The trip to northwest Rowan County, North Carolina, in the summer of 2007 was valuable in several respects. I learned my way around the Third Creek community. I took photographs, several of which turned out to be useful in later research. And I visited the graves of the three individuals I most wanted to learn about: Robert Nesbit Fleming (1786-1841), John Giles Fleming (1823-1885), and Nathan Neely Fleming (1858-1929). Preceded by my sister-in-law’s and my own research, the brief but evocative journey down south was the capstone of a months-long immersion in the nineteenth century history of my father’s family. (For part one of this three-part post, click here.)
But by that fall, back in Massachusetts, life was calling; I found myself occupied for the next several years with other things, my reading and writing devoted to other projects. And the fact is, by late 2007, the trail of Capt. Nathan Neely Fleming (1826-1864), my great great grandfather’s brother, had disappeared into the mists of time and uncertainty. If his story had been the climax of the first part of this journey, its attractions soon faded.
I didn’t lose interest in NN Fleming because he was an arch-secessionist or an apologist for Southern slavery, though he was certainly those things. I couldn’t really blame him, after all, for being a man of his time and place. As Lincoln said of Southerners in his State Fair speech of October, 1854, after laying out his own opposition to slavery but refusing to demonize those raised to think differently: “they are just what we would be in their situation.”
No, my problem with NN Fleming was that, after years of thinking about him, he had begun to leave me cold. I tried to humanize him, at least in my own mind: in the 1850 US Census, I found him in a boarding house in Davie County, a 24-year-old lawyer living with ten other people, aged 19 to 47 – the landlord, two clerks, a student, a physician, a carpenter, a merchant, a “founder,” a black “ostler,” and a mixed-race, 40-year-old woman whose profession was not listed. And I read the letter he wrote John G. (“Dear Brother”) while on picket duty on the Rapidan River in late 1863 (quoted in John Kerr Fleming’s Historic Third Creek Presbyterian Church, 85-86), in which he asked if his nephew Bob might catch him “a couple of fat Opossums” and send them to Virginia in a box with some sweet potatoes.
Still, even with those human touches, I just couldn’t generate much feeling for the guy. I never found out anything about how he actually died at the Battle of the Wilderness – my placing him on the Orange Plank Road on May 5, 1864, probably one of the worst places to be in history, is just a guess. There’s no detailed account of his death anywhere and no gravestone to provide even his birth month and day. And there was neither wife nor child whose later stories I could trace. What NN Fleming did leave behind, of course, was a name, one that resonated in my family, literally, for generations. His nephew, my great grandfather Nathan Neely Fleming (1858-1919), was named for him. As was that man’s eldest son, my grandfather’s brother Nathan Neely Fleming, Jr. (1889-1948), who named his son Nathan Neely Fleming III (1921-2005). For good or ill, the name has finally, it seems, exhausted itself, albeit after a run of nearly 180 years. (Of course, there’s a Fleming dog running around Raleigh, NC, today who answers energetically to the name “Neely” – but that’s a different matter.)
If the story of NN Fleming and the Civil War had lost its appeal for me, though, I wasn’t done yet with the Flemings of Rowan County. That’s because, over the last year, the journey to my family’s past has taken perhaps the most interesting turn of all.
It all started again in the fall of 2012, when I was preparing a lesson for my students on researching and writing about the history of places. Needing an example to share, I thought I’d take another look at Mount Vernon, NC, to see what I could find online about my family’s history there. I was no longer looking for something dramatic, stunning, or historic. I just wanted to learn some basic facts about my ancestors, facts that had so far eluded my grasp. More than anything, I wanted to know where they actually lived in Mount Vernon and if traces of that existence could still be found. So I began to piece together, as methodically as I could, the following narrative:
It begins with my great great great grandfather, Robert Nesbit Fleming, who was born on April 6, 1786, probably in what is now Iredell County, NC. Interestingly, there’s a John Flaming [sic] on the 1773 William Sharpe map of Fourth Creek Congregation, near today’s Statesville. Were Robert’s people from that part of the NC piedmont? If so, when did they – or he – settle in the Third Creek area? My sister-in-law’s research gave Robert’s father’s name as Samuel Fleming and his dates as 1750-60 to 1813-14. But in the 1810 US Census for Rowan County, there are two Samuel Flemings. The oldest male in the first household is between 26-45 years old, which doesn’t fit a birth year of 1850-60, though there is a son in the house under 10 and three between 16-26, which fits other information that has come down to us about Robert N., who supposedly had at least two younger brothers: John, born 1788, and Samuel, Jr., born 1790. Unfortunately, this household doesn’t include any daughters, though there should have been a Margaret (born 1791), Mary (born 1792), and Rebecca (born 1793).
