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Ebenezer Shields

The Shield's Family Black Sheep

Submitted by Martin Skubinna:

Quoted from A History of the Shields Family by John Edgar Shields, Triangle Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1961, pages 41-45.

Ebenezer Shields was the tenth child and eighth son of William and Jane Shields of Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Born in the middle years of the American Revolution, on Tuesday, December 22, 1778, at a time when his oldest brothers had already reached adulthood, his early life with his family was spent among surroundings and material comforts undoubtedly much improved over those which the older of his brothers and sisters had known. By the time of his birth, his father's success as a surveyor and entrepreneur in the development and subdivision of land had gained for the family a standing as one of the foremost in the area, and a mode of life which appear to have included most of the amenities then available.

Ebenezer was eighteen years of age when his father died in the summer of 1797. Three years later, in 1800, probate records of his father's estate indicate that he received his share of the cash proceeds of the estate, having attained his majority in December of the previous year.

Few sources exist which provide any details of Ebenezer's adult life. This is in part because the years in which he lived - the so-called National Period - were historically less eventful and produced much less of an archival record than had the Revolutionary years which preceded them or the Antebellum and Civil War periods which were to follow. (The War of 1812, essentially a series of naval engagements, had little impact on the residents of Appalachian Maryland; it does not appear that Ebenezer's life was in any way significantly touched by its events.)

What little is known of the career of Ebenezer, aside from that which has survived through oral family tradition, is that which may be adduced from his will, written five or six weeks before his death in 1837. From it, and from the confirmatory sources to which it leads, it is evident that he served for some years as an agent for his older brother John, executor of his father's estate, in the management of several of the Shields land holdings - including the William Shields portion of Carrollsburg and a tract known as Shields' Adventure - which remained unsold for at least four decades after William Shields death. This commission may have devolved to him by default, since by the time he had reached early middle age Ebenezer was apparently the only one of William Shields' children still residing in Frederick County.

There were, it should be noted, other members of the family resident in the area throughout the period of Ebenezer's adult life, although all were of the third generation. Two nephews, sons of his older brother William, attained sufficient prominence to be mentioned in later histories of the area. One, Jefferson Shields, became a doctor (as later also did his son John), and was an early member of the Emmitsburg Fire Company. Another, Maxwell, was an elder of Tom's Creek (later Emmitsburg) Presbyterian Church; he, several of his children, and Rebecca, identified as his "consort," are buried together in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Emmitsburg.

It appears that Ebenezer's standard of living and general economic situation, while by no means as substantial as that which had been attained by his father, and although he did not distinguish himself in any known professional field, was comfortable by the standards of his time. It is probably that he derived his livelihood principally from farming a plot of land which he had acquired in Emmitsburg - possibly from holdings once the property of his father - and from revenues realized from his administration of lands which were still an unliquidated part of his father's estate.

Perhaps the most prevalent impression of Ebenezer held by succeeding generations of his posterity is that of the family black sheep. He was, to be sure, the youngest son of a large and well-to-do family, child of his father's late middle age, and heritor of a prominent name and a portion of the family's land-based wealth - circumstances frequently associated with the role of the prodigal. If he was, indeed, the prodigal son, the traditional circumstances of prodigality were reversed, since all of his brothers and sisters ultimately left the region of their birth and upbringing, while Ebenezer remained on the family homestead to sow his "wild oats."

Ebenezer's reputation has been transmitted to posterity in part by a number of legends, several of which are still repeated in the Emmitsburg area:

  • 'On dark moonless nights the ghost of Ebenezer Shields may often be seen riding horseback up and down old route 15 south of Emmitsburg.' This story is generally delivered with inflections suggesting that Ebenezer was not some frightening headless horseman, but rather that he was busily engaged in his customary pastime of riding from one amatory appointment to the next.
  • 'Ebenezer gave all his legitimate children names beginning with the letter 'J' so he could distinguish them from the numerous other offspring he produced without benefit of clergy.' To be strictly technical, none of Ebenezer's children were legitimate by present-day standards. Additionally, his youngest known son whom he gave equal standing with the others named in his will, was called William.

A somewhat more accurate, although still confused, picture of Ebenezer's domestic arrangements (which appear to have been highly informal in nature) emerges from a reading of his will. In it he conveyed a portion of his estate to Margaret Morrison, who is described as his "housekeeper," and who is named as the mother of three children - John Henry Shields, Andrew Jackson Shields, and William Vanburen Shields. Ebenezer's will charges Margaret with maintaining a home for the above children and for Jefferson Shields, presumably an older child, identified as the son of one Rachel Robison.

