John Shields

Private, U.S. Army

Gunsmith as Artist

For John Shields, the captains made an exception to their rule of taking only unmarried men into the Corps of Discovery—and it more than paid off. "[B]ut for the precaution," Lewis claimed (20 March 1806), of his thinking to bring replacement gunlocks and part "in addition to the ingenuity of John Shields, most of our guns would at this moment have been entirely unfit for use; but fortunately for us I have it in my power here to record that they are all in good order."

Besides being married, Shields, a year older than Clark, was the oldest enlisted man on the expedition until Jean-Baptiste Lepage enlisted at Fort Mandan. A kinsman of Daniel Boone, Shields had been living with Nancy, his wife of about thirteen years, and their daughter Martha in Kentucky down the Ohio River from Louisville. The Field brothers came from the same area, so may have been acquainted with him. Historian James Holmsberg believes that it was likely Clark knew Shields before the expedition.1

At expedition's end, Lewis made a special plea for Shields in his payroll submitted to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn. John Shields, he wrote:

has received the pay only of a private. Nothing was more peculiarly useful to us . . . than the skill and ingenuity of this man as an artist, in repairing our guns, accoutrements, &c. and should it be thought proper to allow him something as an artificer [craftsman], he has well deserved it.2

A Rough Transition

Born and raised on the wild and free frontier, Shields had some trouble learning army discipline at Camp Dubois. He and Alexander Willard, the second blacksmith, were assigned to make certain items.3 Lewis's list is lost, but perhaps the metalwork was for custom-fitting the barge.], and so were exempt from guard duty. Still, Shields involved himself when Reubin Field balked at his own guard assignment.

In February 1804, both captains were in St Louis on business beginning on the 10th; Lewis returned on the 13th, but Clark not until the 29th. Sgt. John Ordway was placed in charge during the rare times when both captains were gone. On one of those mid-February days, Reubin Field refused to stand guard duty on his regular rotation, and the fight grew. "Co" went so far as to load his gun as if to shoot Ordway; while this could have been either Collins or Colter, the latter was the one court martialed. Frazer was also involved, and Shields supported the three.

In Detachment Orders dated March 3, Lewis laid down the law about obedience to the sergeant in charge. He singled out Shields "particularly," writing that he was surprised at the "want of discretion" exhibited by those who sided with Field:

particularly Shields, whose sense of propryety [Lewis] had every reason to beleive would have induced [Shields] reather to have promoted good order, than to have excited disorder and faction . . .

Concluding the orders, Lewis emphasized that the "Carpenters [and] Blacksmiths and in short the whole party" must obey Ordway in the captains' joint absence.

Apparently that did not resolve the problem, and a court martial was held at month's end. The captains' journal entries for February and March 1804 were kept in several books, and dates in them are problematic. Clark wrote in a red pocket notebook, kept mainly by Lewis and an unknown writer, that on "Thursday 29th," "we have a trial of John Shields[,] John Colter & R Frasure which take up the greater part of the day . . ."4

No details of the court martial were recorded, and only Shields and Colter made formal apologies the following day. Other undated notes from that month5 record that Shields "wishes to return" home, but luckily for the expedition he stayed. And had no more trouble obeying orders—although he would again incur Lewis's wrath at a tense moment.

Iron for Corn

At Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804-1805, Shields' smithing work ranged from the delicacy of gun repairs to the power work of shoeing horses. After Clark mounted a lengthy hunting trip far from the fort, Shields shoed the Corps' two horses so they could pull sledges over deep snow to collect meat left on the plains.6

Shields and Willard stumbled onto an ingenious way to "make money." The neighboring Indians valued metal tools, so the blacksmiths got permission to cut a burned-out stove into small squares. These made efficient hide-scrapers, for which Mandan and Hidatsa women gladly traded corn. The blacksmiths also mended the women's farming tools.

Then a bit of custom work came their way, when a Mandan war chief approached with a request for a war ax to his own design. Although Clark sketched the Mandan's old-style ax in the journals, Lewis described this new design in words, opining that it was "formed in a very inconvenient manner in my opinion." But it was what the Mandans wanted, and in mid-March, Clark noted "maney Inds. here to day all anxiety for war axes[.] the Smiths have not an hour of Idle time to Spear"7 When he did have idle time, Shields went hunting, for example killing three pronghorns on February 6.

Clark, in an undated summary of winter 1804-1805, tallied the blacksmiths' contribution: "we by the aide of our Black smiths precured Corn Sufficient for the party dureing the winter and about 70 or 90 bushels to Carry with us."8

On the Trail

As the Corps traveled, Shields regularly joined the hunters—and was one of the Corps' top shots.9 Both captains selected Shields for advance parties, as Lewis did when he explored up the Marias River beginning June 4, 1805.

At the Great Falls later that month, though, Shields found himself on the business end of a hide scraper. Was it one of his own making, or had those all been traded away? Lewis assigned Patrick Gass, Joseph Field, and Shields to prepare the iron boat for launching. First they scraped elk hides, and Frazer was enlisted to sew the leather to the metal frames.