The household of the other Samuel Fleming in the 1810 Rowan County census, shown above, does have an older male the age of my great great great great grandfather, but there’s no male Robert’s age. There’s a boy under 10 and two boys between 10-16, as well as several females: two girls under 10, one between 10-16, and two between 16-26. Of course, it wouldn’t be unusual for a twenty-four year-old white male in 1810 rural North Carolina not to be living at his parent’s house. Unfortunately, I could find no separate listing for a Robert Fleming in Rowan County that year.
By 1820, things get a little clearer. In that US Census, a Robert N. Fleming, aged 34, is living alone, in Rowan County (see above). There’s no wife, no children, and, as we’ll see later, no slaves. His occupation is listed as “manufacturing,” a little unusual in this very agricultural time and place. Was he helping his brothers in a construction business? In his architectural history of Rowan County, Davyd Foard Hood mentions a “Samuel Fleming” superintending construction of Christ Episcopal Church in 1826 in present-day Cleveland, NC (111). Is this Robert’s brother? (According to the 1820 census, a Rowan County household under the name Samuel Fleming includes two boys and one girl under 10 and two adults aged 26-44, one of which would fit a Samuel Fleming, Jr., born in 1790. But his occupation is agriculture!)
In any case, between 1820 and 1830, my family’s history comes more clearly into focus. That’s because, on February 11, 1822, at the age of 36, my great great great grandfather Robert Nesbit Fleming married Elizabeth Neely, aged 28, of northern Rowan County (present-day Davie County). She was the daughter of Francis Neely (1761-1829) and Mary Holman (1766-1823), who married in 1793 and had a slew of children. Although there are different lists of these offspring, Elizabeth, like Robert, seems to have been the eldest, born in late 1794. She was followed by three boys, Alexander, Holman, and Nathan, all of them born before 1800, and five more children born after 1800: Rebecca, Polly, Temperance, Arthur, and Washington. (US census forms from 1800, for Salisbury, and from 1820, for Forks of the Yadkin, seem to confirm these basic facts.) I provide Neely family details here because several of Elizabeth’s siblings later crossed paths with my family and also to highlight the fact that the Neely family was, by all accounts, bigger, better known, and wealthier than Robert’s. They also didn’t live in the Third Creek community (in fact, there are no Neelys at all in the Third Creek Church cemetery); they lived instead on Hunting Creek, some miles north of Mount Vernon, though still within the broad Yadkin River valley settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants in the eighteenth century.
In the 1818 map of Rowan County below, before Davidson and Davie Counties are broken off but after Guilford, Surry, Burke, and Iredell Counties were formed, you can make out Second, Third, and Fourth Creeks, and above them, in the hills, Hunting Creek, where the Neelys lived.
But if neither Elizabeth nor Robert came from the Third Creek area, when did they begin living there? Did they come as a couple, buying property and building a house in the Mount Vernon neighborhood after they were married in 1822, perhaps with money provided by her father? Or was Robert already living in the neighborhood in 1820, bringing Elizabeth to it? (We should note here how expansive the U.S. economy was in the years following the War of 1812. As Hood’s architectural history of Rowan County shows, this was a good time for the Third Creek community: many large, federal-style houses were built there in the early 1820s, including in the Mount Vernon area [50ff]. It’s possible, in other words, that a man like Robert Nesbit Fleming, even if he had come from a modest background, might have been able to rise in this particular world on his own, especially in good economic times. Still, my guess is that the Neelys helped the young couple out.)
