Our families have had an on-again, off-again interest in genealogy over the years. Lately it’s been on-again in the Sheltons, my mother’s side of the extended family tree. From what I’ve learned lately, it might be time to stop shaking that tree. Dad always said if you shake your family tree hard enough, a horse thief is likely to fall out.
We’ve known little about our ancestry on the Shelton side, except for the direct line that included people my mother could remember. We were told Grandma Estie’s people were Shipmans from the mountains, having come over from Ireland with the other Scotch-Irish settlers. Mom’s brother Ray says we are descended from the Indians who sold Manhattan for a handful of beads. On Grandpa Nelson’s side, we knew even less. We thought that the Sheltons had been in this part of North Carolina for a long time, but that’s about all we knew.
A few years ago we were given copies of an unpublished book written by Z.F. Shelton, a distant relative from Montgomery, Alabama. The book is in the form of a typewritten manuscript, dated 1962, and traces the Sheltons back more or less to Adam.
Now, to get our lineage back that far, brother Z.F. takes a few liberties, including skipping lightly over several chasms of Biblical “begets,” as well as several undocumented generations since the Fall of Rome. He pretty well assumes that we are of noble birth, having been descended from Charlemagne, at least, and a number of nobles since then who carried the name “de Shelton.”
It was from Z.F. that we learned of the family story that our North Carolina progenitor, Spencer Shelton, was carried on horseback as an infant from Virginia to Lincoln County to be raised by “relatives already living in the area.”
From Spencer Shelton, Z.F. draws a straight line back to the pioneer Sheltons of the late 1600s and thence across the Atlantic to the old country and Shelton manor. It seems the traditional first names of the family were historical vestiges of our family’s relations. My grandfather, Nelson Shelton, was named, indirectly, for our old cousin, Admiral Nelson. All the Spencer Sheltons were so named because we are related to the noble Spencers (yes, Princess Diana’s family).
Having grown up assuming we are of far humbler stock, we found these revelations striking. But, as they say, that knowledge and $4 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So we congratulated ourselves and put the information aside.
A few weeks ago, Joyce and I visited the Henry Houser house, just outside the Kings Mountain National Battleground Park. It was built in the early 1800s and is open only twice a year, so we went down to take a look. A table set up in the yard featured a team of local genealogists with some notebooks of information they had compiled. I struck up a conversation with one of the women, who knows a lot of the old families in the area. She frequently helps families establish histories to support applications for membership in the DAR.
I mentioned the Sheltons. Yes, she knew the family, having recently helped a DAR applicant who had roots in that family.
“Did you know,” she asked, “that DNA tests done on the Sheltons in Virginia show no relationship whatsoever to the Sheltons in England?”
I did not know. But it makes sense. I’ve always wondered why so many people of noble birth came to the New World, while almost nobody I know was descended from a peasant. If we take things at face value, the noble class reproduced like bunnies, while the peasant class died out generations ago through attrition.
But think about it. It’s 1750 or so. You’re across the world from anyone who knows you, there’s almost no communication with the old country, and your prospects suddenly depend on your own ability to impress a new community with your worth. Now, are you an escaped peasant hoping for a fresh start, or a nobleman’s son whose valuables were somehow lost in transit?
I thought so. Me, too.