No. 36 in a series
Private John Shields was born in the Shenandoah Valley near Harrisonburg, Va., in 1769. One of the key "nine men from Kentucky" hired by Clark at Louisville in 1803, he was often referred to in the journals as the blacksmith, mechanic or gunsmith of the expedition.
He was continually praised by the two captains for how well he improvised using small metallic pieces to turn out metal arrowheads and hide scrappers, as well as keeping all the firearms of the crew in top-notch working condition.
Shields was listed as one of three blacksmiths on the roster traveling with the Corps of Discovery, but Shields' name was most often mentioned in the journals. His efforts during winter with the Mandans proved to be significant. Lewis' journal noted the blacksmith's efforts, relating, "The blacksmiths take a considerable quantity of corn today in payment for their labor. They have proved a happy resource to us in our present situation as I believe it would have been difficult to have devised any other methods to have procured corn from the natives."
Besides his abilities at the forge, Shields displayed a skill for exploration. Lewis' journal entry for May 20, 1805 credited the blacksmith for the discovery of a "bold spring or fountain issuing from the foot of a landlord hill about five miles below the entrance to the Yellowstone River." According to the captain, it was a significant discovery because most of the springs in the area contained mineral salts.
Shields also worked the salt works at Fort Clatsop while the Corps of Discovery waited out the winter of 1805-06 along the Pacific coast. He helped cure Private William Bratton's mysterious illness by subjecting Bratton to a series of hot sweat baths and then plunging Bratton into the icy Clearwater River. Miraculously, within a day the patient had recovered.
The leadership of the expedition named two streams for the blacksmith. One was a branch of the Missouri, which flows south just below the Great Falls known today as Highwood Creek. The other was a tributary of the Yellowstone River, which flows out of the Crazy Horse Mountains east of Bozeman Pass. The Shields River is located on modern maps preserving the legacy of the crew's important blacksmith.
It took many skills to make up the Corps of Discovery. Blacksmithing proved to be essential for the survival of the men. Private Shields typifies the type of man who signed on with Lewis and Clark. These types of men were the kind of people who created the land we have today without gaining riches or fanfare, and is a part of the fabric of our history.
Dave Hinze is a professional historian and tour guide. He leads tours and presents at conferences on Lewis & Clark, and other topics pertaining to early American history, for the American History Education Association. For information about this series or one of AHEA's many history tours you can contact Dave at 1-800-298-1861 or AHEA2004@yahoo. com