(Interestingly, Robert apparently served as bondsman for Holman Neely’s marriage in 1819 to Catherine Boroughs, and Alexander Neely served as bondsman for Robert and Elizabeth’s marriage in 1822. Alexander was also married that year, as was another of Elizabeth’s siblings – her sister Rebecca – both of them into prominent Rowan County families. And both seem to have settled, like Elizabeth, in or near the Third Creek area. Rebecca, in fact, married Third Creek Church member Samuel Luckey and settled in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, less than a mile from Elizabeth.)
Robert and Elizabeth began having children almost immediately. The first, John Giles Fleming, my great great grandfather, was born on May 9, 1823, named for a witness at the wedding of his parents. The next child, Andrew Jackson Fleming, was born on Oct. 24, 1824, his name giving a clue to the family’s political leanings. Two years later, in 1826, Nathan Neely Fleming was born, his name a tribute to his mother’s family. A fourth boy, David J. Fleming, was born on April 17, 1830. (Most of this information comes from gravestones, but the U.S. Census confirms it as well. In 1830, R. N. Fleming [shown above] is listed in Rowan County, NC, with two boys under the age of 5, two between 5-10 years old, one male aged 30-40 [this is a mistake: Robert was between 40-50 that year] and one female aged 30-40 [that’s Elizabeth].)
Soon after the 1830 census, Robert bought more property in the Third Creek area (apparently from Alexander Smoot, husband of another of Elizabeth’s siblings, Temperance Neely), which suggests that the family was growing not just in size but in prosperity (Elizabeth probably inherited land and/or money at this time from her father, who died in 1829). The family was also active now in Third Creek Church since Robert is listed as contributing $10 to the 1833 building fund (see Fleming 51-53). It’s not a huge amount, especially compared to the $100 contributions of his neighbor Jacob Krider and Krider’s brother-in-law William B. Wood, but it’s more than what half the other contributors gave.
In 1834, the couple finally gave birth to a girl, Mary Elizabeth Fleming, thus making five children total, four boys and one girl, in 12 years. Alas, they would soon be orphans. In the 1840 US Census for Rowan County, shown above, Robert N. Fleming is listed with two boys between the ages of 10-15 (David J. and Nathan N.), two between 15-20 (Andrew J. and John G.), and one girl (Mary E.) between 5-10. Robert himself is 50-60 years old here, correcting the error made in 1830. No one else is listed in the household; that’s because Elizabeth Neely Fleming had died, at the age of 44, on April 1, 1839, when John Giles, her eldest child, was just 16.
Unfortunately, Robert Nesbit Fleming himself died two and a half years later, on Oct. 31, 1841, at age 55. Both parents are buried in what is now called Byerlys Chapel cemetery, near Mocksville, NC, in present-day Davie County (as remote, and lonely, a graveyard as I have ever visited). Despite the ties Robert and Elizabeth had built to Third Creek Church, the Neely family connections to the north exerted a stronger pull when it came to burying time.
In any case, in the fall of 1841, at age 18, my great great grandfather John Giles Fleming was now the oldest person in his family. His brothers Andrew, Nathan, and David, were 17, 15, and 11, respectively; sister Mary was only 7. Did one of the Neely relatives come to look after the children? Were the younger ones sent to live elsewhere? Or were they left as a group to fend for themselves? Whatever happened, John G. must have grown up quickly.
In fact, just three years later, at the age of 22, on March 17, 1845, he married his neighbor Margaret Clementine Krider (only three weeks younger than he was), daughter of Jacob Krider and Sallie Wood Krider, who lived close by in Mount Vernon (and who I treated at some length in part one of this post). Just as Robert Nesbit Fleming seems to have done well, financially and socially, by marrying into the Neely clan, his son John Giles Fleming also did well, marrying into the Krider and Wood families, both prosperous materially and prominent in the Third Creek church. The bondsman at the wedding indicates yet another tie to church and neighborhood: John G.’s cousin W. P. Luckey, a son of Samuel and Rebecca Neely Luckey, who lived just up the road.
