Elishe Monk, Her Son Thomas, and His Father Thomas Speller: Some Questions These Stories Pose

Speller, Thomas Will Martin Co., NC, WB 2, p..jpg
Will of Thomas Speller, Martin County, North Carolina, Will Book 2, p. 11

The story of Elishe Monk and her son Thomas Monk raises interesting questions, doesn’t it? In cultures that stigmatize out-of-wedlock children — especially for the mother of those children, but also for the children themselves — why do some couples who have such children choose not to marry? Why did Elishe Monk and Thomas Speller never marry?

At one level, this is an entirely speculative question. No document that I’ve thus far seen provides any answer to the question, and it may be impertinent to ask. Ultimately, the private arrangements of any couple like Elishe and Thomas are private, are not my business, and I may have no business wondering about those arrangements. I’m convinced, though, that history is story, and my inclination in doing history is always to look beyond dryasdust fact and wonder about the narrative that lies behind the facts.

Asking speculative questions to which there appears to be no documentary answer isn’t doing history, of course, and that kind of speculative, story-spinning way of doing family history has long introduced a world of trouble into the field, so that those of us intent on doing real history when we do family history spend much of our time sorting fiction from fact, as we wend our way through family stories and traditions.

Unless some document appears down the road explaining precisely why Elishe Monk and Thomas Speller didn’t marry, I don’t think we’ll ever know central facts about their relationship. It does seem worth asking, however, why any couple of their time and place, where illegitimate births were frowned on (though they seem to have been relatively common) would choose not to marry, after a child bound them together. Thomas Speller left all his property to his son Thomas Monk, and that indicates that he and his son had a strong bond, and that the father acknowledged his paternal connection to his natural son.

Ten reasons that come to my mind as I think about this matter — and you may well think of other reasons:

  1. The father of a child born out of wedlock may already have been married, as Elishe’s son Thomas Monk was when he fathered a son Theophilus by Polly Hansel.
  2. Either the father or the mother may have been committed to someone else, and have been unfree to make another commitment when an illegitimate child was born.
  3. One or both families may have opposed a marriage due to all sorts of circumstances, like the unequal social status of the two families, feuds between families, inherited traits or illnesses in a family (e.g., alcoholism, epilepsy) that put a family beyond the pale, etc.
  4. A woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child may have been sexually coerced and not have wished to marry the man who violated her.
  5. Some women may have decided to live their lives on their own terms and have refused to marry men who impregnated them, even if they welcomed having a child.
  6. The couple may have tried living together and found that this simply did not work for either or both of them.
  7. There may have been a casual relationship to out-of-wedlock births within a family; the pattern may have repeated itself casually generation to generation, without much sense of intra-familial stigma about illegitimate births.
  8. The couple may not have had the resources to set up house and raise children together.
  9. If either partner was of a different race than the other partner, a cross-racial marriage may not have been possible — though cross-racial relationships definitely did happen (as did rape of enslaved African-American women by white men), and often resulted in children being born.
  10. There’s evidence in various cultures including American culture that some people who reject the institution of marriage as a formal legal bond nonetheless consider themselves married because they have made marital promises to each other, which may not have been made publicly, but are acknowledged in private by both spouses.

I’m certainly not suggesting that any of these ten reasons explains why Elishe Monk and Thomas Speller did not marry. I’m just thinking out loud about a question that has puzzled me when I’ve run across people in my family tree generations back, living in cultures in which strong evidence suggests having illegitimate children was stigmatized (though stigma has never stopped people from doing stigmatized things), who didn’t marry when they had out-of-wedlock children, though it appears they were free to marry.

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