Somerset Place Plantation

Written By Mathew Shaeffer

Between 1785 and 1865 Somerset Place was one of the most successful plantations in North Carolina, and it was one of the largest plantations in the Upper South. Located in present-day Washington County on Lake Phelps, Somerset Place was officially created in 1816 after Josiah Collins, Sr. bought his partners’ shares in the Lake Company. The land and infrastructure of the plantation was previously part of the Lake Company’s holdings that was in operation since 1785.  In the 1790s, the Lake Company owned 109,978 acres of land around Lake Phelps in Washington and Tyrrell counties, 113 slaves, two saw mills, a gristmill, and a rice machine. When Collins and his son, Josiah Collins II, became the owners of the Lake Company, it was renamed Somerset Place after the county in England where Collins, Sr. was born.

When still part of the Lake Company, the plantation’s primary products were rice and lumber.  However, because rice requires farming in a swampy environment, the slaves and workers became increasingly sick. As a result, Collins shifted production to corn because it could be grown in less hazardous conditions. During the late-1700s and early-1800s, the Collins family lived in Edenton, North Carolina, and operated Somerset Place as a side business.  When Collins, Sr. became the sole owner he took more of an interest in Somerset Place and spent more time at the lake.

When Josiah Collins, Sr. died in 1819, Somerset Place was bequeathed to his son, Josiah Collins II, for the duration of his life. According to Collins, Sr.’s will, after the death of Collins II, the land would be divided among Josiah II’s seven children. Josiah Collins III (born in 1808) was to inherit Somerset Place while the other children were to be given parcels of undeveloped land. Josiah Collins II operated Somerset Place until his son Josiah III came of age in the 1830s. During his tenure, Josiah Collins II improved the plantation, bought an additional 79 enslaved people, expanded the slave quarters, and built the Colony House (intended to be the new dwelling house).  Josiah Collins II spent most of 1828 improving the plantation so it could be given to his son.

In August 1829 at age 21, Josiah III finished his studies and married Mary Riggs. The newlyweds arrived at Somerset Place in January 1830 and were the first Collinses to make Somerset Place their primary residence. However, the Colony house was not large enough for Josiah Collins III.  Shortly after arriving, Josiah Collins III constructed what is known today as the “Collins Mansion” or the mansion house. The Collins Mansion appears to have been completed in 1830 and still stands today.

Josiah Collins III turned Somerset Place into one of the largest and most successful plantations in the South.  After being educated at Harvard and in New York City, he developed extravagant and expensive tastes. Collins III enjoyed large parties and for a time even went as far as making French the language of his household. Josiah Collins III was individualistic, opinionated, and a bit domineering, but he also exhibited courtesy and hospitality.  At Somerset Place his ostentatious lifestyle attracted numerous visitors.

To support his lavish lifestyle, Josiah Collins III relied heavily on the plantation’s enslaved labor.  The slaves spent their time clearing and cultivating the several thousand acres of land. Corn was the primary crop. In 1839, Somerset had 1,400 acres of corn in cultivation and 130 miles of drainage ditches running across the plantation.  By the mid-1860s, Somerset consisted of 14,500 acres of land, and the total amount of land in cultivation was about 2,000 acres. When Josiah Collins II died in 1839, his estate was divided among his heirs and 287 enslaved people remained at Somerset Place. Crops were rotated in three-year cycles, and the production of Indian corn was reported in the census of 1850 and 1860 at 30,000 bushels. Other than corn, Somerset Place also produced wheat, peas, beans, potatoes, sweat potatoes, oats, flax, wool, butter, milk, and silk.

Collins continued expanding the plantation’s infrastructure. By the mid-1800s Somerset Place included over 50 structures including three large barns, stables, sawmills, gristmills, 26 slave houses, a kitchen complex, a laundry, a dairy, a storehouse, a smokehouse, a salting house, and homes for overseers, tutors, and ministers. Collins provided adequate food and shelter for his slaves, and he even built them a hospital and a chapel (for which he provided a chaplain). According to the 1850 census, 288 slaves resided at the plantation, and by 1860 it housed 328 slaves. 

Despite the previous success of Somerset Place, the plantation did not survive the Civil War.  When the Civil War began in 1861, Josiah III was very outspoken against abolition (since slavery was economically a necessity for him to maintain the plantation), and he personally financed several companies of Confederate troops from Washington County at the onset of the war. Three of Collins’s sons joined the Confederate armed forces and fought in the Civil War. However, by mid-1862 the Union forces controlled large portions of the North Carolina coastal region.  The Collins family fled to Hillsborough where Josiah Collins III died in 1863.  Foraging Union troops and desperate locals plundered Somerset Place and farming on the plantation stopped.

After the end of the war, hard times befell the Collins family on Somerset Place. In 1865, Mary Collins and her two sons returned to Somerset Place along with a large number of freed slaves. The freedmen returned to Somerset Place to reunite with their families, and by 1870 most had left the plantation. Without Josiah Collins III and the necessary workforce, the Collins family was unable to make the plantation successful, and they were forced to sell the plantation at auction in 1867 to satisfy creditors.  Mary Riggs Collins died in 1872, and the remaining Collins family members left the area and never returned.

Afterward, Somerset Place and its surrounding lands fell into disrepair. The plantation entered into a period of absentee landlordism, and ownership changed hands many times. In the 1920s, a bank in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, gained control of the land. In 1937, the federal Farm Security Administration acquired Somerset Place from the Rocky Mount bank, and the land was divided into and sold as single-family farms. However, the land sale was largely unsuccessful.

In 1939, the State of North Carolina obtained a 99-year lease on the Collins Mansion and the adjacent lands, and the plantation became part of the Pettigrew State Park. The U.S. Government sold off the remaining land at auction in 1945, and in 1947 North Carolina officially and permanently acquired the mansion and about 203 acres of land surrounding it.

During the 1950s, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation researched and restored Somerset Place. A report released in 1954 prompted extensive restoration and preservation of Somerset Place. In 1967, the Division of Parks and Recreation transferred control of Somerset Place to the North Carolina Division of Archives and History (NCDHA). Ever since, Somerset Place has been a North Carolina state historic site administered by the NCDAH. Large emphasis has been placed on the interpretation of the role of slaves on the plantation and the role of planters in slaves’ lives. In recent years, the plantation has periodically hosted reunions for the Collins family and the descendants of former Somerset slaves.