Like Robert and Elizabeth Fleming before them, John and Margaret Fleming began having children soon after they were married. Unfortunately, their first child, Jacob Krider Fleming (Nov. 13, 1847 – Mar 22, 1849) died young. But they had another boy, Robert Nesbit Fleming, in 1850; and he survived, both grandfathers having been honored in the naming of the couple’s first two offspring. According to the 1850 US Census, shown above, there are now four people in the household: John G., 27; Margaret C., 27; Robert, 9 months; and Mary E., John G.’s sister, 16. John’s occupation is listed as “farmer.” Brother Andrew J. Fleming, 25, lived next door with his wife Margaret E., 23; he is listed as a surveyor. Their brother Nathan N. Fleming, as we saw above, was in Davie County, 24 years old and living in a boarding house. I have not yet located the other brother, David J., though one imagines the 20-year-old close by.
In the 1850s, John G. and Margaret C. Fleming would have five more children: William Krider (called “Bee”) (born July 29, 1851); Sarah Elizabeth (“Sallie”?) (b. 1853); Margaret Inez (“Maggie”) (b. Aug. 20, 1855); my great grandfather Nathan Neely, named for his uncle (b. March 19, 1858); and Roberta (b. June 8, 1860). In the 1860 US Census for Rowan County (shown below), you can see them all: John G. (aged 37), Margaret C. (37), Robert N. (10), William K. (9), Sarah E. (7), Margaret I. (5), Nathan N. (2), and baby Roberta (1 mo.). The family must now have been active in Third Creek Church, just a few miles away: John G. became a deacon soon after the Civil War ended (Fleming 94), suggesting a vital membership before. As for Uncle Nathan, 34, he now lived in Salisbury, working as a lawyer and as one of Rowan County’s two representatives to the NC House of Commons; he was just a few months away from his big January 16, 1861, speech in Raleigh (see part one of this post). Things seemed to be going well for the Flemings of Rowan County.
Still, nineteenth century rural life could be hard. John’s brother Andrew Jackson Fleming married Margaret Emmeline Graham, from a prominent Third Creek family, in 1849 or so; their son Rowan Graham Fleming, born in 1851, died at age seven in 1858. Andrew himself died in 1853, aged 29. And sister Mary Elizabeth Fleming, who married Richard Wainwright Griffith in 1853, also died young, at age 20, in 1854, perhaps in childbirth.
Then the war came. I wrote about Nathan Neely Fleming’s war in part one of this post. What about his brother, John Giles Fleming? He was 38 years old when the war broke out in 1861; he had a wife, six children (with two more on the way: Charles Jackson, b. 1862, and Julia, b. 1865), and a large farm. It would have been difficult for him to march off to war like his brother, who was, after all, three years younger, a bachelor, and politically ambitious. Given all that, it’s not surprising that in Nathan Neely’s December, 1863, letter to his brother back home, he writes as if John is firmly ensconced in the rhythms of family and farm, even as the bloody national conflict roils on.
But if John G. thought he could get through that conflict unscathed, he was wrong. His brother’s death in May, 1864, must have shocked and saddened him; it also set off a chain of events that deeply disrupted his, and his family’s, life. On July 20, 1864, just two and a half months after Nathan Neely’s death in Virginia, John G. Fleming enlisted in Co. C. of the 24th NC. John K. Fleming writes that John G. served in the Rowan County Home Guards in 1864-65 but was then mustered for active duty in time for the Battle of Bentonville, which took place in eastern NC on March 19-21, 1865 (79). We next find him as a POW on April 1, 1865, at Five Forks, VA, and later imprisoned at Point Lookout, MD, where he took the oath of allegiance to the United States on June 27, 1865. He must have returned home to Rowan County soon after that. For someone who appears to have been a devoted family man his whole life, taking care of his siblings when their parents died and then his own wife and numerous children after that, head of a large farm, active in his church, a man who had probably never before left Rowan County, the experience of the final year of the Civil War must have been profoundly unsettling.
