The European settlement of North Carolina’s piedmont took place primarily in the mid-eighteenth century, when Scotch-Irish and German migrants, travelling south from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other points north, passed through the Shenandoah River Valley of Virginia and entered the wide, thinly-settled region of North Carolina that lay between the seemingly inhospitable mountains to the west and the already well-developed coastal plain to the east.
The settlers found a gently rolling, fertile plateau, very different from the state’s low-lying coastal wetlands. “Its limestone and clay soils supported forests and grasslands,” and, although “its swift-flowing, shallow streams and narrow rivers were not good for boat traffic . . . they offered excellent sites for mills and farms” (Learn NC). English colonists from the eastern part of the state had not settled here, in part, because passage up the rivers that flow into the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, like the Tar and Neuse, was impeded by a fall line running, more or less, along today’s I-95. The main rivers of the piedmont, meanwhile, like the Yadkin and Catawba, flow toward the South Carolina rather than the North Carolina coast. For these reasons, the settlers of North Carolina’s broad middle came mainly from the north rather than the east.
Two backcountry roads were vital to that settlement. The Great Indian Trading Path ran diagonally across the piedmont, roughly along today’s I-85, connecting present-day Mecklenburg County, NC, with Petersburg, Virginia. It can be seen in this detail from Edward Moseley’s 1733 map of North Carolina.
The second road used by settlers was the Great Wagon Road, which ran from Pennsylvania through Virginia (along today’s I-81) and into North Carolina, where one spur continued on into Georgia (Learn NC). It can be seen in this detail from the famous 1751 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia.
Immigrants from the north began arriving in NC as early as the 1730s. They found a land “abounding in game,” its streams “stocked with fish,” and “its flowery meadows” affording pasturage for cattle (Rumple 52). News of this bounty spread, and soon great numbers were making the trek. “The country is in a flourishing condition,” wrote one colonist in 1752, “the western parts settling very fast” (The Way We Lived). Settlers came in such numbers that six new counties were created in NC’s piedmont between 1746 and 1763; it was growth in this region that accounted for the doubling of the colony’s population between 1765 to 1775 (Learn NC). (In this short animation from Learn NC, you can see the eighteenth century formation of North Carolina’s western counties.)
Several groups settled the NC piedmont: German-speaking Lutherans and Moravians from Pennsylvania, English-speaking Quakers from Pennsylvania, and Baptists from Virginia. There were also substantial numbers of African-Americans, most of whom came to the area involuntarily. (Native Americans had already been pushed to less desirable parts of the state, from which they would later be moved again.) But the largest group of migrants to the North Carolina piedmont was the Scotch-Irish (a.k.a. the Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots), “people whose ancestors originated in Scotland but who lived in Ireland, sometimes for several generations, before emigrating to America” (Garstka). Between 1690 and 1700, some 50,000 Scots, most of them devotedly Presbyterian, emigrated to Ulster; but by the early eighteenth century, they were objecting to their treatment in Anglican northern Ireland and were also suffering from drought and disease there. For these reasons, many emigrated to North America. James Leyburn has estimated that 250,000 Scotch-Irish migrants sailed to America between 1717 and 1775 (Garstka) (John Kerr Fleming puts the number at twice that ). Many made their way to religiously tolerant Pennsylvania; but when they found that colony filling up, they headed south, down the Wagon Road, to North Carolina, settling especially the region between the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers. In one piedmont NC town in the mid-eighteenth century, “more than a thousand Scotch-Irish wagons passed through” one winter (qtd. in Fleming 3-4).
What kind of world did the newcomers create?
On small farms these Scotch-Irish settlers grew corn for home use and wheat and tobacco for use and for export. They raised livestock and drove them in large numbers to northern markets. Settlers built stores, gristmills, sawmills, and tanneries. Blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, potters, rope makers, wagon makers, and wheelwrights established many local industries. Brewers, distillers, weavers, hatters, tailors, and others practiced their trades either in isolated homes or in shops in towns. (Learn NC)
They also developed towns, like Salisbury, NC, established in 1753 where the Great Wagon Road and the Indian Trading Path crossed. It became the seat of the new Rowan County.
