Shelleys in America


Shelley is an English-origin name. But there are some 14,000 Shelleys in America, more than twice the number in England. How come?

Why So Many?

One factor has been the anglicization of foreign names by immigrants either on their entry into the United States or with the next generation.  German names such as Schille or Schelle became Shelley in America. So too did the Irish Shealy.

Secondly, there were and are African American Shelleys, either from the south or from immigrant West Indian families.  The mid 19th century censuses also recorded Cherokee Indians in Tennessee and Oklahoma with the Shelley name.

The Case of JD Shelley.  One African American Shelley rose to prominence as a result of a celebrated court case. In 1930, JD Shelley, his wife and six children migrated to St. Louis from Mississippi to escape the racial oppression of the South.

Racial apartheid existed in St. Louis as well.  In trying to buy a house, the Shelleys discovered that many of the buildings they looked at were governed by racially restrictive covenants. They eventually found someone who would sell them a house.  However, their purchase was challenged.  In a case that found its way to the US Supreme Court in 1948, their right to purchase under the 14th Amendment was established in a memorable ruling. Their modest two-story house has now been designated as a historical landmark.

Shelley Arrivals

Shelleys have left Europe for the New World for various reasons since the early 17th century.  An early arrival was Robert Shelley who left Nazeing in Essex on the Lyon for Boston in 1632.  However, most Shelleys headed for Virginia and the Carolinas. 

Virginia.  Henry Shelley, a gentleman from Chislehurst in Kent, sailed from London on the Sea Venture in 1609 in a mission to re-establish contact with the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. However, their vessel was shipwrecked off Bermuda (tales of which formed the basis of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest), and, arriving at Jamestown a year later and finding few colonists left, they promptly returned home. Walter Shelley did stay but died of fever in 1619.  John Shelley, who came later, survived the climate and the Indian uprisings and became a settler.

The Shelleys of Surry county, Virginia are to be found in Volume IV of Historical Southern Familes.  Phillip Shelley lived and died there (in 1704).  His descendants moved to Edgecombe county, North Carolina.

North Carolina and Tennessee.  There are records of Shelleys in North Carolina by the 1720's and in east Tennessee (which was formed out of North Carolina) by the 1780's.  James Shelley settled in Gap Creek, Tennessee.  His descendants later migrated to Missouri and Arkansas.

Nathan Shelley was born in Guilford county, North Carolina in 1746 and died in Jefferson county, Tennessee in 1816.  His grandson Jacob Shelley headed south to Talladega county in Alabama in the 1830's and Jacob's nephew, Charles Miller Shelley, was a Confederate general during the Civil War.  After the war, Charles moved to Selma where he was a town builder and became active in state politics. 

South Carolina.  More Shelleys came to South Carolina.  By the mid 1700's this area was beginning to attract a mishmash of immigrants; wealthy individuals who were granted large tracts of land, indentured servants looking for a new start, and criminals just seeking to escape punishment.

Some English colonists, arriving in Charleston in the 1760’s, moved northeast to the swamplands along the Pee Dee river, building rough cabins there and clearing out land for farming.  William Shelley must have been an early arrival.  The 1776 Roster of Revolutionary Soldiers shows that he was drafted from this area.  Serious settlement of what is now called Marion county did not begin until the war was over and the Indians had dispersed. The 1786 tax rolls list William and Joseph Shelley as smallholders. And Shelleys have been farming this land ever since.

They still do.  Johnny Shelley’s tobacco farm at Nichols in Marion county won a conservation award in 2002.  He, like his forebears, is a member of the Pleasant View Baptist Church.  The church cemetery lists 356 names of which 82 are Shelleys.

Shelleys also moved northwest to what is now Barnwell county. A Luke Shelley is listed in the 1790 census. He died in 1823, making a gift on his death-bed of his two slaves to his grandson. Descendents of these Shelleys migrated first to Georgia and then to SE Alabama. This settlement, called Tumbleton, began in the 1890's when Reuben Shelley and his family purchased land six miles northeast of Headland. Shelley's garage, first erected in 1921, is still a prominent local landmark. And a Reuben Shelley is the mayor of present-day Headland.


Pennsylvania.  Economic opportunity was one motive for immigration, escape from religious persecution another. This applied in particular to the Mennonites from Germany and Switzerland who began arriving in Pennsylvania under the religious freedom afforded by William Penn.  In this migration, Germanic names such as Schoelli or Schille became Shelly or Shelley in America.  

