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Four Years at the Mount

Sophomore year

Family History

Carolyn Shields

(July, 2011) My family of six were in Williamsburg for the weekend two years ago, and we stopped at one of the historically preserved pubs: Shields Tavern. The past and future seemed to collide as my father quizzed William Shields the reenactor about the Shields’ family history. My family's records begin somewhere in the late 16th century in Ireland, with ancestral claims going back to Celtic times in 500 B.C. I seriously do not know how reliable those claims are, and sometimes the past reads too much like a story to be believable, but that's what history is: His Story.

I suppose our story starts during the Commonwealth Period when the four Shields Brothers take the scene... The two eldest, William and James, were exiled to Barbados because they defied Cromwell's rule. In Barbados, they took passage on a slave ship to Virginia and ended up in Williamsburg. While James headed north to Baltimore, William established our pub and his descendants filled the South, one of whom became a president: John Tyler.

While James was in Baltimore, his younger brother set his own journey to America, but he passed away on the ocean voyage, but his son (James's nephew), William, helped William Emmit lay the town and bought 106 acres in the Catoctin area. Our early ancestors were not too creative with their name choices if you haven't noticed yet. This same William became a captain in the American Revolution and at one time served under the direct command of Washington. Cool.

So if that isn't beautiful enough, one of our ancestors is a local legend that's been forgotten. His name itself screams 'ghost story': Ebenezer Shields was William's son whose ghost can be seen riding up and down Route 15 on moonless nights, delivering messages for the war.

There are others in our family who go beyond local history. John Shields, was the official scout and gunsmith described in the pages of Lewis and Clark's journals. His brother, David Shields was an active participant in the Underground Railroad, assisting slaves on the journey north. His brother, About thirty years later, a certain Abraham Lincoln was on his way to a little island off the Mississippi River to do mortal combat with James Shields. A few hundred spectators crowded round to watch the two senators battle it out, not with pistols but with swords, to end a dispute about Lincoln's involvement with Shields's negative image on the public. Within minutes of the start of the duel, their seconds resolved the issue.

The other branches of my family tree, the Gelwicks and Rosensteels and Reavers and Wivells, all intertwine to form a community. St. Anthony's Shrine was built by my mother's family and was attended by my father's. My maternal grandmother, being one of twenty children in the notorious Wivell clan, created a family of over 500 souls. We even have pretty cool codenames to decipher us. I'm 12-5-2.

But to add some seriousness here, all families have been touched by hardship, hit with war, troubled with disputes, and ruined by selfishness. Through God's grace, my family has endured over the years purely through faith in something larger than us, something worth fighting for. When Cromwell was ravaging Ireland, I like to believe that Catholic William and James held God in their hearts through their defiance of a stifling English rule. And beneath my father's desert BDU in the skies of Iraq was a miraculous medal, next to a heart filled with love for my family.

I wonder if William Shields ever realized that his descendants would never leave that valley for two hundred years, that his great grandson (my father) would play in Tom's Creek like his sons did, and like the Tom's Creek Hundred who saw action under his command in the American Revolution, would go off to fight in a war. I wonder if William knew that his future granddaughter would attend a university on that mountain and would go off to study in the country from which he was exiled. I wonder if William knew his family would cling to their Catholic faith through the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and every war that passed as the Shields remained nestled on the mountain side, nurtured by mountain laurel, a grotto and a community as strong as it was two hundred years ago.

To end in the words of Switchfoot, "It’s not an accident we’re here tonight. We are once in a lifetime." We are in this era, this decade, this time for a reason. It’s not accident. We are meant to live now.

Read other articles by Caroline Shields