The major Shields family in America today is chiefly of Irish origin and can probably lay
claim to having ancestry in Ireland dating back to the time of the initial Celtic invasions -- sometime between 500
and 1000 B.C. As one member of the Shields family from Georgia expressed it, "We Shields' are Irish, nothing but
Irish, and damn proud of it. There is no family any better, and very few as good."
The original migrating generation of the Shields family to America appears to have been the
sons of a family member who lived at the turn of the 17th century in County Antrim, Ireland. County Antrim is "on
the shores of Lough Neagh," adjacent to Belfast, and the largest lake in the British Isles. William Shields, born at
some time between 1590 and 1600, fathered four sons of whom we have record. He may well have fathered daughters as
well, but we know only of the sons - as many genealogical records from this period often mention female offspring
only in passing or omit them entirely. These were: William (born 1630); James (born 1633); Daniel and John (born
apparently in the early 1640s and presumed by other circumstances to have been significantly younger than the two
older Shields sons).
The two elder Shields offspring seem to have been involved in the roundups and deportation
of young Irish men during the Commonwealth Period (1653-1659) under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Their principal
offense was the fact that they were Irish. Accounts report the family was greatly harassed, and younger sons were
kept in concealment for much of their youth. This suggests that, for whatever reasons, the Shields' were in
particular disfavor with Cromwell and the "Roundheads."
Family histories and tradition hold that these two older Shields brothers, William and
James, were both exiled while in their early twenties to Barbados in the West Indies. At this time, during the
middle 17th century, Barbados was an important British trading center
and had a greater European population than the
entire North American mainland. How they survived their exile we do not know, but family history is agreed that
within less than two years they managed to take passage via a slave ship to Virginia, arriving around 1655 at Middle
Plantation, the site of present-day Williamsburg.
The subsequent histories of these two Shields brothers is extensively chronicled, chiefly in
books by the late John Arthur Shields, the late John Edgar Shields, and other descendant members of the resultant
family lines. Other accounts exist which connect these two Shields immigrants with the two younger sons of William
1600, the youngest of whom, John Shields (ca. 1640), was the progenitor of the line which is the subject of this
compilation. To treat with their careers and descent in a very summary manner:
William Shields (1630)
A few years after the arrival of the two Shields brothers to Middle Plantation, James
migrated northward to the port of Baltimore. He subsequently located in Kent County, Maryland. William, meanwhile,
remained in Williamsburg. William became the owner and operator of Shields Ordinary, a noted inn and tavern of the
day. The tavern is noted occasionally in constabulary records, as one assumes for occasional breaches of the peace.
Shields Tavern has been restored within the past two decades as one of Colonial Williamsburg's historical points of
interest and informal dining establishments, and has become a popular stop on tours of the restoration.
William became the progenitor of a lengthy family line. Later generations migrated elsewhere
in Virginia, to the river settlements in North Carolina, and ultimately into Indiana Territory around 1800. Various
genealogical works treat with the resultant lines which, collectively, are sometimes referred to as "the
Williamsburg line." Among prominent Americans in this branch of the family were President John Tyler, and William
From a Malthusian standpoint, James Shields was probably responsible for a greater portion
of the Shields family in America than any other member of an immigrant generation. His own descent is not fully
known, but included a son, William, born in 1668 at Kent County, Maryland. He died in 1741, at Augusta County,
Virginia, while helping one of his sons build a cabin. This William Shields married Jeannette Parker and fathered
five children: James "The Cordwainer" Shields, Jane Shields (did not marry), Thomas Shields, Eliza Shields
(Hathaway), and John Shields (born in 1709). The three sons migrated to Augusta County, Virginia and became major
landowners, farmers, surveyors, and shoemaker/leatherworkers (cordwainer) in the Beverly Manor portion of the huge
Borden Tract which included much of the central Shenandoah Valley.
