General James Robertson, Frontier Surgeon

by Jack Andrew Skipper.

The best known of the Middle Tennessee settlers who were scalped and lived to tell about it was David Hood, a colorful character at Fort Nashborough. He was admired for his knowledge of Bible verses and his sense of humor, which often involved wordplay. After a near-fatal Indian attack, during which he fooled his assailants by playing “possum,” he joked about “hoodwinking” his adversaries and giving up his hood but not his life, thanks to his “possuming.”

One day in the winter of 1781-1782, as Hood was coming from Freeland’s Station on his way home to Fort Nashborough, Hood encountered several unfriendly Indians, who fired their muskets at him (1). Attempting to outrun them, he concluded that his only chance of survival was to appear mortally wounded, so he fell into the weeds and snow as if dead. One account claims that he was shot with at least two musket balls (2). He was still alive, however, and somehow remained silent while they lifted his scalp. According to John Rains, another Nashborough resident, the knife they used was dull and required much work to do the deed. The Indians then walked toward Fort Nashborough in search of other victims.

Bloody and dazed, Hood struggled to his feet and started toward home, only to come face to face with the very same Indians on their return. They attacked him a second time, shooting him in the chest, and again left him for dead. The next day some of the settlers, following the trail of blood, found his still form lying in a brush pile. Believing he was dead, they carried him to an outbuilding at the fort to await burial.

Several ladies from the settlement, mourning the loss of yet another comrade, came to prepare Hood’s body for the funeral. No doubt they were saddened by the fact that this lighthearted pioneer was gone, leaving them without the cheer he had gladly provided. However, Hood began to move slightly! Astonished, they asked him if he was still alive. He whispered that he thought he could live if he were given half a chance. He was carried indoors, and James Robertson himself attended him, operating on his bare skull. In a short time Hood was walking about; by summer the beloved cooper was able to resume his trade.

In 1777, while living in the Watauga settlement, James Robertson had met a Dr. Vance from whom he learned a surgical technique for saving the lives of scalping victims. Vance, a physician visiting the Holston settlements from Augusta County, Virginia, was treating Frederick Calvit, who had been scalped in March of that year (3). Needing to attend to other settlers, the doctor taught Robertson to perform the surgery. Robertson finished what Vance had started on Calvit. The procedure allowed new skin to grow over the bare skull bone, thus preventing the skull deterioration which often took the lives of scalping victims who had survived their attacks.

Robertson utilized the Vance method on several patients, including David Hood at Fort Nashborough. Using an awl, he drilled numerous holes in Hood’s skull. Apparently, this process was relatively painless. Tissue from inside the skull (we assume not brain matter) would issue from the holes, spread over the skull, and prevent deterioration. Some of the new membrane would turn into black scales, which would be removed. The flesh would be treated regularly with ointment and a layer of lint until it cured.

David Hood lived for many years after being scalped. No doubt his deep faith and rich sense of humor assisted him in his recovery and subsequent longevity. James Robertson, in providing this service to his fellow settlers, once again proved to be invaluable to those he led into the wilderness of Middle
Tennessee (4).


(1) A. W. Putnam, History of Middle Tennessee, pp. 153-155.
(2) “Boy Born, Man Scalped, 3 Slain in One Day,” by Ed Huddleston, Nashville Banner, April 17, 1956, p. 7.
(3) Benjamin Smith Barton, M.D., ed. “Remarks on the Management of the Scalped-Head,” by James Robertson (as communicated to the editor by Felix Robertson, M.D., April 10, 1806)The Philadelphia Medical And Physical Journal, Vol. II, 1806, pp. 27-30.
(4) “James Robertson Was Pioneer and Patriarch,” by Robert H. White, state historian, Nashville Tennessean, July 12, 1957, “Visitor’s Corner.”

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