To read the stories of these backcountry settlements is to hear echoes of other migration narratives from eighteenth and nineteenth century North America. Like Abraham Lincoln’s New Salem, the new communities in piedmont North Carolina provided immense opportunities for ambitious young men and women to make something of themselves. The settlers farmed the land, of course, but they also built roads and other means of transport and trade with seemingly inexhaustible energy. And they displayed a nearly indomitable commitment to democratic self-government.
But the Scotch-Irish who settled the piedmont of North Carolina in the eighteenth century differed from other groups peopling the North American continent in two important ways. First, they were unusually devoted to their churches. This copy of a 1773 map locates families in what is today Iredell County, NC, by situating them in reference to Fourth Creek Presbyterian Church, today’s First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.
Second, though this would seem to conflict with the religious piety just noted, the Scotch-Irish in NC accommodated themselves surprisingly quickly to the most distinctive feature of the economic system of their new neighbors: human slavery.
It was my sister-in-law who first turned my attention to Rowan County. I knew my father’s family had some connection to a small town, called Woodleaf, in the western part of the state. But my grandfather, John Giles Fleming, had left that town as a young man, in the 1920s, marrying a woman named Bessie Gray Dixon from Elm City, a small, sandy town in eastern North Carolina, joining her Methodist church, and raising my father and his two siblings in nearby Greenville, a river town known mainly as a tobacco export center. John G. Fleming died in 1965, just a few years after I was born, so my memories of my father’s family are dominated by his mother, whose life was firmly anchored in eastern NC – in places like Elm City, Wilson, Greenville, Smithfield, and Rocky Mount – the world where my father grew up. We eventually ended up in Raleigh, just on the other side of the fall line, but our extended family was all to the east of us. I don’t remember ever going to Woodleaf – or even hearing much about it.
Until, that is, around 2006. That’s when my brother’s wife began looking into our family’s history before John G., a journey that took her west, to Rowan County in the North Carolina piedmont. Why did she put so much more energy into studying our family history than we ever did? Perhaps she wanted her two sons to know something of their Fleming forbears. For whatever reason, Julie uncovered a wealth of information about our family’s past. I was astonished by what she discovered, by how deep it seemed to go, and by how little I had known of it before.
The basic story, at least in terms of the male line, and at least going back to the late eighteenth century, is relatively easy to tell. My grandfather John Giles Fleming (1900-1965) grew up in Woodleaf, NC, a small town in Unity Township in northwest Rowan County. His father, Nathan Neely Fleming (1858-1929), had settled there sometime in the 1890s, perhaps to be near the family of his new wife, Mary Rosa Wetmore, whom he had married in 1888 at the age of 30. They had six children: four before John G. – Neely, Mary, Margaret, and Rosana – and one after – Robert. After Mary Rosa died in 1909, Nathan re-married and had several more children. In any case, John G. did not suffer from a lack of siblings. I’ve seen a photograph of him and Robert, handsome and athletic, on the Woodleaf High baseball team and another of the two boys with their older brother and three sisters, all of them beautiful and lively-looking. There were obvious pleasures in this small-town world, but John G. left it as a young man and headed east – I imagine for opportunity. As for his father, Nathan Neely Fleming stayed in Woodleaf until his death in 1929 at age 71, when he was buried in the cemetery of Unity Presbyterian Church.
Small as Woodleaf was, and as little as I knew about it growing up, the place where my great grandfather Nathan Neely Fleming came from was even smaller and more obscure. He was born, in 1858, near a small crossroads called Mount Vernon in Scotch-Irish Township. This was an intensely rural part of northwest Rowan County, watered by two tributaries of the South Yadkin River, called Third and Fourth Creeks, apparently because they were the third and fourth creeks one crossed when heading west from Salisbury.
The history of this part of NC, in fact, is the history of these creeks, the Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled them, and the churches they built there.
Among the oldest of those churches is Thyatira Presbyterian Church (formerly Cathey’s Meeting House), established at the headwaters of Second Creek sometime in the 1740s, the oldest Presbyterian church west of the Yadkin River and sometimes called “the Mother of Presbyterianism in North Carolina.” A few miles northwest of Thyatira is Fourth Creek Presbyterian Church, founded in 1750 and renamed First Presbyterian Church of Statesville in 1875 (this is the congregation depicted by William Sharpe in the 1773 map above). Situated between Second and Fourth Creek churches is Third Creek Presbyterian, officially established in what is today Cleveland, NC, in 1792, although there was apparently an outdoor preaching stand here by the mid eighteenth century and a log house of worship by 1775 (the oldest gravestone in the church cemetery dating from 1776), all on land donated by Scotch-Irish settler Samuel Young.