John Shields, above, included among his children a Robert Shields (1740) who married Nancy
Stockton. This family, which later migrated farther south in present-day Pigeon Forge, consisted of ten sons and a
daughter. Known as the "family of the Ten Brothers," all lived to maturity and fathered what in most instances were
large families. Many of the Ten Brothers migrated to Indiana Territory about 1800. Among this group were David "Big
Dave" Shields, a man of great strength and equally great compassion. In his later years he was active in the
Underground Railway, helping slaves escape to freedom in the North. Another of the Ten Brothers was John Shields,
official scout and gunsmith of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Ten Brothers family built Shields Fort on
Middle Creek in Sevier County, Tennessee, at the foot of Shields Mountain.
Major William Shields
William Shields was the son of the John Shields who died on the ocean voyage to America. He
was born in County Armagh on July 14, 1728. Certain basic particulars of his early life and emigration to America
were handwritten in a family Bible presented to William Shields II in January 1796 and subsequently given by him to
his daughter, Jane Shields Hunter, and comprise a basic family history of this line.
A note about orthography is in order. The spelling of most English words did not become
standardized in the language until the appearance of Noah Webster's first dictionary in the early 19th century. Both
common and proper nouns, in particular, were spelled in widely variant ways. In William Shields' hand-written will,
he spells his own family name three different ways. In consequence, until roughly the mid-nineteenth century,
spelling variations in the family name did not necessary denote different family lines, but simply the inconsistency
which characterized much spelling during earlier periods.
The wording of the above Bible account suggests that William arrived in America by himself.
But this does not appear to be the case. He was, indeed, an orphan as orphan hood was then defined - the loss of a
father - but so were his sister(s) and brother(s) as well. The Bible account, written some 60 years after the event,
was focused on William Shields, not the other members of his family. There is a substantial record which strongly
suggests that his mother, one or more sisters, as well as at least one, and probably several older brothers were
also part of the immigrant party. There was a James Shields associated with William Shields during the yearly years
of the American Revolution who clearly was not his son James (although both sons James and John did serve with their
father), but was quite possibly his older brother. A second probable brother was named David, who married a Nesbitt,
and concerning whom a genealogical record exists which suggest a family connection with William.
By profession, William Shields was a surveyor who, his role, if any, in helping
William Emmit lay out his
new town is lost in history.
What we do know is that in 1787 he purchased 106 acres just to the west of
William’s new town, upon the northern tip of which he laid out what became know as Shield’s Addition to Emmitsburg.
With his wife, the Welsh widow Jane Williams Bentley,
William fathered eleven children over a 28-year period, all born at the family plantation south and west of the town
of Emmitsburg. The area comprised what was in the mid-eighteenth century the Appalachian frontier.
During the French and Indian War period, it was an area
not unknown to Indian raids - fomented by the French - on the Frederick County settlers.
Revolutionary War Service
By the outbreak of the American Revolution, William's older sons had reached adulthood, and
several (John and James to our certain knowledge, and possible one or more others) served with him in the
Frederick County Military Company which he organized
and commanded as a Captain. His later Revolutionary career included service with the Continental Army as a
Major in a regiment organized by a member of the prominent Maryland Goldsborough family.
Major Shields is believed to have participated in several important early engagements of the
Revolutionary War, most notably the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, Long Island on August 27, 1776 and the Battle of
White Plains, New York on October 28, 1776. During these confrontations, his company served in the Continental Line
under direct command of General George Washington during the period of his majority in the later stages of the war.
Death, Will and Estate
In the 1780s and 1790s, a number of William's children began to migrate to East Tennessee,
where they joined a number of their cousins who were descended from James (1633), the Cromwell deportee. By 1797,
the year of William's death at age 69, only the youngest few of his children appear still to have been at home.
William's will and estate inventory, as well as Maryland land records in Annapolis, indicate
a substantial and comfortable lifestyle that was exceptional on the frontier. His possessions included a number of
books, chiefly religious and cartographic in nature, a copper still, many furnishings and personal possessions; and
seven slaves, whom he bequeathed to his wife and older sons.
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