James Fletcher’s 1890 Acton in History (page 57) lists James Shurland as one of the “Men of Acton in the War of the Revolution.” Taken alone, that would seem to imply that he fought on the side of the colonists. It is possible that he did at some point. However, researching the collections of the Society to find out more about him unearthed a document showing that in 1776, James Sherland and William Haywood were actually taken as prisoners of war. The document, a copy of an order from the Council Chamber, State of Massachusetts Bay, states that from their capture until Feb. 10, 1780, the two men had been residing in Acton. Joseph Robbins, other selectmen, and the Committee of Correspondence for Acton vouched for their "Orderly Behavior,” so they were given permission to live in the town and to practice their occupations until further notice.
Evidently, in the early part of the war, it was not unusual for British prisoners of war to be sent to outlying areas. A letter from George Washington to Lieutenant-General Howe on September 23, 1776 states that British privates were “greatly dispersed through New England Governments, in order to their better accommodation.” (See Jared Sparks’s The Writings of George Washington, Volume IV, New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1847, p 106.) So far, efforts to discover the stories of James Sherland and William Haywood during the Revolutionary War period have been not turned up anything. We do not know where they were captured, whether they were colonial Loyalists or from a British regiment, and why, where and under what circumstances they were held in Acton. (We would welcome new information; please contact us if you can help.)
Attempting to trace the later lives of the two prisoners presented opposite research problems. In Acton and its environs, Haywood/Hayward was a common name. Despite that, no trace of William could be found. Aside from the copy of the order held by the Historical Society, he seems to have left no mark on the town of Acton. There are some William Haywoods who appear in records outside of Acton in the post-Revolutionary period, but without further information, it is impossible to know whether it is the same person.
Sherland, however, is an unusual name, with many variations. Acton vital records revealed that James Sharland and wife Anna had ten sons in Acton: George (1779), Stephen Randal (1781), James Jr (1784), William (1786), Henery (1786, apparently William’s twin), Edmond (1790), Joseph (1792), Winthrop (1795), Benjamin Hill (1797), and Joseph (1799). All of the births were recorded together, probably well after the fact.
In 1790, James “Shareline” was listed in the Acton Census with a household of 1 male aged 16 and above, 6 males under age 16, and 1 female. The family must have been in Cambridge at some point. Probate records and Acton town reports indicate that James had legal involvement with the town of Cambridge in the first decade of the 1800s, but no details of his time actually living in Cambridge have yet emerged. The 1810 Acton Census shows James Sharland as head of a household consisting of 1 male aged 45 or more, 1 male between 10 and 15, and 1 female aged 45 or more. That probably was James and Anna and one of their youngest sons. (Acton records show that James Jr. “of Watertown” married Maria Moore “of Cambridge” and had a son William Henry in 1806. They would have been too young for the 1810 Census listing.) James Senior’s death was recorded in Acton on April 27, 1818. Benjamin Sherland is listed in the 1820 Census in Acton with a female over 45 (possibly his mother Anna). We could find no further mention of Anna in any record. There is no cemetery record or gravestone in Acton for any member of the family.
A fascinating research project would be to trace the descendants of the sons of James and Anna Sharland who all seem to have left Acton by 1830. Stephen Randal became a cooper in New Hampshire and died young and unmarried. Winthrop went to Maine. James Jr. went to western New York and later to Indiana. It appears that George and Benjamin also headed west. There were many descendants, although sorting them all out would be a challenge. By the mid-1800s, Sharlands, Sherlands, Shirlands and Shorlands appear in numerous records, including many records of military service. Without documents such as the Council Chamber order in the Society’s collections, there would be no way to know that one's immigrant ancestor was once a P.O.W. in a small Massachusetts town.
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