Serendipity and Miss Floretta Shields

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:13 PM
“The scenery here is beautiful. the Ship Rock is about forty miles south of me, and on a clear day I see it quite plainly; then we have the Chimney rock about nine miles away. The Ute range is to our west.” – Floretta Shields

Serendipity, or “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for,” was sparked by this Montezuma Journal article, Aug. 31, 1897:

“Miss Floretta Shields, who recently located a homestead on a strip of land bordering the reservation, is having a house built and reservoirs made so that she can make it her permanent home. She expects soon to represent the Presbyterian Board of Missions, by government consent, as missionary and teacher for the (Ute) tribe.”

Just who was this previously unknown middle-age woman who dared to homestead a very dry 96 acres south of today’s County Road A and west of U.S.. 491/160 adjacent to the Ute reservation?

Floretta was born in Ohio in 1846 to William A. and Julia Shields, a family with nine children. In 1870 , the father died, and before 1880 they moved to Winfield, Kansas, where Floretta’s oldest brother was a successful businessman. Floretta Shields taught at the Normal School in Winfield and also studied with other young women in the Presbyterian missionary movement.

In 1884, Floretta joined the Office of Indian Affairs as a teacher at the Laguna, New Mexico pueblo, in the government’s attempts at assimilation of the Native peoples in order that they learn American customs, religions and values.

Floretta Shields’ appointment at Laguna pueblo was probably encouraged by distant Shields relatives, who for years served at the Jemez, New Mexico pueblo, some with a Rev. John Menaul. At Laguna, Floretta became assistant teacher with Rev. Menaul until 1892 then he removed to Albuquerque, where his brother Rev. James A. Menaul had founded and operated an Indian School. John Menaul published a variety of tracts and other Spanish literature until his printing office burned down. He then taught at Spanish language schools in the Albuquerque area and retired in 1904, moving with his missionary wife Charity to Hinton, Oklahoma. (We will revisit John Menaul later in Floretta’s story.)

Historical records are so far silent on Floretta’s activities between 1891 and 1897. When she came to Montezuma County the Southern Ute Reservation strip, ranging from Ignacio west to the boundary of Colorado, had been divided between those of the tribe who wished to have their own land allotments and those who did not. This left the Ignacio reservation on the east with the best land and water. In 1896 promises were made to the Ute Mountain tribe on the west that they would receive canals and irrigation water in the future for farming, stock raising, and family needs. Over four years later, still without water, the western Ute tribe’s people were left with no independent means to help themselves.

With her own money, Floretta Shields built the house she used for teaching, nursing the sick, sharing hymns and feeding the hungry. She also went upon the reservation where the Utes lived in their teepees, tents, and other rude shelters. Rather than working with the Ute headsmen, Floretta chose to help the young women of the tribe. They were resistant at first, never accepting her religious fervor, but eventually becoming open to her domestic assistance with clothing and other items for their children, many of which game as donations in barrels shipped from a variety of Presbyterian Home Mission groups in the east.

News of Floretta’s experiences in Montezuma County was often published in The Indian’s Friend, a monthly of the Women’s National Indian Association in Philadelphia. She was thankful for Eastern donations of “red outing flannel” and other fabrics used to cut out dresses, shirts, hoods and underwear for the reservation families whose clothing allotments were eliminated by the government agency in 1900. She rued her lack of resources, but appreciated the support from Indian Agent Joe Smith and his friend, Agency Trader Oen Edgar “Ed” Noland.

In 1900 Florence employed day laborer Charles S. Gabard, but otherwise received no local assistance for her causes. David Day, former Officer of Indian Affairs and later editor of the Durango Democrat, made sport of spinster Floretta’s evidently portly girth and alleged ambitions.

In 1901 Floretta established a Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for the Southern Ute reservation. The temperance lectures and publications were foreign to the tribal women, who did not appreciate the moral guidance. Shields then represented Colorado WCTU district and state committees and in 1904-1905 served as Superintendent of Indian Work.

In 1904 Floretta Shields received the official patent on her acreage south of Cortez. In 1906, at age sixty and in poor health, she retired and spent time visiting family. In late 1906 her friend and former teaching colleague, Rev. John Menaul, lost his wife in their Hinton, Oklahoma home. Menaul, also in poor health, made several trips with his daughter and in 1907 he and Floretta Shields were married in Winfield, Kansas. They returned to his Oklahoma home, where Rev. Menaul passed away in 1912. Floretta Shields Menaul returned to Winfield, where she spent several years in hospital and passed away in October, 1917.

Floretta had lived nine years among us here, but without a little “serendipity” we would not have known the story of the brave Floretta Shields Menaul. Wish List: A photograph of Floretta Shields.

Presented by the Montezuma County Historical Society, P.O. Box 218, Cortez CO 81321