For hundreds of years the land south of the Albemarle Sound in eastern North Carolina was in large part an inhospitable swamp. Although not impenetrable, the bears, wolves, panthers, and rattlesnakes residing in the area must have convinced all but the bravest souls to avoid the place. The 200,000-acre swamp, considered worthless, became known as "The Great Eastern Dismal." Nevertheless, the land bore luxuriant juniper, maple, and gum trees.
In 1729, the colonial government formed the region into new Tyrrell County, incorporating land from older Chowan, Bertie, Currituck, and Pasquotank Counties. Tyrrell bore the name of Sir John Tyrrell, one of the Lords Proprietors of the colony. Later, in 1799, the western portion of Tyrrell was cut off to create Washington County.
Around 1755, a group of local hunters ventured into the forbidding swamp in search of firm land for farming. According to tradition, most of them had turned back when a man named Benjamin Tarkinton climbed a tree and spotted a large lake. Before Tarkinton could get down, hunter Josiah Phelps ran to the lake, entered the water, and asserted the right to name it Lake Phelps.
Along the shores of the 16,000-acre lake, the explorers found high ground accessible only by foot. Lack of resources for building a road or canal for transportation postponed development of the area for the next 30 years. Other problems included periodic severe flooding of the land adjacent to the lake, and difficulty in clearing the heavy forests for farming.
In 1784, a group of men from Halifax and Edenton received authorization from the General Assembly to drain the lake known to be higher than the surrounding land and farm its fertile bottom. The group also made a survey revealing some 10,000 acres of adjacent rich swampland as higher in elevation than the Scuppernong River, some six miles away. Construction of an irrigation system, they reasoned, might make the swamp suitable for rice cultivation. About the same time two Edenton members of the association, businessman Nathaniel Allen and Samuel Dickinson, took Josiah Collins, also of Edenton, into a second partnership known as the "Lake Company." This organization soon acquired over 100,000 acres of land in the area, and apparently superseded the first group. Collins himself held an additional 60,000 acres east of the lake on the Alligator River.
Although each member of the Lake Company was one of Edenton's most prominent citizens, Josiah Collins (1735-1819) proved to be the most important of the three in subsequent activity at the lake. Collins had come to the colonies in 1773 and settled in Edenton in 1774, where he became a prosperous merchant, shipper, and manufacturer of rope. His son, Josiah Jr. (1763-1839) joined him in his various businesses.
The partnership of the Lake Company hinged upon a verbal agreement in 1784 for acquiring land near Lake Phelps, and digging a canal from the lake to the Scuppernong River to facilitate transportation and drainage of the land. Collins went to Boston to fit out a slave ship that would sail to West Africa. This vessel returned in early 1786 with about 100 enslaved Africans. These slaves were immediately put to work on the canal, and they finished its six-mile straight course with a width of 20 feet and a depth of four to six feet—in 1788.
The waterway linking the lake and the river served numerous purposes, and was perhaps the prime factor in the conversion of swampland around the northern shore of Lake Phelps to productive fields. By means of a system of cross ditches and a water gate, the canal could drain or flood the new fields below the lake as necessary for the cultivation of rice and other staples. The canal, with a road built upon its bank, provided a means of transportation via flatboat, horse, and wagon. All incoming heavy freight at the plantation arrived by the ditch. This waterway also furnished power at a point perhaps a quarter of a mile from the lake. A sluiceway and millrace enabled a six-foot head of water to turn waterwheels running sawmills, a gristmill, and other machinery. At the same point a complex of barns and other buildings was erected. The company paid Thomas Trotter, a Scotsman and mechanic, to serve as engineer in charge of the technical aspects of drainage, irrigation, and machinery.
Within a decade, the Lake Company made considerable progress at the plantation. Some one hundred dwellings for overseers and slaves were built, along with a number of additional mills and barns. Rice and wheat became primary crops, while lumber, staves, and shingles were other important products.
During this period, confusion developed over the internal affairs of the company. This precipitated a situation through which Josiah Collins was eventually able to convert all of the land into a single private estate. He apparently invested more than his partners and sought to settle the affairs of the company, which by this time had accomplished its initial goals. In 1790, Collins entered a suit in equity against his partners, who collectively owed him over £4,600 by 1795. The debtors mortgaged their interests, and Collins and his son were able to acquire all of the property by 1816 an undetermined amount by then through a series of purchases dating back to 1801.