The men also had to collect wood and craft cross-braces. On June 24, Lewis recorded: "[They] made but slow progress in collecting timber for the boat; they complained of great difficulty in geting streight or even tolerably streight sticks of 4 1/2 feet long." Shields apparently was as skilled with wood as he was with iron; Field could build furniture, and Gass was a construction carpenter.

Lewis selected Shields, along with Drouillard and McNeal, when he vowed in August to travel until he located the Shoshone Indians. On the 11th, success seemed at hand when they met a lone, mounted Shoshone warrior. They were on Horse Prairie Creek in present Beaverhead County, Montana, west of Clark Canyon Reservoir. Shields and Drouillard were off to each side of Lewis and McNeal. Lewis quickly put down his gun and shot pouch, pulled out some small gift items, and he and McNeal moved slowly forward.

Lewis was shouting what he thought was Shoshone for "white man" and trying to gesture his friendship. But the warrior nervously watched Shields and Drouillard, "who wer still advancing neither of them haveing segacity enough to recollect the impropriety of advancing when they saw me thus in parley with the Indian." Lewis furiously signaled to his men to halt, but only Drouillard did.

Shields later told Lewis that he never saw the gesture. But the Shoshone turned his horse and galloped away. Lewis let the men have it, especially Shields and less so his close friend Drouillard.

I fe[l]t soarly chargrined at the conduct of the men particularly Sheilds to whom I principally attributed this failure in obtaining an introduction to the natives. I now called the men to me and could not forbare abraiding them a little for their want of attention and imprudence on this occasion.

They followed the man's trail for two more days before connecting at last with the Shoshones.

The injenuity of this man

Mysteriously, Shields cached most of his gunsmithing tools at the Marias River.10 Perhaps they were his personal tools of the trade, left behind for safety. During the damp winter at Fort Clatsop and throughout 1806, the journals speak more and more often about Shields' life-sustaining work as gunsmith. Certainly the guns had seen hard use all the 743 days from when Camp Dubois was established to when the Corps of Discovery moved into Fort Clatsop.

Unlike the previous winter's neighbors, Indians around this fort had a different idea about personal property. The captains promptly labeled them "thieves." On January 1, 1806, Lewis issued detailed instructions about operating the fort, when Indian visitors were welcome—daylight hours only, guarding the meat and essential supplies, and trading with the Indians. The Corps' "public tools," or army property, were in no way available as trade goods, and now must be checked out of the captains' room, and returned to it daily. But "the tools loaned to John Shields are excepted from the restrictions of this order." This implies not only that Shields was to be trusted, but also that he was constantly using the gunsmithing tools.

Heading eastward in the spring, the Corps paused near Beacon Rock on the Columbia River to dry meat, intending to process enough to last until they reached the Nez Perce in Idaho. During the two days there, April 7 and 8, Shields repaired Clark's personal Pennsylvania rifle, inspiring the captain to write that "the party ows much to the injenuity of this man, by whome their guns are repared when they get out of order which is very often."

Shields "renewed the Main spring of [Lewis's] air gun" on June 10. At Travelers' Rest on July 1 and 2, he repaired many of the men's guns. Lewis recounted that

Windsor birst his gun near the muzzle a few days since; this Sheilds cut off and I then exchanged it with the Cheif [a Nez Perce] for the one we had given him for conducting us over the mountains. he was much pleased with the exchange and shot his gun several times; he shoots very well for an inexperienced person.

Besides fixing guns, it was Shields who came up with the fix for William Bratton's debilitating back ache, when he mentioned having seen a sweat bath treatment that he then reproduced.

Shields went in Clark's return party down the Yellowstone River. Clark named the Shields River east of Livingston, MT, for the gunsmith—one of the few place names honoring enlisted men that stuck.

When Shields reached home and family, he would have learned that Jonathan Clark, the captain's brother and business agent in his absence, had sent her 21 bushels of corn and four dollars.11 Jonathan Clark's papers do not show whether he continued to assist Nancy Shields throughout her husband's absence. Jonathan may also have delivered a buffalo robe that John Shields sent home from Fort Mandan for his wife.12

In 1807, the Shields family and several of John's siblings moved with Daniel's brother Squire to Indiana. They settled around Corydon, where John maybe have met his first grandchild before his own death in 1809.13

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. James J. Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark. in assoc. with The Filson Historical Soc. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 2002), 97n14.
  • 2. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854; 2nd ed.; 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:366. Shields received nothing in addition to his $5 per month and his congressional land grant.
  • 3. Codex P, described in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001), 2:557.
  • 4. February 29, the day Clark had returned, was a Wednesday, but March 29 was a Thursday.
  • 5. ibid., 2:194
  • 6. ibid., 3:292
  • 7. ibid., 3: 286, 313.
  • 8. ibid., 3:486
  • 9. He placed third in a January 16, 1804, shooting match between the enlisted men and local residents. Moulton, 2:157.
  • 10. Moulton, 7:93n2.
  • 11. Holmberg, p. 98.
  • 12. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 81.
  • 13. Ibid., 80-81.