The story of the Shields-Ethridge Farm begins at the close of the 18th century, a few years after the area was ceded by the Native population and opened to American settlement. In 1798, Joseph Shields and his son Patrick, recent arrivals from Virginia, purchased adjacent tracts of land in Jackson County. By 1802, they had settled on their land; Joseph had acquired 398 acres and Patrick owned 218 acres. At first, tobacco was their commercial crop, but by 1818 the farms were also producing cotton. In that year most of the area was still a wilderness according to Andrew Jackson, who traveled through it in an effort to maintain peace between the settlers and the Native Americans. The clearance of land for farming required a great deal of labor, and this encouraged settlers to have large extended families and to acquire an enslaved workforce. In the 1820 census, James Shields who had succeeded his father and older brother as head of the family reported a household that in addition to his wife, mother, and four children, included three of his brother’s children and seven enslaved workers.
Once cleared, fields on this ‘upcountry’ farm were used to grow a variety of crops including cotton, corn, wheat, oats, beans, and sweet potatoes. Livestock including cattle, sheep, horses, mules, and pigs were an important part of the enterprise. The farm expanded under James’s supervision and with this growth came an increase in the slave population. In the 1850s, James began to sell tracts of land to his sons, William and Joseph Robert, and in the 1860 census father and sons reported a total of 20 enslaved workers – a large number for an upcountry farm.