The Collins family thus became the major landowners in the area, the only other people of comparable substance being the Pettigrews. While the Collinses were not to establish permanent residence at the lake until about 1830, the Pettigrews had lived in the area since the late 1780s. Charles Pettigrew (1744-1807) had expanded his plantation to the shore of Lake Phelps east of the canal upon acquiring the right to use the waterway in 1789. His son, Ebenezer (1783-1848), had assumed management of the property in 1803 and developed substantial plantations of lesser proportions than the Collins family estate. Life on these budding plantations was anything but easy. Each shared the difficulties of isolation, travel and transportation, and unpredictable growing seasons a climate that in turn brought prosperity, floods, droughts, and hurricanes. The working conditions also afforded a prevalence of ill health, as various fevers and sicknesses made their rounds among the inhabitants. And the foundation of the entire operation rested upon the "peculiar institution" of the South slavery.
Under such circumstances, Collins and his son, Josiah Jr., chose to continue living and doing business across the sound in Edenton, where they were successful in merchandising and shipping. They ran the plantation, a secondary interest to them, through overseers. Nevertheless, the elder Collins named the farm "Somerset Place" after the county of his birth in England, and the family began to spend more time at the lake.
At his death in 1819, the father left a life estate in all of the lake property to his son, with provision that the land upon the latter's demise be divided among his seven grandchildren with six receiving undeveloped land and the eldest, Josiah Collins III (1808-1863), obtaining Somerset Place plantation. In 1828, Josiah Jr. spent much time at the establishment putting things in order for the arrival of Josiah III, who was to move to Somerset upon completion of his education in the North.
In January 1830, young Josiah Collins III arrived at Somerset Place with his bride of six months, Mary Riggs of Newark, New Jersey. His establishment of permanent residence at the site signaled the beginning of the final grandiose era of plantation life at Somerset Place. Perhaps not long after his arrival, Josiah III began enlarging and furnishing the big house known today as the Collins Mansion.
Indeed, Josiah III's extravagant, expensive style of living soon overshadowed that of his chief planter neighbor, Ebenezer Pettigrew, who maintained the serious, substantial manners of the Protestant work ethic practiced by his father. After Pettigrew's wife died in childbirth, he increasingly became a recluse and called himself a poor man and a "farmer of the swamp." With the exception of one of Ebenezer's sons, Charles, relations between the Pettigrews and the Collinses were to be at best strained, and often bitter (except in times of sorrow and mourning). The hard-working Pettigrew could never approve of Josiah III, whom he considered a dilettante and a negligent planter.
Young Collins was a gregarious individual fond of finery and lavish parties. Educated at Harvard and in New York City, he had also attended opera in that town, and later went so far as to make French the language of his household for a time. He even hired a tutor. From the sort of young blade who in public would horsewhip a man considered to be his inferior, Collins developed into an individualistic and opinionated man. His personality was dominant, if not domineering, and people not wishing to he overpowered might either avoid him or take him in a humorous vein. Yet he combined his intense pride and autocratic ways with courtesy, generosity, and genuine ability.
Collins, especially in his later years, offered an aggressive, lavish hospitability at Somerset Place that attracted numerous guests. A typical winter might find 14 long-term visitors living at the mansion and enjoying a sumptuous table. Mrs. Charles L. Pettigrew, who did not look with favor upon the ostentatious lifestyle at Somerset, nevertheless described the Collinses as "remarkable for the energy they displayed" at their numerous parties and social affairs. Christmas was a time of particular celebration at the plantation, and family and guests reveled in ceremony, dancing, singing, and feasting for several days. For the wedding of his son, Josiah IV, in 1859, Collins had his entire house elaborately redecorated. He also purchased a special cake which was shipped from New York by express.
Even a number of the slaves enjoyed a period of festivity and family time at Christmas. During the remainder of the year, however, the enslaved community provided the labor that supported Collins' elegant lifestyle. From the boatload of slaves who had built the first canal, to their descendants who dug later waterways and performed myriad tasks on the plantation, slavery remained a part of daily life at Somerset Place. While the Collinses were away at fashionable watering holes in Virginia and New York during the hot summer months, the slaves toiled at the plantation and spent their hours clearing land and working the fields. Yet Collins apparently did provide adequate food and shelter for his captives. The slaves' quarters were uncomfortably crowded, but Collins did provide them with a hospital, a chapel, and a chaplain.
