Illustrious Roanokers, Part 1
Here’s the beginning of a series that features illustrious Roanokers of history. Typically these people are commemorated by street or place names that are familiar to us. So, let us begin with…
Doctor, Colonel, and Governor William Fleming (1727 – 1795)
Immortalized by the high school that bears his name, the honorable William Fleming was an early pillar of the Roanoke area. Here are some interesting facts about old Bill:
- Like most colonial era figures, Bill was born in the British Isles – Jedburgh, Scotland, to be precise.
- Among his early adventures, Bill survived the measles (no small feat back in the day), medical school, and capture by the Spanish while serving in the Royal Navy. Presumably to avoid further adventures, he decided to move to the uncharted wilds of Virginia.
- Once in America, Bill joined the British army as a surgeon and served in George Washington’s Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. During these years, he spent lots of time roaming the frontier of what is now Virginia and West Virginia, surviving skirmishes with French and Indians.
- After the war, Bill settled down in Staunton, where he practiced medicine and farming. He also got married and took in a three-year-old orphan boy. Prospering socially and financially, he then made the dubious choice to get involved in politics, becoming a local justice of the peace.
- To compensate for his poor decision, Dr. Bill then decided (around 1768) to move to the Roanoke area, establishing a settlement called Belmont, after which the Belmont district of Roanoke was later named. His actual residence was near Tinker Creek on the grounds of what is now the Ole Monterey Golf Course. During this time, Botetourt County was established, and Dr. Bill became a justice of the peace thereof. Dr. Bill, feeling homesick for the terrain and Italian food of Scotland, subsequently decided to open Highlanders Pizza, although the history books are a bit vague on this.
- More excitement followed. By 1774, tensions with the American Indians had developed into Lord Dunmore’s War, and Dr. Bill (now a Colonel) joined in the Battle of Point Pleasant, which was the culmination of a very sad chain of inciting events. In the battle, Colonel-Dr. Bill distinguished himself for his bravery. Shot twice, he continued to lead his men, until a third shot left him gravely wounded. The health effects of this wound (along with a musket ball in the chest) would remain with him for the rest of his life, ending his career as a surgeon and later preventing him from serving in the military during the Revolutionary War.
- However, during the War, he became increasingly politically active, serving as a member of the Virginia Senate and the Governor’s Council.
- It was during the War that Colonel-Dr. Bill accidentally became Governor Bill for a week. When British forces invaded Virginia in 1781, Governor Thomas Jefferson was forced to flee Richmond, and by the time the legislature finally met again, Jefferson’s term had expired. So Colonel-Dr. Bill, the senior member present, stepped in as acting governor for about a week, until the legislature elected a new one. He is now recognized as the third governor of Virginia.
- After the War, Governor-Colonel-Dr. Bill became a commissioner for Kentucky (then part of western Virginia), settling disputes and acting in various governmental capacities. He became instrumental in the process that led to the formation of Kentucky as a separate state. Bill’s final public act was to serve as a delegate to the Virginia convention that ratified the new Constitution in 1788.
- A few years later, in 1795, Governor-Colonel-Dr. Bill died at his home in Roanoke, and was buried in the family cemetery in the Hollins area. His headstone, next to that of his wife’s, can still be seen beyond the 18th hole at the Ole Monterey Golf Club. The graves are maintained by the local members of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.
- You may note that I’ve included no images of Bill. I, too, wish I knew what he looked like. However, I regret to say that no images seem to exist for public use.