Upland Chronicles: Explorer John Shields had Sevier County ties

Dec. 17, 2012 @ 02:53 PM

When Robert and Nancy Stockton Shields moved from Virginia to settle in Sevier County in 1784 their son John was 15. The Shields family built a fort at the foot of a mountain that became known as Shields Mountain. John was the sixth of 13 children of Robert and Nancy Shields. After his family moved to Sevier County John learned the trade of blacksmithing and ran a gristmill with Samuel Wilson.

John Shields was born in Rockingham County Virginia in 1769. By 1790 he had moved to Jefferson County, Kentucky where he married Nancy(maiden name unknown) and fathered a daughter Martha Jennette (Jennie), who would grow up to marry John Tipton Shields, son of John Shields’ sister Jennette Shields Tipton and Joshua Tipton of Cades Cove.

He was living in Hardin County, Kentucky in October, 1803 when William Clark recruited him for the expedition known as the Voyage of Discovery. Although married, Shields was chosen not only for his hunting ability but for his blacksmithing skills which he learned while living in Sevier County.

Shields was given the military rank of private in the Corps of Discovery and was one of 29 men who participated in the basic development, recruiting and training for the voyage at the staging ground at Camp Dubois, Illinois in the winter of 1803-1804.

At 35, Shields was the oldest man on the expedition including William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. Although he got into trouble in the early days of the expedition when he and Private Reubin Field refused to mount guard duty as ordered by a Sergeant, Shields became a valued and trusted member of the expedition party.

While encamped at Fort Mandan on the banks of the Missouri River in North Dakota, Private Shields set up for business a blacksmith operation inside the fort. There he mended iron hoes, sharpened axes and repaired firearms for the local Indians in exchange for corn.

But by the end of January, the market for mending hoes had been satisfied and Shields needed a new product to attract business. He discovered the answer was battle axes. There was a particular form of battle axe favored by the Indians and easily made by the skilled blacksmith.

Although Meriwether Lewis disapproved of the design, the decision was made to give the customers what they wanted. Private Shields went to work getting his sheet iron from an all-but-burned-out stove. Other men were skilled in timber cutting and provided wood to make a charcoal kiln, to expand production.

The Indians loved the battle axes so much that Private Shields could not turn them out fast enough. It got the point where Captain Lewis had Shields to cut up what was left of the stove into pieces of four inches square, which could then be worked into arrow points of buffalo-hide scrapers.

After some haggling, a price was set: eight gallons of corn for each piece of metal. Each side felt as if it had struck a great bargain.

On February 6, 1805, Captain Lewis wrote in his journal: “The blacksmiths took a considerable quantity of corn today in payment for their labor. The blacksmiths have proved a happy resource to us in our situation as I believe it would have been difficult to have devised any other method to have procured corn from the natives.”

Further impressed with Private Shields’ hunting ability Captain Lewis wrote: “Shields killed three antelopes this evening.”

Private Shields was also credited in the recovery of a fellow private who suffered from a prolonged illness by suggesting a “sweat house” treatment that would prove to cure the ailing man.

Captains Clark and Lewis named two streams for John Shields. One, a branch of the Missouri River which flows from the south into the Missouri a few miles below Great Falls in Montana is known today as Highwood Creek. The second stream is a tributary of the Yellowstone River. Captain Clark gave the name of Shields River to the tributary which flows out of the Crazy Horse Mountains, east of Bozeman Pass. The name is shown on modern maps, preserving the legacy of John Shields and his prominent role in the expedition.

Captain Lewis praised John Shields’ contributions to the success of the expedition in his evaluation of the men who accompanied him, which he sent to the Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, on January 15, 1807.

Lewis wrote: “John Shields has received the pay only of a private. Nothing was more peculiarly useful to us, in various situations, than the skill and ingenuity of this man as an artist, in repairing guns and accoutrements. And should it be thought proper to allow him something as an artificer, he has well deserved it.”

After journeying to the Pacific Ocean and the return trip those two years with Lewis and Clark, John Shields returned to Sevier County briefly, but he was not well. The journey had taken its toll.

Shields did some fur trapping in Missouri with Daniel Boone before he settled in Harrison County, Indiana in 1807. He was appointed captain of the Clark County militia in July, 1807.

In 1809, John Shields died at the age of 40. He is buried in the Little Flock Burying Ground in Harrison County, Indiana. A state historical marker to his memory is erected near the Harrison County Courthouse in Corydon, Indiana.

— The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics or would like to submit a column, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com