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Private John Shields was born in 1769 near Harrisonberg, Augusta County, Virginia. Despite the Captains’ rule that they would only consider unmarried men for the exploring enterprise, they recruited Shields. Shields had married in about 1790, while living in Kentucky. He and his wife Nancy had a daughter, Janette.

John Shields was another of the “Nine young men from Kentucky.” He was enlisted into the expedition by Captain Clark at Louisville on October 19, 1803. Shields was most often referred to in the journals as the blacksmith, gunsmith, or general mechanic of the expedition’s personnel. He was praised by the Captains for how he improvised, using what little metallic products they carried with them to make hide scrapers and arrow points for the Indians. He kept the firearms in good working order, and made rifle balls by melting down the waterproof lead canisters in which their gun powder was packed.

In addition to Shields, both William Bratton and Alexander Willard were blacksmiths. Captain Clark’s journal, kept during the winter at Fort Mandan provides this information:

The blacksmiths take a considerable quantity of corn today in payment for their labor. They have proved a happy reso[r]ce 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 I permitted the blacksmith to dispose of part of a sheet iron callaboos (camboose, stove) which been nearly birnt out on our passage up the river, and for each piece about four inches square he obtained from seven to eight gallons of corn from the natives who appeared extreemly pleased with the exchange.

Lewis’s journal entry for May 20, 1805, credits Shields with the discovery of a “[B]ould spring or fountain issueing from the foot of the Lard. [larboard] hill about five miles below the entrance of the Yellowstone River.” Lewis commented further, that this was a significant discovery, since most of the springs they had encountered in this region “without exception are impregnated with the salts [minerals] which abound in this country.”

Private Shields a was central figure in William Bratton’s recovery from a prolonged illness that began in February 1806, while he was working as one of the saltmakers at the expedition’s “Salt Works.” The facility was located close to the beach in present Seaside, Oregon, 18 miles south of Fort Clatsop, the expedition’s 1805-1806 winter establishment. Men detailed to the site evaporated sea water continuously for nearly three months, during the period December to March. Lewis described Bratton’s sufferings in his journal entry for March 21, 1806: “Bratton is now so much reduced that I am somewhat uneasy with rispect to his recovery; the pain of which he complains most seems to be seated in the small of his back and remains obstinate. I believe that it is the rheumatism.”

In fact, his sickness was so acute that when the exploring party departed Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806, for the return journey, Bratton was unable to walk and traveled in one of the canoes. When the party reached the “Great Falls” of the Columbia River near today’s city of The Dalles, Oregon, and gave up the use of canoes in favor of horses obtained from local Indians, Bratton, still incapacitated, was the only man who rode horse back. All others were afoot because of the scarcity of horses. Lewis states: “I found that I should get no more horses and therefore resolved to proceed tomorrow morning for this purpose I had a load made up for seven horses, the eigth Bratton was compelled to ride as he was yet unable to walk.”

Thirty days later, the expedition reached the villages of the Nez Perce Indians, who they called the “Chopunnish Nation.” Here, in the vicinity of present day Kamiah, Idaho, they established a temporary campsite named “Camp Chopunnish.” During a delay of nearly a month waiting for the snow to melt along the Lolo Trail in the higher elevations of the Bitterroots, Shields suggested a “sweat house” treatment that would prove to cure the still ailing Private Bratton. As described by Lewis:

Shields sunk a circular hole of 3 feet diamiter and four feet deep in the earth. He kindled a fire in the hole and heated well, after which the fire was taken out [and] a seat placed in the center of the hole for the patient with a board at the bottom of his feet to rest on; some hoops of willow poles were bent in an arch crossing each other over the hole, on these several Blankets were thrown forming a secure and thick orning [awning] of about 3 feet high. The patient [Bratton] being stripped naked was seated under the orning in the hole and blankets well secured on every side. the patient was furnished with a vessell of water which he sprinkles on the bottom and sides of the hole and by that means creates as much steam or vapor as he could possibly bear.

During the treatment, Bratton was given “copius draughts” of strong tea horse mint tea, which intensified the patient’s perspiration. After about 20 minutes, Bratton was taken out of the pit and plunged into the icy water of today’s Clearwater River. The treatment was repeated, the patient wrapped in several blankets and allowed to cool gradually. To everyone’s delight, and as Lewis’s journal entry testifies, certainly to Shields’ credit, “This experiment was made yesterday; Bratton feels himself much better and is walking about today and says he is nearly free from pain.”

The Captains named two streams for John Shields. One, a branch of the Missouri which flows from the south into the Missouri a few miles below the Great Falls, is known today as Highwood creek. The second stream is a tributary of the Yellowstone River. Shields was with Captain Clark’s party during the return journey, exploring the upper Yellowstone to its confluence with the Missouri. Captain 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 the legacy of America’s epic transcontinental exploration.

Captain Lewis praised John Shields’ contributions to the success of the exploring enterprise in his evaluation of the men who accompanied him on the expedition, which he forwarded to the Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, on January 15, 1807. Lewis wrote: “John Sheilds (sic) 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 our guns, accoutrements, &c. and should it be thought proper to allow him something as a artificer, he has well deserved it.”

No record has been found that discloses whether favorable action was taken by Secretary Dearborn on Captain Lewis’s request.


  GM