Although I’d never heard of it until I was in my mid-40s, Third Creek Presbyterian Church figured prominently in the nineteenth century life of my family. As the 1983 nomination to list the church in the National Register of Historic Places puts it, “The church is associated with the lives of a large number of prominent planters and leaders of Rowan County, including members of the Wood, Fleming, Graham, Knox, Steele, Young, Kerr, Luckey and Phifer families” (6). As a younger man, my great grandfather Nathan Neely Fleming was an elder and clerk of the session at Third Creek before he moved his growing family to Woodleaf and joined Unity Church. His father, the first John Giles Fleming, my great great grandfather, was a deacon of Third Creek church and is buried there. His father Robert Nesbit Fleming, my great great great grandfather, was an active member, contributing $10 to its building fund in 1833.
By that time, the Scotch-Irish settlement along Third Creek in Rowan County, NC, was prosperous enough, and the old log church on Sam Young’s former property unsatisfactory enough, that the congregation made plans to build a more substantial and permanent place of worship. In September, 1833, a church committee, armed with a list of 103 members pledging together nearly $1,500, formally contracted “for the building of a brick Church at Third Creek of the following dimensions, viz: The house to be built fifty-five by forty, and sixteen feet high, the house to be completed in a plain but workman-like manner, with a sufficient number of doors and windows for such a house” (2). The plan was a good one: the church’s “plain but workman-like” construction has helped it survive to this day. In fact, Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Rowan County is said to be the oldest continually used rural church in North Carolina. And though it’s an aesthetically unassuming structure, its elegance becomes more and more evident the more time you spend with it and the more you learn about it.
Here’s the church today as seen in Google Maps street view:
It was here, along tributaries of the South Yadkin River in the North Carolina piedmont that my Fleming ancestors established themselves more than two hundred years ago. The lives of Nathan Neely Fleming (1858-1929), John Giles Fleming (1823-1885), and Robert Nesbit Fleming (1786-1841), my great grandfather, great great grandfather, and great great great grandfather, together spanned the entire nineteenth century, their lives spent for the most part in this single farming community along Third and Fourth Creeks in northwest Rowan County, NC. Their stories, I would discover, intertwined intricately with the stories of other families in the area, as they and their neighbors farmed their land, raised their children, developed their church, and participated in the democratic life of their growing township, county, state, and nation.
After my sister-in-law began uncovering all this information, I started doing my own research about the Flemings of Rowan County. After finding numerous references to John Kerr Fleming’s Historic Third Creek Presbyterian Church (Raleigh, 1967), I ordered a copy of the book and read it cover-to-cover; it remains, for me, the single most important source on the history of this community. Written by a man who grew up in the area (he was my grandfather’s cousin), it gave me a deeper, richer sense of the place, its first European settlers, and the world they built together.
Then, in the summer of 2007, while living in Massachusetts, I traveled down to the NC piedmont with my teenaged daughters Carmen and Isabel. Driving around northwest Rowan County, we walked through graveyards, rode down country roads, peered inside church doors. It was an often rewarding, sometimes exciting, but ultimately vague pursuit: every minute of that trip, I was either fascinated, frustrated, curious, or all three – but I was also constantly, and profoundly, lost. Where exactly was I? What was I looking at? Did it have any connection to my family? Was it here two hundred years ago? And, finally, what was I doing in this place? Even as the documents Julie sent me and the words John Kerr Fleming wrote came (partially) to life, I realized how much I didn’t know – how much I might never know.
Still, there were chapters of the Rowan County narrative that seemed to feed me intellectually and emotionally. There was, for example, the story of Jacob Krider. Born in 1788 in Pennsylvania, Krider came down the Wagon Road as a boy, settling with his family in Salisbury, NC, in the early nineteenth century. Captain of a local militia unit in the War of 1812, in 1813 he founded a periodical, the North Carolina Magazine, Political, Historical, and Miscellaneous. Although it soon failed, Krider stayed busy: he married in 1815, joined a Presbyterian church in Salisbury in 1816, and in 1817 helped found the town’s first fire company. Then, in 1820, along with Lemuel Bingham, he launched the Western Carolinian, a four-page weekly periodical that ran for nearly 25 years, becoming one of the most influential newspapers in the state and the first successful one in the western counties.
