north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
With several partners, Josiah Collins Sr. (1735-1819) in 1784 formed a company to, with slave labor, drain and open for farming the lands around Lake Phelps (discovered in 1755 and formerly known as Lake Scuppernong). The Lake Company acquired nearly 110,000 acres of swampland around Lake Phelps and dispatched a ship to West Africa to purchase 80 native Africans. The enslaved men and women dug a 6-mile long transportation canal and, along with approximately 80 enslaved African Americans, cleared land for cultivation.
Collins left the plantation to his grandson but his son Josiah Jr. (1763-1839) maintained the farm until the grandson was of age. Josiah III (1808-1863) married in 1829 and shortly thereafter began transformed the business into a personal estate and further increased agricultural operations. Enslaved artisans and white hired employees eventually erected over 50 buildings, including barns, sawmills, workshops, support structures, and dwellings. Initially rice was Collins’s principal crop; the switch was made to corn to avoid diseases among the enslaved people. The enslaved men, women, and children at Somerset established kinship networks, practiced cultural traditions, and committed acts of resistance that defined their community and reasserted their humanity in the face of enslavement. Between 1785 and 1865, more than 861 enslaved people, 50 white employees, and two free black employees lived and worked on the plantation under three generations of the Collins family.
In 1860 Collins owned 14,500 acres (2,000 improved) and 328 slaves. He died in 1863. With emancipation, the formerly enslaved people started new lives apart from the plantation, and the Collins family sold Somerset Place to cover debts accumulated during the Civil War. The plantation then passed through many different owners until the federal government acquired it by 1937. Two years later, the federal government transferred to the state a small portion of land along the north shore of Lake Phelps, which included what was left of the antebellum built environment, and Pettigrew State Park was formed. The General Assembly established Somerset Place State Historic Site as a separate entity in 1967.
Today, the site interprets a comprehensive social history of the enslaved and free persons who lived and worked on the antebellum plantation and preserves 31 original acres, seven original buildings in the owner’s compound, and four reconstructed buildings in the enslaved community.

References:
William S. Tarlton, “Somerset Place and Its Restoration” (1954)
Wayne K. Durrill, War of Another Kind: A Southern Community in the Great Rebellion (1990)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 404-440 – sketches by A. C. Menius III
1860 Federal Census. Agricultural and Slave Schedules
Dorothy Spruill Redford, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage (2000)
Dorothy Spruill Redford, Generations of Somerset Place: From Slavery to Freedom (2005)
Dorothy Spruill Redford, “As Long As You Call My Name I Live: Somerset Place Slave Burial Register, 1785-1865”
North Carolina State Historic Sites website: https://www.historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/somerset-place
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Somerset Plantation

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