Shields Family

Shields Family History

Selected History of the Shields Family

By: Dr. Martin L. Skubinna, Ph.D.

Source: Emmitsburg Area Historical Society (on-line)

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."

Irish / Scottish Origins

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).

We do have a connection to Scotland as well. Using DNA testing. we believe from the results that our family migrated across Europe and in the 400-600 CE came to the British Isles. We believe they moved Northward along the North Sea and into the lowlands of Scotland. Shields is a derivation of a word for a home or shelter. There are two towns on the Northeast coast of Great Britain named “South Shields” and “North Shields.” We also believe the family lived worked in the contested lowlands of Scotland and sometime around or just after 1609 they were part of King James’ plan to annex the Ulster province (Ulster Plantation) and populate it with Protestant people from Northern England and Scotland. The Shields lived in County Antrim then County Armagh until the family migrated to America in the mid 1700s. So, “Scots-Irish” is a term that would apply to the Shields family in America. At the time of the revolution, there were over 250,000 Scots-Irish in America and they pretty much tamed and settled all along the Appalachian valley/mountains.


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 Tyler Page.

James Shields

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, daughter of John Williams, 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.

Revoltionary 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.