One of the biggest and often overlooked mysteries of the Killing Rock Saga is the life of Preston McCalvin Fleming. Who was he? How did he get mixed up in the story of the Pound Gap Massacre? Why did he die in West Virginia by a shoot out with a Wise County Posse? Why was he involved with the Vanovers?
Born as Preston McCalvin “Cal” Fleming on October 15, 1868 in Buchanan County, Virginia, to Robert Jefferson “Big Jeff” and Margaret Rose Fleming. He was one of nine brothers and sisters. He is often only spoken about with his brother Henan and his story stops with his death. But we are hoping to shed a little light on who he actually was and if the story about him is true.
Was McCalvin a Ladies Man?
The popular story that is often told is that Samuel McHenan “Henan” Fleming, Cal’s brother was sweet upon Catherine Vanover Fleming. It is widely known that Cal was sweet upon another of Henry Vanover’s daughters but it is never told which one of them had caught his eye. However, he was noted to be at the Vanover farm quite a bit with his brother Henan.
Did Cal Fleming Have a Family Already?
Cordelia “Cordia” Cook was born on November 20, 1875 in Floyd County, Kentucky to Solomon Cook and Ceattie Hall McPeek. She was one of three children born to the union. It is not clear when or how she met Cal Fleming.
According to the Find a Grave records online, Preston McCalvin Fleming was married to Cordelia Cook sometime in 1889. As of this date we have not found the marriage certificate or the place of the wedding.
However if the marriage is true then Cal would have been 21 years old. He would have been seven years the senior to his bride, Cordia, who would have been 14 years old at that time.
A Child is Born
It is also reported that during this union Lydia Lacosta Fleming was born on December 31, 1890 in Wise Virginia to the married pair. Lydia would live to be 85 years old and would be the only child of Cal Fleming. Lydia would die at the age of 85 years old on December 9, 1976 in Clifton Forge, Virginia.
After the death of Cal on January 14, 1894. Cordelia Cook Fleming would then marry again to Bryant Washington Francisco in 1898 who was her step brother from her mother, Ceattie Hall Cook’s second marriage. She would die on February 20, 1954 at the age of 78 in Ashcamp, Kentucky.
What Happened to the Marriage?
There is a record of the marriage with the state of Kentucky taking place in 1889 but there is no actual date listed. So that leaves us with questions.
Common law marriages are common in the mountains even to this day. Even though there is no certificate of marriage, there is usually a small ceremony with family to let everyone know that the relationship is a permanent and a family and community condoned one. All children born to this union are considered to be legitimate and carry the father’s name.
Another thing to consider is that they did have a marriage certificate but were possibly separated at that time. Neither party had filed for divorce in the court system at that time and Cal was engaged to Cynthia but they were not able to get married yet.
For some reason, the marriage of Cal Fleming is never spoken of in the Oft Told Story. Why? Where was his wife and child staying at during that time? Why were they not also at the Vanover farm if Cal was staying there or at his father’s home?
The Shooting of Henry Vanover
On June 18, 1887, while working the fields in Rocky Hollow with his wife, Henry Vanover was ambushed and killed… Although the actual killer of Henry Vanover remains unknown, it was widely thought that Clifton Branham had murdered Henry Vanover.
Henry Vanover was slain and a killer was going to jail by his own confession rather than go to trial and face the gallows. The matter was considered to be closed even though the Branham Brothers repeatedly said that they did not kill Vanover.
Cal Engaged to a Vanover Daughter?
Let’s take a look at Henry Vanover’s daughters during the time of Henry’s death. We have Catherine Vanover (16) who was engaged and would later marry Henan Fleming, Cynthia Vanover (10), Vannie Vanover (3), and Sarah Vanover (newborn).
So which child is a 21 year old McCalvin Fleming supposed to be engaged to? This does not make sense at all and was not done at that time in the mountains. Cal would not be courting the girl during that time because she would have been too young.
A girl was usually married at the age of 14 in the mountains, younger if it was an arranged marriage but it simply was not done for girls under the age of 12 and permission was very rarely granted. If you wish to see the actual dates of their births refer to the Find a Grave site for Henry Vanover listed in the Source information below.
By the time of Killing Rock the closest possible girl that we think that Cal could have been involved with was Cynthia. She would have been 15 by 1892. Anyway, by that time, she would have been old enough for a relationship with Calvin. However, history does not name her nor does it really confirm that they were engaged to be married could there be another reason for that?
Possible Hand for Hire?
Henry Vanover was slain. Henry Vanover’s widow Sarah was facing over 100 lawsuits over land and had a huge farm to run. Was Cal there working as a possible hired hand for farming? It would be possible that he was a hired hand and got the job because his brother was dating and did marry Catherine the oldest daughter.
Another possibility would be that Cal was a sharecropper for Henry Vanover. Back in those days, it would not be out of the ordinary for people who owned large tracks of land to hire out the local men to help tend to the ground. Deals would be made for money, a place to live, food, or other barters for the work that was to be done.