But things weren’t much better back home. With Nathan Neely dead and John G. away fighting, the rest of the family in northwest Rowan County must have felt completely lost. John Kerr Fleming tells the story of Stoneman’s Raid, April 12-13, 1865, when Union soldiers terrified the residents of Mount Vernon:
During this period of anxiety, two teenage sons of John Giles Fleming, Robert and William, were given blankets by their mother, and were sent into the woods in hiding. There they remained for several days and nights until the Union Troops had departed. A faithful Negro man carried meals to them . . . Many years later, William K. (“Bee”) Fleming would tell of the weird noises he and his brother had heard at night, including the song of the Whippoorwill. (93)
I always thought this story was a kind of harbinger for the disruption, chaos, and uncertainty that descended on places like Mount Vernon, NC, in the years after the Civil War. As we’ll see in part three of this post, it was a period that clearly marked a turning point for my family.
But what has interested me more recently in the story of the Fleming boys hiding in the woods is its connection to a question that has nagged at me for years, the question that prompted this whole recent line of inquiry into my family’s Rowan County roots: where was the Fleming house in Mount Vernon? If Bob and Bee were in the woods during those days and nights of mid-April 1865, where was the rest of the family? where was my great great grandmother Margaret, my great grandfather Nathan Neely, 7 years old at the time, and the other children: Sarah (aged 12), Maggie (10), Roberta (5), Charly (3) and Julia, just a baby. Where exactly was their house? And is it still standing today?
I had known for years that Robert and Elizabeth, and then John and Margaret after them, had raised their family in a place called Mount Vernon in northwest Rowan County. That’s because John Kerr Fleming says so. He writes that the Civil War legislator and soldier Nathan Neely Fleming “was born on the old Fleming estate near Mount Vernon, North Carolina, sometime in the early 1820s” (76). And John Kerr Fleming must have known because he was the son of the very William K. (“Bee”) Fleming who was one of the two boys hiding in the woods in mid-April, 1865.
Now, I know where Mount Vernon is – I’ve been there. There’s not much to see these days. In the 1890s, my great grandfather, the second Nathan Neely Fleming, left this tiny place for the bigger town of Woodleaf, just as his son, my grandfather, the second John Giles Fleming, would leave Woodleaf for even bigger towns in eastern NC. But in the mid-nineteenth century, Mount Vernon was one of the most important crossroads in northwest Rowan County. In this detail from an 1855-1861 map of roads, plank roads, and railroads in North Carolina and Virginia, you can see how prominent Mount Vernon was at the time:
The place retained its importance even into the post-Civil War period, as can be seen in this detail from an 1889 map of North Carolina. (Here, Mt. Vernon is in the uppermost part of Rowan County.)
Much of Mount Vernon’s nineteenth century importance can be attributed to Jacob Krider, whose farm, mills, and home had been the center of the community since the early 1820s – its post office, country store, and central meeting place. And Krider’s house is still standing today; in fact, it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places. When I was preparing for my class lesson in the fall of 2012, I found an article about renovations there, which included a photograph of the house:
I had taken a picture of the building myself, from a different angle, in the summer of 2007, thinking it might be Krider’s homestead – though at the time, given the lack of signage, and my lack of knowledge about the place, I wasn’t sure.
When you’re standing in this intensely rural part of NC, or even when you’re just looking at old maps and photographs, it doesn’t take much imagination to transport yourself back to antebellum Rowan County. Following the roads in the 1855-1861 map above, for example, you can imagine young Margaret Clementine Krider, my great great grandmother, walking with her family in the 1820s and ’30s from the house at Mount Vernon to Third Creek Church (near “Rowan Mills” in the same map), a three-mile route that one can trace today on Google Maps:
But if Jacob Krider’s homestead was at the center of Mount Vernon, where then was the Fleming estate, which was supposed to have been “near” Mount Vernon? There’s good reason to believe that the house was about a half-mile down what is today called Cool Springs Road, or SR 1003 – in fact right along the route Margaret Krider would have walked to Third Creek Church.
