Sheldon Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sheldon Surname Meaning
The Sheldon surname derived from place-names found in Derbyshire and Warwickshire in the English Midlands. Sheldon here had its root in the Old English words scylf meaning “shelf” or “ledge” and dun meaning “hill” – i.e. a hill with a flat top.  The early spellings were Scelhadun in Derbyshire (in the 1086 Domesday Book) and Scheldon in Warwickshire (in the 1190 pipe rolls).

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Sheldon Surname Ancestry


EnglandThe English families named Sheldon initially divided into Warwickshire and Derbyshire Sheldons. Among the Warwickshire Sheldons were several lines of knightly, landed gentry.  The Derbyshire Sheldons on the other hand were mainly yeomen farmers, although one of them – Gilbert Sheldon – did rise to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1663.

Warwickshire.   These Sheldons first appeared in the parish of Sheldon, now a suburb of Birmingham. Around the time of the Black Death in the 14th century, Ralph Sheldon moved his family to Rowley Regis in Staffordshire.

Subsequently Sheldons migrated to Worcestershire, first leasing Abberton manor and then purchasing Beoley manor.  Ralph Sheldon acquired land at Broadway in 1539 at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and built a manor there.

Ralph also acquired land around this time at Cole Orton in Leicestershire.  Cole Orton was so named because it had coal seams.  Ralph’s son William and his descendants would grow rich from this coal. William also started weaving tapestries in workshops he had set up.  These tapestries are on display today at a number of museums and stately homes around the country.

Later Sheldons were supporters of the Stuart cause.  Ralph Sheldon was a Royalist at the time of the Civil War Domenic Sheldon served in James II’s Irish army at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and afterwards, in exile, joined the French army.

These Sheldons were covered in E.A.B. Barnard’s 1935 book The
Sheldon Family of Worcestershire and Warwickshire
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There were Sheldons in Birmingham and its environs from the 1500’s.  Benjamin Sheldon, a file maker and gunsmith, was working there in the early 1800’s.

Derbyshire.   The Sheldon place and name here originated in the Peak District near the town of Bakewell.  The earliest recorded, from the 1623 Visitation of Derbyshire, was Richard Sheldon of the village of Monyash, born around 1385.  Richard Sheldon in the 1662 Visitation showed a Sheldon pedigree of ten generations from this Richard.  Isaac Sheldon who emigrated to America was also of this tenth generation.

Just across the county boundary in Staffordshire, several Sheldons were recorded in the villages of Ellastone and Alstonefield from the 1550’s onwards.  Ellastone was the birthplace in 1598 of Godfrey Sheldon who was to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Sheldons at Burselm in Staffordshire date from about 1650.

The Sheldons were local gentry at Eyam in Derbyshire during the 17th century.  Philip Sheldon survived the great plague of 1665, but Agnes and Thomas Sheldon did not.

Later.  The 1881 census showed that the main bulk of Sheldons remained in the West Midlands.  But they had shifted northwards with the main numbers being in Staffordshire and additional numbers in Cheshire and Lancashire. Sheldons were noticeable in Staffordshire at Tipton, Leek and West Bromwich.  

America.  Early Sheldons came to New England.

Godfrey Sheldon from Derbyshire was in Saco, Maine around 1660. His son William, fleeing there because of Indian raids, moved to Salem, Massachusetts where he died in 1691. William’s son Godfrey had been killed by Indians in Maine; while his daughter Susannah became one of the main accusers during the Salem witch trials in 1692.

One descendant through a son Skelton was Asa Sheldon, born in 1788. He was a farmer in Wilmington, Massachusetts and wrote his Life of Asa G. Sheldon: Wilmington Farmer in 1862.

Isaac Sheldon had arrived in Windsor, Connecticut also from Derbyshire sometime in the 1650’s.  His descendants were numerous.  When he died in 1708 he was reported to have had fourteen children and 114 grandchildren. Descendants are said to have included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Humphrey Bogart and Franklin Roosevelt.

Sheldon descendants here have included:

  • Ensign John Sheldon who survived the Deerfield massacre by Indians in Massachusetts in 1704. Sheldons did remain in Deerfield afterwards.  George Sheldon, born in 1818, lived to be ninety-eight.  He founded in Deerfield one of the first historic preservation societies in America.  
  • and Seth Sheldon from Hartford, Connecticut who headed north to Vermont in the 1790’s. His son Seth settled in western New York in 1826 and his grandson Herbert Sheldon moved to Kansas in 1857.   

