Dr. Patrick Vance of Lexington, Virginia

The most striking story about Dr. Patrick Vance of Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia, is about scalped heads. It is a tiny bit of the story of this Tennessee Vance family but it is simply the best known piece. The earliest known mention of Dr. Patrick is actually in the Draper Manuscripts1

“Surgery and surgical instruments were of the most primitive kind on the early fron- tier. During the Christian campaign, while the men were quartered at Long Island, a Dr. Vance discovered a treatment for scalped persons. He bored holes in the skull in order to create a new flesh covering for the exposed bone. On being called away he taught James Robertson how to perform the operation. Frederick Calvit, a scalped patient, was brought in and Robertson had a chance to practice upon him—”he [Vance] bored a few holes himself, to show the manner of doing it.” He further declares: ‘I have found that a flat pointed, straight awl is the best instrument to bore with as the skull is thick and somewhat difficult to penetrate. When the awl is nearly through the instrument should be borne more lightly upon. The time to quit boring is when a reddish fluid appears on the point of the awl. I bore at first about one inch apart and as the flesh appears to rise in these holes I bore a number more between the first, etc. * * The scalped head cures slowly. It skins remarkably slow, generally taking two years.”

More information on that first appearance in Virginia is available in a history of Sullivan County, Tennessee: “Patrick Vance appointed third surgeon with pay of assistant” The footnote numbered two is the description above. That appointment line is from the orderly book of Camp Lady Ambler, Oct. 20, 1776, and is a detailed description of the Christian Campaign against the Cherokees that lasted until December of that year.2

Another account in James Robertson’s own words, from The Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 2, 1805, p. 273 reads:

“III. Remarks on the Management of the Scalped-Head. By Mr. James Robertson,  of Nashville, in the State of Tenessee. Communicated to the Editor, by Felix Robert- son, M. D., of the same place. In the year 1777, there was a Doctor Vance, about the Long-Islands of Holsten, who was there attending on the different garrisons, which were embodied on the then frontiers of Holsten, to guard the inhabitants against the depradations of the Cheerake-Indians. This Doctor Vance came from Augusta County, in Virginia. In March of the same year, Frederick Calvit was badly wounded, and nearly the whole of his head skinned.”

So according to both accounts, Dr. Patrick was on Long Island in the Holsten River which flows from Virginia into Tennessee. Long Island is at Kingsport and according to Wikipedia:

“The Long Island of the Holston River was an important site for the Cherokee, colonial pioneers, and early settlers of the region. The site was used as a staging ground for people following the Wilderness Road into Kentucky. It was a sacred council and treaty site among the Cherokee people. The Timberlake Expedition of 1761–1762 used it as its point of origin and return. It was from here that Daniel Boone, in 1775, began to clear the Wilderness Road, which extended through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.”4

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyman_Draper
  2. Taylor, Oliver, Historic Sullivan, a History of Sullivan County, Tennessee, with brief Biogra- phies of the Makers of History (Bristol, Tennessee: The King Printing Company, 1909), 65-66.
  3. https://books.google.com/books?id=GCgdAQAAMAAJ
  4. Long Island (Tennessee), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Island_(Tennessee), accessed 8 Oct