My sister-in-law and brother have located two maps which suggest that the old Fleming estate had been to the southeast of the Krider house in Mount Vernon. One is a property map of some sort, showing what appears to be an 1831 land purchase in the area by Robert N. Fleming:
The second is a hand-drawn map, apparently from around 1903, which shows a “Maggie Fleming” (my great grandfather’s sister) living in this vicinity.
But for me, the real turning point was discovering a 1910 map of rural delivery routes in Rowan County (see below). The name “Fleming” is written just to the southeast of Mount Vernon, about a half mile down Cool Springs Road, just after the turn one would take to go from Jacob Krider’s house to Third Creek Church.
As it turns out, there’s a house standing there today, a beautiful, two-story, white frame, old house that my sister-in-law and brother had thought might be part of the former Fleming estate when they passed through the area in 2006. It was a house I myself photographed in the summer of 2007, also thinking that it might have some connection to my family.
Across the street from the house is a large, beautiful farm – you can’t help but think that it’s linked somehow to the house. In the image below, from Google Maps street view, you can easily imagine “[w]hen the highlands between Fourth Creek and Third Creek were open prairie, covered with grass and wild peavines, and the wild deer would mingle with herds of cattle as they grazed” (qtd. in Fleming 1).
If you place your cursor in the frame and turn the street view around, 180 degrees left or right, and then wiggle it a little towards that white driveway, you can clearly see the house itself:
But I had no proof that this was part of the old Fleming estate. So, on a whim, I sent an email query to the librarians at Rowan County Public Library in Salisbury, NC, where I knew there was a large historical collection. I told them who I was and what information I was seeking. I quoted John Kerr Fleming’s line about “the old Fleming estate near Mount Vernon,” and I mentioned the white house standing today a half-mile or so southeast of the Krider homestead, “on the north side of the intersection of Cool Springs Road (SR 1003) and Carson Road, about midway between Third and Fourth Creeks.” Was this the old Fleming home?
The next day, July 29, 2013, my answer came:
According to Davyd Foard Hood’s book The Architecture of Rowan County: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th and Early 20th Century Structures – the Fleming-Cartner House at SR 1003 (Cool Springs Road) was definitely built by a Fleming, probably Robert Nesbit Fleming who married Elizabeth Neely in 1822. It was built in the first quarter of the 19th century, replacing an earlier family house (log structure). It was afterwards the residence of John Giles Fleming and then his son Charles Jackson Fleming, who sold it in 1906. From your description and the photo/description in the book, I’d say you are correct about the house. The book was published in 1983 and at that time the family named Cartner was living in the house.
Hope this is helpful to you. Unfortunately, I cannot find that there is a copy of the book in a library near you.
The email was signed “Gretchen Beilfuss Witt,” librarian in the Edith M. Clark History Room at Rowan Public Library. She has graciously allowed me to quote her email here.
I had found the house. But just to be sure, I requested Davyd Foard Hood’s book through interlibrary loan; and, when it arrived a few days later, I confirmed for myself (by looking at p. 96) that the old Fleming home – where my ancestors Robert Nesbit and Elizabeth Neely Fleming, and after them John Giles and Margaret Krider Fleming, had lived, raised their children, and run their farm – did indeed still stand on Cool Springs Road (SR 1003) in northwest Rowan County, NC, near the old Mount Vernon crossroads.
But by then, my elation at finally getting an answer to a question that had dogged me for years was tempered by the knowledge I had begun to glean about other people who lived on the Fleming farm in the mid-nineteenth century, people counted in pre-Civil War census records for my family but whose names do not appear.
US Census records for my family in Rowan County, NC, were accessed, in raw form, through the Internet Archive; searchable census records were also used, through ancestry.com‘s Library Edition (via UMass Amherst, which has a subscription).
For the 1980 National Register of Historic Places nomination of Mount Vernon (Jacob Krider’s homestead) (PDF), click here.
John Kerr Fleming’s Historic Third Creek Presbyterian Church was published in Raleigh by the Presbyterian Synod of NC in 1967.
Davyd Foard Hood’s The Architecture of Rowan County, North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th and Early 20th Century Structures was published in Salisbury, by the Rowan County Historic Properties Commission in 1983.