In addition, Alexander Sheldon from Hartford, Connecticut moved to Montgomery county, New York around the year 1800.  He was the Speaker of the New York State Assembly from 1804 to 1812, the last Speaker to wear the Cocked Hat as a badge of office. 

His son Smith Sheldon was a successful Albany merchant who established the publishing house of Sheldon and Co in New York City; his daughter Delia Sheldon the mother of the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson who established more than a hundred new churches in the West.

John Sheldon also arrived in New England sometime in the 1650’s.  He made his home in Rhode Island.  The main line of descent was through his son John and grandson Isaac:

  • one Quaker line here moved from Rhode Island to upstate New York in the late 1700’s.  Wallace Sheldon left there in 1875 for San Francisco and made his name as an architectural engineer and builder along the California coast.  
  • while another line of Baptist ministers was in Ohio by the early 1800’s.  The Rev. Henry O. Sheldon was a well-known itinerant preacher and educational promoter there.

South Africa.  Charles Sheldon from Providence, Rhode Island was the captain of the American ship Abby and Sally that was wrecked off Table Bay in Cape Colony in 1808.

Thomas Sheldon was a trader from Somerset who came to the Cape Colony as a young man sometime in the 1870’s.  His mother and two sisters joined him and they settled in the Paarl district.  He was captain of the Paarl District Mounted Troops at the time of the Boer War.  His son Thomas distinguished himself in the campaigns in German South West Africa during World War One and lived onto 1960.

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Sheldon Surname Miscellany

The Sheldons at Cole Orton.  Ralph Sheldon quite late in life acquired land at Cole Orton in Leicestershire in around the year 1533, possibly at the behest of his eldest son William who was to benefit from the rental income.  In Ralph’s will “all such colles as be gotten at Colle Orton” were bequeathed to William.

That Ralph and William could see the potential for coal was far-sighted for Henry VIII’s time, since its use as a fuel did not come into general use until the reign of King Charles I some eighty years later.

William prospered during his lifetime.  A contemporary described him as “the richest commoner in England,” someone who used his wealth to build a vast portfolio or properties and investments. He died in 1575.  In his will he wrote as follows:

“Whereas I have compounded with Mr. Winter and the Earl of Huntingdon to make a sough or drain in Cole Orton to get coals therefrom, my executors are to continue making the same as the coal will be beneficial to my heirs and a great commodity to a great number of the Queen’s Majesty’s subjects to have the said coals at reasonable prices for their fuel, my son, Ralph, to have the issues of my manor of Cole Orton and of the said coal mine with contingent remainders.”

The Sheldon family association with Cole Orton was to last for some two hundred years.

Eyam – The Play.  In 1665 the plague had infiltrated a small Derbyshire village via a tailor’s cloth brought back from London. The citizens faced a deeply dramatic dilemma: should they flee and save themselves or keep quarantine and prevent the plague spreading?  This dilemma was the basis of Matt Hartley’s 2018 play Eyam.

The Rev. William Mompesson had arrived in Eyam, but initially failed to make friends with the locals.  Tension bubbled up between him and the local landowner Sheldon.  William then called on the villagers to make the ultimate sacrifice. Somewhat unbelievably, they agreed.  The villagers decided to stay and three quarters of them died.

In the show’s dying moments, Mompesson solemnly recited the names of the 273 villagers who lost their lives to the plague.

Reader Feedback – Sheldons in Birmingham.  There were Sheldons in Birmingham and its environs from the early 1500’s.  A notable resident was Rodger Sheldon who was baptized in 1561 at St Martins.  In the 16th and 17th centuries there were Sheldon town constables.  In the 18th century Sheldon births, marriages and deaths, were recorded at St Martins, St Philips, and Aston nearby.

By the time we get to early 1800’s there are at least 10 Sheldon businesses appearing in directories and gazettes (as scale beam makers, pen manufacturer, school mistress etc.).  The Ben Sheldon you mention in the early 1800’s was a great grandfather times eight of mine.

Rob Sheldon (rob.sheldon1@outlook.com)

John Sheldon and the Deerfield Massacre.  Ensign John Sheldon was at home in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1704 when the Indian raid happened.  Hacking and hewing the strong oaken door of his house, the Indians made a hole through which they fired a shot that killed his wife.  Swarming into the house they killed Mercy, aged three, and captured Mary and the two boys.