It is known from accounts transmitted to his posterity by the writer's great-grandfather, John Henry Shields, that the above-named children were natural sons of Ebenezer. It does not appear likely, however, that Ebenezer ever entered into a formal marriage arrangement with either of the above-named women. The wording of his will, the absence of his name from records of marriage licenses issued (records which date, in Frederick County, from the early 1700s), and the known practices of the time and locale would all seem to confirm this conclusion.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that a detailed genealogical table maintained over the years by one or more of William Shields' descendants in Tennessee states simply that Ebenezer "did not marry." Although the statement is apparently quite accurate, it is - needless to say - somewhat misleading in the face of Ebenezer's considerable posterity living today.

Reference in Ebenezer's will to the four boys being "children by adoption" indicates, according to historians familiar with the period, simply that he acknowledged paternity and gave them his name. A search of both court and legislative records for the period of Ebenezer's adult life reflects no formal adoption proceedings; it is likely that the adoption referred to was completely informal in nature, in keeping with the custom of the time.

His common-law relationship with Margaret Morrison was apparently of long standing. The nature and duration of that with Rachel Robison, mother of his son Jefferson, is not known, although it would appear to have preceded the liaison with Margaret Morrison. In Ebenezer's tie, such relationships were quite common; in an area where few, if any, representatives of civil authority existed, those persons not belonging to an organized church (and church records of the time and locale do not reflect that Ebenezer held membership in any denomination) frequently had little recourse but to enter into marital relationships without benefit of formal ceremony.

In the case of Ebenezer, an additional factor may have been controlling. By the time he had reached maturity, most of his brothers and sisters had married, generally into families of equal or even greater prominence than that of the Shields.' It was not expected that offspring of a family belonging to the local aristocracy would indiscriminately bestow the family name upon individuals from families of markedly lesser standing. Despite the nascent democracy of frontier America, egalitarianism went only so far. Viewed in this light, Ebenezer's marital arrangements, rather than being an affront to his family and to prevailing morality, may well have been viewed as highly conventional under existing circumstances.

The impact of his pronounced individuality on his brothers and sisters is not known. To some of them, married to members of prominent Maryland families of the time, his apparent Sybaritic tendencies may well have been embarrassing; to others, already removed to Tennessee and only seldom in communication with those remaining in Maryland, his activities were quite likely matters of little concern. Ebenezer's agency for the unsettled portion of his father's estate suggests that he was not necessarily estranged from the remainder of the family; there is much to suggest, however, that he had little social contact with - and probably little in common with - most of his older brothers and sisters. It is of interest that the will of his mother, Jane Williams Shields, probated in 1806, names only her daughter Mary (Blair) and her son William; neither Ebenezer nor any of his other brothers or sisters is mentioned.

Of principal interest to Ebenezer's posterity, of course, is the question of the status of his children. Children of common-law unions in the early 1800s were generally considered as being inherently legitimate if the children - as were Ebenezer's - were reared in a family relationship in which no otherwise legal wife was involved, received their father's acknowledgement of paternity, and were given his name. Their legal status, in such case, was no different from that of children of unions which had been more formally contracted. Attendant stigma, if any, was essentially social in nature, since the religious ethic which dominated public attitudes among most residents of the area tended to view extra-church marriages and their issue as somewhat déclassé.

There is some evidence (and an insistent family tradition) that Ebenezer father children other than those named in his will, presumably by other women of the area. If this was indeed the case, they would have comprised an illegitimate line, even by the tolerant standards of the time, and would not have borne the Shields name. There is some indication in the records of the area that one or more such children, if they did exist, later may have adopted the family name. Evidence in this regard is inconclusive, however, and for purposes of this work any such descent is not regarded as a part of the line herein treated.

It is regrettable, but perhaps inevitable, that lacking such other details of Ebenezer's life as his physical description (a daguerreotype which, developed in Paris by 1829, had not reached the Maryland foothills by Ebenezer's time), or knowledge of his more conventional personality traits, the major emphasis of this chapter must necessarily focus upon those personal arrangements and relationships which, in the final analysis, represent only one small aspect of his total career.

Ebenezer Shields died on July 1, 1837, at the age of 58. Family tradition ascribes his demise to "summer pneumonia," although it is known from his will that for some months prior to his death he was in ill health, and very likely bedridden. The nature of his other debilities, if any, is not known. He is buried in the Shields family burial ground in Hampton Valley, west of Emmitsburg - the only one of William's eleven children known to have been buried in the family plot in which William Shields himself was interred.

Ebenezer's last consort, Margaret Morrison, is not believed to have survived him by many years; nothing is known, however, of the date or cause of her death or her place of burial.

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