Krider, however, sold his interests in the venture soon after starting it, opting for a quieter life in the country. In 1822, he purchased 400 acres of land on the north bank of Fourth Creek, in northwest Rowan County, at a crossroads called Mount Vernon, and built a home there that stands today. The location was not random; Krider’s wife Sarah (“Sallie”) Wood, whom he had married seven years earlier, was the daughter of a prominent Third Creek Church family. From the 1820s to the 1870s, the home they built together was practically synonymous with Mount Vernon itself. It was the local post office (and Krider, the local postmaster), and it served as a general store for the neighborhood. In addition, when Sarah Wood’s father died in 1829 and left his grist and saw mills to her, Krider’s Mount Vernon holdings included a profitable business as well. On top of all that, he ran a large farm here; by 1860, he owned 640 acres, 300 of them under cultivation.
It’s not surprising, then, that Jacob Krider became an influential member of the Third Creek Church. In 1833, he was chair of the building committee, which, as we’ve seen, contracted for the construction of the brick house of worship that still stands today; Krider himself donated $100 to the building fund. In 1842, he became an elder in the church and remained one until his death in 1874 at the age of 86, Sallie living on until 1880. They’re buried in the Third Creek Church cemetery.
The connection to me? Jacob Krider and his wife Sarah Wood Krider were the parents of Margaret Krider Fleming, the wife of the first John G. Fleming; and so they were also my great great great grandparents.
Research into my family history in Rowan County also uncovered deep connections to Davidson College, the small Presbyterian liberal arts school in Mecklenburg County which I attended from 1979 to 1983 and from which I graduated with an A.B. in English in 1983. Although Davidson was a huge part of my life for four years, I never knew that anyone in my family had gone there before me, or that a small rural church in Rowan County would turn out to be crucial in the nineteenth century development of both my family and my college. In fact, the early years of Davidson College are intimately bound up with the story of Third Creek Presbyterian Church; and Flemings, Kriders, and Woods show up repeatedly in both narratives.
As John Kerr Fleming tells the story, several Third Creek Church members were instrumental in the founding of Davidson College in 1837. Two members of the college’s original Board of Trustees were Third Creek men: Rev. James M. H. Adams and Ruling Elder William B. Wood (Sarah Wood Krider’s brother), the latter contributing $100 to the College’s founding (and an equal amount in 1833 to the Third Creek Church building fund). In addition, Third Creek son Mortimer Davidson Johnston was a member of the original Davidson College faculty; and Abel Graham, a Third Creek elder, became the College’s first steward, overseeing the boarding house, farm, and manual labor program. Finally, six of the College’s first 103 students were Third Creek boys; William H. Johnston and Pinckney Brown Chambers in the Class of 1840; and William M. Johnston, William H. Krider (brother of Margaret Krider, future wife of the first John G. Fleming), James Graham Ramsay, and Daniel Burton Wood (William B. Wood’s son) in the Class of 1841. (Daniel Burton Wood’s name would show up again and again in the research I did on my family’s roots in Rowan County. Among other connections, his aunt Sallie was my great great great grandmother, and his daughter Lillie would marry my great grandfather’s brother, William Krider Fleming.)
Daniel Burton Wood’s brother, William A. Wood (soon to be Rev. Wood), also attended Davidson. As did fellow Third Church members and future ministers Robert Zenas Johnston and Barnabas Scott Krider (another brother of Margaret Krider), who would one day be pastor at Thyatira Church. Two generations later, in 1912, Neely Fleming, my great-uncle, would graduate from Davidson, as salutatorian. His cousin John Kerr Fleming – son of William Krider Fleming and Lillie Burton Wood and author of Historic Third Creek Presbyterian Church – would also be a Davidson graduate and, like Neely Fleming, a future Presbyterian minister.
But perhaps the most famous connection between Davidson College and Third Creek Presbyterian Church has to do with the mysterious Peter Stuart Ney, a schoolteacher in the Third Creek community and current resident of the church cemetery. For much of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, long after he died in 1846, a legend circulated (allegedly promulgated on his deathbed by Peter Stuart Ney himself), that the rural North Carolina schoolteacher was actually Marshall Ney, Napoleon’s trusted military commander. Whether or not that story is true, it is certain that Peter Stuart Ney, known locally for his wisdom and learning, was asked by the Davidson College Board of Trustees in 1840 to design the college seal – which he did and which is still in use today.