His eldest son John and wife Hannah had jumped from their bedroom window at the first alarm.  She sprained her ankle, but urged him to leave her to bring help.  Binding his bare feet with strips of blanket, he hurried down to Hatfield, about fourteen miles away, to give the alarm.  His wife, along with three of his siblings, were taken captive and carried away to Canada.

The following year Ensign John Sheldon went to Canada and was able to return in the spring with five of the Deerfield captives, one of whom was Hannah, his son’s wife.  The negotiations usually involved the exchange of expensive “gifts” for the captives.  This type of exchange was probably also instrumental in the return of Sheldon’s brothers Ebenezer and Remembrance and his sister Mary, all of whom were back in Deerfield by 1706.

Ensign John Sheldon moved to Hartford soon after 1707 and remarried there.  However, other Sheldons remained in Deerfield.  Their home, which came to be known as the Old Indian House, stood until 1848 when it was demolished.

The Rev. Henry O. Sheldon.  The Rev. Henry O. Sheldon was a vigorous, driving man who made things happen. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1799, moved to Ohio in 1819, and died in Oberlin there in 1882.  He has been called “the Tom Paine of Ohio education,” being an early advocate and promoter of Ohio Wesleyan University.  He kept a life-time journal which is now preserved in the Firelands Museum in Norwalk, Ohio.

He also developed early genealogical data about the Sheldons in America.  This was in the 1850’s at the time when he was a circuit preacher riding some 3-4,000 miles a vear from village to village and collecting data from those who shared his Sheldon surname.   He organized this information which he published into what he called The Sheldon Magazine.

At that time he documented five separate and apparently unrelated Sheldon arrivals in America:

  • Godfrey Sheldon (1599-1671) of Saco and Scarborough, Maine
  • Isaac Sheldon (1629-1708) of Windsor, Connecticut
  • John Sheldon (1630-1708) of Rhode Island
  • John Sheldon (1628-1679) of Rhode Island
  • and Richard Sheldon (of which little was known).

Twenty years after his death his leather-bound manuscript was passed onto Philetus Sheldon for publishing.  Then it disappeared. A copy was later discovered in 1955 in the hands of John Layton Sheldon who said that his family had received it around 1906.

Meanwhile the Sheldon Family Association (SFA) was founded in 1939 by a group of Sheldon descendants, with the purpose of furthering interest in their heritage and preserving their family history.  The SFA is active today and holds annual reunions for Sheldon members.

Herbert Sheldon Who Headed West.  Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, was telling young men in the 1850’s: “Go west” and many like Herbert Sheldon did just that at that time.

In October, 1857 he left his home in New York to seek a home in the West.  He first went to northern Iowa.  But when he learned of the severity of the winters there he determined on a more southern location.

Taking a boat at Dubuque, he went down to Hannibal, Missouri. The Hannibal & St. Joe Railroad was just starting, having a track laid out thirty miles to a place they had named Shelbina.  Getting on board a construction train, he went out to the end of the road.  Four or five miles south of Shelbina he came to a school and taught there for a five months’ term.

In the spring following he rented a farm in that neighborhood for one year and returned to his home in New York and then to Vermont where he got married. Together he and his wife returned to the farm he had rented.

Missouri at that time was a slave state and most of their neighbors held slaves.  The environment was anything but pleasant for those who had been reared in the atmosphere of a free state.

So in October 1858 they started across Missouri, a distance of 300 miles, traveling in a covered wagon, their objective being Lawrence, Kansas.  From Lawrence they went thirty-seven miles south to Ohio City in Franklin county where they purchased land and built a log cabin.

They survived the early traumas – fever and ague and the great drought of 1860 – and stayed (although many others, dispirited, had returned to the East). Within a year of his settlement Herbert was elected a county commissioner.  He was for four years county clerk and for eight years register of deeds. In 1871 he had built one of the finest theaters in the state of Kansas at that time. It was known as Sheldon Hall.

Herbert was married three times and lived to the grand age of eighty-six, dying in 1917.

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Sheldon Names
  • Gilbert Sheldon was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1663 until his death in 1677. 
  • Wallace Sheldon was a notable architectural engineer and builder along the California coast in the early 1900’s. 
  • Sidney Sheldon, born Sidney Schechtel, was a prominent TV producer and writer of romantic novels in America during the 1970’s.
Sheldon Numbers Today
  • 11,000 in the UK (most numerous in Staffordshire)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
Sheldon and Like Surnames

Some surnames have originated from the English Midlands – the swathe of countryside which covers such counties as Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.

AlsopCromwellSheldonWilloughby
BurtonDaftTrumanYardley

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