Two brothers, Christian and Jacob Shelly, were in Lancaster county by the 1720's; while Abraham Shelly, thought to be related, settled in what is now Milford township in Bucks county.  His descendants are still to be found in this area today.  A branch migrated to Ontario in the early 1800's.

From these Mennonite roots came one Daniel Shelley who uprooted his wife and four children from Lancaster county (plus three horses, four cows, and twelve sheep) to settle in the 1770's in what is now called Shelley's Island on the Susquehanna river. Here they formed a self-contained community.

These Shelleys were apparently prolific. Daniel himself was said to have had four wives and eighteen children. The Shelley cemetery on the island, overshadowed now by the Three Mile Island nuclear plant nearby, contains close to a hundred gravestones of this remarkable family buried there over the 18th and 19th centuries.

Another Shelley line came from German Dunkard immigrants into Pennsylvania.  Adam Schillig, "that well-known Dunkard," was in Guilford county, North Carolina by the 1770's.  His sons became Shelleys.  Peter Shelley and his family settled in the Cumberland mountains in Kentucky in the early 1800's and among their descendants were:

Heading West

Some Shelleys moved inland to Indiana and Iowa or joined wagon-trains as the West opened up.

Iowa.  Shelleys were to be found in Iowa from the 1840's  Michael Shelley arrived there from Ireland in the 1860’s.  He had a daughter who achieved national renown for a feat of heroism, as the inscription on her plaque reveals:

“Here is a deed bound for legend. A story to be told until the last order fades and the last rail rusts. On the night of July 9 1881, Kate Shelley, then a girl of 15, prevented the Chicago-bound express train, with 200 passengers aboard, from plunging into a raging torrent after the Honey Creek bridge had collapsed. Her heroism saved the train and led to the rescue of survivors.”

Crawling on her hands and knees across the Des Moines bridge, she managed to reach the Moingona station ahead of the impending disaster and alert the station master.

Fame, sadly, brought her no reward.  Fifteen years later she was listed as destitute and with the added responsibility of caring for her aged mother and invalid brother.  Belatedly the railroad stepped in and looked after her over the rest of her life.

The Oregon Trail.  Michael Shelley and his wife Sena went over the Oregon Trail with a team of oxen and milch cows in 1848.  They made it to Oregon, settling in the Willamette valley.  Sena died there in 1861.  But Michael lived onto 1894.

Michael's father George, who embarked on the journey in 1852, never made it.  He succumbed to cholera while crossing the Platte river. 

Salt Lake, Utah.  A driving factor in this westward movement of people was the Mormon Church.  In 1840, the first Mormon missionaries came to England with the task of recruiting converts to emigrate and boost Church numbers in America. They set up their stall in the Victorian towns of northern England and in the pottery towns of Staffordshire. Many converts, with financial assistance from the church, made the voyage.

Among the early emigrants from the Staffordshire region were James Bowyer Shelley, his son Thomas, and their family of 14 who sailed from Liverpool in January 1851. Thomas Shelley kept a journal of the nine month voyage via packet ship, steamboat, and wagon-train to the new Mormon settlement in Salt Lake valley, Utah.  He wrote in his diary:

“We entered into the valley on October 3. I saw Brother Brigham for the first time and rejoiced much that I had been counted worthy to be gathered with the Saints of God.”

Other Shelley converts followed, some settling in Utah and others spreading the Mormon faith elsewhere in the West. The small town of Shelley in Idaho is named after its first settler, John F. Shelley, who moved there from Utah in 1885.

New Mexico.  PM Shelley, born in Kentucky, was living in Texas in 1884 when he experienced a cow falling through the roof into the room where his family was sleeping.  According to the family legend, he thereupon decided to leave and head West to ranch cattle in New Mexico. 

He started his 916 ranch at Cliff in Grant county.  After his death in 1935, the ranch has been handed down through four generations.of Shelleys.  Terrell Shelley of the present generation wrote an article about his family in the Winter 2009 edition of Range Magazine

CaliforniaJack Shelley was - like Kate Shelley - from Irish roots, born in 1905 the eldest of nine of a working class Irish family in San Francisco.  He rose through trade union ranks and a career in the US Congress to be mayor of San Francisco during the turbulent 1960's. 

Shelleys Today

Shelleys, some of English origin and some from elsewhere, have spread throughout the United States.

Shelleys in the US Today per thousand
South Carolina 0.24
Utah 0.18
Alabama 0.13
USA (average) 0.05

But old history still influences the distribution. The South Carolina settlements in the 18th century and the Mormon migrations in the 19th impact where Shelleys reside today.