families just do their daily prayers outside of the Masses, and inquire with the priest if something bother them in between. Plus, having unscholarly people read the bible could lead to misinterpretations, or even, God forbids… heresies! xD

    (disclaimer: I’m Catholic)

  2. Pingback: Mary Benson (c1675–c1758) Heiress of Crackbornes Purchase in Leonard’s Town | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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