For all that, the most astonishing news to come out of the research Julie did on the Flemings of Rowan County had little to do with either Third Creek Church or Davidson College. It concerned the first Nathan Neely Fleming – not my great grandfather, who was born at Mount Vernon in 1858 and died in Woodleaf in 1929, but his uncle, my great great grandfather’s brother. That Nathan Neely Fleming was born in 1826 at Mount Vernon and (like his older brother John G.) raised there through the 1820s, ’30s and part of the ’40s. By 1850, though, Nathan Neely Fleming was working as a lawyer in Davie County; and by the late 1850s he was practicing law in Salisbury with the well-known Burton Craige, Representative for NC in the US Congress. In 1858, when Fleming ran as a Democrat for the North Carolina House of Commons, pitted against the Whig Daniel Burton Wood (by now Dr. Wood, a physician), he won the race, serving his two year term and then getting re-elected two years later, in 1860. That was the year Abraham Lincoln was elected sixteenth president of the United States, an event that precipitated the secession of eleven states from the federal Union.
On January 16, 1861, Nathan Neely Fleming, representative of Rowan County, moved in the North Carolina House of Commons that that state secede from the Union. As I summarize the speech in a forthcoming article about Lincoln in the journal Rhetoric Review, Fleming accused the president-elect “and his ‘black republican party’ of ‘violent, vindictive, and fanatical hatred’ of Southerners, quoted derisively from Lincoln’s speeches against slavery, and, convinced that Lincoln’s election marked a newly aggressive federal policy against the South, recommended that the state legislature ‘immediately withdraw North Carolina from the Union.’”
Secession was not approved that winter. But later in 1861, North Carolina did secede from the Union, at a May convention in which Fleming’s law partner from Salisbury, Burton Craige, introduced the Ordinance of Secession. In the fall, Fleming himself was elected speaker of the first confederate NC House of Commons. By that time, though, he was playing a much more active role in the national conflict. In April, 1862, Nathan Neely Fleming enlisted as a lieutenant in Company B of the 46th NC Regiment of the Confederate army. He was soon seeing military action and even suffered a wound at Sharpsburg (Antietam) on August 17, 1862. Perhaps for leadership displayed there, Fleming was promoted to captain of Company B on September 30, 1862. Taking advantage of his legal training, he served on court martial cases in South Carolina in 1863 and later as Judge Advocate in A. P. Hill’s army on the Rapidan River, in Virginia, from fall 1863 to spring 1864. All the while, according to John Kerr Fleming, he never missed a single session of the North Carolina Legislature. He was re-elected to that body for a third time in 1862 and nominated by his party to run yet again in 1864.
But further public service was not in Fleming’s future. That’s because, in the spring of 1864, at the start of General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign (what would become the “Forty Days”), Captain Fleming’s 46th NC was one of four NC regiments in Brigadier General John R. Cooke’s Brigade, which was one of five brigades in Major General Henry Heth’s division, one of three divisions (plus artillery) in Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s Third Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, all of it under the command of General Robert E. Lee. On the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5, 1864, Captain Fleming was killed in action, most likely along the infamous Orange Plank Road, east of widow Tapp’s house (Gen. Lee’s headquarters), while engaging Union forces under Major General Winfield S. Hancock.
When you read Shelby Foote’s harrowing account of the Battle of the Wilderness in Vol. III (“Red River to Appomattox”) of The Civil War: A Narrative, it’s clear that Heth’s division was in the thick of things on May 5th.
Capt. N. N. Fleming never made it back to Rowan County, North Carolina.
For “Settling the Piedmont” from Learn NC, click here.
For The Way We Lived in North Carolina (Ed. Joe Mobley, UNC P, 2003), click here.
For Katerine Garstka’s article on the Scotch-Irish, click here.
For the 1983 nomination of Third Creek Church to the National Register of Historic Places (PDF), click here.
For Jethro Rumple’s History of Rowan County (PDF), originally published in Salisbury in 1881, click here.
John Kerr Fleming’s Historic Third Creek Presbyterian Church was published in Raleigh by the Presbyterian Synod of NC in 1967.