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While hunting in Tyrell County in 1755, a group of men discovered a 16,000-acre lake in the Great Eastern Dismal Swamp. It was named Lake Phelps for one of the hunters, Josiah Phelps, who reportedly was the first to enter its waters. Also known as the Great Alligator Dismal Swamp, the land remained undeveloped for the next thirty years. In 1784, a group of men from Edenton and Halifax took an interest in the lake and the possibility of draining it to use its fertile bed for farming. They received permission from the General Assembly to drain the lake, but never actually attempted it. Meanwhile, an Edenton merchant, Josiah Collins Sr., took an interest in developing the land around the lake. He entered into a partnership with Nathaniel Allen and Dr. Samuel Dickenson to acquire and develop the swamplands. This partnership became known as the Lake Company.
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The Lake Company owned 160,000 acres of land around the lake and, on that land, leaders of the company decided to build a canal stretching from the lake to the Scuppernong River. The canal would drain the land, make transportation possible, and provide irrigation for rice crops. One hundred thirteen slaves were acquired from West Africa to build the six-mile long, thirty-foot wide, six-foot deep canal. The canal, which cost $30,000 to build, was complete by 1788. Once the slaves finished the canal, they were put to work constructing two sawmills, a rice machine, and a gristmill, all of which were powered by water from the canal. With the swampland now productive farmland and an emerging plantation, the Lake Company produced rice and wheat before turning to corn as its primary crop. Lumber, staves, and shingles were important products, as well.
Despite the success of the plantation, Collins’s Lake Company partners, Allen and Dickinson, became heavily indebted to Collins. By 1794, Collins desired to buy his partners’ share of the company. The estimated value of a one-third share of the Lake Company property at that time was $200,000. Through a long series of purchases, by 1816, Josiah Collins, Sr. and his son Josiah Collins II had acquired all of the Lake Company property. Collins named his private estate Somerset Place, after his birthplace in England. Under Collins’s grandson, Josiah Collins, III, Somerset Place became one of the largest plantations in the South. Today, Washington County’s Somerset Place is a state historic site, providing the public with a glimpse of antebellum plantation life.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 405-406—sketch by A.C. Menius III
Somerset Place Historic Site Website: http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/Sections/HS/somerset/somerset.htm