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Issue of October 22, 2014
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A military tombstone marks the grave of John Shields in southern Harrison County. Shields played a key role in the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition, serving as a jack-of-all-trades, to help them complete, as the tombstone notes, "one of the most amazing & challenging journeys in American history."

Shields invaluable to Lewis & Clark

Celebrating Statehood

June 11, 2014 | 08:18 AM

Harrison County pioneer John Shields proved invaluable to the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Upon the return of the Lewis and Clark expeditions, both leaders praised Shields' contributions:

William Clark noted, " ... 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, Meriwether 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."

Shields was a skilled gunsmith, blacksmith and hunter. He served as a private throughout the Lewis and Clark expedition from Oct. 19, 1803, until Oct. 10, 1806.

Shields was born near Harrisonberg, Augusta County, Va., in 1769, the sixth son of Robert and Nancy Stockton Shields, who had 11 children in all. In 1784, the family emigrated to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where Shields learned the blacksmithing trade in the shop of his brother-in-law, Sam Wilson. Shields also operated Wilson's grist mill.

Shields moved to Kentucky in the 1790s and was married and living in West Point, in Hardin County, by 1803. This is where he resided when he was recruited by William Clark on Oct. 19, 1803. Shields' enlistment categorized him as one of the "Nine Young Men from Kentucky" in the Corps of Discovery.

Shields, however, did not fit the typical template that Lewis and Clark were looking for in expedition members. They preferred young, single men in case something happened on their western adventure. At the age of 34, Shields was much older than most members and already had a wife, Nancy, and a daughter, Janette (who later married John Tipton, who figured prominently in Hoosier politics).

Expedition reports indicate that Shields was not only interested in everything, but had a natural aptitude for serving as a jack-of-all-trades. His hunting prowess is mentioned 70 times in Lewis and Clark's journals. He also became something of a medicine man, as he contributed greatly to the Corps morale by curing ailments like William Bratton's disabling backache using a circular steam pit to sweat it out. The treatment also included "copius" draughts of horse mint, but Shields indicated that snake root could also be used when mint was unavailable. Bratton recovered and was soon able to walk about on his own.

Shields' blacksmithing and mechanical skills were relied on daily. An amazing example was the tomahawks that Shields fashioned from an old metal stove while the party was wintering in the Mandan village. He traded these hatchets to the local Native Americans for corn and other necessary foodstuffs. When the expedition finally reached the west coast, the members were amazed to discover that these tools had already preceded their arrival as they became highly sought-after trade items. His gunsmithing skills were essential as he adjusted and refabricated expedition members' firearms, including Clark's.

Capts. Lewis and Clark acknowledged Shields' contributions by naming two streams for John Shields. One, a branch of the Missouri which flows from the south into the Missouri River a few miles below the Great Falls, has been renamed today as Highwood Creek. The second stream is a tributary of the Yellowstone River. Shields was with Capt. Clark's party during the return journey, exploring the upper Yellowstone to its confluence with the Missouri. Capt. Clark gave the name of Shields River to a tributary which flows out of the Crazy Horse Mountains, east of Bozeman Pass. The name, "Shields River," is shown on modern maps, preserving Shields legacy in the epic transcontinental exploration. There is no record, however, that Lewis's suggestion of additional pay for Shields' artificer contributions was ever acted upon.

After the return from the expedition, Shields spent time in Missouri trapping in the company of the famed Daniel Boone. Returning to the Falls of the Ohio area, Shields spent time in Harrison County, Ind., with his close friend, Squire Boone, Daniel's brother. Shields was settled in Harrison County by June 1807 and became active in local politics and military affairs.

Shields died in December 1809, just two months after the death of expedition co-leader Meriwether Lewis. Shields was reportedly buried in Little Flock Cemetery in southern Harrison County. It is speculated that Squire Boone, a Baptist minister, may have presided at the burial service. A military tombstone for Shields has been placed in the cemetery. An historical marker for Shields also has been erected outside of the Blaine Wiseman Visitor Center in downtown Corydon, and there also is a marker in West Point, Ky.

Karen Schwartz is president of the Historical Society of Harrison County and serves on the legacy group of the Harrison County Committee for the Indiana Bicentennial. To suggest a topic, contact Schwartz at 812-736-2373 or 812-738-2828, by e-mail at or by regular mail at 5850 Devil's Elbow Road NW, Corydon, IN 47112.

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