This biography is from a paper by George H. Yater originally presented at the 1991 annual meeting of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in Louisville and subsequently published in "Nine Young Men from Kentucky," a May 1992 supplementary publication of We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation
We are not sure when John Shields came to Kentucky. Work by earlier researchers shows that he was born near present-day Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1769, the sixth son of Robert and Nancy Stockson Shields, and one of ten brothers and a sister. Harrisonburg, by the way, located in the lovely Shenandoah Valley, is Louisville's twin city in the truest sense of the word. Both Harrisonburg and Louisville were given corporate life in a single act of the Virginia legislature in 1780.1
By then, young Shields was eleven years old. Shortly after, in 1784, the family emigrated to Pigeon Forge in the Tennessee foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Here he learned blacksmithing at a shop owned by a brother-in-law, Samuel Wilson, and also operated Wilson's grist mill. He was an apt pupil of blacksmithing and his skill proved unusually valuable to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.2
By 1790 he was in Kentucky and about that time married a girl named Nancy, family name unknown. The only reference I have been able to find to a John Shields locally is from a session of the County Court on November 8, 1797, when persons named to appraise the estate of a John Williams, deceased, included John Shields. Was he our man? Perhaps, but there is no way to be certain.3
In any event, he became a private soldier in the Expedition, even though Lewis had earlier called for only unmarried men. He was, at age 34, the oldest man in the party and was the blacksmith, gunsmith, and all-around mechanic. His work as blacksmith brought in badly needed corn during the winter sojourn of 1804-05 at Fort Mandan. On February 5, 1805, Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal that the party was "visited by the natives, who brought in a considerable quantity of corn for the work the blacksmith had done for them … They are peculiarly attached to a battle ax formed in a very inconvenient manner in my opinion, it is fabricated of iron only." There were several such entries. And on April 8, 1806, Clark noted that: "John Shields cut out my rifle and brought hir to shoot very well. The party owes much to the injinuity of this man, by whome their guns are repaired when they get out of order which is very often."
At the conclusion of the Expedition, Lewis wrote of Shields: "Has received the pay only of a private. Nothing was more peculiarly useful to us, in various situations, then the skill and ingenuity of this man as an artist, in repairing our guns, accroutements, &c. and should it be thought proper to allow him something as an artificer, he has well deserved it." There is no record that Lewis's suggestion was acted upon. Shields' skill as a hunter comes through the journals, as well. There are at least seventy references to his hunting accomplishments.4
As an acute observer of anything new that he had come across, Shields proved a "medicine man" to another Kentuckian on the Expedition-William Bratton. Bratton, as one of the saltmakers on the Pacific Coast, came down with back pains so acute that he could scarcely walk. On the return journey Bratton traveled by canoe or horseback. When the Expedition halted in present-day Idaho at "Camp Chopunnish" to wait for the snow to melt in the high Bitterroots, Shields suggested a treatment for Bratton. He said he had seen men with similar complaints cured by violent sweats.
Lewis detailed the process in his journal: Shields dug a circular hole four feet deep, lighted a fire to heat the surrounding earth, put in a seat and willow hoops across the top to hold blankets. Bratton was placed in the hole and given water to sprinkle on the hot earth to create steam. The steam and plunges into cold water cured the back pain. Lewis added that during the treatment Bratton was given "copious draughts" of a strong tea of horse mint. This was also Shields' idea and he told Lewis he had seen "Sinneca snake root" used when mint was not available.5
Following the Expedition's return, Shields spent a year trapping in Missouri with famed Kentuckian Daniel Boone, who was evidently related to him in some way. [Recent research places Shields back home by the spring of 1807.] Upon his return to the Falls of the Ohio area he spent some time with Daniel's lesser-known brother, Squire Boone, in Indiana-in what is now Harrison County some thirty miles west of Louisville. Shields died in December 1809 and is probably buried in the rather neglected Little Flock Baptist Church graveyard south of Corydon, Indiana, in Harrison County. I might note that Squire Boone was, among other things, a Baptist preacher and likely presided at Shields' burial. John and Nancy Shields were the parents of a daughter named Janette who married her cousin John Tipton, a man who became a power in Indiana politics.6