By Jan Lawrence
Reems Creek’s first physician was Robert B. Vance. Vance was the youngest member of the large family of Western North Carolina pioneer David Vance who settled in the Reems Creek Valley. He was born in 1794, two years after his father and others were successful in forming Buncombe County. His parents were David Vance (1750-1811) and Priscilla Brank (1756-1836). He would have been the uncle of Zebulon Baird Vance.
He was a striking man who suffered an illness in childhood; some thought it to be polio. It left him crippled, with one leg shorter by six inches than the other. Vance attended Newton Academy located on Biltmore Avenue across the street from Mission Hospital and then studied medicine under Dr. Charles Harris in Cabarrus County. Dr. Harris, an uncle to Dr. Battle of Asheville, educated almost 100 physicians in his proprietary school. Dr. Vance began practicing medicine in 1818 but found it difficult with his disability so only practiced for three years.
He won $5,000 in a lottery in 1821 and had received his share of his father’s estate in 1811, which amounted to a fortune in the 1820s so he bought an extensive library and retired. Abandoning medicine, he entered politics and was initially successful.
The Congressman from his district, Felix Walker (who inspired the phrase ‘bunch of bunk’), saw his own popularity at a decline. Vance was encouraged to run against Walker by many as well as his close friend, Samuel P. Carson, of Burke County. Carson was a member of the State Legislature. He was elected, and by the end of his first term in Congress, Vance had won the respect of most of the members of the house.
In 1825 Carson decided to run for Congress against his friend Robert B. Vance. Friends became enemies, and Carson won the election. Vance invited friends to meet in Asheville and announced he was going to run against Carson in 1827. Bitter words were spoken during the election. Finally, Carson told Vance that if it weren’t for “diminutive size” he would make him pay for his “vile utterances.” Vance replied: “You are a coward and fear to do it.”
Robert Vance believed because Carson had refused to challenge him after he called him a coward, it proved he was a coward and would refuse to fight. Vance then held a second meeting of his friends in Asheville. He and his friends decided to attack the character of Carson’s father, Col. John H. Carson.
The attempt to slander Samuel P. Carson and his family backfired, and Carson defeated Vance by a three to one margin in the 1827 race for Congress. After the election Col. Carson wrote Vance a letter describing Vance as ill-natured and abusive and challenging to a duel. Vance responded that he could have no altercation with a man of his age, but certainly, some of his chivalrous sons might protect him from insult.
Carson was furious and sent General Alney Burgin to Asheville to see Vance. He asked which of Col. Carson’s sons he had alluded to. Vance replied, “Sam knows well enough I meant him.” General Burgin delivered the challenge, and it was accepted. Samuel P. Carson wrote Robert B. Vance a letter challenging Vance to a duel dated September 12, 1827.
Dueling was illegal in North Carolina, so it was scheduled for November 5, 1827, at Saluda Gap on the NC-SC line. The duel took place and ended with Carson sending a ball entirely through Vance’s body. He died 32 hours after receiving his wound. Thus ended the life of Reems Creek’s first physician.
Editor’s note: This is part one in a series of five on doctors from the Weaverville area.