As the years passed, Josiah III expanded his cultivated land to several thousand acres. Corn had long since replaced rice as a principal crop, as the raising of rice had caused health problems among the slaves. Virginia agricultural writer Edmund Ruffin, visiting Somerset Place in 1839, inspected the great fields of corn and the sprawling system of ditches used to drain the land. At that time Collins had 1,400 acres under cultivation, serviced by a crisscrossed pattern of some 130 miles of drainage ditches of varying sizes. Clearing land for cultivation was arduous work even after successful drainage, as huge cypress and other trees from the swamps resisted removal. Even when dead, the trees might survive for years as bare trunks, not uncommonly three to four feet in diameter for a length of 40 to 60 feet, with enormous masses of deep roots. Despite such challenges, Collins's force of more than 300 slaves had improved 1,500 acres by 1857, and an additional 500 acres a decade later. The planter rotated his crops with three years of corn followed by three years of fallow land. His production of Indian corn, as reported in the agricultural schedules of the censuses of 1850 and 1860, was 30,000 bushels. Processing of the grain took place in the mill by the canal, where a cornsheller prepared the crop for shipment away from the farm. Three large barns provided storage facilities for the grain.
The plantation, of necessity, also supported numerous animals and crops other than corn. Census takers in the aforementioned years recorded several dozen horses, a similar number of asses and mules, cattle, oxen, about 50 milk cows, and far greater numbers of sheep and swine. The farm produced varying amounts of wheat, which was probably also a money crop. Other small crops and staples included peas, beans, potatoes, oats, wool, flax, butter, and silk cocoons.
By 1860, despite substantial crops and increased activity, Somerset Place was in the last years of its greatness as a seat of wealth for war was about to rend both the country and the plantation. Collins predictably had been most outspoken on the abolitionist question, and he financed parts of several companies of Washington County Confederate troops after the onset of the Civil War in 1861. Three sons of the family fought for the South. Nevertheless, by mid-1862 the Federals had seized Roanoke Island and much of the North Carolina coastal region. Federal raiding parties often ventured inland, and the Collins family fled westward to Hillsborough, where Josiah III had also sent many of his slaves. The next year, still in that Orange County town, the ostentatious planter died a refugee. Back at the plantation, plundered by both Union foraging troops and local dwellers, farming apparently ceased entirely, and a course of decay began which became even more pronounced in the postwar era.
Two Collins sons and their widowed mother returned to Somerset Place in 1865, but were unsuccessful in reviving the estate without their former slave laborers and the dominant leadership of Josiah Collins III. In early 1867, the family was forced to auction the entire plantation to satisfy creditors, and the house and land changed hands several times before the turn of the century, by which time the last Collins ownership of any land in the area had ended. Absentee landlordism characterized the farm during this era. In the 1920s, a Rocky Mount (North Carolina) bank gained control of the property.
The federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) acquired Somerset Place from the Rocky Mount group in 1937, and incorporated the tract into the New Deal's Scuppernong Farms resettlement project. The FSA divided the land into single-family farms for sale, with 40-year mortgages to white and black former tenant farmers. Most of these people drifted away to other jobs, however, particularly after the start of World War II. Thus, while Scuppernong Farms was in large measure a failure, it did result in a breaking up of land into parcels small enough for purchase by average people and provision of long-needed roads in the area. Some of the roads, however, destroyed historic remains near the "big house" at Somerset.
The federal government soon began disposing of the land. In 1939, the State of North Carolina obtained a 99-year lease on the Collins Mansion and adjacent lands and created Pettigrew State Park, named after James Johnston Pettigrew, once a Confederate general and the youngest son of Ebenezer Pettigrew. The government sold all of its remaining land and buildings in the area at auction in late 1945, and signed a quitclaim deed for about 203 acres of formerly leased land to the State of North Carolina in 1947, permanently establishing the park.
In 1967, after extensive research and restoration efforts in the early 1950s, the Division of Parks and Recreation transferred the mansion and outbuildings at Somerset Place to the Department (now Division) of Archives and History, for maintenance and development as a state historic site.
Today, Somerset Place serves as a powerful reminder of one of the most turbulent eras in American History. Born from the ashes of the American Civil War, our long road toward unity and racial equality is still being traveled.
Adapted and edited from Somerset materials located in the Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives & History.