Not a lot of things are passed down as to what kind of work that Cal Fleming actually did for Henry Vanover. We do know that Henry did own huge tracks of timber land and it is also possible that Cal worked for Henry chopping down trees. We will never know for sure as this part of the story has been lost to us over time.
The Pound Gap Massacre
On May 14, 1892, the doomed Mullins Party would be killed at the top of Pound/Jenkins Mountain at a place that would now be forever known as the Killing Rock. Five people were slain and no motive was ever given for the reason behind the massacre.
On May 19th Jane Mullins would once again change her story. She began telling everyone that Doc Taylor and the Fleming brothers were the shooters and that she had recognized one of their voices. Before this point of the story, Jane Mullins had repeatedly told everyone that she did not know who they were because they had green masks tied with a black band covering their faces.
She also stated that she had tried to save Louanza by pulling her under the wagon. She went on to say that when a pause in the gunfire came. She had yelled out; “Boys, for the Lord’s sake, don’t shoot anymore; you’ve killed them all. Let me stay here with them, till someone finds us.”
But was he really on top of the Pound/Jenkins Mountain that fateful day?
Revenge as a Motive?
One of the biggest questions behind the Pound Gap Massacre is motive. What possible reason would Cal and Henan Fleming have for being on Pound Gap that fateful day? The reason handed down for 130 years to us was for revenge. But was that so?
If Henry’s killers were brought to justice, why would Cal and his brother Henan be out for justice as is so often reported? Why are the other sons of Henry never mentioned in any of the stories?
Henry Vanover had five sons: Jacob “Jake” Evermon Vanover (27), Ulysses Grant Vanover (14), Patrick Hagen Vanover (11), and Henry “Sam” Melvin Vanover (9), and James Elbob “Bob” Vanover (4). So why is Jake and Ulysses never mentioned in this story? Surely they would be the first to step up wanting revenge for the death of their father wouldn’t they?
To Much Time Passes
Another wrinkle in the story that the Fleming Brothers were involved in the Massacre is simply time. Henry Vanover was shot in his corn field on June 18, 1887. The Killing Rock Massacre happened on May 14, 1892. So if the whole reason was for revenge, would it not stand to reason that it would not take five years for the Fleming Brothers to do something?
If they were the hot heads that history has claimed that they were…it would stand to reason that as soon as the Branham Brothers were accused of the crime that they would have went after them instead. So, why go after Ira Mullins?
Another Possible Motive
Another possible twist we have come across is the 100 lawsuits that Sarah Vanover faced from the Squatters on her land. Ira Mullins and his wife Louranza was among those that were suing the poor widow. So again, why go after them if they were all in a court of law? Did Ira have the strongest claim to the land?
So why shoot Ira and his family? And why wait five years to do it? And exactly what did Cal and Henan have to do with it at all if anything at all?
Another Possible Suitor
While doing the research on Cal Fleming and his possible engagement to a daughter of Henry Fleming another possible motive as to why they were fingered in the crime came to us.
What if someone didn’t like it that the Fleming Brothers were going to marry the richest marriageable ladies in the area of Jenkins? Cynthia and Catherine were both of marriageable age by 1892. And the land that their father had left behind was a gold mine in timber and coal. There would be many men that would have loved to have them as their brides for both them and their inheritance.
The reason why we have thought there was another suitor was because of what happened to one of Henry’s daughters during this time. After the death of Henry, one of the daughter’s in the Oft Told Tales is beaten almost to death. There is also a possibility that she was violated. Why? For what purpose? It was after this happened that the Widow Vanover sold the land to John Wright and left the area with her family.
It is often thought that Louanza had a money bag upon her person with at least $1000.00 or more inside of it. The money bag was missing at the time her body was found. Robbery has always been associated with the crime because of this.
However, if the Fleming Brothers were both living on the Vanover farm for either work or love, why would they be involved in a robbery? After all, Henry Vanover’s Widow had inherited all of his money and land, and they were staying with her. No money was ever found or said to be found with the Fleming Brothers. So if robbery was the motive for the crime, it would make no sense that they would have been involved.
We will get into the story of the West Virginia Battle in another Untold Tale of the Killing Rock Massacre.
We thank you for continuing to support Kentucky Tennessee Living. As we bring to you the history of the Appalachian Mountains. We must remind everyone that the story names Killing Rock: The Oft Told Tale (s) and Killing Rock: The Untold Story are both under Kentucky Tennessee Living copyright.
Preston McCalvin “Cal” Fleming
Lydia Lacosta Fleming Case
Cordelia “Cordia” Cook Francisco
Special Thank you to Kate Cree for finding the birth certificate of Lydia Fleming and possible marriage certificate of Cal and Cordia Fleming
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When we forget our past and who we are as a people, then we become who “they” say we are. ~~ David Sergent
I have attended the University of Kentucky. I have an Associates Degree from Hazard Community College and Technical School. I have also attended the University of Pikeville. I have taken several classes in Journalism as well as in the Appalachian History, Literature, and Sociology during my time at those schools.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Burdine, Kentucky. I have been married to David W. Sergent since May 4, 2013. I have two children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage. I currently live in Tennessee but my hope is to one day come back home to live in the beautiful mountains once more.