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Were it not for Pvt. John Shields, the Corps of Discovery might not have survived its first winter on the Missouri River.

Image of an anvil.
John Shields made great use of an anvil like this to perform many blacksmithing functions as part of the Corps of Discovery.

Shields was one of three blacksmiths (along with Pvt. William Bratton and Pvt. Alexander Willard) with the Lewis and Clark expedition. During the frigid winter of 1805, the Corps stayed at Fort Mandan with the Mandan Indians. By Feb. 4, 1805, the Corps was out of meat. Hunting was difficult because of the conditions. Shields came to the rescue.

Using a forge and bellows the expedition had brought, Shields had set up shop at Fort Mandan. In exchange for corn, he fixed everything possible for the Mandans—hoes, axes, firearms. The problem was that by February he had pretty much fixed all he could. The need to find another service to trade for corn was obvious, especially since the Corps was about to run out of meat.

Shields thus became a frontier arms dealer. Not firearms—the captains would not supply the Indians with new guns. No, Shields found he could forge just as highly a prized possession—the battle ax. Meriwether Lewis didn't have much use for Shields' design, calling the blade too thin and too long, the handle too short, and the overall weight too light. Altogether, an "uncertain" weapon, Lewis declared.

No matter, the Indians loved it. Shields used a nearly burned-out stove for sheet iron. Other men cut timber to fire the kiln to increase production. Still, demand outpaced production.

The Corps and the Mandans agreed to a price: seven to eight gallons of corn for each piece of metal. Both sides thought they were getting a bargain.

Lewis praised Shields and his helpers:

"The blacksmiths take a considerable quantity of corn today in payment for their labour. the blacksmith's have proved a happy resoce to us in our present situation as I believe it would have been difficult to have devised any other method to have procured corn from the natives."


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